Stress Management and PCOS: How stress affects your hormones

The connection between stress and your hormones is no secret, but the effects of stress on the management of polycystic ovarian syndrome are something that we don’t talk about nearly as much as we should. I’ve found, though, that reducing stress is essential for long term management of symptoms related to polycystic ovarian syndrome and the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome. 

How they’re connected

You may have heard the term ‘fight or flight’, but there is a lot of physiology that goes into understanding this concept around stress and our body systems. As I’m sure you know, ‘fight or flight’ describes a reaction to stress that’s often associated with animals who find themselves in danger. When introduced to a stressor – for example, a predator chasing them through the jungle – an animal can have a ‘fight or flight’ reaction that drives their body to either stay and defend themselves (fight) or run and hide for protection (flight). 

The same concept goes for people. At its very basic level, the ‘fight or flight’ response in humans is the same – it tells us how we should react to different stressful situations we experience. Thousands of years ago, this response kept us safe, just as it does for animals, by helping us recognize danger in our environments. As our environments have changed, so have our stressors – moving away from immediate danger from animals and predators and shifting to perceived danger related to social stressors and job pressure. 

Unfortunately, though, our bodies still react the same to these new stressors. Our fight or flight response still exists, and it is often confused by the new stressors of our environment. This can cause us to live in a constant state of stress, with our body perceiving the need ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, even if we’re not in danger. 

The commonality between all of our stress responses is that different aspects of our biochemical systems are altered when we’re stressed, including our hormone production. When our bodies are stressed, they’re not prioritizing hormone production – in fact, it’s turned off! We produce hormones, build muscle, digest our food, detox, and restore balance in the body when we are in a relaxed state, and when our bodies are stressed, these productions don’t happen. 

Hormones aren’t only affected during stressful times during a lack of production. When our bodies are stressed, we release the hormone cortisol. When cortisol is released, we also release glucose from our liver, causing an insulin response that can be detrimental to those with insulin resistance, such as women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, you know that one of the driving factors of symptoms in most cases of PCOS is insulin resistance. Chronic stress, or our body’s inability to distinguish if we need to ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or relax, can contribute to that. ⁣

So what does this mean?⁣

⁣Stress reduction isn’t something that should only be prioritized by people with PCOS. We all need to prioritize our stress management and actively work on reducing stressors, but it can especially benefit women with PCOS.

Here are my top five ways to reduce stress, especially in my clients with PCOS. 

  1. Be intentional with food choices. When it comes to deciding what foods to eat, it may come as a surprise that this can be a simple way to help reduce and manage stress. For me, being intentional with my food choices means choosing foods that fulfill me mentally, physically, and emotionally. This means balancing my meals with protein, carbohydrates, and fats to help manage my blood sugar and insulin response. It also means eating enough food, as I often see this as a huge stressor for many women. 
  2. Make sleep a priority. Getting to bed at a reasonable time allows you to get the amount of sleep your body needs to recover from your daily activities. It also helps balance blood sugar, and keep your insulin response healthy. For me, prioritizing a bedtime before 10:00pm lets me spend time doing what I love before bed – reading – and also makes sure I get the hours of sleep I need each night. 
  3. Focused breathing for hormone health. Using a heart rate sensor, like HeartMath, allows me to understand how my emotions can affect my heart health and overall stress level. I tend to use mine after my yoga practice in the morning and at night before I sleep to help control my stress levels each day. 
  4. Limiting social media and online time. I encourage all of my clients to limit their time on social media, especially when they find themselves comparing their lives or accomplishments to what they see on the platform. This can lead to emotional stress, which can be hard for our bodies to distinguish from physical stress or illness. 
  5. Get moving! Prioritizing movement breaks to get outdoors is especially important for managing stress. Whether your walking, running, biking, or doing your favorite workout outside, the combination of exercise and outdoor exposure can help limit your stress levels and manage your hormones. 

There is no one right way

There is no one right way to manage your stress. Each person has their own stressors related to their personal life or job, so managing your stress may look different. However, prioritizing your stress management, especially if you are someone dealing with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), can be important in managing your overall health.

Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

Amanda Montalvo

Amanda Montalvo is a women's health dietitian who helps women find the root cause of hormone imbalances and regain healthy menstrual cycles.

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