Tight muscles, rapid heartbeat, upset stomach—we’ve all experienced the physiological effects of stress on our bodies. The way men and women experience chronic stress both physically and psychologically is different however. Women are twice as likely to suffer from panic disorder than their male counterparts, and experience depression, PTSD, insomnia and migraines at a much higher rate. The reason for this may be rooted in science.
At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience held in Chicago this past fall, findings were revealed that explore differences in the way specific brain cells in male and female animals react to stress hormones. Those differences point to evidence that men adapt to chronic stress much better than women, and suffer fewer physical consequences. According to Temple University psychologist, Debra Bangasser, “Some differences may contribute to disease and some may not,” “But given that it’s early days in this understudied area, we’re already finding interesting things.”
Scientists have observed in laboratory animals that both males and females respond to sudden, acute stress in much the same manner. When exposed to chronic stress over a longer period of time however, males seem to adapt to environmental stressors much better, even when the threat has been removed. Conversely, females continue to carry the effects of stress much longer. While this may have created an evolutionary advantage in women who needed to remain alert in order to protect their young, trouble develops, “when the system is responding when it shouldn’t be or when it’s responding for a really long time in a way that becomes disruptive”, adds Bangasser.
Cellular Differences In Men and Women
If researchers can isolate cellular activity in the brain that provokes different stress responses in both men and women, there is hope that this understanding could lead to better treatment of stress-related disorders.
To be sure, sex hormones play a large part in the nervous systems of both genders. Male sex hormones are present before and after birth. At puberty, estrogen and progesterone released into the female brain, and testosterone produced in males signals cells to regulate specific genes. How these hormone changes occur, and their different influences on reactions in males and females has been studied by Bangasser by inducing stress in rodents.
By observing behavior in rats and how hormones interact with corticotropin, a neuropeptide in the brain, valuable information can be gained. In recent experiments, Bangassar reports that male rat neurons appear to decrease the number of receptors located on the cell membrane once a stressful event is over. Female neurons do not. Because of this, a state of hyper-readiness occurs in females.
Permanent Changes and Other Hormones
When the body operates in continuous alert mode, stress hormones can actually modify DNA, according to neuroscientist Georgia Hodes at Mount Sinai, New York. It is these modifications that may increase women’s’ vulnerability to depression and other mood disorders.
Psychologist Brian Trainor at the University of California, Davis has found another hormone, oxytocin that also plays a role in gender differences and handling stress. It appears that high levels of the feel good, “bonding” hormone in women may actually increase levels of anxiety after a stressful event. Trainor believes that these findings will support change in the way the medical community treats individuals for mood disorders. “It’s only a matter of time,” he says, before medications for anxiety and depression are formulated differently for men and women to account for biological differences.
Our Body’s Reaction To Stress
From a physical standpoint, stress affects the human body in a myriad of ways. Several systems react to tension, both immediately, and in the long-term. The musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems are all involved in the reaction to stress.
Musculoskeletal System—Muscles tense up to guard the body against pain and injury.
Respiratory System—Rapid breathing occurs.
Cardiovascular—Heart muscles contract and blood vessels to the heart dilate to direct blood to large muscles, necessary for fight or flight.
Endocrine—The body produces hormones that provide energy to respond to danger.
Liver—In response to the release of cortisol and epinephrine, the liver produces more glucose.
Gastrointestinal—Heartburn or acid reflux may occur during bouts of stress, as well as nausea, stomach pain, or diarrhea.
Nervous System—The autonomic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response necessary to react to stress.
Male Reproductive System—Chronic stress can lead to low testosterone, reduced sperm production, and erectile dysfunction.
Female Reproductive System—Menstruation can become irregular, premenstrual syndrome symptoms may escalate, and menopausal effects may be worse as a response to stress. Sexual desire may be reduced as well.
Help Naturally Through Nutritional Support
Diet plays a key role in effective stress management. Unfortunately we don’t always get the nutrients we need through diet alone. Additional support may be needed through dietary supplements.
AGED GARLIC EXTRACT FORMULA 101 STRESS & FATIGUE – 100 TABLETS – KYOLIC
Aged Garlic Extract, blended with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and vitamins B1, B6 and B12 works to naturally balance mental, emotional, and physical health by soothing stress and strengthening the immune system.
STRESS-RELAX SERENITY FORMULA – 60 CAPS – NATURAL FACTORS
Aids the body naturally with occasional stress through a unique combination of herbal extracts.
SAME ISO ACTIVE 200MG – 60 TABS – NATURAL FACTORS
Aids in the biosynthesis of hormones that affect mood, such as dopamine and serotonin. Supports cartilage and joint health as well.
Biological processes play an important role in the way both men and women respond to stress. The prevalence of certain physical and mental conditions such as, infectious diseases, hypertension, and drug abuse in men, and chronic pain, depression, and anxiety in women further underscores the need for continued research on the effects of stress and gender. Advances in medical treatment rely on our clinical understanding of the ways in which men and women differ.