Women have the privilege of undergoing a myriad of hormone changes throughout their lifecycle, from puberty to menopause and beyond. However, there’s a lesser known hormone cycle in the female body that you probably don’t know about. It is one that happens during times of stress, called the pregnenolone steal.
Pregnenolone is a hormone that the body manufactures from cholesterol, which is produced in the gonads, adrenal glands, and the brain. It is known as a prohormone that builds other hormones including progesterone, cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, and estrogen. For the body to work optimally, you need to produce enough pregnenolone so that it can successfully be converted to these other hormones. This is why adequate cholesterol levels are so important: the body cannot produce pregnenolone without enough of it.
When you become stressed, your body produces cortisol, another hormone with a wide range of effects that can be both positive or negative. Cortisol works with the brain to control mood, motivation, and fear. This hormone drives the critical “fight-or-flight" instinct that dictates how we respond to a crisis situation. Inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar, and energy management are all directly related to the cortisol responses in your body.
However, chronic stress can inhibit many of the important biological processes that are necessary for hormone balance, including the regulation of cortisol and pregnenolone. Chronic stress can heighten cortisol levels for a lengthy period of time. During this time, more of your pregnenolone may end up being dedicated to creating more cortisol. This means you will have lower levels of progesterone, DHEA, testosterone, and estrogen, all important hormones that your body needs for best function.
For example, testosterone supports neuron survival, especially in the brain. That’s why those who have lower testosterone levels for long periods of time may be at an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, estrogen also supports neurons from degradation and aids in preventing dementia. So proper estrogen levels are also important for brain health.
Female hormones demand a delicate balance. Too little or too much of any one hormone can throw the entire system off, causing symptoms such as bloating, fatigue, irritability, and mood swings. These temporary imbalances can lead to more serious, long-term conditions such as blood sugar problems, hair loss, palpitations, or infertility.
Balancing hormones can be tricky, but several natural ingredients may help. Botanical adaptogens have been used for centuries to help the body handle short-term and long-term stress. Some stellar adaptogens include rhodiola rosea, turmeric, and ginseng. Botanicals such as cordyceps and eleuthero root extract can also help to modulate cortisol levels, which in turn can help manage the stress response.
In addition to taking highly beneficial botanical adaptogens, you can help maintain your hormone health by keeping stress levels low. When times get tough, put your mind at ease with quality relaxation time. In addition to a healthy diet and nutritional regimen, meditation, calming yoga practices, or a long walk can work wonders to lower elevated stress levels. Ah, the joy of balanced hormones and a healthy body!