Come on man
The holiday season should bring more joy — but sometimes it delivers more stress.
In short, we’re overscheduled, overcommitted, and can begin to feel overwhelmed.
There are gifts to find, parties and dinners to arrange, a house to decorate, and family to visit — or host.
Holiday stress can raise blood pressure, disrupt sleep, darken moods, and induce overeating — and the underlying factor is the effect of stress on hormone health.
Stress and hormone health
Stress exerts many of its adverse effects via its influence on your adrenal glands.
The hectic pace of the holidays can exhaust your adrenals, making it hard to feel and function your best — and keep an even keel among co-workers, friends, and family.
Your adrenals produce several hormones, including cortisol, which is essential, but becomes damaging when it’s produced in excess in response to abnormal, unhealthful stress.
In fact, chronically elevated cortisol levels kill brain cells (neurons) and shrink the brain's hippocampus region, with resulting losses to learning and memory capacity.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels can hinder production of testosterone, progesterone, and thyroid hormones, and can impair carbohydrate and fat metabolism, thereby promoting excess pounds.
Excessive stress is also a risk factor for insulin resistance, which can lead to weight gain and diabetes.
So, it’s smart to give your hormonal system some holiday gifts of its own, to keep it working well throughout the holidays.
How can you curb excess cortisol?
We got some great suggestions for curbing excess stress and cortisol.
Laugh it up!
When was the last time you laughed so hard you had tears running down your face and your stomach hurt?
There is good evidence that genuine, vigorous laughter lowers your cortisol levels — and thereby boosts your learning ability by more than 25 percent!
So, seek out some serious humor this season. Curl up on the couch and let your favorite comedy work its magic.
Get into nature
Studies also show that taking a walk in the woods or in a park reduces cortisol levels and improves mood — see Take a Healing Dip in a “Forest Bath”.
And sipping a cup of tea — or, perhaps surprisingly, coffee — can lower cortisol and/or stress levels: see Black Tea May Confer Memory-Saving, Anti-Stress Benefits and Coffee and Tea May Reduce Stress.
Obviously, that prescription wouldn’t apply to folks who are particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine, and get jittery when they ingest significant amounts.
Omega-3s from seafood
You wouldn’t necessarily suspect that seafood can ease stress, but there’s evidence that it can.
Clinical studies have shown that long-chain omega-3s — of which seafood and supplemental fish oil is the only good source — reduce cortisol levels and elevate people’s moods.
In addition, ginseng and certain other “adaptogenic” herbs can curb the amount of cortisol released in response to stress.
Adaptogenic herbs to bolster resilience
Russian scientists coined the term “adaptogen” to describe a natural substance — usually an herb — that moderates and balances the effects of physical and mental stress.
Herbs with long folk histories of use as adaptogenic aids to stress relief include ashwagandha, holy basil, licorice root, astragalus root, and schisandra berry.
Today, we’ll focus on two of the best studied adaptogenic herbs: rhodiola and ginseng
Folk traditions ranging from Scandinavia to Siberia have long prized this medicinal root for its reputed ability to enhance endurance and maintain healthy mood.
Rhodiola is shown to ease stress and fatigue, both in animal and clinical studies. One placebo-controlled clinical trial found rhodiola particularly effective at fighting stress-induced fatigue.
Aim for 500mg of Rhodiola rosea extract, standardized to provide 3% rosavins and 1% salidrosides, daily.
During times of stress, ginseng appears to help support and balance the production of adrenal hormones, and prevent their depletion due to stress.
Two recent clinical studies found that — in men and women subjected to stress — ginseng raised men’s testosterone levels and lowered cortisol levels in both genders (Jung DH et al. 2016; Flanagan SD et al. 2017).
There are two primary varieties of the same Panax species: — Chinese/Korean (P. ginseng) and American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) — which exert similar but not identical effects.
In East Asia, American ginseng is often prized more highly than Chinese ginseng, which explains why it was an early (colonial-era), lucrative export from North America to Asia, and remains so.
