Have you heard of Estrogen and stress hormones? Have you ever wondered if your ability to cope with stress is different at different stages of your Menstrual cycle? Today we are going to talk about whether the rise in Estrogen can dampen your stress hormones.
What are stress hormones?
Stress hormones are hormones that our bodies release in response to stress. One of the main stress hormones is called cortisol. This is a biological that allows our body to co-ordinate a survival strategy in response to stress (e.g. running away from a tiger). The stress response has a clear, biological function in terms of survival when the stressor could kill us. In modern life, most stressors are not going to kill us. Instead, they exist in our lives for long periods of time.
This can lead to the long-term activation of the stress response and increased levels of hormones such as cortisol. The stress response was not meant to be activated long-term. It should stop when we successfully avoided being eaten by a tiger so long-term activation of the stress response can have negative effects on our health.
What does estrogen have to do with stress hormones?
We know that all of our different hormone systems influence each other.
There has been some suggestion that the sex hormones (Estrogen, Progesterone, etc) can affect the levels of cortisol that our bodies release in response to stress. It has been suggested that at different times in our menstrual cycle, we might respond differently to stressful situations. Unfortunately, the research into this doesn’t have very clear results.
What do we know about Estrogen and stress hormones?
Some studies have shown that during the Follicular phase (first half of the menstrual cycle) the increase in cortisol that comes with stress is less than in the Luteal phase (second half of the menstrual cycle)1,2. This suggests that the rising Estrogen is working to dampen cortisol production in response to stress.
Other studies have shown the opposite3. Some studies have concluded that some people are just better at dealing with stress than others4. This means that other factors (like emotional regulation abilities) might be influencing the stress response, rather than the hormones of the Menstrual cycle.
What about menopause?
Some studies have been done comparing Postmenopausal women (low Estrogen) to Premenopausal women (higher Estrogen). One such study found that Postmenopausal women had less of a cortisol rise in response to stress, and coped better with stress overall5. There are a lot of factors that could influence this though, including age and life experience. It is hard to tell what the role of hormones was in these findings.
Inconsistencies in the studies
The research looking into this idea has all been very different. The studies have all had very different methods and designs. Another complicating factor is that different studies use different criteria to work out where women are in their cycles or what their hormone levels are.
Some studies ask women to tell the researchers where they are in their cycle. Some measure the hormones. Others use the follicular phase as a “low Estrogen” state and the Luteal phase as a “high Estrogen” state and others use the opposite.
The reason for this is that the hormone levels are changing all the time. For most of the follicular phase, Estrogen is low, but then it increases just at the end, before Ovulation. This means that it is hard to know whether findings that are related to high Estrogen can be applied to the whole period in the Menstrual cycle or just the day the Estrogen level was measured.
So, what now?
Generally, researchers tend to agree that Estrogen might have an effect on lowering cortisol levels in response to stress6. This means that there needs to be more consistent research into this to know for sure though.
- Montero-López E, Santos-Ruiz A, García-Ríos MC, Rodríguez-Blázquez M, Rogers HL, Peralta-Ramírez MI. The relationship between the menstrual cycle and cortisol secretion: Daily and stress-invoked cortisol patterns. Int J Psychophysiol. 2018;131:67–72.
- Walder DJ, Statucka M, Daly MP, Axen K, Haber M. Biological sex and menstrual cycle phase modulation of cortisol levels and psychiatric symptoms in a non-clinical sample of young adults. Psychiatry Res. 2012;197(3):314–21.
- Hamidovic A, Karapetyan K, Serdarevic F, Choi SH, Eisenlohr-Moul T, Pinna G. Higher circulating cortisol in the follicular vs. Luteal phase of the menstrual cycle: A meta-analysis. Vol. 11, Frontiers in Endocrinology. Switzerland: Frontiers Research Foundation; 2020. p. 1–12.
- Manikandan S, Nillni YI, Zvolensky MJ, Rohan KJ, Carkeek KR, Leyro TM. The role of emotion regulation in the experience of menstrual symptoms and perceived control over anxiety-related events across the menstrual cycle. Arch Womens Ment Health. 2016;19(6):1109–17.
- Villada C, Espin L, Hidalgo V, Rubagotti S, Sgoifo A, Salvador A. The influence of coping strategies and behavior on the physiological response to social stress in women: The role of age and menstrual cycle phase. Physiol Behav. 2017;170:37–46.
- Maki PM, Mordecai KL, Rubin LH, Sundermann E, Savarese A, Eatough E, et al. Menstrual cycle effects on cortisol responsivity and emotional retrieval following a psychosocial stressor. Horm Behav. 2015;74:201–8.
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