Why do we care so much about managing chronic stress? It’s because chronic stress affects the body in some crazy and surprising ways! In this article, we are going to talk about how chronic stress throws off hormones and teach you some easy stress reduction techniques to stay balanced! I’ve also included the most effective stress reduction supplements, foods, and strategies so you can tackle chronic stress from every angle!
What hormones are affected by chronic stress?
When you encounter a threat, a tiny gland in your brain (called the hypothalamus) is triggered to release an alarm system. That system ends up stimulating your adrenal glands (located on top of the kidneys) to release the main “stress” hormones: epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and cortisol.
In a short-term stress response, these 2 hormones work together to optimize your body to be able to “run away” from the threat quickly in order to survive. Then when the threat is gone, your hormone levels return to normal again.
However, with chronic stress, these 2 hormones remain elevated for longer than they should. And when they are constantly elevated, they cause things like high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, weight gain, digestive problems, fertility problems, headaches, muscle pain, decreased sex drive, and decreased immunity. For more detail about the effects of chronic stress on the body, read “10 Surprising Chronic Stress Effects on the Body”
How can I measure stress?
Stress can be difficult to measure since we all respond to situations differently. One of the most widely used tools is the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), which is a questionnaire that you can access here. It is one way that is used to measure how stressful situations are affecting you personally.
And while you can’t get a blood test specifically for stress, you can test cortisol levels in your body. Cortisol should have natural times in the day where it is higher and lower, but all within a “normal” healthy range.
When cortisol levels are outside of the “normal” level it can indicate problems with chronic stress and the affect it is having on your body. It is one way to measure how stress is impacting your health.
The most accurate way is by using saliva samples at 4 different times in a day (24 hour period) and seeing if your cortisol levels are abnormal.
I like using Everlywell (Metabolism test). You don’t need a doctor’s order to do this test, you can perform it at home, and the results are accurate. The test kit is sent to your home once you order it online, the instructions are easy to follow, and then you complete the saliva collection and send it back to the lab in the prepaid mailing envelope. You are then notified of your results within about 1 week. The results are presented in a way that are easy to understand and give you insight into your own body.
An alternative test to try is found on Amazon. I have not personally used this brand, however it has a good reputation and the science seems solid so I feel comfortable recommending this test as well. It is the Health Confirm Stress hormone plus At Home Kit. It tests saliva at 4 different points during the day and is just as convenient as Everlywell.
What hormones reduce stress?
There are 3 hormones that seem to combat the effects of stress on the body: oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. And this makes sense because these are the “feel good” hormones within the body!
These 3 hormones are responsible for feelings of calmness, happiness, love, and relaxation. By doing things that increase the body and brain’s production of the “feel good” hormones, you are naturally combating stress. Check out the suggestions below for specifics!
What are the 13 best Stress reduction strategies to balance hormones?
The goal of stress reduction strategies is to balance levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and to increase the levels of “feel good” hormones.
Strategy #1: Get Outside
Fresh air increases the feel good hormone serotonin, allowing you to feel happier and less anxious. You’ll get a clearer, sharper, calmer mind, and all it takes is a few breaths of fresh air. Focus on getting outside for stress reduction.
Strategy #2: Relaxation/Practice Deep Breathing/meditation
Incorporating daily relaxation practices, such as deep breathing or listening to music can help stabilize stress hormones and allow your body to return to its natural balance. By breathing deeply and slowly, you force your heart rate to slow down and your mind to become clear and calm, which is the goal of stress reduction.
Choose a place that is quiet, comfortable, and free from distraction. Try different techniques for breathing, relaxing, or meditating. Just 10 minutes can stabilize cortisol levels and restore hormone balance within your body.
Strategy #3:Limit use of Alcohol and Tobacco
While alcohol and tobacco can be ways to make you feel more relaxed, these activities aren’t without danger. Studies have shown the negative effects of tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption on the body, and the use of these products is a temporary fix. It is dangerous to turn to substances to deal with chronic stress, so use these with caution.
Strategy #4:Exercise consistently
You don’t need to work-out for hours every day to get the hormone balancing benefits of exercise. Exercise has been shown to be beneficial for stress and balancing hormones in as little as 30 minutes, 3 times per week. And if you can’t fit that into your schedule, try to figure out a routine that works for you that you can do consistently.
Exercise increases “feel good” hormones and helps you manage stress more easily. If you are looking to balance hormones that are disrupted due to stress, exercise is an easy way to jumpstart recovery. And this is an excellent stress reduction strategy.
Strategy #5: Learn to say No
As a fellow people pleaser, I know how difficult it can be to say “no” to requests for your time and energy! But the issue is that there are only so many hours of the day and you only have so much energy to give.
