WOMEN & STRESS by Dr Brooke Kalanick, ND, MS, LAc
What Stress Looks Like
You know stress is bad – causing everything from heart attacks to grey hairs – but in our culture of busy-ness, stressed out is how most of us feel more often than not. You probably have far too many evenings that look like this: meet your girlfriends for a quick catch-up OR pick up your kids (or both!), workout, stop at the dry cleaners, pay a few bills, watch your favorite TV show, get a pedicure, shop for and cook a healthy dinner – all within 2 hours.
Besides feeling anxious or frazzled, you may not know the toll stress is taking on you. Stress can mean chronic cortisol release (cortisol is your main stress hormone, secreted from the adrenal glands) or it can mean you’re not even able to continually release cortisol anymore and you’re relying on short term bursts of adrenaline to fuel your frenzied life.
You probably have symptoms caused by stress – and you may not even realize it. We often “feel stressed” but we shrug it off and power through.
Let’s really take a look at the toll stress is taking on us.
Sleep & Energy
Sleep is one of the first dominos to fall with stress.
Cortisol has a normal 24 hour rhythm where it should be highest around 5am and gently, slowly, taper throughout the day to be lowest at bedtime.
When you’ve been stressed it can be anywhere other than that: high or very low in the morning, sporadically high or low throughout the day, or even spike up at night. This puts your energy all over the map and can leave you craving sugar, starches or caffeine to feel “normal”.
This sporadic output is what we see on our way to adrenal exhaustion (overall low cortisol and low DHEA) as the brain loses coordination with the adrenal glands. This is commonly called Adrenal Fatigue but a better name is HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal) Axis Dysfunction (you can see why adrenal fatigue as a term caught on!). More about “adrenal fatigue” in this podcast with myself and Sarah Fragoso. This is by far one of our most downloaded episodes and will be a topic of discussion at our retreat this October.
If you have been stressed for a while, your cortisol can be low overall or particularly low in this middle of the night and in the morning. When cortisol is in low supply during the night you’ll often find yourself waking (possibly hungry, anxious or just plain wide awake) because you’ve had to rely on adrenaline to get your blood sugar up during the night and you’re unable to fall back asleep easily. You could also wake with low energy and often low appetite (particularly for protein) in the morning.
When your cortisol is too high at night you feel “wired and tired”. You’re exhausted but your mind races and you can’t fall asleep. You wake tired (and possibly achy) and looking for caffeine and simple carbs.
Any type of adrenal dysregulation can leave you feel exhausted the next day and your cravings on full tilt.
Stress is both a cause and effect of blood sugar swings – and thus cravings.
With blood sugar all over the map you’ll have a very difficult time keeping your appetite, cravings and energy level and you’ll be reaching for food to make you feel better.
Cortisol (gets your blood sugar up) and insulin (gets your blood sugar down) play a constant tug of war all day. When either is out of balance your cravings will be all over the map and you’ll be frustrated at your lack of willpower to abstain. You’re not weak, your chemistry is whacked!
Cortisol and your sex hormones (i.e. estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) all come from precursor hormones: DHEA and pregnenolone. When you’re under stress, resources are shunted to cortisol and we see the mess that is low progesterone:
The cycle gets longer and the PMS gets gnarly. If you also have insulin issues (like myself and other women with PCOS) you’ll also start to see low progesterone-high testosterone symptoms including breakouts and hair trouble (coarser, darker hair growth in unwanted places and loss of hair on your head).
You know stress can cause weight gain. You may not know that short bursts of cortisol actually help burn fat. Trouble is lots of cortisol PLUS lots of insulin – this is how you get lots of fat storage (particularly at the waist).
There’s lots of insulin hanging around if you’re over eating carbs such as those sugary, starchy treats you crave when you’re, well, stressed out. Not fair is it?
In addition to the insulin issue, cortisol also throws off several hormones that help you regulate your appetite thus you’ve got a perfect storm for more cravings and difficulty controlling what you eat.
If you are insulin resistant, this will all be more exaggerated in you because your blood sugar control is already compromised. Again, not fair huh??
