How Stress Impacts Your Hormones

Did you know that stress affects your hormones, including cortisol, testosterone, melatonin, and estrogen? When you're stressed out, the hypothalamus signals your adrenal glands to release cortisol. At the same time, your body enters fight-or-flight mode, causing your adrenaline levels to increase, explains Harvard Health Publishing. These changes can have both immediate and long-term effects on your overall well-being.

A small amount of stress is perfectly normal. Under certain circumstances, it can actually be good for you. "You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it's not. Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral, and cognitive performance," explains Daniela Kaufer, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley (via Berkeley News). Think about how you feel when driving a car or crossing the street. Stress heightens your senses and keeps you alert, which, in turn, may help you avoid an accident.

Prolonged or chronic stress, on the other hand, can be detrimental to your health. Over time, it may cause mood swings, low energy, pain, insomnia, poor judgment, and diminished mental focus, notes WebMD. You may also experience headaches, changes in appetite, or sexual problems. If left unaddressed, these issues can lead to heart disease, obesity, and other chronic illnesses. 

But how exactly does stress impact your hormones?

Stress can throw your sex hormones out of balance

The human body releases small amounts of cortisol each day. Blood cortisol levels are highest in the morning and tend to gradually decrease as the day goes by (via You and Your Hormones). Cortisol levels also increase in response to stress. When secreted in excess, this hormone may contribute to high blood pressure, mood changes, low libido, weight gain, and irregular periods.

Cortisol may impact other hormones in your body, causing the symptoms above. For example, there is an inverse association (i.e., when one goes up, the other goes down) between cortisol and testosterone levels, according to a 2005 study featured in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone (although women have it, too), plays a key role in muscle and bone growth, fat distribution, physical strength, and sperm production, according to the National Institutes of Health. Elevated cortisol can affect testosterone levels, impacting your ability to get lean or build muscle. In the long run, these changes may lead to fertility problems and abnormal periods (via the University of Texas at Austin). 

Stress can also interfere with your body's ability to produce estrogen, the female sex hormone, and put you at risk for autoimmune disorders, per a 2017 review published in Cureus. A decline in testosterone levels can have similar effects in men.

It may also affect insulin, melatonin, and thyroid hormones

Chronic stress can also have detrimental effects on your thyroid hormones, insulin, and growth hormone. Therefore, it may lead to diabetes, hyperthyroidism, obesity, and other disorders, per a 2011 review featured in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. The same source reports that stress affects ghrelin and leptin, the hormones that regulate appetite, which explains why some people experience increased hunger or sugar cravings when they are feeling stressed

Your sleep may suffer, too. "Cortisol triggers the body to be more alert, and that blocks the process of falling asleep. Next to that, factors that are involved in the synthesis of cortisol have been shown to suppress melatonin. So, stress has been associated with low melatonin," Dr. Roy Raymann told Bustle. Melatonin, the so-called "hormone of darkness," regulates your internal clock and may protect against certain diseases affecting the brain and nervous system (via Brain Disorders and Therapy). If its levels are too low, you may find you can't fall asleep at night.

Now that you know how it impacts your hormones, take the steps needed to manage your stress. For starters, try to squeeze more "me" time into your schedule. The American Psychological Association recommends meditation as a way to reduce stress and anxiety. Mindfulness meditation is particularly beneficial, as it can trigger positive changes in the brain. Physical activity, whether it's jogging, yoga, or swimming, can lift your mood and lower stress levels, too.