Hormones: It’s all about sex…or is it?
With the holiday season fast approaching, it is time to give some thought to a very important topic: Stress. In the movies, holidays are associated with Joy, laughter and an outpouring of happiness. In reality, however, they induce a lot of stress. With the changes in routines (preparation of meals, gift decisions, family) stress abounds. This stress has an effect on us emotionally and physically. In today’s modern era of 24/7 texting, facebooking, working and taking care of our families, our hormonal systems are under siege. The added stress of the holidays may be just enough to “push us over the edge”. Although we can never get rid of stress, controlling our hormones is one of the best ways to manage it.
By now, most people have heard of the hormones: testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, insulin and cortisol. Many associate the first three with sex, hot flashes and libido. Although this is partially true, it is not the full picture. These hormones have other roles in health and vitality. The body’s hormones interplay with each other to keep us going at our best. Like a symphony, this interplay can create beautiful music when working together or an assault on the senses when not.
Cortisol is necessary for life. We all need some. However, when under chronic stress as in today’s lifestyle or when additional stress is added (like the holidays), cortisol is not our friend. As cortisol levels become higher, a cascade of events is initiated and symptoms occur. Many of these symptoms are a direct result of cortisol’s effect on other hormones. To understand this, we must first look at some of the benefits of the hormones in question.
As an example:
Testosterone: proper levels; increase: bone density, self-esteem and confidence, motivation, sleep quality, cardiovascular and cancer protection, immune regulation, energy, muscle mass and libido. Decrease: more fat mass, depression, irritability, risk of diabetes, and fatigue.
Progesterone; increases: thyroid function (energy and metabolism), weight loss, vaginal lubrication, and libido. Decreases: anxiety, depression, water retention, PMS, breast cysts, and some cancers.
Estrogen has a little bit of a dark side when it comes to cortisol. Estrogen can; increase: HDL, cardiovascular protection, bone protection, vaginal lubrication, libido, depression, anxiety, blood clots, migraines, water retention, fibroids and prostate cancer in men. Decrease: hot flashes in menopausal women and andropausal men, and mitochondrial energy production (thereby leaving you with less energy).
As stress causes cortisol to increase:
- Progesterone decreases: leading to anxiety, depression, hair loss, dry skin, heavy periods, PMS, weight gain, vaginal dryness and thyroid dysfunction (causing fatigue).
- Testosterone decreases: causing irritability, fatigue, sleep disturbances, menstrual irregularities, loss of motivation and interest, impotence and loss of libido.
- Estrogen increases: resulting in estrogen dominance, PMS, fibroids, decreased thyroid function, weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and blood clots
So, as you can see, many of the effects of these hormones are necessary for overall health and vitality. Once again, cortisol can disrupt this state, harming us from the inside out via its action on other hormones. As cortisol levels rise, we see: immune suppression (we get sick), insomnia and sleep disturbances, irritability, anxiety, lower thyroid function, sugar cravings, increase cholesterol and higher blood pressure. None of which make for a good holiday. So, even though cortisol is necessary for life, too much of a good thing can have far reaching effects on our health. Therefore, to blunt the response to cortisol overload, balancing the other hormones is necessary. If your hormones are already out of balance then even a little stress can seem insurmountable.
In addition to maintaining hormone balance other ways to keep cortisol in check are: proper exercise and sleep, limiting alcohol and caffeine, smoking cessation, setting realistic goals, having sex, and asking for help when you need it to name a few.
So, to have not only a good holiday season but also a good life, balance is the key.
As the Samurai said: It is not whether you live or die, but the manner in which you do each.