More than anything else, stress derails our hormones, affecting our mood, mind and weight. That’s why how we manage stress, and how we eat and move can make a big difference as to how much we actually enjoy the holidays.
The following are five stress-induced hormonal imbalances that you may "feel" over the holidays, and how best to prevent them (or hit the "reset" button).
You’ve been up all night because of a sick child. Now you're at the office working overtime to meet a major project deadline. Plus, you’re involved in the kids’ school holiday fundraiser. Meanwhile you’ve promised to host a big family dinner and haven’t a clue what you’ll be serving. As for Christmas shopping, you’re hoping to conjure elves who can lend a helping hand.
Best known as the "stress" hormone, cortisol is produced in two grape-sized adrenal glands (one sitting on top of each kidney). Cortisol activates the "fight or flight" response, and can affect digestion, blood pressure, sleep-wake cycles and your overall ability to cope with stress. Cortisol also helps normalize blood sugar levels.
When the pressure is on, your cortisol levels can run high. Over time, continuously high cortisol levels lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), low sex drive and anxiety; it is also a contributing factor to heart disease.
Relaxing your body through diet and lifestyle is key to balancing cortisol.
If you’re on the holiday party circuit and staying out past midnight, then awakening early for a go-go day, you’re setting yourself up for leptin dysfunction.
Leptin, a hormone released from your fat cells, decreases hunger. It helps us feel full by telling the brain that we have enough fat, and that it’s OK to stop eating. A natural weight-control mechanism, leptin regulates appetite, energy and the rate at which you burn fat. For example, when leptin levels rise, your appetite decreases and your metabolism increases — an ideal weight loss scenario. Conversely, when leptin levels are low, your appetite increases and your metabolism slows. Low leptin also increases cortisol, which stores fat and burns muscle.
How long you sleep affects your leptin levels and body mass index (BMI). When more than 1,000 volunteers participated in the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort study, those participants who experienced short-duration sleep (less than eight hours) had lower leptin levels and a higher BMI.
Over time, too high or too low levels of leptin can lead to hypertension, obesity, depression, anxiety and cardiovascular disease. Like insulin resistance, leptin resistance occurs when both the body and the brain have stopped "listening" to leptin; for example, studies have found that obese women have more fat under their skin, and thereby have higher leptin levels. They make plenty of leptin, but the brain and body react as if the body is in a famine state.
Getting enough sleep and limiting your sugar and refined carb intake promotes healthy leptin levels.
From breads, pastries and home-baked Christmas cookies to eggnog, wine and beer, the holidays are a celebration of sugary food and drink. How much and how frequently you eat refined sugar and starchy foods will affect your insulin levels.
A hormone produced in the pancreas, insulin helps "unlock" the body’s cells so that sugar (glucose) from the foods we eat can be used by the cells for energy; it also regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body. Insulin helps cells in the liver, muscles and fat tissue absorb glucose from the blood. This glucose is then stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. In fat cells, glucose is stored as triglycerides.
Insulin resistance is a condition when the brain and cells of the body increasingly become desensitized to the effects of insulin (its main job is lowering blood sugar), resulting in high levels of glucose in the bloodstream which, over time, can be toxic. Insulin resistance is linked to diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and polycystic ovary syndrome.
To reduce or eliminate insulin resistance, eat in a way that balances your blood sugar and reduces inflammation.
During the holidays, stress can take on many forms: spending way over your allotted budget on gifts, busy schedules spent shopping, cooking and baking, and dealing with "eccentric" family members, like Uncle Alan whose idea of scintillating conversation is telling dirty jokes in mixed company. Stress also affects your thyroid.
Ideally, your thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat, makes just the right amount of thyroid hormones that tell the cells in your body how fast to burn energy. When your thyroid is working properly, your metabolism is balanced and you have energy, just-right body temperature (not too hot or cold) and your weight is stable.
If, however, you’re chronically exhausted, always have cold hands and feet, seem unable to lose weight and experience brain fog, you may have hypothyroidism (low thyroid). Proper thyroid function is closely intertwined with the health of your adrenal glands, which produce hormones that respond to stress.
The adrenal glands and thyroid are highly sensitive gatekeepers to your body’s hormone-producing system. The adrenals, which produce cortisol, are very reactive to stress. Unrelenting stress weakens the adrenal glands. This leads to a slowing down of the thyroid, which you’ll feel as fatigue, sluggishness and persistent weight gain.
Eating quality protein and limiting stimulating food and drink (caffeine, sugar, refined starches), as well as your gluten and wheat consumption, can go a long way to optimizing thyroid health. Especially under stress.
Progesterone is made in the ovaries and also produced (in smaller amounts) in the adrenal glands. Progesterone is the pre-hormone of cortisol, the stress hormone. This means that if you experience chronic stress, you’ll need more cortisol than your body can produce, forcing it to "steal" from cortisol’s pre-hormones — pregnenolone and progesterone — leaving you with low progesterone.
It’s not a fun scenario. Low progesterone can cause anxiety, night sweats, poor sleep, irregular menstrual cycles and mood swings.
Aim to manage stress, since elevated levels of cortisol (see above) can deplete progesterone.
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