11 Secret Stressors That May Be Affecting Your Mood, Sleep & Weight
This conversation about stress is important not only because it takes a toll on your mood, your sleep, and your relationships, but also because unmanaged stress tends to derail any goals you may have to lose body fat, gain muscle, or fix any hormonal issue. When you neglect to tackle this bear first, you not only end up feeling overwhelmed, wiped out, and with no willpower to stick to any sort of plan, but also because when it comes to the deleterious effects of stress on our hormones, you can't trump the need to manage the mama of stress hormones—cortisol. Many of the following stressors can be helped by targeted nutrients and supplements:
Blood sugar swings
When you have a lot of carb cravings, when you eat until you're sleepy or find that you're craving that espresso or square of chocolate after meals (or both!), when you get forgetful, irritable, or if you can't fall or stay asleep—you have a blood sugar regulation problem, and this is stressful! Insulin and cortisol duke it out to right your ship as you swing from high to low all day. You get "hangry" because you went too long without eating or didn't eat the right stuff in the previous meal, and you compensate by overeating some of the wrong stuff at the next meal. Or you overshoot your carb tolerance as cortisol and insulin continue to battle. You can bet that the constant high-to-low cortisol and insulin compensation is stressful as the blood sugar ups and downs continually trigger cortisol!
We have over 100 thousand trillion mitochondria, and they use over 90% of the oxygen we breathe. These are essentially the powerhouse, or furnaces, of your cells, turning food and oxygen into energy. This is actually where your "metabolism" is happening. They're amazing little things, but they are incredibly sensitive to damage via oxidative stress. This is caused by free radicals, molecules that are missing an electron, which makes them unstable, lonely, and a little desperate—bad combo, right? Much of our modern life generates free radicals and thus oxidative stress, including exposure to toxins, infections, allergens, too many bad fats and too few veggies in our diet, blood sugar swings, and alcohol. When your mitochondria get damaged and aren’t working properly, your metabolism essentially is shutting down. The best thing you can do to keep your mitochondria healthy is to eat a wide variety of brightly colored veggies, and the next best thing is strength training, as it actually makes new, healthy mitochondria.
We need adequate nutrients, both macro (carbs, fats, and proteins) as well as micro (such as vitamins and minerals), for everything in your body to function properly from a nerve cell sending an impulse to contract a muscle to your thyroid making thyroid hormones and every and anything in between. Micronutrient deficiencies run rampant even when we eat a decent diet. This can be due to mineral depletion in the animals we eat and the soil that grows the fruits and veggies that feed us, or simply the increased demand for nutrients thanks to our modern lifestyle. Sometimes even when we take in the nutrients we need, gut bacterial imbalance or weak digestive capacity makes us unable to absorb and utilize those nutrients. And, of course, sometimes we just aren't taking in enough! We recommend 100 grams of protein and a pound of veggies a day, so let's all start there.
Zinc is key for overall hormonal balance (all hormones, from cortisol to your sex hormones to your thyroid, need it) and for a healthy immune system and beautiful skin. The RDA for zinc is only 8 mg per day, but we suggest a minimum of 30 mg per day for women. While taking too much zinc can hinder absorption of other minerals such as copper, many of us are deficient in zinc. If you've been on the pill, eat a vegetarian diet, have poor digestion, consume alcohol regularly, or for a myriad of other reasons, it's wise to supplement with a bit more zinc. Some multivitamins include 30 mg, and you can boost your intake by eating more oysters, lamb, grass-fed beef, eggs, mushrooms, and cashews.
Magnesium is needed for hundreds of biochemical reactions daily; it's known to help us perform in the gym, alleviate our PMS, boost our moods, and have more ease in falling asleep. The RDA for magnesium is only around 300 mg daily for women; however, many women need higher doses to restore their depleted magnesium levels. On a basic blood chemistry panel, you want your levels to be 2.0 to 2.5 mg/dL. There are more sophisticated measures of magnesium stores (i.e., red blood cell magnesium), but this test is easily available from your regular doctor on most standard blood chemistry panels. Note that these serum levels (vs. intracellular levels—for example, your red blood cells) will be the last to change, so if your levels are below 2.0 mg/dL on the standard blood testing, your tissues are likely very low in magnesium. This mineral is found in spinach, nuts, and avocados, so be sure to include these in your diet.