And it doesn’t stop there…
Stress will put a lot of pressure on your thyroid and if you have Hashimoto’s (90% of hypothyroidism in the US), those blood sugar swings cause a surge of inflammation making your immune system go nuts and worsen the attack on the thyroid gland. High cortisol also increases conversion of the most important thyroid hormone, T3, into a useless form called reverse T3 (inflammation does this too, double whammy for Hashimoto’s).
As if that wasn’t enough, high cortisol will literally degrade your intestinal lining causing you to have more food allergies/sensitivities, more digestive upset and more gas and bloating.
OK I really didn’t mean to stress you out with all this….but it is a bit of a bleak picture? Deep stress lowering breath….
I will be covering in detail, your head to toe hormonal signals that you can learn to decipher and tweak your lifestyle, diet and exercise regimen in order to actually learn “what works for you” at our retreat in the Bahamas. What a great place to learn to how to lower your cortisol right?
More details here. We will cover all of these various hormonal impacts of stress and how you can feel better and life your bigger better life. It’s not unlike me giving you a hormone secret decoder ring. Join us!
Until then though….
Sarah and I are incredibly passionate about helping women have enough energy and gumption to live the lives they’ve always wanted. A huge part of that is helping women manage stress – both metabolic (as mentioned above) and lifestyle related. While every woman deserves to know the language her hormones speak so she can make the unique adjustments to diet and lifestyle that truly work for her, over our many years of working with women we’ve found these five things to be key to each woman finding her joy again.
We call them the 5 Pillars –
#1 Be Who You Are
When we’re tired, cranky, stressed out and maxed out we tend to forget who we are. Part of being healthy is being gentle and kind to ourselves and doing things just for us. It’s not selfish, it’s living “self-first” and its essential! Many women wake up one day and wonder who they even are any more. It’s time to discover again what brings you joy – and do it! Hobbies, play, community, whatever you love to do, to it. Not being who we are is among the most stressful things we can endure. Don’t wait.
#2 Overcome Overwhelm
This is a tough one because you are busy! One incredible tool is really taking stock of whose priorities you’re setting.
We have inherited a value system from our parents, events in our lives that have made us feel less than, and societal as well as internal pressures to appear a certain way or have certain things. We end up chasing our tails, trying to do the things that matter to us, along with a whole bunch of crap that really doesn’t.
When you do get overwhelmed – it happens to the best of us – gratitude is the tool to get yourself back out. Rattle off those five things you’re grateful for, take a breath and get back to what matters more to you.
#3 Full Engagement Living
Really connect with the people you love, really listen, really stop and look into your lovers eyes, or get down to eye level with your kiddos. At least once a day just be with your people in the most engaging way possible. This will draw you smack into the present moment and will be a strong reminder of what is most important. Put down your phone, ignore the computer, get into your life and out of your head and connect with someone that you love on the most human fundamental level – every single day. You will feel so much intense joy in that moment we promise you will be mind blown. If you struggle with unplugging from your phone or email, put them out of reach (like in a closet or up on a high shelf) when you are trying to be present.
While so much of what we do all day is undone in an instant: laundry, dishes, answering emails. It all piles up again and we know it, so do something every day that can’t be undone: write, draw, love, make a memory, have a conversation. Create something that lasts.
#4 Be Your Best Friend
As you navigate the choices to make each day ranging from high level career decisions, choices on how to parent or care for your loved ones, to how to exercise and what to eat you need to be your own best friend.
Constantly check in: are you listening to your internal best friend voice or your BS? The best friend voice is practical, nurturing, and a real cheerleader. Your BS is your worst critic, great at pushing you into exhaustion and having you feel unworthy in some way. Constantly check in at whose advice you’re taking.
#5 Commit To What Works For You
Everything you’re told about health and fitness is pretty black and white: do this, don’t do that. All gurus and experts – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt – are well meaning and believe in their way of doing it. Unfortunately this dogmatic approach has left us with so many “rules” and hard and fast dos and don’ts when it comes to food and exercise and even lifestyle, that we feel like failures when we follow the rules and still remain stuck.
As you start to better understand your unique hormonal needs and find what works for you, realize you are begin given a powerful gift. To better understand what works for you gives you great power to create the health and life you want, with that power comes great responsibility. When you find what works for you, commit to making it happen.
We hope to see you in the Caribbean this fall where we’ll help you find what works for you and implement in a way that keeps you out of overwhelm and frustration. Get the details here.