What Stress Looks Like For Women – The Big Picture

February 24, 2014

This blog is the big picture, grand scheme, what every-woman-should-know blog.

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing here on the effect stress has on women – they will get more in depth and a bit more science-y as they go on.

You know stress is bad – causing everything from heart attacks to grey hairs – but in our culture of busy-ness, stressed out is how most of us feel more often than not.

You probably have far too many evenings that look like this: meet your girlfriends for a quick catch-up OR pick up your kids (or both!), workout, stop at the dry cleaners, pay a few bills, watch your favorite TV show, get a pedicure, shop for and cook a healthy dinner – all within 2 hours. Besides feeling anxious or frazzled, you may not know the toll stress is taking on you.

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Stress can mean chronic cortisol release (cortisol is your main stress hormone, secreted from the adrenal glands) or it can mean you’re not even able to continually release cortisol anymore and you’re relying on short term bursts of adrenaline to fuel your frenzied life.

You probably have symptoms caused by stress – and you may not even realize it. We often “feel stressed” but we shrug it off and power through. Let’s really take a look at the toll stress is taking on us.

Sleep & Energy

Sleep is one of the first dominoes to fall with stress. Cortisol has a normal 24 hour rhythm where it should be highest around 5am and gently, slowly, taper throughout the day to be lowest at bedtime. (Note: Melatonin has the exact opposite rhythm, see this blog for more info.)


When you’ve been stressed it can be anywhere other than normal: high or very low in the morning, sporadically high or low throughout the day, or even spike up at night. This puts your energy all over the map and can leave you craving sugar, starches or caffeine to feel “normal”.

This sporadic output is what we see on our way to what is commonly called “adrenal fatigue” (overall low cortisol and low DHEA) as the brain loses coordination with the adrenal glands (not so much a tired adrenal gland as a stressed coordinated system between the brain and adrenal gland).

If you have been stressed for a while, your cortisol can be low overall or particularly low in this middle of the night and in the morning.

When cortisol is in low supply during the night you’ll often find yourself waking (possibly hungry, anxious or just plain wide awake) because you’ve had to rely on adrenaline to get your blood sugar up during the night and you’re unable to fall back asleep easily. You could also wake with low energy and often low appetite (particularly for protein) in the morning and thinking, “Pass the bagels please! When your cortisol is too high at night you feel “wired and tired”.

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You’re exhausted but your mind races and you can’t fall asleep. You wake up tired (and possibly achy) and looking for caffeine and simple carbs. Any type of adrenal dysregulation can leave you feel exhausted the next day and your cravings on full tilt.

But always keep in mind that the most common clinical thing seen is not so much that you’re overall too high or overall too low in cortisol. It’s much more common to see times of high and times of low throughout the day.


Stress is both a cause and effect of blood sugar swings – and thus cravings. With blood sugar all over the map you’ll have a very difficult time keeping your appetite, cravings and energy level and you’ll be reaching for food to make you feel better.

Cortisol (gets your blood sugar up) and insulin (gets your blood sugar down) play a constant tug of war all day. When either is out of balance your cravings will be all over the map and you’ll be frustrated at your lack of willpower to abstain.

You’re not weak, your chemistry is whacked! More on these hormones and blood sugar here and here.

Period Drama

Cortisol and your sex hormones (i.e. estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) all come from precursor hormones: DHEA and pregnenolone.

When you’re under stress, resources are shunted to cortisol and we see the mess that is low progesterone: the cycle gets longer and the PMS gets gnarly.

If you also have insulin issues (like us ladies with PCOS) you’ll also start to see low progesterone-high testosterone symptoms including breakouts and hair trouble (coarser, darker hair growth in unwanted places and loss of hair on your head).

Feelin’ Fluffy

You’ve heard by now that stress plays a role in fat gain.

You may not know however that short bursts of cortisol actually help burn fat.

Trouble is lots of cortisol PLUS lots of insulin – this is how you get lots of fat storage (particularly at the waist). There’s lots of insulin hanging around if you’re over eating carbs such as those sugary, starchy treats you crave when you’re stressed out. Not fair is it? In addition to the insulin issues, cortisol also throws off several hormones that help you regulate your appetite.

Now you’ve got a perfect storm for more cravings and difficulty controlling what you eat. If you are insulin resistant, this will all be more exaggerated in you because your blood sugar control is already compromised. Again, not fair huh?? (More on fat loss and unfairness here.)

And it doesn’t stop there…

Stress will put a lot of pressure on your thyroid and if you have Hashimoto’s (upwards of 90% of hypothyroidism in the US is caused by this mechanism), those blood sugar swings cause a surge of inflammation making your immune system go nuts and worsen the attack on the thyroid gland.

High cortisol also increases loss of the most important thyroid hormone, T3, into a useless form called reverse T3 (inflammation does this too, double whammy for Hashimoto’s).

As if that wasn’t enough, high cortisol will literally degrade your intestinal lining causing you to have more food allergies/sensitivities, more digestive upset and more gas and bloating.

Now that I’ve totally stressed you out about stressing out, relax, in this post I’ll cover some stresses you may not realize are going on and what you can do about it!

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