Stress, Female Hormonal Health & Yoga
How yoga, pranayama, stillness and relaxation practices can improve our overall health, whatever we are going through. By Kelsey Taylor
Reading time: 5 minutes
It’s that recurring thought that just won’t go away, or that deadline that needs to be met — each day we are exposed to situations that create stress. Humans are designed to deal with short, sharp bursts of stress, but modern-day life means we experience prolonged periods of it, which can have a negative effect on our health.
When we experience stress the body’s nervous system creates a ‘fight or flight’ response. The heart rate increases, the breath quickens, and the body prepares to remove itself from the threat (flight) or ‘fight’ to protect itself. As the body prioritises its survival, the bodily functions of digestion, reproduction, growth and repair halt as they are not vital for its survival at that moment. This means when you experience stress your hormonal health is affected. The longer the stress is experienced, the greater the impact. Hormones are the chemical messengers that coordinate the functions of cells in the body.
For women, stress can have a huge effect on menstrual/hormonal health leading to irregular periods, fertility issues and other health conditions. The menstrual cycle is often referred to as ‘The 5th Vital Sign’ as changes in reproductive health are normally related to a health condition occurring somewhere else in the body.
Yoga is beneficial to supporting the mind and body to relax and focus, moving the nervous system from ‘fight or flight’ mode into ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Asana: While it is important we move physically, too much strenuous physical activity or overexercising is a ‘stress’ to the body, especially if we fail to replenish our energy reserves through diet, sleep and relaxation.
A woman should understand the natural ebb and flows of her inner cycles and adapt her practice to suit. Physical poses can help support rest and digest. Including styles of yoga that replenish the body's energy, such as yin, restorative or a gentle hatha, are beneficial rather than practicing the same style all the time.
Pranayama: Energy control via breathing exercises. When we experience stress, the breath becomes quick and shallow, which reduces the amount of energy inhaled and available in the body. Breathing slowly and deeply moves the diaphragm (located below the lungs), which stimulates the vagus nerve triggering a ‘rest and digest’ response in the autonomic nervous system. Women are more likely to suffer asthma-related issues around ovulation as oestrogen is linked to increased inflammation in the body, so although you might be at peak performance hormonally, make sure you include some soothing breath work such as alternative nasal breathing.
Yoga nidra, mindfulness & meditation: The hypothalamus located in the brain works with the pituitary gland to regulate many of the endocrine glands that produce hormones. When we experience stress, the brain operates using Beta brainwaves creating the ‘flight and fight’ response. As we encourage the body to relax through various yoga practices, which involve stillness, we can encourage the use of different brain waves such as Alpha, Theta and Delta triggering the ‘rest and digest’ response and bring balance to the body. Encouraging slowness and calm yoga practices has a beneficial response to overall health. Just incorporating 10 minutes of meditation or gentle movement each day will start to have a positive impact on your stress levels.