By learning to say “yes” to the things that align with your health and wellness goals, and getting very clear on your priorities, it gives you the freedom to say “no” and to understand WHY you are saying no. You are protecting your stress level, your mental and emotional health, and choosing to live an intentional, deliberate life.
Protect your time and calendar for stress reduction.
Strategy #6: Reach out for help/Social support
We all have times that we become overwhelmed and need help! So don’t be afraid to reach out. This may be in the form of a coach or counselor, a trusted friend, or a family member. By identifying the things that are causing you to feel stressed, you can take action to deal with it. Try asking for help in managing these situations or even with making changes that will make the situation less stressful. We have all needed help with stress reduction. You are not alone.
Strategy #7: Nutrition (link to immunity boosting foods article)
Nutrition often gets brushed aside during stressful times. But there are certain foods that have been proven to increase “feel good” hormones and balance stress hormones. I have included a list of these foods below, so check it out! By balancing nutrition for stress reduction, you improve the way that you feel.
Strategy #8: Sleep
Just one bad night of sleep can throw off stress hormones and make you feel miserable. That’s why sleep is critical to balancing stress hormones. Tips to help improve sleep include going to sleep at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning, keeping your room a place of relaxation rather than chaos, keeping the temperature cool while you sleep, and keeping the room dark.
If you are struggling with sleep, let’s chat. Schedule a FREE telemedicine call with me and I can help you figure out a solution.
Strategy #9: Laugh
Laughter has been shown to do amazing things, like decrease pain, boost immunity, and relax your body. Laughter increases the “feel good” hormones and promotes stress reduction.
Strategy #10: Journal/gratitude
Journalling and showing gratitude improves mental health in many ways. Journaling helps take the thoughts that are floating around in your head and transfer them onto paper. This helps alleviate and manage stress by creating awareness and acknowledging the way that you are feeling.
Gratitude helps shape your outlook on stressful situations by helping you to focus on the positive. It is perfectly fine to allow yourself to have all types of emotions, but gratitude helps you choose how to view the future and move forward in a positive way.
Strategy #11: Spend time doing things you love
When you are focussing on stress reduction, one way to refuel is to take time for self care. And that means scheduling time to do things that you love! This can be anything from sitting outside in the quiet early morning with a cup of coffee to kayaking, golfing, or going out with friends. When you encounter chronic stress, you have more reserve when you are rested and have taken time for yourself.
Strategy #12: Focus on helping others
You may have heard the term ROAK, random acts of kindness. Research shows that helping others actually causes chemical changes in your brain that increase production of the positive, healthy hormones. It has even been said that helping others may benefit you MORE than the recipient of the acts of kindness.
Choose one thing this week to surprise someone else. It could be as simple as paying for coffee of the person behind you in line, or leaving an anonymous note of encouragement for a coworker.
Strategy #13: Be Honest/Acknowledge your feelings
Don’t pretend that everything is fine. It is important to be honest with yourself and acknowledge the toll that chronic stress is taking on your health. Awareness is the first step in making a change. You don’t need to share with everyone, but don’t pretend like you are fine when you need help.
The best foods to eat for balancing stress hormones
Research shows that diets that are high in processed food and sugar wreak havoc on your hormones! In fact, eating this way has been shown to increase chronic cortisol levels, making it more difficult to lose weight and maintain health.
So rather than give you a list of foods to avoid, I want to provide foods that you can start incorporating into your diet TODAY to balance your stress hormones and improve overall health.
- Whole grains: these foods contain fiber which stabilizes stress hormones, supports digestion, and balances blood sugar. Examples include brown rice, oatmeal, and wheat bread/crackers.
- Dark chocolate: dark chocolate has stress-busting antioxidants which not only helps to manage stress, but also has been shown to improve memory!
- Whole Fruits and vegetables: foods that are closest to their natural form contain nutrients and vitamins that are essential for managing stress.
- Healthy fats: healthy fats contain omegas that are critical for brain and hormone health. Incorporate foods like salmon, avocado, sardines, and olive oil for some stress-busting nutrition!
- Water: Dehydration is one of the main triggers of hormone imbalance, so as you try to incorporate stress reduction techniques, make sure hydration is one of them! It is recommended that you drink 1/2 of your body weight in ounces of water per day.
The 4 most effective stress reduction supplements
- PROBIOTICS for gut health and immunity
- ASHWAGANDHA to balance cortisol levels
- MAGNESIUM for sleep support
- ECHINACEA for immunity boost
I hope this article has given you the best tools to use stress reduction techniques to keep your hormones balanced and to help you achieve all of your health and wellness goals. By balancing stress hormones, you will feel better, lose weight more easily, reverse chronic health conditions, and function at your best.