Why stress matters when it comes to hormone health

We all know that stress is an unavoidable part of everyday life. Work, kids, traffic, family stress – life can throw a lot at us sometimes. But how does stress impact our health and, more specifically, our other hormones? 

What is stress?

Stressors come in many different forms. The obvious one is psychological stress, which in our modern lives we probably experience daily. However, there are other stressors – both physical and chemical – that can trigger our stress response. Over-exercise, poor diet, lack of sleep, toxic exposure, and infection or illness are all stressors that can add to our stress load.

What happens when we get stressed?

When we experience stress, whether real or perceived, this results in the release of certain hormones and neurotransmitters. One of these ‘stress hormones’ is cortisol, which is released from the adrenal glands in response to signals from our brain’s hypothalamus. Cortisol is part of our ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, and leads to physiological changes in the body – like increased heart rate, blood flow to the muscles, dilated pupils and blood pressure. It also releases stored glucose into our bloodstream, so that we have fuel to deal with the stressor. 

Are stress hormones bad for us?

We need to have a healthy stress response to enable us to deal with the inevitable stressors that come our way in life. Thinking about this in evolutionary terms, our stress response is a way we’ve adapted to keep us safe from threats. So this is an important evolutionary mechanism, which kicks in when we need it. In fact, research suggests that some stressors may have a positive effect on our health – for example, cold water immersion [1] and heat therapy [2]. Many thousands of years ago, the stressor might have been a predator like a sabre-toothed tiger, now it could be a car pulling out in front of us, an angry boss, or the threat of missing a flight. 

As well as helping us deal with stressful situations, cortisol is also important to get us up in the morning – it gives us that ‘get up and go’ feeling, without which we would be exhausted and unable to get out of bed. Ideally, we want cortisol to peak about an hour after waking, and then decline throughout the day, reaching a low point when we go to sleep (see image below).

Image: Pollard Jr RQ, Dean RK, Samar VJ, Knigga LM, Taylor TL. Cortisol dysregulation among American Sign Language interpreters in different work settings: Confirmation of occupational health risks. Interpreting and Society. 2021 Sep;1(1):28-50.

What happens when stress becomes chronic?

The issue is, we weren’t designed to be constantly exposed to stressors. Our bodies are not designed to deal with chronic stress that never resolves itself. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with emails, phone calls, messages, 24 hour news, and noise. When we’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode, our body turns down (or off) the systems which aren’t important in that stressful moment, such as digestive, immune and reproductive systems. The reasoning is, why would we need to digest food, fight off the flu, or have babies when we’re about to be eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger? Our bodies don’t discriminate between a real or perceived threat, so any stress we perceive will have a physiological response.

High levels of cortisol over a long period of time can be damaging to our health, affecting various systems in the body such as our cardiovascular, nervous, reproductive, immune, and endocrine systems. Some signs and symptoms of high cortisol include:

  • disrupted sleep
  • high blood pressure
  • poor immunity
  • weight gain
  • imbalanced blood sugar levels
  • subfertility and infertility

Over time, chronic stress can lead to a dysregulated stress response, which means our stress response stops working as it should. This can lead to low cortisol, which can manifest itself in a number of different ways, like:

  • fatigue
  • sleep issues
  • low blood pressure
  • poor memory and concentration
  • muscle weakness and joint pain.

Burnout and chronic fatigue are also associated with low cortisol levels. 

How does stress affect other hormones?

There are many ways that stress can impact hormonal health. Here are just some of the ways in which this happens: 

  • Fertility and our cycle. Research suggests that there is an association between stress and fertility, although it’s not entirely clear why. Stress leads to raised levels of prolactin, which can affect ovulation, lead to higher levels of cortisol and higher anxiety levels.[3]
  • Menopause. Research suggests that cortisol levels increase during menopause, most likely in response to menopause-related symptoms.[4] The effects of high cortisol, like increased inflammation levels, reduced sleep and anxiety, can make symptoms of perimenopause worse, thus creating a vicious cycle of stress and menopausal symptoms. 
  • Weight gain and energy levels. Elevated cortisol can also affect our thyroid hormones, which regulate our metabolism and energy levels. It can also play havoc with our blood sugar levels, as cortisol triggers the breakdown of stored glucose into the bloodstream[5], and high blood sugar levels can, over time, contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance.
  • Sleep. When working optimally, cortisol should peak just after waking, and then decline throughout the day, allowing melatonin, our sleep hormone, to rise. So when cortisol levels are high, this can have a negative effect on our sleep.[6] 

How can nutritional therapy help? 

Nutritional therapy looks at the diet and lifestyle of each individual, including stressors on the body. This includes psychological stressors, and also physiological stressors like toxic exposure, overexercise, diet, recurrent infections, and/or lack of sleep. 

The aim is to reduce these stressors as far as possible, as well as looking at foods that help to balance blood sugar levels, support adrenal health and replace nutrients that might be depleted due to high stress levels. 

Functional testing can also be a helpful tool in addressing what’s going on with cortisol – whether low or high. This usually takes the form of a urine or salivary test, which is done first thing in the morning and a few times throughout the day to see the daily rhythm of cortisol.  

Curious to find out more?

If you feel like stress is impacting your health, why not book in for a free 30-minute consultation and see how nutritional therapy might be able to help you? Just contact me here to book in.

Please note, this blog should not be taken as medical advice. If you have any health concerns, please consult a medical professional. 


  1. Espeland D, de Weerd L, Mercer JB. Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water–a continuing subject of debate. International journal of circumpolar health. 2022 Dec 31;81(1):2111789.
  2. Iguchi M, Littmann AE, Chang SH, Wester LA, Knipper JS, Shields RK. Heat stress and cardiovascular, hormonal, and heat shock proteins in humans. Journal of athletic training. 2012 Mar 1;47(2):184-90.
  3. Palomba S, Daolio J, Romeo S, Battaglia FA, Marci R, La Sala GB. Lifestyle and fertility: the influence of stress and quality of life on female fertility. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology. 2018 Dec 2;16(1):113. 
  4. Kapoor E. Menopause symptoms and the cortisol response. Menopause. 2022 Jan 1;29(1):6-7.
  5. Khani S, TAYEK JA. Cortisol increases gluconeogenesis in humans: its role in the metabolic syndrome. Clinical Science. 2001 Dec 1;101(6):739-47. 
  6. Zisapel N, Tarrasch R, Laudon M. The relationship between melatonin and cortisol rhythms: clinical implications of melatonin therapy. Drug development research. 2005 Jul;65(3):119-25.