Can Stress Cause a Hormone Imbalance

Can Stress Cause a Hormone Imbalance

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Anxiety, Depression, Mood, Brain Health, Hormones, Stress Reduction, Wellbeing Leave a Comment

In our modern world, the pervasiveness of stress is more than just a fleeting concern; it's a critical health issue. With each passing month, new research emerges, underscoring the profound impact of stress on our overall well-being.

Far from being a mere inconvenience, stress has the potential to impact your hormone production significantly, weaken your immune system, and, alarmingly, even shorten your lifespan.

One particular concern surrounding stress is the surge in cortisol that it causes. Cortisol, a key “stress hormone,” disrupts the delicate balance of other vital hormones such as insulin, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, and thyroid hormones. These disruptions can lead to a myriad of health issues, such as fertility struggles and irregular menstrual cycles.

By adopting effective stress-reduction techniques, we can significantly lower our body's adverse reaction to stress, fostering a more balanced and healthier state of being.

Stress-reducing techniques to help restore hormonal balance Include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting moderate exercise
  • Sleeping and resting enough
  • Practicing meditation, gratitude, and mindfulness/presence
  • Socializing to gain support
  • Taking supplements such as adaptogens, magnesium, and B vitamins

The Effects of Stress on Hormone Levels

Stress, a shared experience among adults today, is more than just a feeling in your head. Stress lives in your body, and its pervasive influence extends beyond anxiety; it significantly impacts both your physical and mental health, as well as your fertility and hormonal balance.

Below are some of the adverse effects of stress (and high cortisol) over an extended period:

  • Hormonal disruption, including altered levels of insulin and sex hormones, including estrogen levels
  • Immune system compromise, which can make the body more susceptible to illness
  • Mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression
  • Cardiovascular strain, including increased risks of hypertension and heart disease
  • Digestive disturbances, such as a greater risk for issues like IBS and gastritis
  • Poor sleep, including insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns
  • Fertility challenges, such as menstrual irregularities, ovulation issues, and decreased sperm quality
  • Weight management difficulties, such as weight gain or loss that's influenced by changes in metabolism, cravings, and eating habits
  • Cognitive decline, including poor memory issues, language deficits, and slower processing time
  • Low sex drive, disinterest intimacy, and higher rates of sexual dysfunction

Connection Between Stress and Hormones

When we encounter stress, our body's endocrine system releases various hormones, the most notable being cortisol, but also epinephrine and norepinephrine.

Stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, causing the brain to send signals to the hypothalamus and then the pituitary gland and adrenal glands to release more cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine). Chronic stress can disrupt various bodily functions when it leads to persistently high levels of these stress hormones.

What Are the Three Stress Hormones?

The three primary stress hormones are cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine. These adrenal hormones are the primary players in your “fight or flight” response and have far-reaching effects on metabolic functions, energy levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and more.

Cortisol: What Is It and Why Is High Cortisol a Problem?

When most people think of our primary stress hormone, cortisol comes to mind. Cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands, plays a vital role in your stress response, regulating your metabolism, activating your immune system, and managing inflammation.

However, consistently high levels of cortisol can lead to various health issues, including weight gain, high blood pressure, disrupted sleep, mood swings, and a weakened immune system.

Epinephrine and Norepinephrine

Epinephrine (adrenaline) is a hormone that increases heart rate, blood pressure, and energy in response to stress.

Similar to epinephrine, norepinephrine affects attention, alertness, and and responsiveness. The main function of these two hormones is to prepare the body to deal with stress, such as by “fighting or fleeing.”

Can Chronic Stress Cause a Hormonal Imbalance?

Chronic stress can indeed lead to hormonal imbalances due to the impact that elevated stress hormones have on the production of other hormones by the endocrine glands, including reproductive (or “sex”) hormones, as well as insulin, thyroid hormones, and others. Below are some of the ways that stress disrupts hormonal balance.

High Stress Levels Inhibit the Production of Key Steroid Hormones

When you're under a great deal of stress, this can lead to disruption in hormone production from the hormones by downregulating gonadotrophin releasing hormone (GnRH) from the hypothalamus and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary.

This shift in brain hormones can reduce the levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, causing the issues below:

  • Testosterone: Chronic stress can lower testosterone levels, affecting libido and mood.
  • Estrogen: Stress can disrupt estrogen production, leading to menstrual irregularities, disrupting ovulation, and contributing to mood swings.
  • Progesterone: Stress can decrease progesterone levels, negatively affecting menstrual cycles and fertility. For example, low progesterone can cause shortened cycles and interfere with the ability to sustain a healthy pregnancy.

