How stress affects your hormones - the pregnenolone steal
Did you know that all our sex hormones are made from cholesterol? Cholesterol gets a lot of bad press, but actually, it`s really important. Not only are our cell walls a mixture of cholesterol and phospholipids, but our hormones are built from it too. If you are underweight, or have very low cholesterol and hormone problems, a good idea is to look at how much healthy fat you are acquiring through your diet and if it`s not much, you should increase it.
Assuming you have the right amount of cholesterol in your diet...
The first step in our bodies creating our sex hormones is a phase that makes the hormone Pregnenolone. This is the master hormone and all the other sex hormones are made from it. It`s a bit like a big bag of flour in so much as so many things can be made from it - cakes, breads, pastas, biscuits etc...
Have a look at the diagram below:
Once pregnenolone has been made, The body will assess which hormone it needs at that current moment. If it needs more oestrogen (estrone and estradiol, the pregnenalone will go to the right of the diagram and make DHEA (another master hormone) then head down the route to oestrogen production. If the body needs more progesterone, the pregnenalone will head to the left and make progesterone.
Progesterone is like a warm, fuzzy blanket or a good cup of tea on a cold day. It is the opposite hormone to oestrogen. Oestrogen is all about growth and vigour whilst progesterone is calming and nurturing. It eases anxiety and helps you sleep better. It`s progesterone`s job to maintain a healthy pregnancy, the name itself means "promoting gestation". It is known to be supportive for breast health, cardiovascular health and nervous system health amongst many other roles.
Here`s the problem; When we are dealing with stress, our body has to make cortisol to help support us during this time. Do you see where Cortisol is on the diagram? it`s right underneath progesterone. If we need more cortisol to deal with constant stress - be it physical, emotional or environmental, our body will prioritise cortisol production and our stocks of progesterone will be converted to make it. This leaves us with little to no progesterone. This is known as the "pregnenolone steal".
In an ideal situation, we aren`t dealing with ongoing stress, or we have learned to adapt to it well. If this is the case, there is no need for our body to keep jumping to the cortisol route and we can settle happily at the progesterone stage.
Imbalances between progesterone and oestrogen
If we don`t have enough progesterone (and many, many women don`t) then things can get a bit unruly. The vigorous and energetic oestrogen can be out of balance in comparison to progesterone and we can get a little manic, both mood-wise and physically. A situation ensues where we become "oestrogen dominant" meaning that we have more oestrogen in comparison to progesterone than what it should be. Interestingly, it is possible to have low levels of oestrogen and still be oestrogen dominant if progesterone is very low. If we are oestrogen dominant, we can get very troublesome symptoms related to PMT and menses can be heavy and painful. We can develop fibroids and polyps or suffer with endometriosis. It`s a situation that needs balancing.
If you want to conceive and you are in this situation, it can be very difficult. Without enough progesterone, we can struggle to ovulate (release an egg) or the uterus can struggle to maintain a pregnancy.
How to balance
Firstly, you need to look at what is causing you so much stress. Is it something that can be changed? Do you need to ask for support from a loved one to share the load or do you need to make an important decision that could help you move away from it. Perhaps it is historic trauma that could be worked on with a trained therapist? You must do something about it if you can, otherwise you will keep going back around in circles.
The next thing to do is to look at your diet and how much sugar and refined carbohydrates you are eating. Refined carbohydrates convert to glucose very quickly. High insulin increases the production of oestrogen and before you know it, your scales have tipped in favour of oestrogen rather than progesterone.
Avoid colourings, additives and preservatives - all chemicals that can be endocrine disruptors (mess with your hormone balance).
Alcohol - particularly red wine can cause a tendency towards oestrogen dominance, as does caffeine.
Soy can be aggravating if you are high on the oestrogen side of balance.
Dairy products contain high amounts of oestrogen, as does red meat - particularly if it is not organic.
Tap and bottled water - Bottled water leaches xenoestrogenic compounds (bad guys) out of the plastic, where as tap water can contain animal based oestrogen from land run off and traces of hormonal contraception compounds.
What do you have in your makeup bag, shower or cleaning cupboard? Take a read of my xenoestrogens information to read all about how they disrupt the delicate balance between oestrogen and progesterone.
Take a look at my information sheet all about oestrogen dominance to learn more.