When women think of their hormones and any problems associated with them, they often think of these issues as belonging to older women. They think of menopause. They think of hot flashes. What a lot of us don’t realize is that our hormones can be impacted at any age and young women in particular can be susceptible to hormonal imbalance.
Although young women benefit from having generally stronger, healthier bodies, they are not immune to everything. Stress, in particular, is universal and something that can affect even young hormones negatively. Whether it be physical or environmental stress, we all feel it, we all experience it. And it manifests itself in our daily lives through lack of sleep, appetite, or energy. Those are the more obvious physical symptoms of stress that we can recognize. But inside our bodies, stress also impacts us at a chemical level. And young women showing higher levels of stress exhibit correlated hormonal imbalance.
When we are stressed, our brain sends a chemical signal (cortisol) that ripples throughout our body in response to the stressor. Cortisol is a steroid hormone made in the adrenal glands. Although it is in charge of many functions, it is primarily known as our stress hormone. High levels of cortisol can be measured through the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis activation. High levels of cortisol caused by stress have been linked to several physical and emotional symptoms such as a change in libido and/or menstrual cycle, and feelings of anxiety or depression.
Estradiol, a form of estrogen, in particular can be inhibited by stress and a constant flood of cortisol. An estrogen steroid hormone, estradiol is responsible for important development and maintenance of female reproductive tissues. It is produced in the follicles of the ovaries and play an important role in ovulation. But estradiol is also linked with a whole host of other responsibilities throughout our bodies. So when estradiol levels are out of whack, we can feel the effects in many different ways. Studies have shown that women with low estradiol levels due to stress have trouble with memory and concentration. High exposure to cortisol can also damage the hippocampus, inhibiting memory retrieval of already stored information. It is very much a domino effect with hormones—when one is triggered, a reactionary chain follows causing a whole host of symptoms.
Low estradiol levels have also been shown to be a good indicator of depression. This may be one of the reasons why depression often follows stress. And again, this works hand-in-hand with our stress hormone, cortisol. High levels of cortisol can also cause anxiety or depression. Estradiol is the predominant circulating estrogen and biological vulnerability and life stresses affects how it interacts with our neurotransmitter and mood regulatory systems.
Our body runs on a delicate balance and any radical swing in one direction or the other can have a ripple effect throughout. Low estradiol can cause problems but so can high estradiol. Studies of early high-dose oral contraceptives have shown higher rates of depression in young women and female suicide attempts have been associated with higher estrogen phases of the menstrual cycle.
Although we would want every woman’s body to run at its most ideal levels, stress is an unavoidable part of life. It would be unreasonable and impossible to ask every woman to eliminate stress from their lives to achieve that.
But how we respond to stress can make an impact. A classic tried and true method of stress relief is exercise. Studies have shown those who exercise show fewer stress symptoms such as mood impairment, anxiety, and depression. And exercise has been proven to be extremely effective in lessening the impact of stress, in particular.
Meditation is also a great way to improve anxiety and stress. Subjects who practiced mindful meditation training have shown significant decreases in stress over those who did not practice any kind of stress relieving exercise. When the mind is less stressed, it flows throughout the body, bringing things back to a more harmonious middle.
And the benefits of trying exercise, meditation, or any other method of stress-reduction are countless. Not only will we experience better sleep, more energy, but also hormone levels can fall back within normal parameters. And the earlier we start these habits, the better. Young women everywhere can help their hormones in the long run by adapting good habits now.
The lowering of stress can also affect a woman’s fertility. The stress of trying affects our estradiol levels and in turn our fertility levels. Estradiol is particularly important for maintaining the eggs inside a female’s ovaries. Lowering estradiol levels due to stress can greatly impact a woman’s fertility. There is that old anecdote repeated to couples trying to conceive that “it’ll happen once you stop trying.” That is based on some truth. Once you release that stress, our bodies run more smoothly and regularly and pregnancy can happen more easily. Health is truly a holistic endeavor where we must take care of all aspects of ourselves—mind, body, and soul.
Our hormones are always changing and reacting to the realities of our lives. And whether young or old, stress is something we can always expect to encounter. But if we take a proactive approach and take care of our bodies, we can help them respond healthily to all life’s stressors.