If you regularly experience stress (and who doesn’t!?), you may have read or been told by a doctor that it can affect your health or even your fertility. But have you ever wondered exactly why stress causes hormone imbalance? It all starts with cortisol.
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” — and with good reason! Cortisol is capable of spiking your blood sugar, inhibiting digestion, and halting immune activities; all things deemed unnecessary by the body in times of stress. But we need another important hormone called pregnenolone to actually make cortisol. When these key hormones are depleted or imbalanced, it can affect your entire endocrine system and create a vicious cycle of stress.
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First, let’s break it down into a few key hormones, and what they do:
Not to be confused with progesterone, pregnenolone is what is referred to as a precursor hormone, as it’s role is to produce all the other hormones we know and love: estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, aldosterone, and the stress hormones cortisol. Without pregnenolone, none of these hormones could be made which—is why pregnenolone is sometimes called the “Mother Hormone”.
Cortisol is known as our “stress hormone.” It’s made in the adrenal glands and is produced and secreted in response to stress. This can be all kinds of stress – physical, mental, emotional, etc. Cortisol helps control blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism, helps reduce inflammation and assists with memory formulation. Cortisol helps us deal with stress by shutting down unnecessary functions (like reproduction and the immune system!) in order to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress at hand.
Dehydroepiandrosterone is an adrenal steroid hormone. It’s made by the adrenal glands and is then converted to androgens, estrogens and other hormones. These are the hormones that regulate the thyroid and pituitary glands – meaning they regulate fat and mineral metabolism, sexual and reproductive function, and energy levels. It is often referred to as the “master” hormone, because it’s the building block from which estrogen and testosterone are produced.
Here is a very simplified version of what happens in your adrenal glands:
The principal hormones produced by the adrenal glands – cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, estrogens, and progesterone – share a common precursor, the master hormone pregnenolone. If we’re chronically stressed, more pregnenolone needs to be diverted to produce more cortisol. To do this, the body sends more resources down the cortisol path. Mission accomplished, right? But unfortunately, when we’re under stress, pregnenolone is diverted – or stolen – from the other hormone pathways. That’s where the term pregnenolone steal is from. This “theft” enables lots of cortisol production, but it inhibits the production of just about everything else. Most notably estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.
Sporadic periods, amenorrhea, low sex drive, vaginal dryness, painful sex, joint pain, dry skin and eyes, melasma (sun damage) or skin discolorations particularly on the face, lowered energy and motivation, depression and poor memory.
Progesterone is actually on the same pathway as cortisol, which means it is also “stolen” to make more cortisol. Over the long term, you can become progesterone deficient as well. In fact, I think this is the number one cause leading to progesterone deficiency, which is definitely no good for baby-making.
Short luteal phase or short menstrual cycles (25 days or less) or more frequent cycles, migraines especially menstrual migraines, breast pain and bloating before your period, heavier flow, irregular cycles, miscarriages.
Here are some of the symptoms of pregnenolone steal: depression, fatigue, anxiety, hair loss, facial and body hair growth, headaches, dizziness, brain fog, poor memory, low libido, vaginal dryness, breast swelling and tenderness, fibrocystic breasts, thyroid disorders, osteoporosis, PMS, dry or wrinkly skin, urinary tract infections, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, weight gain (or resistance to weight loss), water retention, bloating, sleep disturbances, mood changes, irregular periods, loss of periods (amenorrhea), heavy periods, and infertility.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may be experiencing the great hormonal hijack: pregnenolone steal
Fortunately, there is a fix for this! First and foremost, try to reduce your stress. The present world is filled with stress, that’s non-negotiable. But how you respond and react to stress is entirely in your control. Practice managing your daily stressors with ease. Some of my favorite tools for this are: restorative yoga, long slow walks in nature, hot baths, a massage … whatever else brings your unique soul pleasure! This may be one of the most important things you can do to optimize your health.
Getting your full 8-10 hours of sleep every night is another way to offset stress – while you sleep your body is able to take the time to ‘fix’ itself. Consistent, adequate, and unmedicated sleep is critical. I suggest sleeping in a dark, quiet room. Remove all electronics and gadgets, and get to bed early! Engaging in some daily exercise – outside – will help you get better quality sleep as well – and exercise is GREAT for managing stress!
While there’s no way to avoid experiencing occasional stress, it IS possible to help reduce stress and keep your hormones from becoming imbalanced. Decreasing stress will help support optimal progesterone, testosterone and estrogen levels, all of which are critical for ideal hormone balance, fertility, and pregnancy.
Looking to have a more in-depth conversation about your hormonal wellbeing? Schedule a consultation with me!