Women are more prone to hormonal imbalances as compared to men. The Female hormonal system is complex and involves multiple hormones working in sync with each other in a perfect harmony. There is a Negative Loop Feedback Mechanism for most of hormones in the body which means when levels reaches their peak, a signal is sent to gland to shut down production until the level drops below normal. The information to and from the glands are processed via Brain. Once level is close to below normal range another stimuli is sent to gland to start producing hormones again.
Three Most primary Hormones related to Female Hormonal Health
Cortisol is considered the most important hormone with thyroid at second number & estrogen being the least among these 3 because you can survive even if you don’t ovulate.
PART 1: CORTISOL
Cortisol is the most misunderstood hormone of all time. Cortisol is known as Stress Hormone and in produced by Adrenal Glands placed on top of both kidneys. Main Functions of Cortisol are as displayed in picture.
- How our body respond to Danger or threat? – When our body perceives that we are in danger or some kind of threat, it goes into flight and fight response releasing cortisol and other hormones like adrenaline and nor adrenaline. All of them prepare our body to deal with that threat by increasing blood flow to muscles either for running or fight, pupil dilates, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, breathing tract expands for more air intake, blood sugar levels rises, digestion stop, defecation or urination happens sometimes to empty the bladder so that you can run faster, reflexes inverses, cognition and coordination improve, fertility is of no use at that time. This is a normal response to acute danger or threat for survival. This is the reason why stressed individuals are prone to digestive and immunity issues.
- How or Body deal with low sugar or when we are in fasted state? – When blood sugar level drops due to fasting or blood sugar dysregulation body releases cortisol. Cortisol function is the to regulate blood sugar by process known as Gluconeogeneis (form glucose from other resources such as muscle tissue) or converting stored glycogen in muscles or liver to glucose. Glucose is required for optimal functioning of brain and other organs. That’s why people on extended fasting along with excessive cardio lose considerable muscle mass.
- Why Cortisol is important to recover from Injuries and Inflammation? – When you get injured there is an inflammatory response which is actually a protective measure to prevent further damage to the body. Cortisol is anti inflammatory switch to turn it off once the job is done. Thats the reason why people with low cortisol have difficult time recovering from injuries and when their injuries take long time to heal doctors prescribe corticstrioid drugs like prednisolone or cortisone injection to speed up healing and lower inflammation.
- How Cortisol plays role in memory and cognition? – Cortisol is released in a pattern during the day with its level rising early in morning, hence increasing glucose levels even when you are in fasted state and supplying it to brain so that you wake up and get ready for the day. It then reaches peak around noon when your memory & cognition is highest and then gradually it starts declining after 4pm steadily with its levels minimum at night so that you can unwind and ready for sleep. The people having having irregular sleep and wake pattern or who have excess caffeine disrupt this normal cortisol curve pattern affecting cognition and memory considerably.
How Cortisol affect Female Hormones considerably? – The Cholesterol is precursor to all Sex Hormones. The first hormone made from cholesterol in hormone continuum is Pregnenolone which then either is converted to DHEA or Progesterone and so on further to different sex hormones as depicted in image here. If the Pregnenolone gets shuttled towards cortisol production it affects the production of DHEA and Progesterone. Low progesterone can cause infertility, poor sleep & irregular cycle. Higher cortisol blocks the progesterone cell receptors making it unavailable for attachment to other hormones. In test doctor will see normal progesterone levels but the sign of low progesterone will be present and you have difficulty calming down or getting pregnant because of excessive cortisol production.
Body’s adaptation to Stress – During normal stressful situation your body releases cortisol and once the requirement is met the levels return to normal but when you are constantly under stress gradually it get into a phase of highs and lows alternatively in random fashion. If this issues goes chronic and unaddressed the adrenal gland give up which then ultimately lead to declined adrenal function which is known as Adrenal fatigue (constant low levels of cortisol). So practically there are two conditions related to Cortisol levels: High Cortisol & Low Cortisol
Reasons for Cortisol Dysregulation (High/Low)
- High Sugar or High Carbohydrate diet
- Trans fat and processed foods
- Excessive Caffeine and/or alcohol consumption
- Excessive exercise or overtraining
- Mental or emotional trauma
- Sleep disturbance
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Kidney or liver disease
- Autoimmune Disorders
- Adrenal Fatigue
- Insulin Resistance
- Low calorie diet for extended period
Various conditions and symptoms associated with High Cortisol in Females
- Metabolic disorders – High Fat accumulation around belly, metabolic syndrome, increased fasting glucose. high triglycerides, insulin resistance, diabetes, high blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular disease
- Mood disorders – Depression, anxiety, irritability, poor coordination and cognition, memory decline, wired and stressed feeling
- Sleep disorders – Insomnia, difficulty falling sleep or staying asleep, abnormal wake and sleep cycle, unable to calm down
- Infertility, PCOS, bone loss, muscle loss, skin thinning, ageing,
Ways to lower Elevated Cortisol levels
- Lifestyle – I think Lifestyle has biggest impact on lowering the cortisol levels alone. It is number one factor if changed or improved help you to lower your elevated cortisol considerably. It includes managing your sleep and wake cycle, exposure to sun, avoiding bright lights from phone or TV screens after 8-9pm, avoiding horror or thriller movies at night, eating mindfully and chewing properly, incorporating nose breathing, yoga, OM chanting, guided relaxation meditation, acupuncture for releasing stress or massage. You can choose any of these 3-4 techniques to incorporate it on daily basis.
- Nutrition – Nutrition is important when you are already going through stress. Actually under stress your Serotonin levels deplete faster so you crave for foods rich in sugar or carbs to boost it temporarily. This is like a trap and you end up having blood sugar dysregulation and then overtime insulin resistance. Avoid falling into this trap by adding more healthy fats like seeds, nuts and avocados rather than opting for sugar, refined carbs or caffeine. Add more leafy vegetables, salads, whole grains, nuts, seeds and adequate protein to your diet and eat your meals on time. Alcohol also depletes serotonin and causes many mineral and nutrient deficiencies and act as pro inflammatory substance.
- GUT – Optimise your GUT by removing any fungal, viral or bacterial infections, restoring intestinal flora, removing any sensitive foods and treating leaky gut as these factors can increase inflammation and antibodies load which in turn increases stress and hence cortisol.
- Supplements – Certain nutrients and herbs especially have property to reduce the elevated levels of Cortisol like Vitamin C, B5, Phosphatidylserine, fish oil, L-theanine, Ashwagndha, holy basil, magnesium, melatonin and glycine.