Lately you’ve felt exhausted, irritable and not in the mood for romance. You just feel “off.” While you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, do you chalk your symptoms up to stress, your hormones or both?
With so much going on in the world these days—global pandemic and social pressures—many of us feel the strain emotionally, physically—and hormonally.
While some stress on occasion is normal, it can disrupt many things in our lives, including our body’s natural hormone balance.
“Our hormones are important for regulating different processes in our body including metabolism, sleep and reproductive cycles, sexual function and mood,” said Beth Andresen, a women’s health nurse practitioner with Banner – University Medicine. “While hormonal fluctuations are normal, there are things that can throw our hormones off balance, causing issues like low energy, sleep issues and decreased sex drive.”
Here’s the cause-and-effect relationship between our hormones and stress.
What is a hormone imbalance?
Throughout a woman’s lifetime, hormones, those chemicals in your body produced by the endocrine system, will naturally change, causing puberty to begin and eventually prompting menopause.
Sometimes, however, you may produce too much or too little of a hormone, setting off some negative side effects in the body.
Your symptoms will depend on which hormones aren’t working properly, but the following could be symptoms of a hormonal imbalance:
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Heavy or painful periods
- Drastic weight changes
- Body aches
- Insomnia or poor-quality sleep
- Thinning hair or hair loss
- Depression or anxiety
- Fertility problems
- Low libido (sex drive)
Causes that can throw your hormones out of whack
While many women chalk up these hormonal imbalances to “that time of the month” or menopause, there are a number of things that can contribute. These include:
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Thyroid disorder
- Perimenopause and postmenopausal
- Fertility treatments
- Changes in diet and sleep
- Use of caffeine and alcohol
- Depression and anxiety
How stress affects our hormones
When we’re stressed, our bodies go into a “fight or flight” response. This prompts our adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Whether it’s a rush of nerves before a big presentation or forgetting something at home, humans experience this small surge from time to time.
Unfortunately, when these hormones release more frequently or remain for a longer period of time, you may experience a hormone imbalance, causing things like missed or irregular periods or other symptoms as described above.
“Stress can be associated to hormonal changes that can result in functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA)—the cause of irregular or absent periods—among many other symptoms,” Andresen said. “We often see this in elite athletes, but emotional stress can also be a cause and effect of the condition.”
What you can do
It’s important to talk to your health care provider so that you can receive appropriate treatment. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to keep track of your symptoms, when they occur and for how long they occur for so you can give your provider context.
“Tracking your symptoms will help you figure out your body’s fluctuations and help your provider determine if treatment options are necessary,” Andresen said. “If symptoms are PMS-related, they can be treated with oral contraception or antidepressants. If you experience hot flashes, night sweats or vaginal dryness as a result of menopause, those can be treated with hormone replacement therapy, antidepressants and over-the-counter remedies.”
While seeking hormone balance through treatments and therapies may be a great option, Andresen noted it’s also wise to adopt strategies to reduce stress in your life. Doing so can help regulate your body’s natural hormone levels.
Some strategies to help combat stress include:
- Eating a healthy diet low in sodium and fatty foods
- Breaking unhealthy habits like drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, smoking, overeating or using illegal substances
- Adopting a regular exercise routine
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga
- Improving your sleep hygiene
- Evaluating and adjusting your work/life balance
- Fostering healthy relationships
- Volunteering in your community
- Seeking out support from a licensed behavioral health specialist to help you better manage your stress and improve your health
It’s not always easy to figure out what’s going on inside your body. By paying attention and noting how you feel, you may be able to better identify and treat a potential hormone imbalance. And it may lead you to a happier, healthier life.