The Stress-Hormone Connection
Stress isn’t just a feeling, it’s a physical response that can lead to widespread hormonal imbalance in your body. Balancing all your hormones is integral to your health, and fortunately, there are natural ways to do this. Estroprotect is the supplement I take every day to support healthy hormone levels and balance. Let’s talk a bit about how stress and hormones are connected. Then we’ll cover which hormones are commonly affected, and the symptoms that hormonal imbalance can cause.
How Stress and Hormones are Connected
Hormone production naturally fluctuates during your lifetime, so you can meet the needs of each phase of your life. This includes puberty and reproduction for both genders, as well as bringing a baby to term during pregnancy and menopause in women. However, hormone fluctuations due to stress are a different matter.
Stressors can be emotional, mental, or physical; they can come from physical injury, sleep deprivation, exposure to toxins, leaky gut, or eating a diet full of inflammatory foods. It can either be acute or chronic. Acute stress doesn’t last long, and recovery is quick. Chronic stress, such as continuous pressure to perform in a challenging job or maintaining a difficult personal relationship, has a different effect on your body and brain. Chronic stress, for example, damages the nerve cells in the medial amygdala, which is implicated in increased anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.1 Acute stress, on the other hand, enhances immune system action.2
Hormones are integral to stress because your stress response is controlled by hormones. Here are the various different hormones that may be produced by your body when you encounter a stressor, and how your specific hormones can be affected by stress.
Adrenaline is commonly called “the fight-or-flight hormone”, and is produced by your adrenal glands when they receive a message from the brain that there’s a stressful situation to deal with.3 Along with norepinephrine, it is responsible for the immediate reactions you make when you’re stressed, such as sweating, a faster heart rate, etc. It also gives you a boost in energy and focuses your attention.4
This steroid hormone is commonly called “the stress hormone”, and kicks in minutes rather than seconds after you encounter a stressor. This is because a part of the brain called your amygdala must first recognize the threat before it sends a message to your hypothalamus. This sets off a chain reaction that tells your adrenal glands to produce cortisol.5 Cortisol mobilizes glucose reserves for energy and facilitates the consolidation of fear-based memories so you can survive in the future and avoid danger.6
However, too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure and blood sugar levels, decrease libido, and contribute to acne, obesity, and chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, depression and asthma.7,8 Your body is just not designed to live in fight or flight mode all the time. It needs to rest and relax to function optimally.
Testosterone is a steroid hormone that is secreted continuously by your testicles if you’re a man and in smaller quantities by your ovaries if you’re a woman.9,10 Psychological and physical stressors such as surgery have been shown to lower blood testosterone levels, which can cause many symptoms including fatigue, hair loss, and loss of muscle mass.11,12
When cortisol is released by your adrenal glands, it can stimulate a type of activity that converts pregnenolone — a hormone that acts as the starting material for the production of various different hormones — to progesterone, which can alter your progesterone/estrogen balance, causing estrogen dominance.13 This balance is important for healthy and pain-free menstrual cycles, a normal ovulatory cycle and fertility levels, as well as healthy cognitive function.14,15
Estrogen commonly gets out of balance in your body due to stress. This can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life. For example, higher than normal estrogen levels can impact your brain’s ability to deal with stress. This affects fewer men than women, who are more likely to suffer from stress-related mental health issues than men.16 Estrogen deficiency can also lead to a decline in serotonin, and thus to depression.17 This is why it is so critical that your estrogen levels are in balance.
One key example of stress-induced hormone imbalance is that high levels of stress can make your body “steal” the hormone progesterone to manufacture the stress hormone cortisol. This upsets your estrogen and progesterone balance, creating estrogen dominance, which can cause issues such as PMS, weight gain, and autoimmunity.
If you want to test your cortisol levels at home, I recommend using the home cortisol test from LetsGetChecked. It measures adrenal performance or stress through a simple finger prick blood test. The results are available online so you can share them with your functional medicine doctor.