Depending on the severity, stress may even cause you to lose your period as in the case of relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). And in other cases, stress can be a driver of painful periods by way of it's effect on progesterone and depletion of key nutrients like magnesium.

This is one reason why addressing stress is an important part of creating balanced hormones.

Chronic Stress's Impact on Other Hormones

Aside from impacting reproductive hormones, stress can also affect our hormone health by disrupting:

  • Insulin: Chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which may increase blood sugar levels and reduce the effectiveness of insulin, potentially leading to insulin resistance. In addition, this is one way in which stress can negatively impact weight loss in some people.
  • Thyroid hormones: Stress can also affect the thyroid gland, potentially contributing to an imbalance in thyroid hormones, which are crucial for regulating metabolism and maintaining a healthy weight. Hashimoto's, the most common thyroid disease that causes hypothyroidism, is exacerbated by stress.
  • HPA axis dysfunction: As mentioned above, stress messes with the brain's signals between different glands, causing disruptions in overall hormonal balance and symptoms, known as HPA dysfunction, but commonly referred to as “adrenal fatigue.”

Hormonal Imbalance Symptoms and Signs

How do you know if stress is impacting your hormones? Signs of a stress-related hormone imbalance can include:

  • Fatigue, lethargy, and low motivation
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Weight gain and increased appetite and cravings
  • Changes in your menstrual cycle, such as amenorrhea (loss of your period) premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopause-like symptoms, or exacerbated symptoms of hormonal disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Fertility struggles, such as lack of ovulation or irregular ovulation, low libido, and difficulty maintaining pregnancies

Impact of Stress on Fertility

As you've learned, stress triggers a complex hormonal response in the body, primarily involving cortisol and the HPA axis. Chronic stress can disrupt this system, leading to a range of hormonal issues that can significantly impact fertility in some of the following ways.

Excess stress can be the cause of anovulation (not ovulating) or the failure of the ovary to produce adequate progesterone. The later can result in menstrual cycles less than 21 days in length and symptoms of estrogen dominance.

Raised Cortisol Levels Lower Progesterone

High cortisol levels can suppress progesterone, a key hormone in maintaining pregnancy. Low progesterone levels can:

  • Shorten the luteal phase (2nd half of the menstrual cycle), affecting the menstrual cycle and reducing the chances of implantation
  • Cause irregular periods and unpredictable menstrual cycles
  • Make it more challenging to time ovulation and get pregnant due to disrupted ovulation and menstrual irregularities

Ovulation and Implantation May Be Disrupted

When stress activates the HPA axis, this can suppress the production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which is essential for the release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). These hormones are crucial for ovulation and the maintenance of a healthy menstrual cycle.

High levels of stress hormones can lead to a reduced response of the ovaries, affecting the development and release of eggs during ovulation. Anovulation (no ovulation) is more common among women who report high levels of stress — and without ovulation, becoming pregnant isn't possible.

Additionally, stress can affect the implantation of the embryo in the uterus and may increase the risk of early pregnancy loss. This is partly due to the impact of cortisol on the uterine environment and hormonal balance necessary for embryo implantation and maintenance of early pregnancy.

Research suggests that in the case of infertility treatments, high levels of distress can impact treatment outcomes while lowering psychological distress is associated with significant increases in pregnancy rates. 

The bottom line, addressing physical, psychological, and emotional stress is key to healthy fertility and positive pregnancy outcomes.

Libido May Be Decreased

Feeling overwhelmed and anxious is not very sexy! Stress can lead to a decreased libido in both men and women, reducing the frequency of sexual intercourse and, consequently, the chances of conception.

May Lead to Unhealthy Lifestyle Habits

The more stress someone experiences, the greater the odds are that they will make unhealthy lifestyle choices such as eating a poor diet, lacking exercise, and increasing the use of alcohol or tobacco. All of these habits can further impair regular ovulation, conception, and the maintenance of early pregnancy.

Types of Stressors that Impact Hormones

  • Infections, chronic inflammation, and unmanaged inflammation levels
  • Blood sugar dysregulation, skipping meals, waiting too long to eat, having coffee without food first thing in the morning, high sugar intake
  • Irregular or disrupted sleep
  • Intense exercise, too much aerobic exercising, over training (especially with underfueling)
  • Endocrine disorders, thyroid disorders, autoimmune disease, insulin resistance, and other chronic health conditions
  • Major life stressful events (ie loss of a loved one, car accident, divorce)
  • Psychological stress like fears, frustrations, grief, perfectionism, shame, work overload
  • Psychosocial stress like lack of support, difficult relationships, financial loss, community loss

Stress Reduction Techniques

While stress is an inevitable aspect of life, we are not powerless in its presence. Our response to stress — how we manage and mitigate it — plays a pivotal role in its impact on our health. To get your hormones on track, I suggest making the stress reduction practices below a regular part of your self-care routine:

Get Regular Exercise

Find ways to move your body more. This could look like doing yoga at home, walking around the office during lunch, or strolling around your neighborhood. Movement will allow you to release tension from the body, increase oxygen to your brain, and counteract what the negative effects of that the stress hormone, cortisol, is doing to your body.

