April is Stress Awareness Month.
Stress is part of life, and it’s incredible how our bodies have built-in mechanisms to deal with it.
This is more or less what happens when our brains perceive a stressful situation:
Initially, the body produces adrenaline (increasing our heart rate), our breathing becomes faster, our muscles tense (prepared to run if needed), our senses (visual, hearing) are heightened, and there’s a rush of glucose to feed the muscles if need – We are ready to fight or run from that lion! 😊
Once the stress passes, the body returns to its normal state.
However, yes, there is a however...
With the modern style of living AND being a woman over 40 years of age, most of us don’t have to confront lions. Instead, we are exposed to constant non-life-threatening stresses (or mini-lions) such as work pressure and responsibilities, family dramas (especially if you have teenagers), business, and maybe even elderly parents that need our attention.
This repeated activation of the stress response impacts your health and well-being. Adrenaline is only designed to be temporary, and so if the stressors continue, the body releases cortisol to ensure the stress response can continue.
Cortisol is a helpful hormone: it’s released to give us energy in the mornings so we can wake up and decreases in the evenings so we can sleep. The problem comes with a constant flow of cortisol: it increases blood pressure, slows metabolism down, increases circulating glucose and abdominal fat storage, it damages arteries and increases the risk of strokes, diabetes, and heart disease. In the long run.
Why is stress an even bigger issue during perimenopause?
With the fluctuation of hormones starting at perimenopause, the body is already under physiological stress, trying to adapt to your change in reproductive status (your ovaries are releasing fewer and fewer eggs as your sex hormones progesterone and estrogen production are decreasing).
You become more sensitive to stress during perimenopause.
This means you’re not as resilient or tolerant to stress as you used to be – not only emotionally but physiologically.
Since you’re going through metabolic stress (due to the change in hormones levels during perimenopause), baseline cortisol levels may be higher throughout this time, and you are likely to have symptoms such as heavier and more painful bleeds, bloating, breast tenderness, worsening PMS symptoms.
Different hormones are affecting your sleep during this time.
Cortisol wakes us up in the morning. Melatonin helps us sleep at night. The problem is that they are antagonists, so if cortisol levels are high at night, it affects the production of melatonin – which may result in trouble falling or staying asleep.
The lack of sleep can create a vicious cycle of increased fatigue, brain fog, and anxiety, all of which exacerbate more cortisol and stress, and so on.
The body is more prone to store fat in the abdominal area.
Cortisol mobilizes glucose and fatty acids from the liver to the bloodstream for rapid energy – if needed. If not needed and you’re just sitting in front of a computer all day, there’s a higher chance that extra energy will be stored as fat. There is also emerging evidence that lower estrogen levels influence fat distribution around the belly area instead of the hips during the menopause transition.
Stress and the decline of estrogen starting in perimenopause affect mental health.
Estrogen has many positive effects on brain health, including regulating mood by boosting serotonin (the feel-good hormone) production and keeping memory functions. With its decline during the menopause transition, women experience mood swings, brain fog, memory issues, depression, and anxiety.
Being stressed is likely to exacerbate this.
Persistently elevated cortisol levels can affect the brain by increasing irritability, anxiety, fluctuating emotions, and depression. It also negatively affects serotonin production.
Chronic stress can affect your digestive system.
Stress can affect how well we digest and absorb foods since the body works hard to keep up with other systems in the body to accommodate the stress response. This may result in an immune response and increases your risk of food intolerances.
What to do to reduce stress
The good news is that addressing your stress can improve your well-being and reduce your risk of stress-related issues in later life.
Eat enough nourishing foods.
Give your body plenty of wholesome foods and nutrients. Avoid ultra-processed foods. Include anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables. Eat adequate protein. Don’t undereat or go on restrictive diets. Get help from a certified nutritionist if you need to dial in your nutrition.
Exercise is good for the body, and it’s an effective stress reliever. Try to include it regularly and consistently so you reap the benefits. Many influencers are trying to tell us that moderate endurance-type sports (like running, cycling, etc) raise cortisol and should be avoided, or we should walk instead. This is taken out of context. Yes, any exercise that activates our sympathetic nervous system will produce cortisol, but that's temporary. The endorphins produced by feeling good during and after exercise will counterbalance any cortisol produced. Remember: any activity is better than none.
Sleep and rest
That will give your body a chance for cortisol levels to go down. If you cannot sleep, try implementing sleep hygiene. If that doesn’t work, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia can help with a certified practitioner. Medications, including sleep aids or menopause hormone therapy, might help.
I know it’s an overused word, but self-care just means that you need to take a break to pay attention to yourself occasionally. This could mean a walk, lunch with a friend, a warm bubble bath, or a massage. Whatever it is. There are some great guided meditations that I recommend to my clients from the Calm app when stress is really high. Whatever it is, find something that works for you.
Stress is unavoidable. But it’s also really detrimental to our physical and mental health, so it’s important not to let it linger for too long.
I hope this helps!