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By Alex Allan on 16/08/23 | Stress

Stress and Cortisol as Drivers of PCOS

While hormonal imbalances are frequently discussed in the context of PCOS, there's an underlying factor that may be contributing more than you realize: stress and its associated hormone, cortisol. 

Research shows that stress is emerging as a significant player in driving PCOS, potentially exacerbating symptoms and influencing hormonal imbalances. Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to perceived threats. While cortisol serves a vital role in the body's fight-or-flight response, chronic stress can lead to dysregulation, impacting various systems and possibly contributing to the development and progression of PCOS.

Stress-Related Signs of PCOS

Here are some tell-tale signs that stress and cortisol may be exacerbating your PCOS:

  • Irregular Menstrual Cycles: Chronic stress can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones responsible for menstrual regulation, leading to irregular periods commonly seen in PCOS.
  • Elevated Androgens: Stress-induced cortisol fluctuations may influence the production of androgens, further exacerbating the hormonal imbalances inherent in PCOS.
  • Insulin Resistance: Cortisol can promote insulin resistance, a hallmark of PCOS that can worsen with chronic stress.
  • Weight Management Challenges: Stress-driven hormonal changes can impact appetite regulation, potentially leading to weight gain or difficulty in losing weight.
  • Mood Fluctuations: Chronic stress can contribute to mood swings, anxiety, and depression – all of which are prevalent in individuals with PCOS.

How does cortisol affect our hormones?

While cortisol does not directly impact the production of female sex hormones, such as oestrogen and progesterone, it can indirectly influence the balance of these hormones through its interactions with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis.

Here's how cortisol can affect the female sex hormone balance:

HPA Axis Interaction: The HPA axis, which controls the stress response, involves the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels can disrupt the HPA axis and lead to dysregulation of other hormonal systems, including the HPG (hypothalamus-pituitary-gonad) axis responsible for regulating sex hormones.

Disruption of Menstrual Cycle: High levels of chronic stress and cortisol can lead to irregular menstrual cycles or even amenorrhea (absence of menstrual periods) in some women. This disruption in the menstrual cycle can impact the balance of oestrogen and progesterone, which are essential for normal reproductive function.

Impaired Ovulation: Cortisol can affect the production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), a hormone that triggers the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). These hormones are crucial for ovulation and the regulation of the menstrual cycle. Disruptions in the GnRH-LH-FSH pathway due to stress and cortisol can lead to anovulation (lack of ovulation) and hormonal imbalances.

Insulin Resistance: Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels can contribute to insulin resistance, a condition where the body's cells become less responsive to insulin. Insulin resistance is often associated with PCOS.

Progesterone Production: Stress and cortisol can also affect the production of progesterone, a hormone that is important for maintaining pregnancy and regulating the menstrual cycle. Chronic stress may lead to inadequate progesterone levels, which can impact fertility and menstrual regularity.

Managing Stress for PCOS Wellbeing

Acknowledging the influence of stress and cortisol on PCOS opens the door to a better way of dealing with it. Strategies to help decrease stress and promote cortisol balance can play a pivotal role in alleviating symptoms:

  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques can help regulate stress hormones and promote relaxation.
  • Regular Physical Activity: Engaging in regular exercise can reduce stress, improve mood, and support hormonal balance.
  • Adequate Sleep: Prioritize quality sleep, as sleep deprivation can contribute to stress and exacerbate PCOS symptoms.
  • Stress-Reduction Techniques: Explore stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, or aromatherapy to promote relaxation.
  • Support Network: Building a strong support network and seeking professional guidance can provide valuable tools for managing stress.

By addressing stress through changes in lifestyle, implementing regular stress-reduction techniques, and a supportive network, women with PCOS can take steps towards restoring hormonal balance, alleviating symptoms, and enhancing overall quality of life. Remember, stress management isn't just a nice add-on to PCOS management – it's essential.

If you’d like to chat to us about how stress might be affecting your PCOS symptoms, why not book in a free call? You can book it by clicking here.

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