How does stress affect hormones?

Stress and sleep

Cheryl Vincelette
Audrey Sckoropad

15 April 2021

Your body has three major hormones – insulin, cortisol, and adrenaline – that impact all of your other hormones and the messages they deliver to your body systems.

The changes in production of stress hormones can put the rest of your hormones out of balance. Rising cortisol levels which happen during the fight or flight stage of the stress response, can stop your body from releasing certain hormones such as insulin, ovarian estrogen and progesterone.

The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and secrete cortisol, sometimes known as the stress hormone, and DHEA. Even though the adrenals are small in size, they can dramatically affect how we feel.

The Effects of Chronic Stress

Hundreds of years ago, having the stress response may have been a great adaptation tool for us. But unfortunately experiencing chronic stress can be very detrimental to our health. It can alter the delicate homeostasis within our body. Stress especially affects the heart and cardiovascular system, weakens digestion, depletes energy levels, upsets blood sugar regulation and hormonal balance, and may disturb sleep and mental health. Therefore, we need to learn how to manage stress and our response to stressful situations to reach a better balance and well being.

Stress effects on certain hormones


It is an essential hormone for controlling blood sugar and energy absorption. Insulin is basically a chemical messenger that allows cells to absorb glucose, a sugar from the blood. The organ behind the stomach that is the main source of insulin in the body is the pancreas.

For people with diabetes, stress can affect their insulin levels. It actually blocks the body from releasing insulin in people with type 2 diabetes. In their case, managing and cutting out stress may be helpful for these people. People with type 1 diabetes don't make insulin, so stress reduction doesn't have this effect. Some people with type 2 diabetes may also be more sensitive to some of the stress hormones.


The primary function of estrogens is development of female secondary sexual characteristics. These include breasts, endometrium, regulation of the menstrual cycle etc. In males estrogen helps in maturation of the sperm and maintenance of a healthy libido. It also has more functions such as: keeping cholesterol in control, protecting bone health for both women and men, it affects your brain (including mood), bones, heart, skin, and other tissues.

A female hormonal imbalance triggers many symptoms such as night sweats, hot flashes, sleep problems, mood swings and much more. This happens when estrogen levels are lowered from unrelenting stress and cortisol production. It also reduces serotonin levels which can impact the mood, making women feel more depressed and having trouble sleeping.


This hormone affects a variety of different organs, including the breasts, ovaries, vagina, uterus, brain, bones, cardiovascular and immune systems, kidneys, and liver. It plays an important role and has a wide range of tasks in the body. Such as promoting overall wellness of the reproductive tract, producing calming effects on the brain, helps retain bone density, supports cardiovascular health, assists in liver and kidney functions and immune system activity.

Progesterone is also a precursor to cortisol. And in a state of survival, the body will prioritize making cortisol.

This can be why even though we've ovulated, we may not make enough progesterone. This can also be why we may see anovulatory periods and / or completely missing periods.


Testosterone is the major sex hormone in males and plays a number of important roles, such as; the development of the penis and testes, the deepening of the voice during puberty, the appearance of facial and pubic hair starting at puberty, muscle size and strength, bone growth and strength, libido and sperm production.
Testosterone is not only present in the male body. It is actually produced in the ovaries and adrenal gland. It's one of several androgens (male sex hormones) in woman. These hormones are thought to have important effect in ovarian function, bone strength, and libido.

According to some research, having chronically elevated cortisol levels can produce impotence and loss of libido. It does so by inhibiting testosterone production in men. In women, chronically high levels of cortisol can also be affecting the menstrual cycle making it abnormal and can produce severe fertility problems.

Thyroid hormones

The thyroid gland is an integral part of the endocrine system. It releases triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These are 2 hormones that play an important role in the regulation of body weight, energy levels, internal temperature, skin, hair and nail growth, to only name a few.

You're probably not surprised to learn by now that stress will also affect thyroid hormones. Stress alone will not cause a thyroid disorder, but it can make the condition somewhat worse. The impact of stress on the thyroid occurs by slowing the body's metabolism. This can be a way that stress and weight gain are linked. When thyroid function slows during stress, T3 and T4 hormone levels fall.

Ways to manage stress to help prevent hormone imbalances

Now that we are aware of some of the effects of stress on our hormones, let's get motivated to do something about it. I know it can be difficult to climb off the merry-go-round stress cycle, especially if you've been on it for years. Here are some ideas that can help you take a step in the right direction:

  1. Avoid sugar and processed foods. As much as you can, it's best to avoid foods that will affect your insulin levels, and throw your balance off. I know it's usually the easiest option during stressful periods to just grab those processed carbohydrates. If you know you'll be heading into a more stressful period, why not plan on having healthy snacks such as nuts, fruit and raw veggies? It will help you curb your appetite for the less healthier option. Also, in general, it's important to make sure you are eating healthy and well balanced meals daily. To ensure you have the nutritional support, you can add Bio-Strath to your routine, which is a whole food yeast supplement containing plasmolysed yeast and 16 herbs. I like to add some to my smoothie. I know I'm getting all B vitamins and essential amino acids this way!
  2. Move your body! Get outside and breathe the fresh air, oxygenate your cells and clear your mind. I find that getting active, (even if it's a simple walk in the woods) will get me out of my mind and make me feel more at peace and relaxed afterwards too.
  3. Get good sleep. Set up a nighttime routine to maximize your sleeping hours, turn off your screen at least 40 min before bed, use essential oils such as lavender and mandarin in a diffuser to help you ease into sleep.
  4. Use herbal supplements to help your body in managing stress. Avenaforce is renowned to reinforce the nervous system, I enjoy its relaxing and soothing effects. This product is made from fresh flowering Avena sativa, which is oats.
    If stress has been affecting your reproductive system and estrogen levels, there is the herbal supplement Vitex which is made from the chasteberry plant. It is used in herbal medicine to help normalize hormones and stabilize irregular periods.
    And if your thyroid is taking a hit from you experiencing too much stress, A.Vogel's Thyroid Support which is made from kelp can help prevent iodine deficiency and it assists in supporting the thyroid functions.
  5. Meditate and practice mindfulness. This is something that helps me immensely in my everyday life to counter the effects of stress especially emotionally and mentally. It brings my perspective to a different view point, allowing my observer self to check in on what's going on inside. It can be as simple as taking 3 deep breaths or dancing freely to my favorite song. Allow yourself to be in the moment and detach from all the things you need to do, places you need to be, etc. Even if it's just for a moment, it will set the mood for the rest of your day.



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