Lower Estrogen Levels May Change Women's Response to Stress

Patient Expert

Feeling more stressed than you used to feel when you were in your 20s? Obviously, you can chalk this up to a really busy life, but you also may be able to point to our changing body chemistry as part of the culprit.

New research has found that estrogen may allow women to respond better to repeated stress. The researchers found that young female rats that were stressed by a week of periodic physical restraint did not have any impairment in their ability to remember and recognize objects that they had been show earlier. In comparison, young males that were exposed to the same type of conditions scored lower on the short-term memory tests. However, when researchers lowered estrogen levels in the brain of female rats, they found that these rats performed at the same levels as the males. The researchers focused on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls high-level executive functions such as planning, decision-making and memory.

The researchers do not understand how estrogen protects against stress, although they plan to study this aspect in future studies. They hypothesize that estrogen may affect the release of stress hormones or has a direct effect on the prefrontal cortex's receptors of glutamate, which is an amino acid that is involved in memory and planning tasks.

While this study did not focus on menopause per say, I think it wouldn't be a great leap to realize that women's ability to tolerate stress diminishes as we go through menopause, which is when our estrogen levels plummet. And that can give us a recipe for craziness since the menopausal transition can be very stressful because of hormonal changes that lead to hot flashes and disrupted sleep. And when you add on lifestyle issues such as elder care, midlife spouses, teenagers and career changes that we all are fading, you can see why you may not be responding to stress as well as you used to.

Therefore, it's important to develop some stress-relieving habits that you can use on a regular basis. What options should be in your stress-relieving tool box? The North American Menopause Society recommends the following:

  • Exercise, which reduces stress and also helps you remain healthy.
  • Eating a healthy diet and snacks that includes fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts and yogurt.
  • Relax through participating in a mind-body program in your community. For example, Massachusetts General Hospital's Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine offers a program that is designed to reduce the impact of stress through teaching women about skills that have been shown to improve medical symptoms, mood and well-being. The goals of the program are: understanding the link between stress and physical and emotional health; reducing physical symptoms; appreciating the role that positive thoughts and believes have in supporting mind body healing; learning how to turn off stress through new behaviors and attitudes; developing skills that prompt the relaxation response; learning the importance of healthy eating and physical activity to overall health; and regaining a sense of control in making informed medical choices that promote lifelong health.
  • Limit caffeine, which elevates the level of cortisol in your body. Cortisol is the hormone that is involved in stress.
  • Pamper yourself by doing things you enjoy, whether it's a mani/pedi, a massage or a relaxing bath.
  • Find a creative outlet, whether through a hobby or taking a class.
  • Get enough sleep. Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep daily.
  • Avoid alcohol, which can interfere with sleep quality.
  • Learn techniques of deep breathing, positive thinking, hypnosis and meditation through books, CDs, videos or community classes.
  • Try guided imagery to achieve a state of deep relaxation. This technique involves closing your eyes and visualizing a scene from your memory that brings you joy. Try to remain in that scene for several minutes, thus letting your brain to bask in the pleasurable experience.

Primary Source for This Sharepost:

Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Integration. (nd). Mind body program for women. Massachusetts General Hospital.

Pandika, M. (2013). Females respond better to stress, thanks to estrogen, study says. Los Angeles Times.

The North American Menopause Society. (nd). Stress: Getting serious about solutions.