BY DR. ANDREA PURCELL
The two questions I hear quite often are…Can stress cause weight gain? Can stress cause early menopause?
Just so you know, STRESS can cause anything.
What many people do know is that chronic stress can bring on depression, headaches, panic attacks, anxiety disorders, insomnia, obesity, fatigue, allergies, digestive problems, skin disorders, and addictive behaviors.
What many people don’t realize is that stress is especially good at creating hormone imbalances. Since hormones rule women it goes without saying that problems will ultimately arise in that area.
You have two nervous systems in your body. The Sympathetic (known as the flight or fight) and the Para-Sympathetic (known as the feed and breed OR rest and digest). Only one nervous system can function at a time. You should think of it as a swinging door between your kitchen and your living room. Stand on one side and you are in the living room. Stand on the other you are in the kitchen. You cannot be in both rooms simultaneously.
Your body prioritizes survival over anything else. First you have to survive the bear before you can digest or procreate or rest. Therefore, fight and flight take precedence over hormones and fertility. It makes perfect sense once you think of it like this.
To compound the problem, when a woman is under stress, she often makes lifestyle choices that push her more out of balance. These poor choices reinforce the hormonal discord and move good health and balance further from reach.
There are also compensatory habits that we develop as a reaction to the stress; these too push us further from the balance we seek. Compensatory habits include using food, alcohol, drugs, sex, caffeine, or over-exercise. They also include compulsive behaviors, and phobias. All of these cause the stressful feelings to get bigger over time.
Bottom Line: Chronic Stress depletes your hormones and triggers behaviors that compromise your health.
The Hormone Cycle
It really is true that a woman’s hormones peak around age 28. Between age 28 and 38 many changes ensue. I commonly see symptoms of hormone imbalance start to appear around age 35.
Women will begin to experience an increase in pre-menstrual symptoms. These symptoms usually show up at the second part of the menstrual cycle after ovulation. PMS symptoms can include mood swings, sugar cravings, heavy clotted menses, increased cramping, insomnia, and changes to the menstrual cycle.
Between the age of 38 to 48 most women will enter peri-menopause.
Peri-menopause is the beginning of the hormone shifts that happen with menopause. It is a pre-state of menopause.
Between the ages of 48 and 55 most women will enter menopause.
The age that you will enter menopause depends on your family history, how well you have taken care of yourself and how much stress you have had in your life.
I have seen women enter menopause as young as 32 years old without any surgical or medical intervention, and as old as 60 years.
Specifically, the way that stress affects hormones happens like this…
You become stressed and your adrenal glands pump out cortisol. Then the next stressor happens and your body requires more cortisol so it starts scrambling to find ways to make more cortisol. Your body cleverly finds some progesterone and converts it to cortisol to save you from the alleged emergency. And so it goes, feel stressed, produce cortisol, more stress, convert progesterone into cortisol.
In this scenario the first hormone to decrease as a result of chronic stress is progesterone. This is because your body has a back-up mechanism that converts progesterone into cortisol (stress hormone). In general progesterone production by the ovaries naturally begins to decline around age 35. Compound that with stress that seems to increase by age 35 and therein lies the problem.
It is most likely the perceived stress of daily living compounded with the decrease in progesterone production that is most responsible for symptoms of hormone imbalance. Progesterone deficiency usually causes the pre-menstrual symptoms of mood swings, sugar cravings, heavy clotted menses, increased cramping, insomnia, and changes to the menstrual cycle length.
But Doctor, No matter what I do I can’t seem to lose weight!
The more stress you have the more cortisol you produce. Cortisol elevations at night lead to decreased quality of sleep, weight gain, and daytime fatigue.
Having low progesterone creates an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone.
Estrogen can be normal but because of the increased conversion of progesterone to cortisol the body is in a state of too much estrogen compared to progesterone. Too much estrogen causes weight gain. Fat cells produce estrogen causing more weight gain. Cortisol causes disturbed sleep and increases fat storage which in turn causes more weight gain.
Note from Dr. P
Unfortunately, stress causes imbalances of estrogen, progesterone, and cortisol. All of these contribute to sleep disruption, weight gain, weakened digestion, and poor lifestyle choices that can turn you into one big hormonal mess. Just be aware of that next time you want to react and ask yourself if it’s really worth getting worked up over.
With so much Love,
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