A Savvy Sister’s Guide to the Stress/Brain/Body Connection


Stress. If you weren’t dealing with much pre-pandemic, odds are you most likely have been up to your eyeballs in it lately. And this year’s uncertainty about the holidays is just around the corner.

As women, we have a tendency to take on massive amounts of stress. Nurturing from birth, we gravitate towards taking away the stress from our loved ones and sometimes end up forgetting about our own needs. What we don’t realize is how these increasing loads of stress are wreaking havoc with our bodies. 

Regulation of stress is related to something called the HPA axis. While it is not necessary to completely understand this complicated feedback loop between the brain and body, having a general understanding can help you target areas of your life that need attention and thus make a huge difference in your quality of life. 

What IS the HPA Axis

The “HPA” in HPA axis stands for “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal.” Quite a mouthful to remember. While it is not necessary to memorize what it stands for, it is necessary to understand what it does.

The HPA axis refers to the feedback loop of communication between your brain and your adrenal glands. Your brain senses stress then sends the message to your adrenals that it’s time to make stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine). Additionally, they work together to regulate metabolism, mood, energy, and immunity. 

Cortisol plays an integral role in your “fight or flight” response. Cortisol is neither good nor bad. In fact, some stress is good. You want cortisol (and its friend, adrenaline) when you are amping up to present that big project in front of your team at work. What you DON’T want is to be chronically flooded with cortisol as this will leave you feeling wired and tired and ultimately at risk for many chronic diseases. You can read more about that here.

HPA Axis Dysfunction and Perimenopause 

When you’re operating with high levels of cortisol all the time, your adrenal glands keep responding without a chance to return back to normal. This results in high blood sugar, high blood pressure, immune system suppression, insomnia, blocking of progesterone receptors, and even hypothyroidism.

The ill-effects of being continuously overwhelmed start in your brain. Brain fog shows up as forgetfulness, disorganization, and loss of focus. This inflamed brain is a symptom of a much larger issue- “HPA axis dysfunction” (often called adrenal fatigue).

In this situation, your adrenals get the message from your brain that you need to REST and stop producing high levels of cortisol and DHEA. This is a protective mechanism for your body and not something you can just power through. 

So, now you know WHY chronic stress is harmful to our bodies and if left unchecked can lead to some very unfavorable consequences. Next, let’s discuss WHAT you can do to optimize your HPA axis function to ensure you are operating at prime capacity during perimenopause (and beyond). 

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Dr. Anna’s Top 10 Recommendations for a Healthy HPA Axis

Healing the HPA axis is a process and takes time. It will not happen overnight! The healing steps are largely based on lifestyle change (which can be difficult). 

  1. Learn to say “no”– many of us are well-versed in people-pleasing. When we continuously say “yes” it can take away from focusing on ourselves. Spreading yourself too thin is an invitation for more stress. Remember, “no” is a complete sentence.
  2. Practice self-care– taking time out completely for yourself may seem selfish, but it will pay off in the long run. Returning to your family and friends refreshed will benefit everyone in your life.
  3. Breathe– mental health experts worldwide agree on this important part of stress reduction. Pausing for just 5 minutes per day and focusing on your breath will bring a shot of insta-calm to your day. See number 7 for helpful apps to help guide you in your breath practice.
  4. Exercise– incorporating time to move your body, even just a quick 15 minutes, will automatically reduce stress and increase your endorphin levels. It will also help with sleep (see number 6 below).
  5. Increase your oxytocin levels– one important essential hormone we need more is oxytocin. Oxytocin, the “love” hormone, can counter our levels of cortisol. You can increase oxytocin through cuddling, spending time with loved ones, or doing something kind for someone else.
  6. Get quality sleep– use your bed for intimacy and sleeping only. Honor your bedtime. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day- ensuring you are getting your 8 hours in (or at least providing the window for it to happen).
  7. Try stress-reducing apps– like “Insight Timer” or “Calm”, which use guided meditations, nature sounds, and stories to help the user relax or sleep. Perfect for beginners and seasoned meditation practitioners alike.
  8. Nutrition– is extremely important for adrenal healing. Avoid sugar and processed food- yet ANOTHER reason for clean eating. Now is not the time for extreme dieting. Choose a diet rich in whole foods, adequate lean protein, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Skip the sugar, white flour, and processed ingredients.
  9. Add Magnesium, Vitamin C, and B vitamins– the adrenal glands require Vitamin C to manufacture cortisol. When stress increases, cortisol increases and your need for Vitamin C goes up. Start with Vitamin C 500 mg daily and titrate to loose stools. Another supplement to consider is Magnesium. Your body does not naturally produce Magnesium. Like Vitamin C, Magnesium plays an essential role in the adrenal cascade. Start with Magnesium Glycinate 240 mg before bedtime. It can help with sleep, as well. Finally, stress depletes B vitamins. A good activated B-complex goes a long way toward helping supplement what your body is using up.
  10. Practice mindfulness– staying in the moment, not worrying about the past or the future are great ways to reduce stress. Focus on what you CAN control rather than what you CAN’T.

Savvy Sisters, stress will not go away, but there are ways to optimize your health and peace of mind. Remember, your brain may be used to dealing with stress, but it is your body that gives you clues about whether you are actually managing stress. Symptoms of adrenal dysfunction are your body’s request for support and a sign that your brain is lying to you. Honor your body by giving it what it needs!

Dr. Anna Garrett is a menopause expert and Doctor of Pharmacy. She helps women who are struggling with symptoms of perimenopause and menopause find natural hormone balancing solutions so they can rock their mojo through midlife and beyond. Dr. Anna is the author of Perimenopause: The Savvy Sister’s Guide to Hormone Harmony. Order your copy at www.perimenopausebook.com.

Dr. Anna is available for 1-1 consultations. Find out more at www.drannagarrett.com/lets-talk. 

Get Chapter 1 of Dr. Anna’s Book—Free!

Perimenopause: The Savvy Sister’s Guide to Hormone Harmony

This book gives you the tools you need to navigate this transition without losing your mind or your mojo.

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