This Is How Stress Affects Women’s Fertility And Hormones Differently Than It Does In Men

Stress has a much bigger impact on our fertility and hormones than it does for men, which is why it's crucial for us to lower our cortisol if we want healthy menstrual cycles and pregnancies.

By Gina Florio4 min read
Pexels/Alena Shekhovtcova

Women have learned how to adjust to a man's world, particularly in the workforce. The 9-5 hours of the workday may seem like they would be suitable for everyone, but this schedule is actually perfectly tailored to men. Men experience a daily hormonal cycle, most notably demonstrated by the testosterone levels in their bodies. Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, follows a diurnal rhythm; its concentration in the body peaks in the early morning hours and gradually diminishes throughout the day, making the 9-5 workday suitable for their daily cycles.

Women, on the other hand, experience a more complex hormonal cycle, the menstrual cycle, which spans approximately 28 days (though it can range between 21 and 35 days). This cycle involves fluctuating levels of several hormones, including estrogen and progesterone. This cyclical nature of women's hormones means that women can experience significant hormonal fluctuations throughout the month, which means they will interact with the world, both personally and professionally, differently throughout the month. Put simply, men are the same every single day while women will feel different each phase of the month.

If our bodies function this differently from a cyclical point of view, surely there are other crucial hormonal differences that affect our day-to-day life. One of these big differences is stress.

Stress Has an Intimate Relationship with Your Progesterone

Stress is a universal human experience, a body's natural reaction to changes in the environment. You might think that stress functions the same in everyone's bodies. To a certain extent, that's true. In both and women, it suppresses non-emergency bodily functions like the immune response and digestion, curbs functions that would be nonessential in a fight or flight situation, and enhances the body's ability to repair tissues. However, the way it is produced in women's bodies is distinctive and stress can affect women uniquely due to the physiological differences between men and women. Understanding these differences requires delving into the role hormones play in the body, particularly those of women.

Progesterone and cortisol are two hormones crucial for women's health.

Progesterone and cortisol are two hormones crucial for women's health. Progesterone, produced by the ovaries after ovulation, plays a vital role in regulating menstruation and maintaining pregnancy. Cortisol, also known as the "stress hormone", is made in the adrenal glands and is responsible for managing stress responses in the body. Interestingly, progesterone and cortisol share a close link: they are both derived from the same precursor molecule, pregnenolone.

Under normal conditions, the body carefully manages the balance between progesterone and cortisol. However, when a woman is under chronic stress, this hormonal balance can be disturbed. This is because the body prioritizes cortisol production over other hormones when under stress, a response called the "pregnenolone steal". The body will divert pregnenolone, which could have been used to produce progesterone, to produce more cortisol. This causes a drop in progesterone levels and a corresponding increase in cortisol levels.

The result of this stress-induced hormonal imbalance can be quite significant and wide-ranging. Lower levels of progesterone and higher levels of cortisol can lead to several physical and psychological symptoms. On a physical level, this hormonal imbalance may contribute to irregular periods, increased premenstrual symptoms, difficulty conceiving, and increased risk of miscarriage. Meanwhile, psychological symptoms can include anxiety, depression, mood swings, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.

Additionally, prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can lead to cortisol resistance, where the body becomes less responsive to cortisol. This can perpetuate a vicious cycle of stress, as the body attempts to produce even more cortisol in response to the resistance, thereby further reducing progesterone levels. This can exacerbate the aforementioned physical and psychological symptoms and may lead to more severe health conditions such as adrenal fatigue, immune dysregulation, chronic inflammation, and metabolic syndrome.

This stress-induced hormonal imbalance also has implications for menopause, a time when progesterone production naturally decreases. If a woman undergoing menopause experiences chronic stress, her already diminishing progesterone levels can be further depleted due to the demand for cortisol. This can exacerbate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, sleep disturbances, mood changes, and decreased bone density.

Additionally, progesterone is crucial for maintaining pregnancy, so chronic stress (which results in depleted progesterone) can increase risks of miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, and postpartum depression. Progesterone is known as the key mood and sleep stabilizer, so having high stress that lowers progesterone production can also increase your likelihood of suffering from depression, insomnia, and menstrual irregularity, as progesterone peaks right after ovulation.

Stress Affects Men and Women's Fertility Differently

Men certainly have progesterone in their body as well, but it's not a dominant hormone in their daily hormone cycle in the way that it is in a woman's monthly cycle. Additionally, progesterone isn't a key hormone in men's fertility; testosterone is, and their cortisol is not made from their testosterone. So while stress certainly does have an impact on men's health, it doesn't affect their fertility and daily hormonal cycle the same way it does for women. Understanding this is extremely important so couples can take the necessary steps to prepare themselves for pregnancy if that is in their family plans.

1 out of every 5 women in their childbearing years are infertile.

While men can continue on with their high-stress jobs and schedules when they're trying to conceive, women generally need to slow down and try to relax if they want to get pregnant. This helps us understand why so many more women are struggling with infertility today in the United States. According to the CDC, 1 out of every 5 women in their childbearing years are infertile (meaning they haven't been able to get pregnant after trying for a year). When you take a step back and look at how many women attempt to live life like a man, it starts to make sense. Feminism and even the sexual revolution taught women that they can behave and act like men, both personally and professionally. And so women began having promiscuous sex and prioritizing their career above everything else. Just like Gloria Steinem said in a famous quote, "We are becoming the men we wanted to marry."

Women work 50-60 hour workweeks, hardly take vacations, and work tirelessly to achieve the status of girlboss. They're stressed and anxious. Of course they are struggling to get pregnant or dealing with hormonal imbalances—their progesterone is depleted from the high levels of cortisol in their bodies. This doesn't mean that women should never work, but it does mean that if women want to have a family one day and prioritize motherhood, they have to begin thinking critically about their health, their hormonal balance, and their mental wellness. Otherwise they'll find themselves to be 35 years old and desperately trying to get pregnant because they've spent the last 10 years stressing themselves out at a fast-paced job.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There are plenty of ways to still enjoy professional success while also caring for your body and slowing down on a regular basis. Exercise regularly, eat a nutrient-dense diet that contains little to no processed foods, sleep well, and prioritize relaxing techniques such as breathing exercises and meditation that will help manage stress levels and support the body's natural hormonal balance.

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