The pregnenolone ‘steal’
One theory for why sex hormones are impacted during times of stress is the concept of “pregnenolone steal”. Pregnenolone is a precursor for hormone production. It’s made from cholesterol in your body and then goes on to make either progesterone or DHEA for testosterone and estrogen. This proposed theory states that during times of stress, pregnenolone is shunted toward progesterone production, and then that progesterone is used up to make cortisol.
Simply put, this proposed mechanism essentially ‘steals’ the precursor for testosterone and estrogen.
However, researchers haven’t determined this to be true, and evidence would suggest that the impact of stress upon sex hormones is more complicated than simply a substrate availability issue (2).
Stress affects mood, fertility, sleep, and metabolism
Your body’s hormonal response to stress is part of a complex symphony of chemical signals. But that doesn’t change that the effects of chronic stress are a growing problem throughout modern society. The hormonal dysregulation resulting from chronic, unresolved stress increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, more severe infections, sleep disorders, anxiety & depression, and digestive problems. It’s hard to understate the negative effects of too much stress on the body.
Here’s how stress impacts your health and the body’s primary hormones.
Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone
Elevated stress can cause reduced hormone production in the ovaries (3). This may lead to an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone, or Increased stress can cause estrogen dominance. The main symptoms are PMS, tender breasts, endometriosis, and (in some cases) fertility trouble.
Stress also has a direct impact on testosterone levels. When stress levels are high for too long, reduced availability of DHEA (a precursor to testosterone) may also lead to reduced testosterone production. This may be due to the presence of inflammatory cytokines (4). Low testosterone levels have been linked with decreased sex drive, infertility, and a number of other health problems in men.
Cortisol and DHEA levels
When you’re feeling stressed, your body’s primary response is to secrete the hormone cortisol. This messenger is responsible for a number of important functions, including:
- Regulating blood sugar levels
- Preventing the release of stored glucose from the liver
- Reducing inflammation
- Helping to regulate other signals like adrenaline and norepinephrine
Cortisol is released in response to physical, mental, and emotional stressors. However, when stressors are continuous and unrelenting, cortisol can remain elevated for long periods of time. This can lead to a condition known as HPA axis dysregulation (or adrenal fatigue), which is characterized by:
- Inability to handle stress
- Poor sleep quality
- Cravings for sweet or salty foods
- Weight gain
HPA axis dysregulation, or adrenal fatigue, is a very real condition that can have serious consequences if left untreated.
Shop: Integrative Therapeutics Cortisol Manager
The thyroid gland is responsible for producing two important hormones: T3 and T4. Your thyroid then releases them as needed. These hormones are essential for regulating many different aspects of your body’s metabolism, including:
- How quickly you burn calories
- How much energy you have
- Your body’s sensitivity to other hormones
- How well your brain function works
When stress levels are chronically high, it can lead to an imbalance in thyroid hormones (5). This may result in a number of different problems, including weight gain or difficulty losing weight, feeling cold all the time, hair loss, and mood changes
Insulin and blood sugar
Prolonged elevated levels of stress hormones negatively impact insulin and blood sugar levels. This can lead to a condition known as insulin resistance, which is when the body’s cells no longer respond to the hormone insulin (6). Insulin resistance is a precursor to type II diabetes.
Basically, chronic stress causes cells to become “rigid” and unable to respond to the message insulin sends–which is to allow the cell to convert blood sugar to energy. Over time, this pattern leads to chronic blood sugar and insulin dysregulation, which is a significant risk factor for many diseases.
Health issues you might not know which are worsened by stress
There are a number of health conditions that can be made worse by stress. These conditions include:
- Hair loss
- Fertility struggles
- Digestive problems
- Sleep disorders
If you are experiencing any of these health issues, it is important to address the root cause and find ways to reduce your stress levels. Functional medicine can help to identify the underlying causes of your stress symptoms and provide you with an individualized treatment plan to improve your body’s resilience to stress.
6 Ways to improve stress response and balance hormones
There are many things you can do to improve your stress response and balance hormones. Here are six tips:
Get enough sleep: Most people need around 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Make sure you’re getting enough rest so that your body has time to recover from the day’s stresses.
Exercise regularly: Exercise is a great way to burn off excess stress hormones and improve your mood. Numerous reviews show that exercise supports overall hormonal, mental, and emotional health.
Eat a healthy diet: Eating a balanced diet full of nutrient-dense foods helps your body to function at its best. Make sure you’re eating plenty of vegetables, some fruits, minimally processed grains, healthy fats, and quality proteins.
Manage stress: Learning how to manage stress is an important part of maintaining hormone balance. There are many different techniques that can help, such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises.
Take supplements: Supplements can help improve hormonal imbalance and mediate stress symptoms, like omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and l-theanine.
See a functional medicine practitioner: A functional medicine practitioner can help provide hormone testing and analysis and identify any underlying causes that may contribute to your stress symptoms.
Decrease stress for better hormone balance
Stress can really interfere with your hormones. These chemical messengers rely on their ability to send signals from your brain to your body, and back again, and high levels of chronic stress prevent them from doing their job. Reproductive hormones like estrogen and testosterone and metabolic hormones like T4 and insulin are also affected by stress.
Working with a qualified functional practitioner can help you not only identify the underlying causes of a hormonal imbalance but also provide holistic coping mechanisms to reduce stress and improve resilience.