Prioritize Sleep

Ensure you get enough restful sleep each night, about seven to nine hours per night for most adults. Create a calming bedtime routine, keep your bedroom dark and cool, and disconnect from electronic devices at least an hour before bed to help you feel sleepy.

Quality sleep is essential for reducing stress and rejuvenating both your mind and body.

By improving your sleep hygiene, how you prepare for bed and the environment you sleep in, you can ensure you're hormones shift out of the higher daytime cortisol state to lower cortisol and higher melatonin. Balancing cortisol and melatonin is essential to sleep quality.

In the morning when you wake, open up your curtains or get out in the sunlight. Even if it is grey, there are still rays of light coming through that will support a cortisol rise and for melatonin to breakdown. These simple steps are important in tending to your circadian rhythm and improving cortisol balance.

Related: 10 Best Sleep Supplements That Aren't Melatonin

Practice Meditation, Yoga, or Tai Chi

Engage in practices like meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi to promote relaxation, improve focus, and help manage stress by connecting your mind and body through controlled movements and mindful breathing. You do not need to practice meditation for very long; even five or ten minutes daily while you focus on your breath is enough to make a difference in your mindset.

Yoga is sometimes described as a “moving meditation” and has many of the same calming effects as a seated meditation. Feel yourself inhaling and exhaling completely as you stretch and move your body. Relax in your chair or on your mat, and let yourself spend a few minutes away from whatever is bringing you stress. Gentle yoga and a body scan meditation are great habits to do before bed to feel relaxed and sleepy.

Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet 

An anti-inflammatory diet incorporates high fiber foods, healthy fats, lean protein, while keeping ultra processed foods at a minimum. Eating cold water fish, like salmon and sardines, offers anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Utilizing ginger and turmeric in meals also helps with lowering inflammation. 

Eating 30 different plants weekly will support gut health, a common source of hidden inflammation. 

One of cortisol's jobs is to keep inflammation under control. By eating in a way that supports healthy levels of inflammation (because it is not all bad), you can support your hormones and remove some of the burden on your adrenal glands.

If you're looking for a recipe guide to get started, you can grab my free Hormone Balancing Starter Kit here.

Socialize with Friends

Spend time with friends and loved ones. Social interactions can boost your mood, provide emotional support, and offer a welcome distraction from daily stressors. Whether it's a coffee date, a phone call, volunteering, working out together, or another fun group activity, connecting with others is a great natural stress reliever and even a life extender.

Limit Caffeine and Sugar Intake

Reduce your intake of stimulants and sweets, including caffeine and sugar, as they can exacerbate stress and anxiety and disrupt sleep patterns. Opt for healthier alternatives like herbal teas or natural sweeteners like stevia extract, and maintain a balanced diet to stabilize your energy and blood sugar levels.

Try Breath Work

Yes, taking deep, slow breaths really does work. Deep breathing helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, referred to as the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system, which makes you feel calm. When you feel yourself becoming stressed, stop and take ten long, deep, slow breaths.

Explore different breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing or alternate nostril breathing. These methods can help regulate your body's stress response, improve oxygen flow, and enhance overall relaxation.

Find Your Happy Place

Visualize a place or memory that brings you joy and peace. Immerse yourself in this mental imagery, recalling the sights, sounds, and feelings associated with this happy place. Picture a time or a place that brings feelings of joy and relaxation.

Take a moment to really feel as if you're reliving that experience and explore every sensation you felt there. What were the smells you remember? Was it warm, or was there a light breeze?

Really enjoy this place in your imagination and allow yourself to travel there the next time you find yourself feeling stressed. It can help you relax and bring perspective to the situation. Use this technique whenever you need to escape stress, feel more connected to others, and find tranquility.

Be More Present, Aware, and Mindful

Embrace mindfulness by focusing on the present moment. Pay attention to your surroundings, engage in your current activity fully, and let go of worries about the past or future. Take a moment to look around you, and without judgment, take it all in.

