Unfortunately stress is a big part of a women’s life and it can have negative effects on health. Like depression, women suffer from anxiety much more than men. In addition to having a career, women are usually responsible for taking care of the children, cooking and cleaning, which leaves little time for other interests. It is very important to find time to channel this stress out of your body. In a stressful situation cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) are secreted from the adrenal glands and secreted into the bloodstream. Epinephrine causes the heart to pump faster and stronger, getting ready for the “fight or flight” response. Too much epinephrine over time can lead to hypertension and damage to arteries. After the stressful situation is resolved, cortisol remains elevated, which is responsible for an increased appetite for sugar. This results in impulse eating and is responsible for the majority of diet breakdowns. Cortisol also increases insulin levels, causing fat storage, especially in the abdomen. Chronic exposure to cortisol has multiple deleterious effects. It can be responsible for heart disease, hypertension, stomach ulcers, overeating, impaired immune response, sleep impairment, memory impairment, and depression. High levels of cortisol can lead to osteoporosis because cortisol interferes with the bones’ ability to absorb calcium. Cortisol levels naturally increase with age, and as a result it is the hormone that is strongly implicated in the aging process. Hostility and impatience has shown to double the risk of hypertension, obesity, and depression.
Serotonin calms the stress response and thus has the opposite effect from cortisol and adrenaline.
Serotonin is responsible for the “stop eating signal” and thus when levels of serotonin are normal we have less cravings for sweets and carbohydrates. Serotonin levels naturally decrease with age. Exercise increases levels of serotonin and vitamin B6 is necessary to produce serotonin.
It is important to eliminate chronic stress. Whenever a stressful situation arises we need to channel that negative energy elsewhere. Stress increases heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and respiratory rate. Living a healthy lifestyle has been shown to prevent stress. When the body is relaxed it produces more nitric oxide, which counterbalances cortisol. Eating properly, routine exercise, yoga, pilates, meditation, and a healthy sex life are helpful for preventing stress. Meditation and yoga share the same philosophy concerning relaxation and the control of breathing. It is very difficult to remain anxious when breathing slowly and deeply in a regular pattern. Relaxation techniques lower blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Meditation has not only been shown to reduce stress, but can improve chronic pain, elevate mood, increase circulation, and improve digestion. Exercise is important because endorphins are released which counterbalance cortisol.
Many women say they have never had chronic stress or anxiety until they reached their forties. The reason for this is that anxiety is much more common after perimenopause. In perimenopause, progesterone is deficient for the first time in their lives. Progesterone has calming properties, so when the progesterone is supplemented, the anxiety often diminishes.
Unfortunately at times progesterone and lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, are not enough to eliminate anxiety. The herb, valerian, can be used which acts on the receptor of GABA, an amino acid that is responsible for calming. GABA itself can be taken as a supplement, which has had promising results. Anxiolitics, such as Valium and Xanax, can be prescribed by your physician when all else fails. These anxiolytics work on the GABA receptor, similar to valerian. Unlike the SSRIs, Valium and Xanax are very addictive. Kava is another herb that is used to treat mild anxiety.