Bottom Line/Health: From insomnia to breakouts to missing a period, women’s bodies are acutely affected by stress – even more so than men’s. So how do we take back our bodies?

I’m Sarah Hiner, President of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversations With the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.

Today I’m talking to Dr. Brooke Kalanick, a leading naturopathic physician in private practice in New York City, who specializes in women’s hormonal and weight issues. Welcome, Dr. Kalanick.

Dr. Brooke Kalanick, ND: Thank you.

Bottom Line: All right, so what on earth? Why are women so acutely sensitive to stress, even more so than men are?

Dr. Kalanick: Women have a normal fluctuation of hormones, not only throughout our lives, but also throughout each month. Each month we’re going through times of high estrogen to times of high progesterone. So there’s a constant dance that our hormones are doing, and on the backside of our female hormones are our stress hormones.

When your body is trying to prioritize where it’s going to send resources and you’re under stress, it’s always going to choose stress. It’s always going to choose you staying alive, keeping your brain fed, and your organs fed versus you trying to have a normal menstrual cycle.

So what happens when we’re under stress is we pull resources away usually from progesterone; we call this is in functional medicine the progesterone steal. We’re literally stealing progesterone, using it to make our stress hormone, cortisol.

Bottom Line: It’s not even through menstrual cycles, it’s also just skin; it’s tired; it’s all of it. All of that is part of the progesterone steal?

Dr. Kalanick: That’s what can happen when our cycle starts to get a little bit longer. When you start to see other things, like changes in digestion, changes in skin, other hormones are starting to get in the mix as well. The cycle changes are one thing.

Something that happens for a lot of women when they’re under stress is they break out more. This goes back to blood sugar problems. As we’re stressed out, all hormones are affected. The more stressed you are, the more difficult time you’re going to have balancing your blood sugar, and those swings cause a lot of things to happen. One of them can create little mini surges in testosterone and cause us to break out.

We know stress – this is true for men and women – really, really will hit our gut. We’ll see more things like IBS, gas and bloating, changes in the way we’re reacting to food. All of those things can happen under stress.

And something else that both men and women can have is changes in memory. The cortisol stress hormones are literally overexciting cells in our brain, and we’ll start to not know where we put our keys, not know where we put our cell phone, those little lapses in memory.

We can also see changes in appetite. Some people’s appetite goes sky high when they’re under stress, and that’s usually when cortisol goes really high. When people are experiencing stress over time and they start to see those reserves of cortisol go down, then they start experiencing a really low appetite. Sometimes particularly for protein-heavy foods, they’re going to be more anxious to crave carbohydrates and things like that.

Bottom Line: Just to get the fuel back up?

Dr. Kalanick: Yep.

Bottom Line: All right, so how does somebody know when it’s stress versus when there really is a physical ailment underneath? Because any of these symptoms can also be connected to some specific physical ailment.

Dr. Kalanick: You can look at your life and see how stressed you are and notice if any of your symptoms are getting worse. Something I like to remind women is, we are really classic at doing this, trying to think we’re going to do everything and look good doing it.

Look at your behaviors; what are you doing that’s causing more stress in your life? Are you over-exercising? Are you under-eating? Even good stress can be a problem: planning a wedding, having a baby. Those are still stressful things. A new relationship. All of those things cause stress, too. So we oftentimes can see bad stress, but we don’t all the time look at the other kinds of stresses in our life.

Bottom Line: I think that’s a really important point, because it’s easy to know stress, you had a tragic loss in your family or you had a car accident or something or trouble at work. But women somehow seem so vulnerable to what I call just chronic stress. Just the multiple things that we’re juggling. Is there something about women that we’re just holding onto worrying about the kids, the husband, the house, the dog, etc. and that men just aren’t carrying that with them? Is it like the hunter-gatherer of our brains?

Dr. Kalanick: Part of it is the estrogen. We’re meant to be chemically a nurturer; that’s how we’re wired. Some of that is just our chemistry, and some of that really is whatever we’ve deemed as our role in a modern Western woman. Like I said, trying to do it all and look good doing it.

So we need to not only be managing everything, but we also are usually feeling body image stress and weight loss pressure and all of those things, to either lose weight or maintain those things as well. That’s a lot of stress as well. And some of those behaviors are contributing. Over-exercising, not eating enough, not eating enough protein – those are stressors as well.

Bottom Line: Let me flip it around: are there some ailments that doctors are diagnosing as a disease state when really it is stress? For example, is it really depression or is it stress? There’s such an over-prescription of antidepressants that’s going on. Or any other ailments?

Dr. Kalanick: Stress has been found to contribute to most of our modern diseases, so always take a look at diet, lifestyle, sleep, stresses. What can you eliminate? What can you do better in terms of more restorative activities like walking, calming things like restorative yoga, getting more sleep? Those things are going to go a long ways towards affecting any medical condition that you have.

Bottom Line: The usual, right? The same old usual. It’s diet, lifestyle, and sleep. It’s always the same. All right, thank you, Dr. Brooke Kalanick. The bottom line on stress, ladies? Truth be told, we actually do it to ourselves. Now, our bodies definitely are more vulnerable, our hormones, the multiple levels of hormones and the cycling that our bodies go through does make ourselves more vulnerable.

But what that means is that we have to take control of our emotions. Be aware of the stress in your lives. Take the time to make good choices in terms of lifestyle. I know that it sounds boring, but that really is what’s at the bottom line. Manage the blood sugar, manage your stress, and manage your rest. This is Sarah Hiner with Bottom Line.