When you feel stressed, tune into your senses. Pay attention to what you hear, what you see, and the textures you can feel. Some people find it helpful to say out loud what they're experiencing. For example, I feel my socks rubbing on my toes, I see leaves moving on the tree, and I can hear the wind rustling through the leaves.

Being present in the moment can help decrease anxiety, stress, and depression. Try to spend at least five minutes a day just observing the life that surrounds you. One way to be more present is to disconnect from your phone and digital devices, especially when spending time with others.

Practice Gratitude

Cultivate a habit of gratitude. Reflect on the positive aspects of your life, and consider keeping a gratitude journal where you list happy moments, accomplishments, and anything you're thankful for. Acknowledging and appreciating the good can shift your focus from stress to positivity.

Consider Talking to a Therapist or Counselor

If stress becomes overwhelming, consider seeking professional help. A therapist or counselor can provide valuable support, offer new perspectives, and teach you effective coping strategies to manage stress.

Best Supplements for Stress 

Supplements can play a supportive role in managing the body's response to stress by targeting various physiological pathways. For example, supplements can offer nutritional support, as stress can deplete the body of essential nutrients such as B vitamins and magnesium, which are needed for overall health and resilience.

Consider adding these supplements to your routine to help your body deal with the effects of stress:

  • Magnesium: Can help improve energy and block the effects of stimulating neurotransmitters
  • L-theanine: Helpful for lowering cortisol response and promoting feelings of calmness
  • Passionflower: Contains high concentrations of GABA, a chemical that calms the nervous system, reduces excitatory responses, and leads to feelings of contentedness
  • Ashwagandha: Helps to regulate cortisol and stress hormone output
  • Lemon Balm: As one of the best sleep supplements, this herb can help reduce anxiety and promote restorative sleep
  • Rhodiola: May help decrease fatigue and help the body manage anxiety
  • Vitamin D3: Can help maintain healthy production of hormones and hormonal balance and offers support for fertility
  • Vitamin B Complex: Helps support healthy brain chemistry and a positive mood

If you're looking for specific combinations of supplements to take to help you cope better with stress and maintain hormonal health, consider trying these:

Adrenal Support

Adrenal Support features adaptogens such as ashwagandha and rhodiola, as well as vitamin B, to support adrenal health. It can help modulate the body's stress response, potentially reducing the impact of stress on the body. It's helpful for:

  • Balancing stress hormones
  • Supporting healthy menstrual cycles
  • Optimizing energy

Adrenal Calm

My specialized Adrenal Calm formula features a blend of key ingredients, including L-Theanine, magnesium, lemon balm, ashwagandha, passionflower, and vitamin B6. It's helpful for:

  • Balancing cortisol levels
  • Supporting restful sleep
  • Reducing tension and restlessness

Magnesium Plus

Magnesium has been shown to be a common deficiency among many adults, which is unfortunate considering it's needed for hundreds of metabolic functions. Try my Magnesium Plus formula for support for:

  • Maintaining a healthy mood
  • Promoting quality sleep
  • Assisting in hormone balance

B Active Plus

The body needs B vitamins for many metabolic processes, for cognitive support, and to maintain normal energy. Try my B Active Plus supplement for:

  • Increasing energy levels
  • Improving brain function
  • Aiding in cell metabolism

Vitamin D3/K2

Vitamin D3/K2 can help promote support for hormonal production and balance. My Vitamin D3/K2 formula features a concentrated, highly bioavailable liquid vitamin D coupled with vitamin K for extra heart and bone health benefits.

Key Takeaways on Stress's Impact on Health and Stress Reduction Techniques:

Chronic stress can lead to hormonal imbalances, particularly affecting the production of reproductive hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, which are crucial for fertility, as well as insulin and thyroid hormones. Being under a lot of stress can also disrupt the regularity of the menstrual cycle and ovulation, making it more challenging to predict ovulation and optimal times for conception. Effective stress management through relaxation techniques, counseling, and healthy lifestyle changes is crucial for maintaining reproductive health and overall well-being.

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is a women’s hormone expert and prominent leader in women’s medicine. As a licensed naturopathic physician who is board certified in naturopathic endocrinology, she takes an integrative approach in her clinical practice. A fierce patient advocate and completely dedicated to uncovering the root cause of hormonal imbalances, Dr. Brighten empowers women worldwide to take control of their health and their hormones. She is the best selling author of Beyond the Pill and Healing Your Body Naturally After Childbirth. Dr. Brighten is an international speaker, clinical educator, medical advisor within the tech community, and considered a leading authority on women’s health. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and a faculty member for the American Academy of Anti Aging Medicine. Her work has been featured in the New York Post, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Bustle, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, Elle, and ABC News. Read more about me here.