The human body is comprised of many interconnecting systems which depend upon each other. The reproductive systems of both men and women is no different in that regard. Imbalances in other systems can create imbalance in the reproductive system. In order to understand how and why this occurs, first a basic understanding of how each system functions is necessary.
The Female Reproductive System:
The complexity of the reproductive system is such that the whole brain is involved. The hypothalamus in the brain releases a hormone called Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (or GNRH). GNRH affects another part of the brain called the anterior pituitary which responds by releasing 2 hormones. The luteinizing hormone (LH), and the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). These hormones control the function of the sex organs. In females this includes the ovaries and the uterus. In females, when the pituitary gland receives messages from the brain to produce the luteinizing hormone,it is sent through the bloodstream to the ovaries. The hormone estrogen is also released, activating the eggs in the ovaries. Eventually, an egg will mature through a follicular stage. Another hormone, progesterone, is released in the uterus to help thicken the uterine wall and prepare the body in case pregnancy occurs. Adipose cells around the uterus release other hormones that help in the reproductive cycle as well.
So how does chronic stress affect the female reproductive system from a psychological point of view? Stress disturbs these combination of glands that work together with the brain and the female body. The first change occurs as stress triggers the hypothalamus to produces a hormone which activates the pituitary gland. This signal sends messages to the adrenals to produce a hormone called glucocorticoid. As glucocorticoid travels to the brain, it inhibits the production of the luteinizing hormone (LH). The absence of the LH hormone inhibits the follicular stage from taking place. Additionally, another chemical known as beta endorphin blocks receptors needed to initiate pregnancy and the production of progesterone. This lack of stimulation will affect the whole system, limiting the responsiveness of the pituitary gland as a result.
Stress will not only affect a woman’s capacity to get pregnant but also affects estrogen production in general. Considering the role that estrogen plays in female health, a lack of balance in female hormones put the entire body out of balance. Alternately, when healthy hormonal balance is present, these hormones travel through the bloodstream to various parts of the body, including the brain. As hormones travel to the brain they help to produce and activate vital neurotransmitters such as prolactin, oxytocin and dopamine. When hormones are not in harmony, the bloodstream lacks the optimal amounts of healthy chemical components otherwise contributed by the right amount of hormones. This imbalance also effects libido (the desire to be intimate with spouse).
Stress and libido in women:
To understand how chronic stress feels to a woman in relation to her level of libido, imagine you have just finished eating a large meal and you are completely full. Now imagine that a friend surprises you to take you out to dinner immediately afterwards. The desire to eat is gone, replaced by a full stomach. This can be compared to a woman under chronic stress; libido has been replaced by very little to no desire. What occurs physiologically to make this happen?
The complexity of libido in women is well documented. Everything from the skin, to the brain, to hormones work together to build the desire for intimacy. The skin is comprised of hundreds of sensors that are activated by touch, initiating a desire for intimacy. In order for these sensors to activate, hormonal balance in the woman’s bloodstream must be present. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, plays an important role in libido as well. Chronic stress affects all of these mechanisms. Even if no real danger is present (as is common with chronic stress) even the idea of danger will activate the stress mechanism. With the stress mechanism triggered, higher amounts of cortisol and epinephrine enter the bloodstream, thereby blocking the appropriate amounts of estrogen and other hormones in the blood. Because dopamine is necessary to feel pleasure or anticipate pleasure, the lack of this vital neurotransmitter will negatively affect libio. Chronic stress will deplete the amount of dopamine in the bloodstream, thereby making intimacy less pleasurable. (For more information on the brain in relation to the nervous system and adrenals read our blog, “The Physiology and Psychology of Stress” parts 1 and 2)
Alternately, if a woman is not under chronic stress, the correct amount of hormones are present in the bloodstream. When tactile stimulation is introduced such as a kiss from her spouse,her brain produces oxytocin to help her feel connected to him. Prolactin is also produced, providing the right environment for dopamine and the desire to become intimate with her spouse.
Consequently, chronic stress creates substantial issues with libido, as well as other systems in the body. If stress continues this can affect health and or even initiate depression.
The Stress-Libido Cycle Between Spouses
Too often, husbands misinterpret the reason why their wives don’t want to be intimate. However, when the body is in a state of chronic stress, libido is lowered. The effect that stress plays in particular to women is intertwined with her ability to want to be intimate. Stress can be brought on by a number of factors, especially with the multi-tasking women do today. Rambunctious kids, work, a broken appliance, never-ending laundry and getting stuck in traffic are a few of many examples of stressful events that can add up on any given day. When the husband gets home, and he sees his wife is in a in a bad mood but doesn’t know why, he can start producing negative thoughts of his own. For example, he may view his wife’s lack of physical interest as a personal offense. Over time, if left unresolved, some conflicts may result and the chronic stress continues to be recycled between spouses.
In order to break this cycle, the stress needs to be addressed and there is much, as a spouse that can be done to help with that. Taking time to show empathy during tough days, helping to relieve some of the household burden or lending a listening ear will all help to regulate her hormone levels and decrease stress. Women do enjoy being intimate, it just takes a healthy environment.
In next week’s blog we’ll continue our discussion and talk about how chronic stress affects the male body when it comes to reproduction and intimacy.