Stressed Out? Your Hormones May Be to Blame
Being stressed out seems like a way of life these days. In fact, The American Institute for Stress says that “the current stress level experienced by Americans is 20 percentage points higher than the global average” and that 55% of Americans experience stress each day.
Some level of stress can be normal, and even helpful, like giving you the edge needed while preparing for an important project or trying to balance all the things you need to get done at work with all the things you need to get done at home. But chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body. And what you might not realize is that too much long-term or continual stress may be the result of hormone imbalance.
Our hormones make up an intricate system in our bodies called the endocrine system. This includes estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, adrenaline, cortisol, and thyroid hormones. When your hormone levels are balanced, they help many functions in your body operate smoothly. But when these hormones are out of whack, this imbalance can exacerbate stress levels or anxiety.
What Happens to the Body During Stress?
First, let’s look at what happens to the body physiologically when stressed. Our autonomic nervous system controls heart rate, breathing, vision changes, and more. Its built-in stress response, the “fight-or-flight” mode, can help the body face stressful situations. Our bodies, however, can’t always tell the difference between real threat (being chased by a bear) and perceived threat (giving a presentation in front of the whole company). Once the threat is over (real or perceived), your body returns to a state of normalcy.
But when you experience long-term stress, your body remains in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. This near-constant activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms may develop.
The Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s leading healthcare institutions, outlines the following physical symptoms of chronic stress:
- Aches and pains
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Stomach or digestive problems
- Trouble having sex
- Weak immune system
The Stress/Hormone Imbalance Connection
So how exactly can imbalanced hormones result in stress? Several different hormones can play a part.
Estrogen regulates serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine, the neurotransmitters that affect mood and help us experience feelings of happiness and joy. So, when estrogen is low, these neurotransmitters become similarly low, and can result in anxiety and depression. A study published in Biological Psychiatry found that women with low estrogen levels were more susceptible to trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Progesterone is known as the female sex hormone, but men actually produce progesterone as well. In women, progesterone’s main roles are regulating menstruation and supporting pregnancy. In men, it’s associated with developing sperm. But for both sexes, low progesterone can result in anxiety and mood swings.
Testosterone, on the other hand, is the male sex hormone but women also have (and need) testosterone. According to S. Adam Ramin, MD, a urologist and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles: “Stress can cause lower testosterone levels, and then turn into a vicious cycle — the lower testosterone level can cause stress, which can cause testosterone numbers to drop even lower.” The exact physiological connection between stress and low testosterone isn’t known. “We think there are probably certain brain chemicals we secrete in response to stress, which then goes to the part of the brain that controls testosterone production,” Dr. Ramin says.
Women, Hormones, and Stress
For women, progesterone and estrogen levels become depleted during perimenopause and menopause. Testosterone levels also begin to fall during perimenopause, which typically starts 10 to 15 years prior to menopause.
Low progesterone has been associated with mood swings. One study published in Brain Science showed that at proper levels, progesterone may actually reduce anxiety.
In addition, there is evidence that estrogen treatment may reduce stress. In a study featured in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, researchers concluded that women taking estradiol therapy after menopause had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and performed better on tests of “working memory” following exposure to stress compared to women taking a placebo.*
“Our study suggests that estrogen treatment after menopause protects the memory that is needed for short-term cognitive tasks from the effects of stress,” said Alexandra Ycaza Herrera, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.
DHEA levels (dehydroepiandrosterone) may also begin to decrease. This occurs mostly because the adrenal gland is capable of producing testosterone, and in trying to replenish the lowered testosterone levels, it becomes overworked. Hence the term “adrenal fatigue.” The good news is that the adrenal gland usually recovers after testosterone is replenished.*
Men, Low Testosterone, and Stress
Men experience similar declines in testosterone during andropause (also known as male menopause), but usually at a slower rate. Some of the symptoms of andropause are loss of muscle mass, feeling sluggish and tired, weight gain, especially around the mid-section, lack of sexual drive, and erectile dysfunction. There is also evidence that stress alone can cause testosterone levels to drop.
And as stated by Edward Levitan, MD: “Low testosterone is a major source of mental health issues in men. Men with low testosterone can experience fatigue and commonly have mood swings.”
So, What Can You Do About It?
The good news is that if imbalanced hormones are to blame for your levels of stress, there are actually ways to optimize them by tackling the problem at its source. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) is a method of supplementing your natural hormone production in a way that your body can recognize and use in the same way, with the goal of bringing your hormone levels—and your mood—back in balance.*
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.