How Stress Impacts Women

Dr. Andrea Hilborn, NDOriginally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard

This article will focus on how stress intersects with being female. Our female physiology and female gender both impact the way women handle stress. Understanding how can help us manage it better. Men and woman all have three sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These hormones affect all our body systems in myriads of ways. Imagine these three hormones as though they are radios playing different music. The volume of each radio can go up or down. Whichever radio is loudest is the one that has the strongest effect. During reproductive years, women's hormone levels are constantly fluctuating. In the first half of the cycle, estrogen is the dominant signal. In the second half, progesterone is the dominant signal. Estrogen has became a synonym for femaleness in everyday conversation, but progesterone is actually present at much higher levels. After menopause, sex hormones are in a steady state and no longer cyclically fluctuate. Healthy hormone levels are critical for longterm health. We know that having adequate progesterone levels throughout our reproductive years is protective against breast cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease, which are three of the big causes of mortality and morbidity. During the reproductive years, hormone imbalance can show up in many ways: irregular menstrual cycles, male pattern hair growth on face and body, changes in menstrual bleeding and PMS are some symptoms. In addition to the regular hormonal cycling that happens, women also undergo periods of major hormone shifts: puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. Menopause is the time from one year after a woman's last menstrual period continuing through the rest of her life. Perimenopause is the time up to one year after a woman's last menstrual period. The onset of perimenopause is when characteristic hormone-related signs show up. Common signs include heavier menstrual bleeding, shortening menstrual cycle, increased PMS symptoms and hot flashes. Perimenopause can begin as early as the mid-thirties. Stress impacts our hormones, and hormones impact our stress level. We know from animal studies that being in stressful situations over a long period of time decreases progesterone levels, and can inhibit ovulation. One theory of why this happens is that because the stress hormone cortisol is made out of the same material that progesterone is made out of, producing a lot of stress hormone reduces the ability to make progesterone. We also know that our sex hormone levels impact our ability to respond to stress. Cortisol levels increase during stressful situations. In the presence of higher progesterone levels, the increase in cortisol is smaller. Going through times of hormonal change can produce enormous stress. For example, if you start to experience intense hot flashes hourly, you will me worn out physically and emotionally, and less resilient to stressors in your everyday life. During perimenopause, estrogen levels start to spike and dip erratically, which can cause mood swings. Progesterone levels start to wane, causing greater sensitivity to stress. The combination of these two changes combine, reducing stress tolerance. I recommend keeping a menstrual cycle diary to see if your hormones and your stress level may be related. A blank diary can be found at Increasing your resilience to stress may mean treating hormonal imbalance. If you suffer from any of the symptoms discussed above, consider naturopathic care.