Even in a decent divorce, stress is unavoidable. We often turn to tactics like yoga, vitamins, meditation, sleep or a healthy diet to help manage stress, but our hormones also can play a major role in our wellbeing. Hormones have a huge impact on whether or not we feel like “ourselves,” says Susan Sklar, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Long Beach, CA, and the founder of the Sklar Center for Restorative Medicine. Sklar sees patients who are a “puzzle” for traditional doctors. While many of her patients are women going through mid-life transition (the effects of which can begin at 35), menopause isn’t the only reason your hormones can get out of whack. The other main culprit? Stress.
Sklar helps clients combat hormone imbalance which can be caused by stress. We caught up with her to find out how hormones and divorce might collide.
Splitopia: We probably all know at this point that stress can compromise health. But what role do hormones play in this interaction?
Susan Sklar: Some hormone decline is age related, but some is stress related. Our bodies naturally produce the necessary hormones of estrogen, testosterone and Dehydroepiandrosterone (which the medical establishment has helpfully shortened to DHEA). Our bodies contain “pathways” that pump out these hormones, which help us feel energized and happy, and they help us maintain a healthy libido. When we get stressed, instead of being used to deliver these “feel good” hormones, our pathways are taken over by cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by our body as a physiological response to stress. Everyone wants a little bit of cortisol—it’s what makes our “fight or flight” response work—but too much of it can lead to unwelcome symptoms. If you’re chronically stressed, your body prioritizes cortisol production, essentially elbowing out your other, important hormones.
Splitopia: What are hormones exactly?
SS: Hormones are chemical messengers that carry information around our bodies. It’s how the brain communicates with our ovaries, for example, or how the thyroid gland, which governs our metabolism, sends messages to our cells to burn energy faster—by releasing hormones.
Splitopia: What happens when someone is stressed out and produces too much cortisol and not enough of the “feel good” hormones? What sorts of symptoms indicate this imbalance?
SS: Hormone imbalance can really affect how someone feels on a day-to-day basis. When you’re not producing enough estrogen, testosterone and DHEA—you’re going to feel physically and emotionally off kilter.
Many of the women I see report fatigue, mood changes, loss of libido, anxiety, irritability. Many of the men I see report energy problems and fatigue, loss of athletic endurance or libido. These are all things that can lead to relationship problems in the first place, but they are also things that, if you’re going through a divorce, can make that divorce a more difficult and painful process than it needs to be.
Splitopia: If you’re going through a divorce or contemplating one, and have these symptoms, what are your options?
SS: You can’t get rid of stress in your life, but you can change your body’s response. Getting your hormone levels tested is something you may want to think about doing. We test people to see how their adrenal and cortisol pathways are working—we do this with a saliva test. In addition to guided medication plans, I also teach patients stress-reduction techniques. We talk about sleep. I can suggest a regimen of herbs and vitamins and minerals.
Even if you don’t take the step of getting your hormone levels tested or follow through with a treatment plan, there are things you can do to help combat chronic stress and reverse hormonal imbalances.
My two big tips are:
1. Be sure that you set aside some time for stress reduction every day.
This can be prayer, yoga, tai chi, massage, meditation, connecting with nature. All of these things calm anxiety, improve sleep, and help your body recover from the hormonal damage caused by stress. Just 10 or 15 minutes a day can make a big impact.
2. Eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet.
These things mess with your cortisol levels and do damage to hormonal regulation. Instead, turn to healthy proteins, fruit and veggies.
Splitopia: So, to paraphrase: If you’re having emotional or even physical challenges that seem overwhelming or out of character, consider getting your hormone levels tested. At the very least, recognize that hormone imbalance might be coming into play and try some stress-reduction techniques to improve that balance.
SS: Yes, that’s right.
Splitopia: Great advice. Thank you.
Alysia Patterson Mueller is a Brooklyn-based writer whose waking (and non-waking) hours are mostly absorbed by looking after her two-year-old daughter, six-month-old son, and 90-pound black Labrador Retriever. She has a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University and has worked as an Associated Press reporter. She and her husband are both children of divorce, which makes contributing to Splitopia a meaningful assignment for her.