Today, women have learned to navigate a world that was initially tailored to men in mind, especially in the workplace.
The traditional 9-5 workday, which seems like a universal fit, is initiated designed to suit men’s hormonal patterns. Men experience a daily hormonal cycle, with testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, reaching its highest levels in the early morning and gradually declining throughout the day. As a result, the 9-5 schedule aligns nicely with their daily rhythms.
For women, it’s different. Our body follows a more hormonal cycle called the menstrual cycle, spanning around 28 days (it can vary between 21 and 35 days). This cycle involves various hormonal changes, including estrogen and progesterone levels rising and falling at different points.
As a consequence, women can experience hormonal fluctuations throughout the month. This also influences how we interact with the world both personally and professionally. In essence, women experience different phases each month, while men tend to feel the same each day.
Considering these fundamental differences in our body’s functioning, it’s reasonable to see other crucial aspects of our daily lives are influenced by hormones as well. One such significant factor is stress.
Stress—a major factor in modern life—is one such area where hormones play a vital role.
How Stress Works with Your Hormones
Stress is something we all experience—a natural response our bodies have to changes in our surroundings. But did you know that stress can affect women differently than men?
For women, two vital hormones are progesterone and cortisol. Progesterone, produced by the ovaries after ovulation, plays a vital role in regulating menstruation and supporting pregnancy. On the other hand, cortisol, often called the “stress hormone,” is made in the adrenal glands and helps manage our body’s stress responses.
The Link Between Stress and Progesterone
Progesterone and stress (cortisol) are both derived from the same precursor molecule, pregnenolone. Normally, the body balances the production of these hormones. However, chronic stress can disrupt this balance. When we’re under prolonged stress, the body prioritizes making more cortisol over other hormones like progesterone.
This is known as the “pregnenolone steal,” where the body diverts pregnenolone to produce extra cortisol, leading to a decrease in progesterone levels.
This hormonal imbalance caused by stress can have significant effects on both our bodies and minds. Physically, it may lead to irregular periods, worsened premenstrual symptoms, difficulties conceiving, and an increased risk of miscarriage. Emotionally, it can cause anxiety, depression, mood swings, irritability, and trouble focusing.
Long-term exposure to high cortisol levels can lead to cortisol resistance, making the body less responsive to cortisol. This creates a cycle where the body tries to produce even more cortisol, further reducing progesterone levels and aggravating the symptoms we mentioned earlier.
Additionally, this imbalance may contribute to conditions like adrenal fatigue, immune issues, chronic inflammation, and metabolic syndrome.
The stress-induced hormonal imbalance also has implications for menopause, a natural phase when progesterone production decreases. If a woman experiences chronic stress during menopause, her already declining progesterone levels can be further depleted due to the demand for cortisol. This can worsen menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, sleep problems, mood changes, and reduced bone density.
Note, progesterone plays a vital role in maintaining pregnancy.
So, chronic stress that leads to decreased progesterone can increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, and postpartum depression.
Progesterone also plays a crucial role in stabilizing mood and sleep. Hence, high stress that lowers progesterone production can increase the likelihood of experiencing depression, insomnia, and menstrual irregularities, as progesterone levels usually peak after ovulation.
In Men, Progesterone Exists as Well, But it’s Not a Dominant Factor in Their Daily Hormonal Cycle Like it is in Women’s Monthly Cycle
Men can keep up their hectic schedules and high-stress jobs while trying to conceive.This is because testosterone is the key dominant hormone in fertility, and their cortisol, the stress hormone, isn’t derived from testosterone.
On the other hand, women aiming to get pregnant may need to slow down and find ways to relax to boost their chances.
Unfortunately, the pressure of modern life has taken its toll. And so many women face infertility issues today. In the US, about 1 in 5 women in their childbearing years struggle to conceive. Why is this happening? Well, societal shifts over the years have encouraged women to adopt lifestyles more akin to men’s, both in personal and professional aspects. While this has brought empowerment, it has also led to certain challenges.
Modern women often work long hours, seldom take breaks, and strive relentlessly to reach the summit of success. With high levels of stress and anxiety, the hormonal balance, especially progesterone, gets disrupted due to elevated cortisol levels. It’s like a domino effect—stress depletes progesterone, and hormonal imbalances emerge, affecting fertility and overall health.
Does this mean women shouldn’t pursue their careers or passions?
Of course not.
But if having a family is on your radar, you might want to prioritize health, hormonal balance, and mental well-being. Neglecting these aspects may lead to difficulties getting pregnant later on.
In the end, it’s all about making mindful choices and nurturing our well-being. And fortunately, there are ways to strike a balance between professional success and self-care.
Taking regular exercise, nourishing diets with minimal processed foods, good sleep habits, and relaxation techniques like breathing exercises can help manage stress levels and support the body’s natural hormonal harmony.