Women's Health: How stress and hormones impact health


woman standing on rock at ocean, arms outstretched

Studies suggest that women are more likely to seek health information and engage in health-promoting behaviours compared with men. However the many “hats” we often wear, and the numerous responsibilities that come with these roles often make it difficult to prioritise our health over that of others we care for. Everyday life stressors have also contributed to the increasing amount of time we spend in a biological state of stress, which is negatively impacting our health.


Stress can impact digestion and metabolism

Historically, your biological stress response was an essential mechanism to help you escape dangerous predators. These days however, your stress response is more likely to be activated by psychological stress such as work pressure, financial or relationship worries, or even from excessive caffeine intake or too much high-intensity exercise. When your sympathetic nervous system receives the message that you're under threat (actual or perceived), your stress response is initiated. Adrenalin is produced by your adrenal glands, which increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and diverting blood flow away from "unessential" functions such as digestion. Adrenalin also triggers release of glucose into your bloodstream. Glucose is your body's most readily available and quickest burning energy source - important properties when you need energy to help you run from danger, but less helpful if you're just stressed about an email at work.


Short-term stress can be useful in certain situations (ie. when you have a deadline to meet!), but if you're regularly stressed over longer periods this can elevate cortisol levels (your long-term stress hormone). Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that can increase breakdown of muscle tissue, and is associated with reduced thyroid hormone levels, which can both impair metabolism.

Stress can also impact heart rate, blood pressure, sex hormone balance, immune function, sleep quality, mood, gastrointestinal function. Stress can also impact weight by influencing your food choices and your body's choice of fuel.


Stress, sex hormones and weight

Sex hormones can impact your mood, food choices and similar to stress hormones, whether your body decides to store or burn fat. During reproductive years, your ovaries are the main producers of sex hormones (including oestrogen and progesterone), with smaller amounts also produced by your adrenals, fat cells and the liver. Oestrogen is normally dominant for the first half of the menstrual cycle, and progesterone for the second half. Prior to ovulation, a little progesterone is produced by your adrenals - but if they're busy producing stress hormones (adrenalin or cortisol), this can down-regulate progesterone production. If your body believes you're in danger it may also prevent ovulation, meaning you'll also miss out on post-ovulation progesterone normally produced by the ovaries, and progesterone's anti-anxiety, anti-depressant and diuretic properties (to reduce fluid retention) properties.


Looking after your body's detoxification system

Ensuring that your body's detoxification system (particularly the liver and gut) are functioning optimally is essential for general good health, and can help regulate hormone levels. Your liver is responsible for converting excess hormones such as oestrogen to be excreted from your body. If it's busy processing other substances that may be toxic to the body (such as excessive alcohol, caffeine or chemicals) there will be limited capacity to convert excess hormones. Excess hormones can then be recycled and returned to circulate in your body, resulting in elevated hormone levels (and the negative health effects mentioned above).


A few things you can do to reduce overall stress, and help improve liver and gut function:


  • Eat a diet of minimally-processed foods, including plenty of plant foods (whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds).

  • Assess your current stress levels and try to reduce stress wherever possible - it's ok to say 'no' to requests or ask for help if you feel overwhelmed! Limit alcohol and excessive intense exercise, and limit or omit caffeine if you find this has a negative impact on your stress response.

  • Aim for at least 30 minutes physical activity each day. This doesn't have to be an intense training session or organised activity, and you can incorporate this in several shorter sessions throughout your day if this works better for you.

  • Make time for calming (breath-focussed) activity in your day such as yoga, pilates, t'ai chi, meditation, diaphragmatic breathing exercises, or any other activity you find calming (eg. reading, spending time in nature).

  • Get enough good quality sleep. Adopt a bedtime routine: dim lights and avoid use of electronic devices at least an hour before bed to help your mind and body prepare for sleep. If you have a busy mind write down your thoughts before bed, and keep a pen and paper beside your bed to note thoughts if you wake.

  • Try to reduce your exposure to potentially hormone-disrupting substances such as plastics, pesticides, as well as synthetic substances found in skin care and cosmetics. If cost and availability is an issue, try to prioritise better alternatives for those foods and products you use most often and/or in larger amounts.