Hormones play a crucial role in many bodily functions, including metabolism, growth, and reproductive health. Chronic stress can affect the production of many important hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and DHEA.
When cortisol, the stress hormone, captures more than its fair share of the hormone precursor, pregnenalone, it leads to a phenomenon known as the pregnenolone steal. In this post, we'll explore what the pregnenolone steal is, how it works, and what you can do to prevent or reverse it.
What is the pregnenolone steal?
Steroid hormones are synthesized from cholesterol, which is converted to pregnenolone, a precursor to all steroid hormones. The synthesis of steroid hormones occurs in different organs, including the adrenal glands, ovaries, testes, and placenta.
The adrenal steroid hormone pathway is responsible for the production of cortisol, aldosterone, estrogen, progesterone and the androgens. The steroid hormone pathway is a complex process that involves several enzymes and pathways.
Pregnenolone is the first step in the steroid hormone pathway, and is produced from cholesterol, a conversion that requires vitamin B5, aka pantothenic acid. Pregnenolone serves as a precursor to other steroid hormones, including cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, DHEA and testosterone.
The pregnenolone steal occurs when the body prioritizes the production of stress hormones over sex hormones, leading to imbalances in hormonal levels. This is a sound prioritization when the dangers are real physical threats, as in the olden days, but leads to a variety of problems when the stressors are our modern-day life 24/7 mental and emotional factors.
The impact of the pregnenolone steal are far-reaching. In addition to reducing the production of sex hormones, leading to reduced libido, infertility, fibroids, dysmenorrhea, and more, the pregnenolone steal can affect the function of the cardiovascular system, kidneys, and immune health.
How chronic stress affects hormone production
Chronic stress can impact the production of hormones in various ways. The adrenal glands, which produce cortisol and other hormones, become overactive in response to stress. This can lead to the overproduction of cortisol, which can interfere with the production of other hormones. Over time, the body may prioritize cortisol production at the expense of other hormones, leading to the pregnenolone steal.
The Steroid Hormones Disrupted By Cortisol Imbalance
1. Testosterone: Cortisol can decrease testosterone levels in both men and women, leading to decreased sex drive, reduced muscle mass, and low energy levels.Testosterone is primarily responsible for male reproductive health, but it is also present in women in smaller amounts. Chronic stress can affect testosterone levels by reducing the activity of the testes in men and the ovaries in women. This can lead to a decreased sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and reduced muscle mass.
2. Estrogen: Cortisol can disrupt the balance of estrogen in women, leading to irregular menstrual cycles, hot flashes, and mood changes.Stress can affect estrogen levels in various ways. The adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones like cortisol, also produce a small amount of estrogen. Chronic stress can lead to the overproduction of cortisol, which can interfere with estrogen production. This can lead to imbalances in estrogen levels, which can cause irregular menstrual cycles, mood changes, and decreased libido.
3. Progesterone: Cortisol can interfere with the production of progesterone, which is important for regulating the menstrual cycle and supporting pregnancy. Chronic stress can interfere with progesterone production by reducing the activity of the ovaries. This can lead to hormonal imbalances and irregular menstrual cycles, making it difficult to conceive.
4. DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone): Cortisol can inhibit the production of DHEA, a hormone that helps to counteract the effects of stress on the body and is involved in the production of other sex hormones.
5. Aldosterone: Cortisol and aldosterone are both produced by the adrenal glands, and excess cortisol can interfere with the production of aldosterone, which is important for regulating blood pressure and electrolyte balance.
6. Cortisol itself: In cases of chronic stress, cortisol levels can become imbalanced and either too high or too low, leading to a wide range of physical and mental health problems.
Signs and Symptoms of The Pregnenolone Steal
The pregnenolone steal can manifest in a variety of ways, depending on the individual's hormonal balance and overall health. Common symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, mood changes, and a decreased sex drive. Women may experience irregular menstrual cycles, and men may experience erectile dysfunction or reduced sperm count.
Prevention and Management of The Pregnenolone Steal
Several lifestyle changes can help prevent or reverse the pregnenolone steal.
Managing stress through mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can help balance cortisol levels and promote hormonal balance. A healthy diet rich in nutrients like vitamins C and B complex can also support the adrenal glands and promote hormonal balance. Pregnenolone supplementation is sometimes helpful for a short period of time, and is available over the counter.
There are several ways to boost pregnenolone levels naturally, including getting enough sleep, reducing stress, and eating a healthy diet. Supplements such as DHEA and vitamin C can also help boost pregnenolone levels.
Adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, rhodiola, holy basil, reishi and others can also help support hormonal balance and mitigate the effects of chronic stress.
We dive into more details about ways to balance the body and restore normal hormone balance in the article “Combat Stress and Boost Energy Naturally with These Adrenal-Supporting Herbs and Foods.”
Low testosterone doesn't always require a trip to the doctor for a shot, and in fact that sometimes backfires. It could very well be low testosterone is related to adrenal dysfunction.
I see a lot of low libido even in younger people these days, due to the stress response.
Remember that you can’t control “out there” but you can learn to manage it better “in here.”
In summary, the pregnenolone steal is a complex phenomenon that can have significant effects on hormonal balance and overall health. Understanding the causes and effects of chronic stress on hormone production can help prevent or reverse the effects of the pregnenolone steal.
Incorporating lifestyle changes and supplements can help support hormonal balance. Looking for hidden sources of stress, like infection, gut dysbiosis and mold exposure is crucial to success in restoring balance to the adrenals and sex hormones.
Managing stress and eating a whole foods plant rich diet is critical to sex hormone production as well as overall health. Our FREE resource guide Plant Powered Hormone Balancing Foods is an awesome resource for using the power of foods and herbs to balance adrenal and other hormones.