Women and Stress: What Stress Looks Like

By Dr. Brooke Kalanick

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.

What Stress Looks Like

You probably have far too many evenings that look like this: meet girlfriends for a quick catch-up or pick up your kids (or both!), work out, stop at the dry cleaners, pay some bills, watch your favorite TV show, get a pedicure, shop for and cook a healthy dinner — all within two 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. women-and-stress-woman-words-450x338Or 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 take a closer look at the toll stress is taking on us.

Sleep and Energy

Sleep is one of the first dominoes to fall with stress.

Cortisol has a normal 24-hour rhythm. It should be highest around 5 a.m. and gently, slowly, taper throughout the day to be lowest at bedtime. Melatonin has the exact opposite rhythm.

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.

women-and-stress-woman-sleeping-450x338If you have been stressed for a while, your cortisol can be low overall or particularly low in the 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), looking for caffeine and simple carbs.

Any type of adrenal dysregulation can leave you feel exhausted the next day, with your cravings on full tilt.


women-and-stress-woman-chocolate-327x341Stress 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. 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!

Period Drama

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 those of us 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).

Feelin' Heavy

women-and-stress-woman-couch-cramps-450x338You know stress can contribute to fat gain. You may not know that short bursts of cortisol actually help burn fat. Trouble is, lots of cortisol plus lots of insulin result in lots of fat storage (particularly at the waist). There's a lot of insulin hanging around if you're overeating carbs such as those sugary, starchy treats you crave when you're, well, stressed out.

In addition to the insulin issue, cortisol also throws off several hormones that help you regulate your appetite resulting in 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.

And it doesn't stop there!

Stress will put a lot of pressure on your thyroid, and if you have Hashimoto's (1 in 8 women, and 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.

The next article in this series goes over what you can do about stress.

Note from GGS: Your body can also feel stress  as a response to factors such as the way you train and how you eat. If you're working on managing your stress, and would like some guidance with your training and nutrition, as well as mindset, we can help.

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About the author:  Dr. Brooke Kalanick

Dr. Brooke Kalanick earned her Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University. Known as “The Hormone Whisperer,” Brooke's balanced approach to health, using both conventional and alternative therapies, allows her to successfully treat patients with Hashimoto’s Hypothyroidism and PCOS as well as other female hormone imbalances. Learn more about Dr. Brooke on her website and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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