(So-called Siberian ginseng or Eleuthero comes from a completely different plant, and may exert similar effects, but has less backing from lab and clinical evidence.)
To ease stress and lower cortisol levels, aim for 100mg of Panax ginseng (Chinese or American) extract twice a day.
For maximum benefit, look for extracts that have been “standardized” to provide a guaranteed minimum amount of the active compounds, called ginsenosides.
Estrogen elevators and balancers
Two recent clinical studies affirmed what had long been suspected: higher estrogen levels in woman’s body reduce release of cortisol, and symptoms of stress (Maki PM et al. 2015; Albert K et al. 2015)
Both trials examined the effects on women’s responses to stress with regard to their blood levels of an estrogenic hormone called estradiol, which is the primary female sex hormone.
In both studies, women released less cortisol and displayed fewer symptoms of stress when their estradiol levels were naturally high due to their status in the menstrual cycle.
Two foods have been known to support healthy estrogen levels: flaxseed and maca.
When it comes to hormone health, this omega-3- and fiber-rich seed is a triple threat.
Flaxseed can help modulate estrogen production, boost progesterone production, and help eliminate excess estrogen.
Aim for 2-4 tablespoons of flaxseed per day to support healthy estrogen levels.
This root vegetable from the Andes mountain as long been used by the natives is staple food, and to maintain the fertility of livestock at high altitudes.
Maca acts somewhat like an adaptogenic herb, in that it balances several key hormones.
While it doesn’t affect testosterone levels, maca is shown to balance levels of estrogen, as well as FSH, LH, progesterone, cortisol, ACTH, and thyroid hormones TSH, T3, and T4 (Meissner, HO, et al. 2006).
You can take maca in supplemental form, or add powdered maca root — which has a mild, vaguely mushroom like flavor — to smoothies and baked goods. Aim for 2,000-4,000mg of maca root daily. If you have a hormone-related cancer, check with your doctor before using maca.
Stress-induced spikes in cortisol levels also reduced levels of testosterone — a hormone important to men and women alike.
As noted above, Rhodiola root is shown to support testosterone production, and a supplement called DHEA can also help bring testosterone into balance.
DHEA is the precursor to testosterone and estrogen, produced predominantly in the adrenal glands.
In addition to stimulating production of testosterone, DHEA has also been shown to ease the impact of cortisol and other stress hormones.
One of the common consequences of adrenal exhaustion is that cortisol and DHEA become unbalanced, with cortisol levels often rising too high, while DHEA levels drop.
By supplementing with DHEA, you can boost testosterone production while also keeping the DHEA/cortisol ratio in balance. Aim for 5-10mg of DHEA daily, taken with food.
Thyroid hormone helpers: Iodine and L-tyrosine
Tyrosine-based hormones produced by the thyroid gland are key metabolism regulators, affecting everything from weight and hair health to mood and libido.
Two substances — iodine and tyrosine — can support healthy thyroid function.
Iodine is used by the thyroid gland to produce two key thyroid hormones, named T3 and T4 to reflect the number of iodine atoms they contain.
In addition to eating iodine-rich foods such as kelp, clams, sardines, and oysters, you can also supplement with iodine in an iodine/iodide blend. (Your thyroid primarily uses iodide—a reduced form of iodine—for normal functioning.)
Aim for 12.5-25 mg of an iodine/iodide blend daily, and take it with 100-200mcg of selenium, to help metabolize iodine and regulate thyroid function.
The amino acid L-tyrosine also plays a crucial role in producing and balancing thyroid hormones. Serving as the precursor for the thyroid hormone that raises metabolic rates, tyrosine also boosts stamina.
During times of stress, your body produces high levels of the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine, which can deplete your body’s tyrosine stores. If high stress levels deplete tyrosine, there's not enough left for the thyroid.
To support healthy tyrosine levels, aim for 500–2,000mg of tyrosine per day, preferably consumed along with protein for optimal absorption.
Note: If you have high blood pressure, start with the lower dosage and monitor your blood pressure levels.