In the words of Pat Benatar, “love is a battlefield”...and sometimes it can be painful! When you’re going through a breakup, it can be easy to blame yourself for having a hard time getting over your ex or continuing to feel down long after the relationship has ended. But the problem isn’t you – it’s your hormones.
From the time you have a crush, through the honeymoon phase and beyond, your hormones play a role in giving you those warm, fuzzy feelings of love. But when a relationship comes to an end, those feel-good hormones not only go away, they are overtaken by new hormones — ones that can make your already low mood worse.
First: What Are Your Hormones Like When You’re Coupled Up?
In healthy relationships, the brain gets a big boost of dopamine and oxytocin. These are neurotransmitters and hormones that help you feel connected and in love: dopamine makes you feel euphoric, while oxytocin, sometimes called “the love hormone,” creates strong bonds. In women, testosterone levels tend to rise during the first 1-2 years of a relationship, while in men they fall. And in long term relationships, hormones that make you feel secure and safe with your partner ramp up.
Breakups Are a Bummer – for You and Your Hormones
During a breakup, your body starts changing at a chemical level. “When a relationship comes to an end, the separation and the heartbreak causes a shift in the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline/noradrenaline,” explains Eva Yacobi,Naturopathic Doctor and Functional Medicine Practitioner.
Not only do levels of happy hormones dopamine and oxytocin drop — as does serotonin, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that acts like a hormone — but your body also must deal with the mental, emotional, and physical effects of increased stress hormones. Thanks to these changes, everything from your immune system to your blood pressure takes a hit.
“Irritability, moodiness, increased cravings specifically for sweets and carbohydrates, inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, brain fog, feeling wired but tired, it can become harder to make decisions and so much more,” says Yacobi, explaining the potential symptoms of these hormone changes. Your breakup can show up in your skin, too, in the form of breakouts or flares of existing skin conditions like eczema.
Don’t Worry: These Feelings Won’t Last Forever
Just as you will eventually recover from your heartbreak, these hormone changes won’t last forever. Typically, stress hormones rise and fall soon after stressful events (for example, think how you might feel after a work presentation or after a driver cuts you off in traffic). This pattern is a little more complex when it comes to a breakup.
“The challenge comes when stress hormones become chronically elevated which can happen when navigating a breakup,” said Yacobi. This means that cortisol and adrenaline/noradrenaline can remain higher than normal for weeks or even months depending on the relationship — basically, they will remain present as long as you are in a state of distress. Altogether, these hormonal changes contribute to the unhappy, anxious state that makes you feel so bad while you’re trying to recover and move on.
Navigating the hurt of a breakup is unavoidable and unfortunately there’s no miracle pill that will cut straight to the end. While you may not be ready to mend your broken heart just yet, you can tend to your hormones to help accelerate the healing. Specifically, there are a few ways to improve your stress response to help your mind and body feel better.
Take leisurely, cortisol-friendly walks: One way to support your hormones is through physical activity. But rather than hitting the gym or going on a long run, Yacobi recommends leisurely walks, which can calm elevated cortisol. Try walking along the shoreline or find an easy hike through the woods, since being in nature can boost the cortisol lowering effect.
Eat healthy, consistent meals to balance your insulin: Pay attention to how you fuel your body, too. Both binging and forgetting to eat can be detrimental to healing your body, so be sure to stay consistent with healthy and nutritious meals. “Maintaining stable blood sugar with regular meals high in protein, veggies and healthy fats will help take you off the cortisol rollercoaster,” explained Yacobi.
Embrace the hormone-healing powers of sleep: Sleep is also important for regulating your hormones and emotions. While raised cortisol might interfere with your ability to sleep, try to keep a solid bedtime and wake up routine to help improve your levels. A big night out or sleeping late might feel good in the moment but try to limit these occasions and prioritize your healing.
Be kind to yourself: And finally, don’t forget to look after your mental health. Let yourself feel whatever emotions come up so you can process them fully. Talking with someone, journaling, or just taking some time to think about your feelings can help you navigate the breakup more smoothly. Remember: your mind, body, and hormones are all connected.
As you heal, your stress hormones will begin to dip, and your body will return to its hormonal baseline. While that won’t necessarily make you forget the pain of the heartbreak, it will help you feel better. Until then, take care of your mind and body. Your hormones will thank you.