5 Ways Stress Messes With Your Sex Hormones & Which Foods Can Help, According To An RD
Chronic stress can serve as a "silent killer," throwing the immune system, digestive tract, metabolism, and hormones are out of whack.
Specifically, stress can mess with reproductive hormone balance. This is because evolutionarily, reproductive health is less of a priority when the body perceives a threat to survival. To really understand this, let's unpack the primary players of stress and hormone regulation in the body and how exactly they are affected by stress.
The stress-hormone connection.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis) is a feedback and regulatory system for how the body responds to stress. And directly within the HPA-axis, each gland has sexual hormone influence. In fact, the reproductive influence on the stress axis is now referred to as the HPG-axis, where instead of adrenal as the primary target, the gonads or sexual organs are.
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When the body is in a balanced state and does not perceive a threat, the HPA-axis and the HPG-axis work side by side allowing each other to express as needed to balance the body in optimal health. The hypothalamus produces gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates the production of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. GnRH also stimulates the pituitary in release of follicular-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), and oxytocin, which play a role in egg release, sperm production, and orgasm, as well as follicular health for continued hormone production.
However, when the body is under stress, the HPA-axis takes the reins and the brain makes a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands instead of the sexual organs. Reproductive functions are suppressed, which may be experienced as the loss of menstruation, PCOS, infertility, low libido, erectile dysfunction, hot flashes, and weight gain.
5 ways stress affects sex hormones:
1. Cortisol drives body fat and estrogen expression.
Elevated levels of cortisol interfere with sexual hormone expression in various unfavorable ways. For starters, blood sugar levels may become imbalanced, driving excess insulin and insulin resistance as well as increase body fat storage.
As blood sugar levels crash after a release of insulin, people often seek a pick-me-up snack, which can contribute to further weight and body fat gain. This influences hormones as the body's fat stores have estrogenic effects, driving estrogen dominance and throwing off expression of other free-circulating hormone.
2. Aromatization of testosterone from stress.
Beyond the mechanism of blood sugar and body fat on estrogen dominance, cortisol has also been shown to reduce testosterone in men, while driving aromatization. Aromatization is a process that converts androgenic male and stress hormones to estrogen.
In women cortisol also has an impact on androgenic hormones but in an opposing way, depleting estrogen and increasing androgen excess.
3. Androgenic takeover in females.
When under chronic stress, a woman may go into androgenic mode. This means she is producing more cortisol and DHEA via adrenal stimulation while suppressing circulating sexual hormones due to the HPA-axis takeover. This androgenic takeover reduces the ovarian production of estrogen and progesterone while interfering with menstrual cycle and fertility rhythm.
Elevations of DHEA is often seen with infertility, hormonal acne, and hirsutism (male-patterned hair growth) in females. One way to metabolize DHEA and correct hormone imbalance is through carbohydrate control and high fat consumption, as well as a balanced ketogenic diet with sufficient calories.
4. Progesterone suppression.
Pregnenolone is a steroid hormone in the body produced from cholesterol. It affects inflammation, cognitive function, and mood and has production sites in the adrenals, gonads, and brain. Pregnenolone provides materials for the body to make estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
When the body is depleted or running low, pregnenolone pathways that may otherwise form progesterone or DHEA are diverted to produce cortisol. Progesterone plays an essential role in reproductive health and cycle regulation as well as the formation of estrogen and testosterone from DHEA. Survival once again takes the lead over sexual hormone production.
5. Liver clearance of sex hormones and detox pathway backup.
The liver plays an essential role in hormone production and regulation through detoxification. But when the body is under high stress, liver function is compromised. Stress to the liver can drive both inadequate levels of hormone production or excess circulating hormones driving dominance. This is, of course, compounded if an individual consumes alcohol or processed foods, which puts further stress on the liver and reduces its ability to produce and regulate hormones.
How to support hormone balance with food.
For each of these areas of concern, there are strategic foods and nutrients to aid in rebalancing your body's hormones:
- Support the adrenal glands and cortisol production with vitamin-C-rich foods such as berries and citrus. Incorporate zest of citrus for an extra boost in salad dressings, smoothies, and as a topping to any dish.
- Go for adaptogenic herbs, mushrooms, and roots to support your body's stress tolerance and allow the body to balance both the HPA- and HPG-axis. Try incorporating 1 to 2 teaspoons of maca into your smoothies and protein shakes.
- Drive bile flow and support liver health with bitters such as leafy greens including dandelion and acids such as raw apple cider vinegar and lemon.
- Boost your removal of excess estrogen with indole-3-carbinol cruciferous veggies. Incorporate broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli sprouts to support detox enzyme pathways in the liver.
This all can be supported by harnessing your stress with meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques as well as gentle movement such as yoga, walking, and stretching. Take some time to reflect on your greatest sources of stress as you go into the new year and take resolve to edit your commitments to those who serve and support you!