Stress directly affects the amount of progesterone our body makes. The more stressed we are, the less progesterone we are able to make. This can lead to some unwanted side effects such as weight gain, mood swings, irregular menstrual cycle (and in some cases, even lack of a period) and breast tenderness.
Increased stress levels for a lengthened period of time leads to increased levels of cortisol and other stress hormones that are made by the adrenal glands. When our adrenals are continuously producing these hormones, they are unable to produce other hormones. We are also prone to some adrenal fatigue.
So, what can we do, naturally to help with stress?
While stress is a part of our everyday lives, there are some things that we can put into place regularly to help reduce the effects of stress.
- Meditation – meditation has been linked to reduced rates of stress (1). Try different types of meditation. Guided meditation for specific concerns such as sleep or weight loss can be helpful.
- Yoga – this can be another great form of mediation, as well as moving your body for stress relief.
- Breathing exercises – There are many different breathing techniques to try – belly breathing, nostril breathing, deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – this relieves tension in muscles by tensing specific muscle groups and then relaxing them. Find out more here.
- Vigorous exercise– cardiovascular exercise can be a great stress relief, promoting the release of endorphins, reducing pain and boosting pleasure, which results in a feeling of wellbeing.
- Relaxing exercise such as yoga, gentle swimming or walking can help reduce physical and mental stress.
- Sleep – make sure to get adequate sleep. The Sleep Health Foundation recommends 7-9 hours’ sleep each night for adults aged 26-64 years and 7-8 hours for adults over 65 years.
- Pamper yourself – go for a massage, pedicure, or coffee with friends, for example. If money is a factor, pamper yourself at home (set up a home spa to pamper yourself at home).
- Spend time in green space – spending time in nature has been linked with improved mental health (2). Do this by spending your lunchbreak in a park, go for a bushwalk, exercise in a park or by a river, lake or beach.
Remember whatever form of relaxation you like, do it regularly. The more you practice, the better you will be at reducing stress.
There are a few dietary changes that we can make to help stress.
- Eat regularly – When we are a stressed and busy, our brains are using a lot of glucose, so it is important to eat regularly.
- Eat well – eating a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and whole foods will provide a variety of nutrients to help the body cope with stress. Try to avoid processed foods with added preservative, chemicals and sugar.
- Reduce the caffeine – caffeine can increase blood pressure, which is already running high during times of stress. It can also affect the adrenal glands, which in turn impacts the way we respond to stress as well as hormone production.
- Reduce alcohol – alcohol reduces progesterone, and thus reduces the calming effect that progesterone has in our brains.
- Eat slowly – stress can affect digestion, so making sure that you take the time to eat and eat mindfully will help to digest and absorb the nutrients you need to cope with the stress.
- Keep your immune system healthy – when stressed, our immune systems can be depleted. Eat immune-boosting foods to help prevent effects of stress on your immune health.
There are also specific nutrients that can help when we are stressed. What are they and what foods are they found in?
- Complex carbohydrates to help with energy production:
- Whole grains
- Omega-3’s to support brain function and to help relieve the effects of stress:
- Nuts and seeds (hemp seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts give the biggest bang for your buck)
- Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines
- Magnesium is excreted in large amounts in our urine when we are stressed. It also helps with muscle relaxation:
- Brazil nuts, cashews, almonds and hazelnuts
- Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, chard, kale
- Whole grains such as quinoa, bran and wheatgerm
- Cocoa or cacao
- B vitamins to support healthy function of the nervous system as well as energy production:
- Whole grains (brown rice, barley, millet)
- Meat (red meat, poultry, fish)
- Dairy products and eggs
- Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
- Dark leafy green vegetables (broccoli, spinach
- Fruit (citrus fruits, bananas, avocados)
- Tryptophan is used to make serotonin, the feel-good chemical in the body:
- Milk and cheese
- Pumpkin and sesame seeds
- Tyrosine is used to make noradrenaline:
- Red meat, pork, fish, chicken
- Dairy products (milk & ricotta)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Resveratrol helps to calms the brain and produce serotonin:
- Red wine
- Some berries (blueberries, strawberries, mulberries and cranberries)
- Theanine has a calming effect on the brain:
- Green tea
- Selenium supports healthy adrenal gland function:
- organ meats (such as liver)
- Brazil nuts and some vegetables, depending on the amount of selenium in the soil that they are grown in
- Vitamin E works with selenium to support healthy adrenal gland function:
- nuts and seeds
There are a number of things that can be done naturally to help reduce the effects of stress. Include regular relaxing activities to help reduce stress levels, as well as eating a healthy diet with a wide variety of nutrients.
- Sharma M & Rush S, 2015, ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a Stress Management Intervention for Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review’, Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, Vol. 19(4) 271-286, viewed on 23 January 2021 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2156587214543143
- Barton J & Rogerson M, 2017, ‘The importance of greenspace for mental health’, BJPych International, 14(4): 79–81, viewed on 23 January 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5663018/
Singh K, 2016, ‘Nutrient and Stress Management’, Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences, 6:4, viewed on 23 January 2021, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/306007566_Nutrient_and_Stress_Management