You often hear that stress is toxic. If you’re wondering what that means, there’s no better way to demonstrate it’s negative (and widespread) effect than by discussing its impact on hormones.
When we experience a stressor, our body enters “fight or flight” mode and releases a cascade of hormones including cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These hormones were meant to prepare us for swift action (like fleeing from danger or fighting off a predator) and then quickly clear from the system.
But today—with social media, non-stop access to email, and constant news alerts—we often end up in a chronic state of low-grade stress, causing high levels of these stress hormones to stick around in the body much longer than they were intended to.
These elevated stress hormones then have a downstream effect on nearly all of your other hormones, often leading to imbalances in sex hormones, thyroid hormones, and metabolic hormones, which in turn influence your mood, appetite, sex drive, focus, and more.
Clearly, there’s a lot going on hormonally when stress is high. To give you an idea of its vast impact, here are some specific ways it messes with hormones:
- Insulin resistance: Cortisol decreases secretion of insulin¹, a hormone that plays a key role in blood sugar balance and many other processes. Over time, this can contribute to insulin resistance, a risk factor for PCOS.
- Estrogen-progesterone imbalance: When you’re stressed, your body diverts resources it would normally use to make progesterone to make cortisol. Over time, this lowers progesterone² and may cause an elevated estrogen-to-progesterone ratio that results in severe PMS, heavy or irregular periods, fatigue, low libido, and more.
- Low thyroid hormone: Cortisol reduces the secretion of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which reduces levels of T3 and T4³. Low thyroid hormones can cause symptoms of hypothyroidism like constipation, fatigue, dry skin, and hair loss.
- Impaired gut hormones: Typically, good bacteria in your gut microbiome signal nearby cells⁴ to release hormones like serotonin. But stress can contribute to gut dysbiosis⁵, which interferes and contributes to hormone imbalances that may worsen mental health.
You may not be able to eliminate stress altogether, but you can implement practices that reduce its negative impact on your hormones, like these:
- Move your body. Aim for 150 minutes per week (or about 20 minutes per day) of physical activity, whether it’s jogging, yoga, or lifting weights. Exercise reduces levels⁶ of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and boosts mood-elevating endorphins.
- Get serious about sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Being well rested helps boost stress resiliency, making you less likely to get overwhelmed and stressed out even if you have a lot on your plate.
- Eat to calm your nerves. Minimally processed diets containing a variety of colorful veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and good fats like olive oil, help support the gut, balance blood sugar, and reduce psychological distress⁷; and magnesium-rich foods like pumpkin seeds and almonds have calming properties⁸.
- Consider seed cycling. Just like stress can mess with your hormones, imbalanced hormones can lead to stress and anxiety—creating a vicious cycle. Seed cycling is a gentle way to rebalance hormones using real whole foods like flax, hemp, and sesame seeds that contain nutrients to support the balance of estrogen and progesterone.
- Take time for yourself. Whether it’s setting aside time to read a book, take a bath, spend time with animals, or do a simple meditation or breathing exercise, anything that brings you joy can help halt the flow of chronic stress.
¹ Association between Higher Serum Cortisol Levels and Decreased Insulin Secretion in a General Population: Aya Kamba,Makoto Daimon ,Hiroshi Murakami,Hideyuki Otaka,Kota Matsuki,Eri Sato,Jutaro Tanabe,Shinobu Takayasu,Yuki Matsuhashi,Miyuki Yanagimachi,Ken Terui,Kazunori Kageyama,Itoyo Tokuda,Ippei Takahashi,Shigeyuki Nakaji
² Schliep KC, Mumford SL, Vladutiu CJ, et al. Perceived stress, reproductive hormones, and ovulatory function: a prospective cohort study. Epidemiology. 2015;26(2):177-184. doi:10.1097/EDE.0000000000000238
³ Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011;15(1):18-22. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.77573
⁴ Martin AM, Sun EW, Rogers GB, Keating DJ. The Influence of the Gut Microbiome on Host Metabolism Through the Regulation of Gut Hormone Release. Front Physiol. 2019;10:428. Published 2019 Apr 16. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.00428
⁵ Madison A, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2019;28:105-110. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.011
⁶ Harvard Health Publishing: Exercising to relax
⁷ Sadeghi O, Keshteli AH, Afshar H, Esmaillzadeh A, Adibi P. Adherence to Mediterranean dietary pattern is inversely associated with depression, anxiety and psychological distress. Nutr Neurosci. 2021;24(4):248-259. doi:10.1080/1028415X.2019.1620425
⁸ Cuciureanu MD, Vink R. Magnesium and stress. In: Vink R, Nechifor M, editors. Magnesium in the Central Nervous System [Internet]. Adelaide (AU): University of Adelaide Press; 2011.