Most people can understand the impact of stress on emotional health but many do not realize the impact it has on our physical health. Stress can come in the form of physical trauma on the body or the emotional trauma of environmental factors that impact our everyday life. For some, this could be sitting in rush hour traffic on a day to day basis, issues with family/home life or stressors in the work place. How we manage this stress is the key to how it will manifest itself. I always make a point of asking women if there is anything they notice that makes their menopausal symptoms worse. Many women recognize that stress makes their symptoms worse or can induce them. Those that don’t make the connection tend to admit to it once I have discussed this correlation.
Your body manages stress through glands that sit on top of the kidneys called the adrenal glands. These glands produce hormones that correspond to the stress response in the body. The adrenal medulla (a region within the gland) produces epinephrine, the hormone that is released during the fight or flight response. This is a primitive response that allows us to get away from immediate danger. Although most of us are not exposed to extreme dangerous situations on a daily basis, the daily stressors mentioned above can still invoke this response. Cortisol and DHEA are two very important hormones that are produced from the adrenal cortex and play a key role in the stress response. When the body is under stress or blood glucocorticoid levels are low, high amounts of cortisol are released.
Cortisol is a hormone that is involved in regulating glucose metabolism, increasing blood sugar levels through gluconeogenesis, suppressing the immune system, and aiding in fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism in the body. Cortisol is therefore imperative for life and vitality. Stress will negatively impact the adrenal glands and eventually inadequate amounts of cortisol will be produced. If a person has poor adrenal function and does not produce adequate amounts of cortisol they will feel run down and tired all the time, developing a condition that is commonly referred to by naturopaths as adrenal fatigue. Beyond feeling tired all the time, adrenal fatigue will effect female hormones, worsening the symptoms associated with PMS and menopause. This is due to the relationship between cortisol and progesterone. Progesterone and cortisol are made from another hormone called pregnenolone. If the body is becoming depleted of cortisol, pregnenolone will be shunted towards producing cortisol and progesterone levels will decline. The body will always choose survival over reproduction, thus cortisol production will reign supreme over progesterone production. If there is a decrease in progesterone then this will create an imbalance with estrogen and estrogen dominance will occur, worsening issues surrounding PMS in menstruating women and worsening the symptoms that take place in perimenopausal/menopausal women.
In addition to low cortisol levels, stress can also impact DHEA. DHEA is the anti-stress/anti-aging hormone in the body and acts as a “mother” hormone, as it can be converted into other sex hormones; estrogen and testosterone. Once the ovaries shut down, this is another way that your body can produce estrogen. I notice in practice that menopausal women who have good levels of DHEA, tend to have fewer symptoms associated with menopause, due to the fact that their body has another way to produce the sex hormones. If your body is under stress, this will result in low DHEA levels and again this can lead to complications surrounding hormone imbalance. When I am working with women in menopause the key to aiding in balancing their hormones is addressing adrenal function. If adrenal function can be restored, then all the hormones will become more balanced and the symptoms of perimenopause/menopause will begin to improve.
There are many ways that you can help to improve your adrenal function. It starts by addressing the stressors in your life and how you manage that stress. Diet can also play a key role in reducing stress levels in the body and additionally there are many vitamins, minerals and botanical medicines that can aid in reducing stress levels in the body, supporting healthy levels of cortisol and DHEA. My next blog will address some of the things that you can do to decrease stress levels in the body.