High levels of stress can mess with your hormones at any age — and badly. In particular, how does stress level affect a woman’s hormones as she ages?
A caveat to begin with: stress isn’t always a bad thing. It is generated in our brain as part of the most important survival response.
Survival is our brain’s most powerful driving force, period. Stress alters most vital systems in our body. It causes many diseases, makes us age faster and can even damage our genes. Therefore, it will affect the hormones in several ways.
Stress management is the only thing women can do to help balance their hormones as they age.
Stress and the aging process
Aging often brings additional stress as it builds up over time.
The stressful experiences in our life accumulate if we don’t regularly do something about them. This accumulated stress can lead to all kinds of health problems in addition to the changes associated with menopause.
Menopause brings its share of hardships for some women. Others have smoother transitions. But after menopause, the permanent changes can lead to significant stress, especially if you’re in a relationship with a man.
Your estrogen will be lower and your testosterone relatively higher. In some ways you will react a little more “masculine”. You may be a little less emotionally available and more assertive.
And that’s just when your man’s testosterone has been dropping over the years and he wants a warmer emotional connection.
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Decreased libido and stress
Less subtle will be the other experiences that many couples have after menopause. She is less interested in sex or even men in general. She may have vaginal dryness and pain when she is with him. At the same time, he wants more comfort with sex, but his libido may have decreased as well.
The couple becomes confused and deeply frustrated or angry. Stress levels are rising in their home. This will further mess up their hormones and make things worse in a vicious cycle.
Yet reducing your stress will allow you to think clearly and act more successfully. Therefore, managing stress at these life stages can bring many benefits to your relationship, your well-being, and your health.
And beyond the particular ordeals of menopause, what can you do on a daily basis to ward off stress? What can you do to age gracefully from a stress management perspective?
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Two essential elements of stress management
Genetics and neuroscience tell us that our bodies and brains are still 99% the same as they were in the Stone Age. Our genes change that slowly. Thinking about it this way is surely new and a bit strange for us. To be honest, it took me a few years of research to figure it out.
Two essential elements of stress management are food choices and the movement of our bodies.
What we eat affects stress levels
Our ancestors did not have refrigerators full of prepared foods. Three full meals a day is just a very recent invention. Our body was never built for this. And most importantly, it was never designed for dieting by eating three small meals a day.
Eating small meals tricks our Stone Age brain into thinking we’re starving for food. Then it will make us eat more and store more fat.
But our bodies are built to eat one decent meal a day – or maybe two. Anything else will stress our metabolism and mess up our hormones.
Also, there was no sugar back then. Sugar seriously stresses the metabolism and hormonal system. It will be difficult at first, but learn to completely eliminate sugar and sweets from your home.
What to do: Eat good protein meals with healthy fats and lots of vegetables. Protein will help reduce sugar cravings immediately. And minimize processed foods because they contain so many chemicals, including sugar and artificial sweeteners, which are worse.
You may also want to explore intermittent fasting, which helps stabilize hormonal systems and has many other health benefits. Always consult your doctor before making any major dietary changes.
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Get up and move to manage stress
For millions of years our bodies and brains have been perfected for movement.
Sitting for long periods of time is unnatural for us. Our body does not adapt well to it. Our current civilization challenges our physiology, especially combined with too much food in developed countries.
Muscles, tendons and bones tend to weaken due to a sedentary lifestyle. Heart health and circulation languish. Unused energy is stored as fat and our organs are overloaded. This opens the door to all sorts of dysfunctions and diseases, including the imbalance of hormones.
Regular and frequent short breaks from movement during work and at home will help balance things out. More intense bursts of exercise will recreate the experience of hunt, fight or flight and strengthen muscles, organs and mind. Strength training in particular will strengthen your hormonal systems and help you age gracefully.
If you don’t move much and now decide to exercise regularly, start slowly to avoid injury. The secret is to be gentle with yourself. Constantly try a little more. Never give up. Your hormones and all your organs will thank you.
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Other factors that influence stress levels
One of the main predictors of longevity and healthy aging is being in the community. Again, it is our primary need to be part of a group, tribe or clan. We could never have survived otherwise.
Access and exposure to nature and art can also reduce stress. In ancient times, we lived in nature. Therefore, it has a powerful effect on our nervous system. Go out with friends and join an outdoor activity club.
You can also find deep peace and release stress by sitting in front of a large painting and meditating on it for half an hour or more. Others get similar benefits from immersing themselves in good music.
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Genetic implications of aging and stress
Don’t think you are imprisoned by your genes. When hormonal problems or any other health problems arise in your family, do not be discouraged.
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Family history can influence your ability to handle stress and balance your hormones in two ways.
First, you may be affected epigenetically. It means through acquired habits and traditions. So it’s not genetics but an established family behavior, for example, being very outspoken and “face-to-face”.
This could intensify aggression and anger and lead to spikes in stress hormones. This can lower your estrogen and make you look less feminine in this example.
Frequent high stress can also lead to higher blood pressure.
A genetic trait passed down in a family could be genes for high blood pressure. Offspring who inherit the gene then tend to have this problem. This in turn can cause more stress, which affects the estrogen-testosterone balance.
Situations like this are not easy for you and professional medical help may be essential. But a systematic and consistent program to manage the stress involved can and will make a positive difference.
Although we cannot yet modify our genes, gene expression is something we can influence. However, more commitment to regular effort will be needed.
The one thing that will always help you be stronger and healthier is managing your daily stress. Perseverance will make you succeed beyond expectations.
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Fritz George Sauer, MS, is a scientific stress management expert and coach, author, business leader, and experienced consultant. In his work, he shows how much more destructive stress is to personal and professional life than is generally thought.