Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reaction to stress: is there difference between men and women?

General body reaction to stress

Stress, which affected humane being through the history, remains an unfortunate fact of a modern life as well. We experience it in varying forms and degrees every day. It is important to understand that the stress we experience is not necessarily harmful. In small doses, stress can actually be beneficial to us. Stress can help compel us to action; it can result in a new awareness and an exciting new perspective. It is only when the stress becomes too great, affecting our physical or mental functioning, that it becomes a problem. It can become destructive and can turn into distress. Too much stress can result in feelings of distrust, rejection, anger, and depression, which in turn can lead to health problems such as headaches, upset stomach, rashes, insomnia, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Stress is the body's reaction to any demand or pressure. These demands are called stressors. The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones epinephrine and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase the body's energy. And sweat is produced to cool the body. All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment.

The trouble is, these stress hormones can continue to circulate in the bloodstream long after the crisis has past, making you feel anxious and tense and unable to function effectively. If the stress is ongoing, the hormone levels can stay elevated, weakening the body over time.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Male and Female hormonal differences

While the picture described above is clear and covers both sexes, recently researchers have found that men and women actually react to stress in different ways due to their biological and evolutionary differences. In fact, the body reaction to the stress involves mainly three, and not two hormones (epinephrine and cortisol), mentioned before. The hormone, which comes to a picture called oxytocin.
When cortisol and epinephrine rush through the bloodstream in a stressful situation, oxytocin comes into play especially for women. It is released from the brain, countering the production of cortisol and epinephrine, and promoting nurturing and relaxing emotions.

While men also secrete the hormone oxytocin when they're stressed, it's in much smaller amounts, producing significantly lighter calming effect. In men, not just the ocytocin production is lower, but also their higher level of testosterone minimizes the effectiveness. On the other hand, estrogen, female sex hormone, strengthens the effects of oxytocin. So, due to the fact that oxytocin is able to reduce stress levels, women actually experience less anxiety in many situations than men do. Oxytocin blocks some of the damaging effects of our stress hormones, which in part, may explain women’s overall better health.

By the way, oxytocin plays a positive role for women in other situations and life stages, such as during breastfeeding, childbirth and also during orgasm.

Difference in behavioral response to stress in men and women

Most people are familiar with the "flight or fight" response to stress, which was considered to be generic and applicable to both sexes.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

However, the recent studies show that it is mostly applicable to men, who feel this impulse, while women produce a different response, called by researchers as "tend and befriend" response.

If evolutionary woman had taken flight or fought back when faced with danger, it would have put her offspring at risk and possibly reduced her reproductive success. Instead, it was in her best interest to react by protecting herself and her offspring ("tend") and bonding with other members of the group, most likely women ("befriend"). Studies of rats as well as humans have shown that when stressed, females prefer to be with others, especially other females, while males prefer to be alone.

Previous studies on human stress response have been conducted almost solely on men (more than 90 per cent of all statistical data) because scientists believed that the monthly fluctuations in hormones experienced by women would create stress responses that varied too widely to be considered statistically valid. As a result, the differences between men and women's responses to stress have been a mystery until now.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

And the differences in the behavioral responses between men and women can be attributed to the hormonal differences, discussed earlier.


While women may have a better protection from stress with oxytocin, than men, the men anti-stress body system is compensated by friendly serotonin. Serotonin is an essential neurotransmitter for handling stress and regulating mood. Unfortunately, women do not produce serotonin as fast as men do, and they use it faster. As a result, when stress uses up a woman’s serotonin, she is then more likely to suffer from a mood disorder like anxiety or depression. Estrogen helps regulate neurotransmitter production, so when estrogen levels begin to slide, these important chemicals are less available to do their job.

Stress and Menopause

The years surrounding menopause are loaded with stress. Even if your hormones weren’t bouncing wildly and ever downward, it is a time of life when life stressors seem to affect you from all directions. You may be dealing with a busy job; your partner’s challenges (or the stress of not having a partner); aging parents; teenage children; or health issues for any of your loved ones, including yourself. Once hormones start to change, your body has one more stressor to cope with. It would make you tired just thinking about what this time of life can offer, never mind dealing with it all.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Just remember that menopause does not lead to the end of your hormones. In a healthy woman, the post-menopause hormone output by the ovaries drops to just 30% of their pre-menopause levels. This is enough to stay happy, especially if the adrenal glands increase their hormone output to pick up the slack. Healthy adrenal glands produce DHEA, which will convert to estrogen and progesterone. Consider the adrenal glands as an internal source of HRT.

Sources and Additional Information:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...