An important nutrient for our antioxidant defenses, selenium is key to various aspects of our immune system, and it's part of thyroid hormone activation. While the RDA is very low at 55 mcg, based on the research, we recommend a daily intake of 200 mcg. Brazil nuts are the nutritional stars when it comes to this mineral, just two or three per day can give you this 200 mcg dose. You can take too much selenium, so avoid unsupervised doses over 200 mcg from food and supplements combined.
Essential fatty acids
These essential fats not only help us modulate our immune system and inflammatory response but also can have a favorable impact on our HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, helping us adapt better to stress and heal HPA-axis dysfunction (commonly called adrenal fatigue). Omega-3 fatty acids get burned up quickly when we're inflamed or under stress. Be sure you're eating 12 to 16 ounces of cold-water fish (such as salmon or mackerel) or shellfish weekly, and supplement with 1 to 2 grams of a high-quality fish oil supplement daily. Higher doses are warranted temporarily for elevated inflammation, high cortisol, etc. This is where a supplement's quality really counts! Fish oil can be easily rancid and thus full of oxidized fatty acids, which actually boosts inflammation and oxidative stress, so taking cheap fish oil is worse than not taking any. Also be sure your brand is tested for pesticides and heavy metals.
Poor oxygen delivery
Talk about the fountain of youth; without sufficient oxygen, you not only feel cold and tired and look pale, but pretty much every tissue in your body is suffering big-time. Among the most common causes of low oxygen to your tissues are deficiencies in iron and key B vitamins (B12, folate, and B6).
Much like oxygen, our internal chemistry needs plenty of water to operate properly. Eliminating this stressor seems so simple: Drink more water! Yes, some of us fall short of our hydration needs daily (we suggest 2 to 3 liters of water daily, some of which can be sparkling), but many women drink plenty of water yet always find themselves thirsty, or they pee out as much as they drink, and thus, despite carrying that water bottle all about town, they are still dehydrated. One of the easiest fixes here is to supplement with electrolytes. If you have PCOS, deal with insulin resistance (you may be surprised to find your insulin is struggling even if you have no markers of diabetes or prediabetes), work out and thus sweat regularly, or are dealing with any adrenal or cortisol issues, you will be amazed by how this one supplement will be a game-changer for you. Many women start with over-the-counter electrolytes, but these often fall short on potassium so women don't get the benefits these little gems can give.
Inflammation is the great hormone mess-maker. When you have excessive inflammation in your body, it quickly creates a stress burden on all of your hormonal systems. If you think of a hormone as a key and a receptor as a lock, inflammation is like sticking gum over the keyhole, making it harder for hormones to bind to their specific receptor sites and create an effect inside that cell. Inflammation can interrupt the signaling from the brain all the way to the gland, which in turn alters the entire hormonal cascade, creating widespread disturbance. If you're experiencing any hormonal deficiency symptoms but show normal hormone levels on your blood work, we recommend that you have your inflammation tested.
Stress creates hormonal imbalances, and hormonal imbalances are stressful. Not fair, is it? Fair or not, remember that your hormones are highly orchestrated and intricately linked, so when one is off, it's a matter of time before others get wonky as well. A great example is perimenopause: As your estrogen and progesterone fall, your brain attempts to signal your ovaries to not give up the fight (via a hormone called FSH, follicle-stimulating hormone), and then the adrenals get stimulated as well to "take over" and increase production of progesterone and DHEA and other adrenal androgens that get peripherally converted to estrogen and testosterone, as they come to your falling female hormone levels' aid. Most women, as we have previously attested, already struggle with some level of HPA-axis dysfunction, making this natural transition even more challenging since the adrenals are asked to do more than they might be capable of doing. This is why we recommend that every woman going through perimenopause support their adrenals via stress management and supplementation, as the adrenals will be asked to step in for sex hormone production when the ovaries close up shop.
Brooke Kalanick, N.D., M.S. is a licensed naturopathic doctor and functional medicine practitioner and expert in women’s health and hormones. She received her doctorate in naturopathic medicine and her masters in both Chinese medicine and acupuncture from Bastyr University and has over 20 years of experience working with women as a licensed naturopathic doctor and functional medicine physician. She has helped thousands of women around the world finally feel better through her online programs and one-on-one patient visits with her highly sought after expertise in female hormone imbalance, hypothyroidism, autoimmunity, PCOS, Hashimoto's, and menopause.