This hormone stimulates labor contractions and milk production in women during and after giving birth to a baby. It can also reduce anxiety as well as heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.18 In men, it is less important, but it does help move sperm and help with testosterone production in the testes.19 Having too little has been associated with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Oxytocin is being explored as a supplement to prevent and treat stress-related psychiatric disorders.20
Vasopressin plays a role in water and sodium regulation in your body. However, it is also considered a stress hormone. It keeps your cortisol and adrenaline levels higher for longer by inhibiting the chemicals that break them down in your body, as well as the levels of other steroid hormones released by your adrenal glands such as aldosterone, which plays a role in sodium balance and blood pressure in your body.21,22
Dehydroepiandrosterone-ST (DHEA), is a steroid hormone produced in your adrenal glands. It is a very complex substance. It is the precursor to all sex hormones and primarily turns into testosterone and then ultimately into estrogen. Without the proper amount of it, your body can’t synthesize estrogen.
It is produced by your adrenal glands and is believed to be secreted in response to stress. Levels peak around the ages of 20-25, and then decline to around 20 to 30% of the peak values at 70-80 years. DHEA enhances memory and reduces the symptoms of depression.
Its levels in relation to cortisol may indicate the degree to which your body can buffer itself against the negative effects of stress, according to studies.23 Luckily, cortisol levels also begin to decline and then plateau between 30-60 years of age.24 And your sense of how much you can control situations also decreases with age, helping you cope and adapt to stressful situations more effectively as you grow older, because you simply accept circumstances instead of fighting against them.25
Your body needs to keep your progesterone levels elevated following conception.26 But stress can intervene. A study on the effect of stress on women’s cortisol, estrogen, and progesterone levels showed that estrogen levels stayed the same, whereas progesterone and cortisol increased.27
However, when your body has to prioritize defense over fertility, such as when you’re stressed, it will choose defense, making cortisol instead of progesterone from pregnenolone, lowering your chances of getting pregnant.28 This is called “pregnenolone steal”.
6 Signs That Stress Could be Impacting Your Hormones
As we now know, chronic stress can cause hormonal imbalance, particularly in the hormones listed above. Any or all of the factors below could point to stress being the cause of the imbalance.
High blood pressure
Cortisol can raise systolic blood pressure by a highly significant measure, as well as increase your risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, such as stroke.29
Elevated blood sugar
The stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, increase your blood sugar and then insulin. This is particularly problematic if you’re diabetic because you may not produce enough insulin to bring your blood sugar back down to normal levels.30 This is also an issue for people with or without diabetes who also have Candida overgrowth because Candida feeds on sugar.31
Loss of libido and fertility
Stress can interfere with sex drive because elevated cortisol levels can also cause irregular periods, affecting fertility.32 Studies have shown that distressed women have lower pregnancy rates.33 This may be due to pregnenolone steal.
Stressful events such as losing jobs and loved ones has been linked to the onset of depression. The HPA axis is your hormone response system for stress.34 It is made up of a part of the hypothalamus, part of the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands, and is where all the hormones involved in your stress response are released.35 In one study, dysfunction of the HPA axis also manifested in around 70% of patients with depression.36
During acute stress, your appetite is often suppressed so you can concentrate on escaping danger rather than eating your next meal. However, chronic stress promotes the intake of foods that contain a lot of calories, particularly unhealthy ones, because cortisol stimulates your appetite.37 This may be why chronic stress is linked to weight gain and obesity.
Stress affects a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays a key role in processing memories.38 Neuroimaging studies have reported that stress-related cognitive changes are associated with atrophy of your hippocampus, which is associated with dementia and memory problems.39,40
No one can avoid stress completely, so learning to relieve it is a key part of improving your overall health and in keeping your hormones in balance. Any activity that you find relaxing will help you combat stress. If you can get outdoors to do it, that’s even better because being in nature has added stress-relief benefits. In fact, even just the sounds of nature can make a difference.41 So if you’re on the treadmill, pop on a pair of headphones and work out to the sounds of nature.
As I mentioned, I supplement with Estroprotect to help ensure my hormones are in balance. Its powerful natural botanicals including DIM, green tea extract, and trans-resveratrol work together to make sure your estrogen levels are optimal. It’s such an important part of a woman’s health and well-being!
For more information, check out my interview with Margaret Christensen on the adrenal-thyroid connection and how balancing your sex hormones can impact thyroid health.
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