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Stress & Hormone Imbalance: Why They Go Hand in Hand

When we’re under stress our bodies respond by producing the hormone 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 necessary by the body in times of stress. But we need another important hormone called pregnenolone to actually make cortisol.

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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 like cortisol. Without pregnenolone, none of these hormones could be made which is why it’s sometimes called the “Mother Hormone”.


Cortisol is known as our “stress hormone”. It is made in the adrenal glands and is produced and secreted in response to stress. This can be all kinds of stress – physical, mental, emotional, structural, 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 is 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, as it is the building block from which estrogen and testosterone are produced.

So how do all of these relate to each other and your fertility?

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.

Signs of low estrogen and testosterone include:

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.

Signs of low progesterone include:

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.

How do you know if stress is having a negative impact on your hormones?

Here are some of the symptoms of pregnenolone steal, which are of course very similar to the symptoms of low estrogen, testosterone and progesterone: 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, STOP STRESSING! Obviously easier said than done, but ensure that you are taking time to yourself to decompress and unwind. 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!

Actively decreasing stress will help support optimal progesterone, testosterone and estrogen levels which is critical for ideal hormone balance, fertility and pregnancy.

Let’s Talk!

I’d love to use this space as a forum of sorts, providing inspiration and community among my readers, so … I want to hear from you!

Had you heard of Pregnenolone Steal before?

What are your favorite ways to combat the daily stressors in your life?

Spread some hormonal lovin’! Sharing is caring, and I bet the women in your life would love to read this too :).

Looking for more hormone help?

Start HERE! Click here to get my Top Ten Tips to Improve Fertility, Have Easier Periods, and Supercharge Your Sex Drive!

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