Stress is not entirely bad, stress is a normal part of life and we are built to handle it. Some stress is good for us. However, too much, over a long period can cause harm to our physical and mental health.
It can be a vicious circle – stress can lead to poor sleep and poor sleep can lead to stress. This is why we consider stress and sleep two of the key things to tackle at this stage in our lives.
“We don’t always understand how much every day events of life can build up and cause significant damage to our bodies and minds.”
At this time in our lives we have a lot to deal with – work, kids, relationships, kids leaving home, ageing parents, teenagers, social media, email, internet, hot flashes, fatigue, our changing bodies etc. It’s no wonder we’re so exhausted.
Symptoms of stress
So what are the symptoms that warn you, you may be struggling with stress:
- Inability to concentrate
- Memory difficulties
- Brain fog
- Muscle aches and pains
- Having a short fuse
- Lack of motivation
- Change in eating habits – eating a lot more or a lot less than normal
These are also symptoms associated with the menopause but stress could be the cause. If you manage your stress you will also be managing your menopause.
Cortisol, Adrenaline & the Stress Response
When you encounter a perceived threat — someone chasing you, for example — your brain sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.
Cortisol is considered the body’s primary stress hormone. You need cortisol for several major body processes to function normally. It’s integral to blood sugar regulation, proper immune function, blood pressure, and the metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates.
But cortisol also puts the brakes on bodily functions that would be considered non-essential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters your immune system responses and suppresses your digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes. This complex inbuilt alarm system also communicates with parts of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
All of this makes sense. Why would your body worry about ridding itself of the common cold when you’ve got a lion chasing you?
Once a perceived threat has passed, your hormone levels return to normal.
But this entire system gets messed up when your body is bombarded with chronic levels of stress over a long time.
Why Stress Causes Sleep problems
When you are exposed to higher levels of stress over a period of several months (or for many people, years), your body produces too much cortisol. Chronically high cortisol levels can cause sleep problems, as well as depressed immune response, blood sugar abnormalities, and abdominal weight gain.
Your cortisol levels should rise and fall at different parts of the day. And they should be at their highest in the morning, when it’s time for you to wake up. Your cortisol levels taper off as the day goes on, and by night time they should be at their lowest, preparing you for a good night’s rest. But if your cortisol is chronically elevated, it makes it very difficult for you to sleep. In fact, research has demonstrated 45% more cortisol in the bloodstream of those who experience sleep deprivation.
Stress Causes Weight Gain
It doesn’t even matter if you usually eat well and exercise. Chronic high stress can prevent you from losing weight. It can even cause you to add extra pounds. There are more cortisol receptors in your abdominal fat cells than anywhere else in your body. This explains why when cortisol levels are consistently high, it becomes easy to store around your abdominals.
Stress Leads to Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal Fatigue is something that happens a couple steps beyond having chronically high cortisol. It’s what you’ll likely end up with if you don’t manage your stress and get your cortisol levels under control. When your adrenals are overworked over time, your system is out of sync, causing all sorts of issues.
Alcohol and Stress
It’s very easy for us to turn to alcohol as a ‘stress management’ tool it’s easy to fall into this habit if you’re feeling stressed, depressed, or lacking in drive, motivation and confidence.
Regular alcohol consumption has been proven to raise cortisol levels, which as you know promotes weight gain, especially around the stomach. This is not to say you should never have an alcoholic drink in the evening. A glass of wine in the evening or a cold beer on a hot day is one of life’s pleasures.
You should note that alcohol does allow healthy people to fall asleep more quickly and to sleep more deeply for a while. But it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the kind of sleep that your body needs to feel rested. That’s why you feel tired, lethargic and sleepy, and why you have more difficulty concentrating the day after drinking.
If you do decide to cut down, or to take a break from alcohol entirely while tackling your symptoms then you might find your insomnia gets worse before it gets better. This is especially true if you’re used to drinking alcohol at night and you suddenly stop. Don’t worry, your sleep will get back to normal very soon. And you’ll feel much better too.
Caffeine and Stress
It’s true that caffeine boosts your energy, at least for a little while. It does this by blocking sleep-inducing chemicals in your brain, and by increasing your production of adrenaline.
Caffeine also increases dopamine levels (in the same way that amphetamines do). Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that activates the pleasure centres in certain parts of your brain. The dopamine connection is suspected to be the reason behind caffeine addiction.
When your stress hormones become chronically elevated due to all the things we’ve discussed above, adding caffeine or coffee to the mix further increases your cortisol levels — as well as adrenaline, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Remember that this increase is over and above the increased levels already observed under mental exertion, intensifying your body’s own stress response. And this elevation is present even hours after caffeine consumption.
When you depend on caffeine on a regular, long term basis to wake yourself up and kick start your day, then your stress levels, your sleep and your weight will suffer.
If you’ve ever tried to cut caffeine, you’ve probably experienced mild to severe withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, irritability, concentration problems, and sometimes even flu like symptoms like nausea, muscle aches, and vomiting. This is normal, so don’t be alarmed if you’re used to lots of caffeine you may find going cold turkey does this to you. It will pass.
And remember, limiting caffeine doesn’t mean you have to remove it entirely.
A moderate amount of caffeine, consumed at the right times, can be useful and even considered healthy, stimulating alertness and energy. But if you’re using caffeine as a crutch every time you need an energy boost or a pick-me-up, it’s only going to make your situation worse.
How do women going through the menopause balance everything that’s going on in their life alongside their menopause symptoms?
We often hide it. This means we limit our focus to only the essentials. We might be able to keep going at work but completely let go of our social lives and leave the things that feed our passion and bring us joy. Now is the time for us to be a little selfish. What do we need? What do we want out of life?
“… the perimenopausal lifting of the hormonal veil – the monthly cycle of reproductive hormones that tends to keep us focused on the needs and feelings of others – can be both liberating and unsettling” Dr. Christine Northrup
We need to make time for ourselves. Now is the time for real self-care. This doesn’t just mean just taking a hot bath or having a massage, although these are important. There is great article by Brianna West which I highly recommend ready.
Here are some things to think about:
- Establish our list of stressors – how do we tackle, remove or accept these?
- Brainstorm solutions, evaluate and decide on the best options
- Reduce alcohol and caffeine
- Add gentle exercise every day
- Practice yoga, meditation or breathing exercises daily – find what works for you
- Take a vitamin B complex supplement
- Set up a quiet uncluttered space for you to relax
- Try daily journaling – let everything out onto paper
- Ask for help
- Take a break from social media
- Be honest about how our lives are going – what would we change and why?
- Make a plan and take action – if you want things to be different you have to make changes.
I cannot “stress” enough how important it is to look at the stress in your life and to take action. If you’re not sure where to start, look out for our 10-day stress buster challenge.