Over the last few decades, women's lives have been increasing in demands and responsibilities. Modern-day women can be found working a full-time job while also running a household. With work-from-home jobs expanding over the last few years, these situations are ever present. The American Psychological Association states that women are more likely than men to report and experience symptoms of stress due to the demands it places on the body.
What is Stress?
Your body has a physiological response to daily experiences, which is what we call stress. Whether it's external stress like losing a loved one or internal stress like working muscles during exercise, our bodies will have an inward response. While there is positive stress on the body, like physical movement, there are also acute events and compounded life experiences that can produce negative stress responses. With these significant or minimal stressors, your body may respond undesirably, causing a manifestation of mental, emotional, or physical symptoms.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress manifests in various presentations from person to person. Here are some common red flags to be mindful of:
- Low energy
- Lack of focus
- The feeling of not having control
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of interest
- Low libido
- Skin related issues-hive and rashes
- Upset stomach
- Pain, including neck and shoulders
- Substance abuse
- Easily angered or emotionally triggered
- Overeating or diminished eating
How Does Stress Affect Women's Health?
Over time, stress can have a profound effect on your health. Research and clinical experience have shown that women are disproportionately impacted by acute and chronic stressors. Here are some common conditions associated with this rising health concern:
Enduring stress can impact how we think and feel, which can often contribute to depression. Both chronic and acute stress have been studied and found to be a predictor in the diagnosis of major depressive episodes (MDE). It was determined that among the 816 women in the study, compounded acute stress leading to chronic stress was strongly associated with depression.
Suppressed Immune System
Stress is not all so bad when it comes to immune function. Our bodies need a low-level stress response to stimulate protective mechanisms. Short-term physiological stress during an illness activates immune cells such as dendritic cells, macrophages, and neutrophils to do their job. This process is vital in order for our body to fight off an infection. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is harmful to the immune system. After the initial acute activation, perpetual stress will cause inflammation and suppression in both innate and adaptive immunity. This makes it harder for you to overcome infections and increases your susceptibility.
Women account for about 80% of diagnosed autoimmune conditions. One contributing factor is stress. Autoimmune conditions like Hashimotos, Lupus, and Rheumatoid Arthritis are a few prime examples of women-dominant autoimmune conditions, all linked to physiological stress.
Anatomically, there are more complaints in the GI tract of women in comparison to men. Women tend to have slower food emptying time in the stomach and evacuation from the colon. These slowed-down processes, combined with stress, can lead to or exacerbate conditions like IBS and gut dysbiosis.
Excess stress leads to increased cortisol, which oftentimes inhibits metabolic health and weight loss. Dysregulation in the stress hormone cortisol can lead to increased calorie consumption by increasing cravings and becoming a coping mechanism to deal with life stressors.
Chronic physical and emotional stress has been known to cause dysregulation in sex hormones which can throw off the natural ebb and flow of a woman's cycle. Stress has been clinically shown to be a contributing factor to Dysmenorrhea, the severity of Menopause, and Low Libido.
A study looking at stress markers in connection to fertility found a correlation between high-stress marker levels and difficulty conceiving. This research found that women with high levels of the stress enzyme alpha-amalyase took 29% longer to get pregnant than their non-concerning stress cohort. Addressing stress as a component of infertility is highly recommended in supporting your odds of conceiving.
Functional Medicine Labs For Women Under Stress
A Complete Blood Count with Differential (CBC) will assess the health of your blood. It looks are red blood cells, blood cell counts, and white blood cells. Since stress can impact immune function and increase susceptibility to infection and autoimmunity, routine CBCs are warranted if chronic stress is present in your life.
C-Reacive Protein (CRP) and Sedimentation Rate (ESR) are two labs by Access Medical Laboratories that can be used as screening tools for inflammation in the body. CRP can be indicative of infections and inflammatory-based conditions such as autoimmunity, arthritis, and gut inflammation.
This is the most commonly used marker for stress. Cortisol can be measured through the blood as a one-time snapshot but is best evaluated for chronic stress by doing a Diurnal Salivary Cortisol test like ZRT Laboratory offers. This test requires four salivary collections throughout the day, which will then be evaluated to provide insight into cortisol levels throughout the day.
The DUTCH Complete by Precision Analytical is an excellent testing option for assessing hormones and metabolites in conjunction with cortisol patterns. This is a helpful option to see if hormone dysfunction directly correlates to a stress response.
Obtaining a full Thyroid Panel from Vibrant America would help determine if your symptoms are connected to thyroid hormones or autoimmune markers related to the thyroid gland. Ruling this out as a causation of progressive stress or a result of chronic stress will aid in a treatment plan.
Nutrition for Stress Relief
Taking an integrative nutrition approach would be the most ideal way to approach a stress-reduction nutrition protocol. As a general consensus, most women would benefit from maintaining an anti-inflammatory diet like the Mediterranean Diet. Formulating a nutrition plan with your holistic doctor is key to having long-lasting effects. It's also important to implement manageable goals around nutrition, which will not increase your stress due to time constraints, meal prepping, or being too restrictive.
Botanical Medicine for Stress Relief
As a naturopathic doctor, I find adaptogenic herbs to be fundamental in supporting the body's ability to manage stress. While stressors are ever present, plants like Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and Asian Ginseng can modulate cortisol levels and support you during stressful times.
Melissa officinalis, commonly known as Lemon balm is a great nervine plant that can be used as an herbal tea or tincture to help calm the nervous system, promote sleep, and decrease stress.
Nutrient Therapy for Stress Relief
Nutrient support to the HPA axis, which controls cortisol output, is important to consider. One of the key vitamins that support adrenal gland health is Vitamin C. Supporting the levels of Vitamin C can potentially help regulate the stress response in relation to cortisol release. This vitamin, along with Glutathione, the master antioxidant, can help reduce oxidative stress oftentimes correlated to chronic stress.
Yoga for Stress Relief
Amongst the many physical benefits of Yoga, it has also proven to be beneficial in reducing cortisol and how the body processes stress. A meta-analysis on yoga and mindfulness-based stress reductions revealed that yoga practices that include asanas were associated with improved sympathetic nervous system regulation and HPA axis function.
Integrative Therapy for Stress Relief
EMDR (Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy has evidence-based results in treatment for PTSD. One recent clinical trial has also shown positive outcomes in the use of EMDR with Behavioral Therapy as a stress management technique. In a study of 87 adults (9 men and 78 women), therapy was intended to support internal responses when participants faced perceived stressors. Outcomes revealed that 92% of the participants benefited from the stress management technique in the trial.
With increased stress-induced health concerns, it's important to assess how internal and external stressful experiences impact your well-being. Taking inventory of what triggers a physical, mental, or emotional response and how often that is happening is a simple way to determine if professional guidance or evaluation is necessary. If you're feeling multiple symptoms of stress, such as headaches, fatigue, inability to focus, or more, it is best to seek care with a holistic practitioner that will assist you in determining the root cause and your next steps toward health. Providing your body with the right tools to adapt to life's stressors could prevent chronic issues and assist in managing everyday experiences.
Lab Tests in This Article
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