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By Hanna Woodside
n the multitude of ways the pandemic has impacted our lives, the havoc it’s played with our hormones has perhaps been overlooked. But research covering January 2020 - March 2021 from health company Thriva, using data from 23,942 women, shows there has been a sharp rise in symptoms relating to hormonal imbalance, including increased levels of fatigue, low energy, and lack of motivation. In fact, one in three women reports symptoms connected to hormonal ill health at least once a week or more, with sleep disturbance (65%), mood changes (47%) and bloating (43%) the most common.
The likely culprit? Stress. Or specifically, the increased levels of cortisol we’ve endured over the past year, which has thrown the rest of our hormones out of whack.
“If you have chronically high cortisol because of stress, other hormones will start to be affected, because your body always prioritises stress – it’s top dog,” says Dr Mandy Leonhardt, a GP and specialist in women’s hormonal health.
One hormone, in particular, seems to have gone rogue during the pandemic: oestrogen. The overall average level of oestrogen from the women in Thriva’s data set has increased by 50% since January 2020.
Excess oestrogen levels can cause irregular periods, bloating, headaches, and difficulty sleeping.
“In fact, our data shows that oestrogen levels have now reached a new baseline,” says Thriva’s Head of Clinical Operations, Dr Sumera Shaheney. She points out that there are many potential reasons for this, but the impact of stress cannot be underestimated.
Processing the enormity of a global health crisis, with the ever-present ping, ping, ping of death figures, compounded with job fears and a terrifying loss of control is, well, a lot. So it’s hardly surprising that research from the Stress Management Society found 65% of people in the UK have felt more stressed since March 2020.
The Mental Health Foundation’s latest figures, from February 2021, show almost one in five people (18%) are still struggling to cope with pandemic-related stress (a figure which rises to 38% for those with an existing mental health condition).
For many women, this prolonged elevation in cortisol has triggered a hormonal chain reaction affecting our menstrual cycle, circadian rhythm, metabolism and sex drive. Hair loss, breakouts and mood swings are all symptomatic of a hormonal imbalance too.
“The stress response affects the hormonal body on all levels,” emphasises Leonhardt.
While it’s impossible to just ‘be less stressed’ – especially as we grapple with re-entry anxiety and a looming post-pandemic recession – if you’re hurtling towards hormonal burnout it’s time to take action.
If you suspect your hormones have gone haywire over the past year, the first step is to properly track your symptoms – in detail – for at least two months, but ideally three to six. Record physical symptoms (bloating, pain, headaches, tiredness), when/if you have a period, and emotional symptoms (anxiety, anger, depression).
“Doctors aren't magicians,” says Amy Thomson, founder of hormone tracking app Moody Month and author of Moody: A Woman’s 21st-Century Hormone Guide. “Speaking to them without any data puts you at a disadvantage. If you have the information and are able to say ‘this is a pattern’, it’s harder for them to dismiss you.”
Be armed with your symptom diary or tracking app, along with a list of the three main symptoms that are affecting you, advises Leonhardt. Depending on your symptoms your GP should administer blood work and other tests. These could include checking your thyroid function, measuring B12, Vitamin D and iron levels, a complete blood count (CBC) to rule our anaemia, or measuring sex hormones like oestrogen.
“Having your data will give you the confidence to request tests,” says Thomson. “Say: ‘I would like to have my blood work checked: what would you recommend?’”
While testing can help identify and rule out issues such as anaemia, endometriosis, and polycystic ovary syndrome, if major hormonal imbalances are caused by stress then lifestyle changes are what will make the difference. We can’t remove all the external stresses in our life – a precarious post-pandemic economy and job market, the threat of another lockdown or sudden surge in COVID cases are not things we can control. But we can help our bodies manage the effects of these stressors. That’s where the “science of self care” comes in, says Thomson.
Instead of being an indulgence, self-care gives us tools to manage our stress levels and help our hormones stay in harmony.
“Self-care techniques — breathwork, meditation, sleep hygiene, routines and rituals — help your body live in what is a very complicated, overly-stimulating world right now.
“Our bodies are not infallible; we have to respect and support the body’s internal processes,” she says. “We have immediate solutions in our arsenal that can help reduce the direct physical implications of stress. Even something as simple as playing your favourite song creates a neurological and chemical trigger that calms your nervous system and therefore reduces stress.”
Our bodies don’t need us to eliminate stress entirely to return to a more balanced hormonal state.
“You may have a stressful job but if you’re coming home to a relaxing space and walk the dog outside once a day [that is, self-care in action] then your body can cope,” says Leonhardt.
You might be tempted to start hitting the gym hard now they’ve reopened, but over-exercising can be an additional stressor if your hormones are already imbalanced. It might seem counterintuitive, as exercise is touted as a natural stress reliever “but there comes a tipping point with high-intensity exercise where it becomes stress to the body,” says Leonhardt, who recommends balancing high-intensity cardio with something like yoga.
“Reducing the amount of high-cortisol, high-adrenaline exercise you do, such as HIIT classes and running, can be a game changer,” says Thomson. “We’re told these are the ways to optimise your fitness. But for some women it can be overstimulating. A lot of fitness advice is based on a 24-hour cycle of metabolism, which is how a man’s body works. We are different.”
Before you roll your eyes, we’re not going to tell you to simply ‘eat a healthy, balanced diet’. However, reducing the three main stimulants in our diet: caffeine, sugar, alcohol will help if you’re super-stressed.
“You don’t have to cut them out altogether but during times in our life where we are overly stimulated by cortisol and adrenaline, it helps to remove additional stimulus,” says Thomson.
Your gut also has a role to play in hormone production: 40% of our serotonin — the so-called happy hormone – is created there. “Serotonin is like this internal antidote we have, we want to try to unlock it; the more you look after your gut, the more it can do what it’s meant to do,” says Thomson.
Of course, with lockdown easing ‘clean living’ doesn’t really appeal right now: we want to let loose. But if hormonal symptoms worsen, or you feel your stress levels climbing, paying attention to what you put in your body will make a difference.
“It’s not about abstaining forever, it's just about bringing down your stress levels so you can help your body naturally recover,” she adds.
Header image by Eric Kim / Flickr
Pandemic-induced stress has the power to disrupt our hormones. To be healthier and happier this year, we need to respect and care for our bodies.
By Hanna Woodside