Estrogen Dominance, Cortisol, and Trauma

Last weekend I discovered something that I feel is VERY important for trauma survivors. Unfortunately, I only know the women’s side of things, since I’m a woman. I’m not familiar with the implications of all this for men, so you’ll have to do your own research on that. Also, in that light, some of this may feel like TMI for my guy readers. Sorry about that, but it’s important or I wouldn’t bother posting about it. If you work with women trauma survivors, or know any in a capacity in which you can inform them, you might want to read this anyway.

My Background

I’ve suspected that I’ve had hormonal imbalances and adrenal issues for a long time, but it’s a long and expensive road trying to get medical providers on board to do their job and try to figure things out. I believe there are many doctors out there in the USA who sincerely want to help their patients, but they’re just not trained to look at the big picture, nor are they trained to prioritize the most natural, inexpensive, least invasive ways to heal people. It’s not a lack of compassion, it’s just not how a lot of them are trained. Which is unfortunate. So I’m pretty much left to do my own reading.

I have a medical history of: mononucleosis, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, sinus infections, uterine fibroids, depression, anemia, endometriosis, adenomyosis, and the list goes on. I would tend to add fibromyalgia to the list as well, even without a formal diagnosis, because I do struggle with those kinds of symptoms…I just don’t see a doctor for it. Most of the time I feel like I live my life with a dead elephant chained to both legs; I am absolutely exhausted most of the time. Everything — even small daily life tasks — requires enormous effort to pull off. AND, I work a full-time job, am still in the therapeutic process for SRA myself, and somehow manage to juggle a myriad of other responsibilities. Do not ask me how I do this. I’m not being prideful about it; I truly don’t know and couldn’t answer that question. I’m just as confused as anyone else. I have no idea how I manage. But, I do…mostly. Except for the times when I don’t, which is another topic and I’m trying not to get too sidetracked right this second. But suffice it to say that I have complete sympathy and understanding for those who cannot manage to function in this state. And I have no judgement toward you. I truly empathize. Moving on…

So last fall sometime, I started charting my menstrual cycles, along with my basal body temperature, in attempt to evaluate my thyroid function. Because guys, I AM SO TIRED. ALL THE TIME. THIS CAN’T POSSIBLY BE NORMAL. And I’m also on a budget. Have I mentioned that I’m not rich? Yeah, I can’t just skip off to the doctor anytime I have a problem. I can’t miss work, I can’t pay the co-pays, I can’t pay the out-of-pocket, I can’t pay the ER visit. So if I’m going to the doctor, I damn well better be dying. So all my medical issues tend to get put on the back burner until they reach emergency states. Unless I want to do the sleuthing myself, which I suppose is the solution, since I have so much free time on my hands to become a medical expert and doctor myself (sarcasm).

So I read somewhere about how your BBT can indicate thyroid deficiency, and decided it would be a good thing to start tracking. As things do, one thing led to another and I discovered that — at least for the last few months — I have a somewhat low LH surge from month to month. (All of these links will usually be discussing the topics in relation to fertility but they all ALSO mention thyroid and adrenal diseases as potential causes.) Luteinizing hormone (LH) deficiency — like all other hormone imbalances — has a domino effect. LH deficiency often leads to Luteal Phase Deficiency (LPD) which is super important to females trying to conceive children. But for MY purposes, it matters because it means that the next domino to fall is progesterone, and after that, an unhealthy imbalance of estrogen.

As is typical of body chemistry, the interplay of hormones is a dance that has to have a balance to it. Everything is needed for everything else to work properly. Progesterone is needed because it has a balancing effect on estrogen.

Estrogen has gotten a lot of attention because of its relationship to menopause, but it’s actually super important way before menopause is on the horizon. And as many of the articles I read state, estrogen dominance is not as simple as just not producing enough progesterone to balance it out…although right here, right now, in this blog post, that’s where I’m going to start out.

Progesterone, Estrogen, and Cortisol

It’s NOT that simple, but a starting point for understanding all this is the relationship between progesterone and estrogen. You have to have progesterone in order to keep estrogen levels in check. For trauma survivors this becomes especially important, because it’s fair to say that we are — or have been — awash in a sea of cortisol. Remember cortisol? Cortisol is “the stress hormone” released by the adrenal glands. We all have fluctuating cortisol levels at all times, but when someone is repeatedly exposed to trauma, those cortisol levels skyrocket. Which is a life-saving response in the short-term, but those levels cannot stay sky-high. They need to come back down. If they don’t come back down, chronically high cortisol levels can often set the stage for PMS, PMDD, and estrogen dominance. The purpose of a surge of cortisol is to help the person survive; but when survival is repeatedly threatened over a long period of time (or the person perceives this), the elevated cortisol levels become constant. Chronically high cortisol levels can cause a myriad of physical issues of their own.

But back to estrogen dominance…guess where cortisol comes from? Progesterone, the estrogen-balancer.

So in normal circumstances where stress levels are not unusually high, for women, your body would produce progesterone with minimal levels of cortisol. The progesterone would in turn regulate the amount of estrogen in your body and keep it from taking over. But for those who are under chronic stress, progesterone gets converted to cortisol to help deal with the stress. Progesterone is broken down and turned into the stress hormone by necessity. So without adequate progesterone, estrogen levels get too high. This is also especially true in America because our environments and foods are so loaded with chemicals that mimic estrogen — actually called xenoestrogens — and which are processed the same way by our bodies.

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