There is no area of our lives that is unaffected by stress and your hormones are no exception. When you are stressed the body diverts resources to deal with it and so less is available to deal with your menopausal symptoms but just why does stress have this effect?
The stress factor
If you can never really seem to lose those extra pounds, especially around the middle, most women don’t think of stress as being responsible for this. And, of course, the more anxious the get about not losing the weight, the more stressful it is, and the less likely you are to be successful.
The immediate effect of stress can be seen in our waistline as stress triggers the body to store fat around the middle, expanding our stomachs and giving us a clear indicator that our diet/exercise routine just isn’t working any longer. Surprisingly the answer is not to diet or exercise more, but to take stock of what else might be causing us to gain weight.
Another way that stress impacts our weight as it causes us to lose muscle tone. Plus it inhibits thyroid function which means our metabolism slows down and that makes weight loss difficult
Stress takes us back to our oldest response the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that comes into play when we are faced with a situation that causes us anxiety or fear. Today we don’t go out chasing wooly mammoths for the crockpot, but every day physically, emotionally and mentally we are challenged but the adrenaline that this generates is no longer dissipated with physical exercise. Adrenaline is vital to deal with the crisis of the moment, but toxic if it not dispersed though exercise or intentional relaxation.
If stress is present long-term, from a job or caring for a sick relative or your own health issues, then that non dispersal of adrenaline becomes a real problem as the hormone cortisol takes over, and it alerts your body that it needs help and protection and it does that by physically storing fat as a kind of shield or barrier. signalling to the body the needed to protect the body in the long-term.
Your body is not getting the right rest and recovery time and your overall health will suffer, and so will your hormone balance.
Why fat settles around your belly when stressed
When your stress response kicks in, that is a signal to tell your body to get ready to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ and that means diverting resources to fuel that. Our muscles and liver respond by releasing stored glucose which is released into the bloodstream so you are ready for whatever ‘hazard’ you are facing. So if you are running flat out to get away from a mugger then chances are you are going to successfully get rid of the glucose, but more usually stress is not accompanied or followed by exercise and in that case, to protect itself from damaging sugar, the body turns those excess calories into fat. Your abdomen has more receptors for the stress hormone cortisol than any other part of the body, so the glucose has to be stored somewhere and the most convenient place is as fat around your middle.
If you regularly are stressed the release of glucose can then prompt the release of the hormone insulin which normally removes sugar from the bloodstream into our cells for use as energy. But regular high levels of insulin means our body stays in fat-storing, not fat-burning mode. Coupled with too little exercise this is a sure-fire recipe for weight gain. Increased wight means your body is also going to be producing more oestrogen from the fat cells so symptoms of oestrogen dominance are a result. Stress regularly impacts hormones and if progesterone levels are low then the body is not able to balance out the excess oestrogen and menopausal symptoms tend to increase.
Weight is also related to stress in the way it affects your thyroid levels as high stress puts your thyroid into go-slow mode, and that slows down your metabolism which in turn means you are more likely to put on weight – and have more difficulty losing it. When stressed the adrenal glands tell the thyroid gland to reduce its output. and as the thyroid governs metabolism (the rate at which every body cell burns fuel or calories), lowered function means that weight loss becomes harder and harder.
Many women register as ‘normal’ when tested for thyroid function but even a slightly below normal level can affect you and your hormones. If you are constantly stressed then your body is on permanent alert and so it tries to conserve energy for potential action that may be needed – back to ‘fight or flight.’
How to help yourself
Those old standards of stress reduction, regular exercise and a healthy diet are very important as is hormone balance. Exercise has been shown to lower levels of of the stress hormone cortisol naturally. Experts believe physical activity is comparable – and in some cases better – for your mood than anti-depressants, increasing emotional resilience and raising levels of immune-supporting probiotic gut bacteria. Simply walking 20 minutes a day can make a real difference as it clears the mind, improves mood and has been shown to decrease cravings. One study examining 12,018 people found that those who made physical activity part of their leisure time were less prone to stress and feelings of dissatisfaction.
You can help keep your insulin levels balanced by reducing the amount of sugar in your diet, limiting refined carbohydrates and increasing your protein intake. This means regular, balanced meals and in particular never skipping breakfast and focusing it on protein, not carbohydrate as is more typical. Unfortunately most women when stressed turn to comfort eating and that is often based around sugar and/or junk foods which gives a temporary boost of energy but is followed by a corresponding crash which means you turn to the next ’sweet treat’ to boost you up again.
Stress, sugar and other coping mechanisms like shopping, stimulants and alcohol give us a sudden rise in the feel-good brain chemicals GABA, dopamine and serotonin. But they also cause crashes later, leading to cycles of dependence and an increasing reliance on them to ‘feel normal’.
If you don’t deal with sugar intake then over time you can develop insulin resistance or ‘metabolic syndrome’ and this will certainly impact not just your weight but also how your effectively hormones are working. When stressed we tend to ‘comfort eat’ and for women that usually means something sweet which gives a quick energy boost, and a following crash in energy levels so you boost it with a biscuit and off the cycle goes again.
For instance a 40g bar of milk chocolate will contain not only dairy, but also as much as seven teaspoons of sugar compared to a three-teaspoon average for the same weight of 70 per cent cocoa dark chocolate. Helpful sweet alternatives are coconut, cinnamon and fruit and switching to a dark chocolate with a high cocoa content are the best choices to help you cope with stress:
This is not a quick fix solution as you need to be aware of sugar levels in your diet and reduce them as much as possible – but not by going ’sugar free’ as the chemical sweeteners pose real health hazards, as does a 0% fat diet. Your body needs saturated fats such as omega 3 oils found in oily fish (like salmon and mackerel) and in walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flax to prevent insulin resistance and support serotonin utilisation in the brain to break craving cycles and help weight loss.
Hormone imbalance and inflammation triggered by stress can result in an unhealthy digestive environment, which can destroy ‘good’ fat-busting bacteria so include prebiotics daily such as bananas, garlic, onions and leeks. The ‘good bacteria’ you need are quickly destroyed by stress, sugar, alcohol, antibiotics and steroid medications. That can cause you problems such as bloating and fluid retention and can be helped with supplements and ensuring healthy hormone balance with progesterone to help combat it.