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It’s not just menopause or even perimenopause you have to watch out for – stress hormones can seriously mess with your sex life.

When it comes to hormonal ups and downs, it’s the Gang of Four - menopause, perimenopause, pregnancy and adolescence – which get all the press. In fact, hormones are most often knocked off balance by stress. Consider your hormones as being like text messages from your brain, thyroid, or adrenal glands that travel via your bloodstream to every cell in your body, providing instructions on what to do next: how and what to think, move, digest, react, remember, excrete, everything.

Meet your hormones

Adrenalin and cortisol are your body’s two key stress hormones, and are closely linked: if one rises, the other follows suit. Adrenalin provides a short-term stress response and then drops quickly, while cortisol remains active and sustained for longer. Hormonal imbalance can cause adrenal fatigue, as well as exacerbating anxiety we may already be feeling.

In short, if intense stress has become a way of life, stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol will also move to the fore, instead of ebbing and flowing as part of the ‘fight or flight’ response hard-wired into us – and the more of these stress hormones we have in our bloodstream, the more sensitive we become to all stimuli, not just stressful events, resulting in, well, constant stress about pretty much everything.

Adding insult to injury, an oversupply of cortisol and adrenaline is linked to a slew of maladies, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS), fatigue, insomnia, osteoporosis, and heart disease; it also takes a toll on the optimal functioning of other hormones, notably your sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, which in turn dampens desire and compromises fertility.

It’s estimated that 70 percent of low libido issues are due to hormonal imbalance. Cortisol also regulates blood pressure, blood sugar, and immune system function, and when levels jump, this can slow down the thyroid, which triggers weight gain, and also cause oestrogen dominance, which worsens symptoms of PMS and increases body fat, water retention, and blood clotting.

The good news is, you can learn to rebalance your stress hormones by discovering ways to hit the pause button that work for you. That might be a warm bath with lavender oil and Epsom salts (particularly effective thanks to the nerve-soothing boost of magnesium from the salts), a series of sessions with a counsellor or mentor, swapping coffee for antioxidant-rich herb or green matcha teas, or visualisation exercises and affirmations that act as circuit-breakers. Research shows that the herb black cohosh controls hot flushes by lowering blood levels of luteinising hormone, which dilates blood vessels and heats the skin.

A technique I recommend to patients is a heart meditation. For five minutes each day, place your hand over your heart and ask, What went well for me today? Imagine your breath flowing in and out of your heart. Release what does not serve you. When it comes to relationships – not just the ones we have with others, but the one we have with ourselves - we need to find ways to heal and support them. It’s hard for our hormones to remain balanced if our inner and outer relationships are a mess. This immediately increases levels of oxytocin, the ‘nurturing hormone’ in your body, which is a very good thing. I also suggest rhodiola and phosphatidylserine (PS) supplements to balance cortisol levels.

Progesterone and oestrogen are the sex hormones: together, they lubricate and nourish us, and are responsible for the development and maintenance of female sexual characteristics as well as helping the uterine lining to grow. Oestrogen is found in every cell throughout the body. Progesterone prepares the uterus for the fertilised egg and maintains pregnancy, while keeping oestrogen in check. While oestrogen promotes the growth of breasts, progesterone protects against fibrocystic breasts. While oestrogen increases body fat, fluid retention and blood clotting, progesterone counteracts these conditions. A good way to increase progesterone is to increase fibre in your diet. Progesterone resistance is the mechanism behind PMS. Chaste berry increases the body’s ability to make progesterone.

Happy hormones, happy life!

Fill in the nutritional gaps: this means eating a diet of whole foods - vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and beans. Choose foods that are easily digestible. Freshly cooked foods with minimal spices are easy on the system. According to the science of Ayurveda, establishing a routine, in the way we sleep, eat, work and play, allows the nervous system to relax. Below is a typical Ayurvedic routine, as prescribed by Dr. Claudia Welch in her book, Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life.

* Wake early and at the same time each day.
* Wash your face, brush your teeth, scrape your tongue and gargle with warm salt water.
* Drink a glass of warm water, which gets the bowels moving.
* Splash the eyes with cool water.
* Eliminate.
* Use a neti pot to cleanse naval cavities.
* Meditate, take a contemplative walk in nature, do some gentle yoga or read spiritual material for 30 to 60 minutes. Try to exercise at the same time each day, and outside.
* Give yourself a warm oil massage with sesame or coconut oil.
* Bathe and dress.
* Take a brisk half-hour walk, followed by a bit of gentle yoga.
* If possible, cook your meals for the rest of the day.
* Eat your meals at the same time daily.
* Spend the evening quieting your mind and winding down for bedtime.
* Go to sleep at the same time each evening. When you can’t sleep, have a mug of warm milk with a pinch of nutmeg and saffron, then go back to bed.

Naturopath Aimee-Christine Hughes is the author of The Sexy Vegan Kitchen: Culinary Adventures In Love & Sex, available on Amazon. She blogs at http://theglobalvegan.blogspot.com.