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Cortisol and Testosterone: What is the Impact of Stress on Hormones?

Cortisol and Testosterone: What is the Impact of Stress on Hormones?

By Mike Kocsis | 7 minutes read | Last updated: December 29, 2023
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    Evidence Based Research

    In today’s busy world, stress has become an inevitable part of our modern lives. When it is not managed properly, it can have a profound impact on our mental and physical health.

    While the immediate effects of stress, including restlessness, fatigue and anxiety, are well-known, its long-term effects on hormonal balance and overall well-being are often ignored.

    In this article, we will explore the relationship between stress hormones and testosterone and determine what you can do to maintain your hormonal balance.

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    Understanding cortisol and testosterone

    Cortisol and testosterone are crucial hormones produced in both men and women.

    Cortisol, also called “stress hormone,” is involved in regulating the body’s response to stress. It activates the fight or flight mode and induces certain changes in the body to enable it to handle life-threatening conditions. Some of these changes include an increase in heartbeat, blood sugar levels, and energy production. In addition, it suppresses functions like digestion that become non-essential at the time of danger.

    It is produced by adrenal glands when they are stimulated by the pituitary gland (a pea-sized gland situated at the base brain). Generally, cortisol levels are high in the morning and then decline gradually throughout the day. Your body produces excess cortisol when you are stressed.

    On the other hand, testosterone is a sex hormone mainly known for its role in the development of male secondary sex characteristics, such as the deepening of voice and the appearance of facial hair. It also performs many other crucial roles, including the regulation of bone density, muscle mass and fat distribution.

    In men, it is mainly produced by the testes when they receive signals from the pituitary glands. Testosterone levels fluctuate throughout the day. They are high in the morning and then drop gradually. Testosterone levels naturally decline in men as they age.  

    While both hormones play different roles, they are interconnected to each other. A delicate balance must be maintained between them for overall well-being.

     

    The stress response, cortisol, and testosterone

    There are two kinds of stress, acute and chronic. Acute stress is a short-term problem, while chronic stress is prolonged, during which cortisol levels stay high for an extended period. Both forms of stress can suppress your testosterone levels in different ways, but testosterone reduction caused by acute stress is temporary.

    Chronic stress can cause serious long-term effects on testosterone production in the following ways.

    • Disturbing hypothalamic-pituitary-testicular (HPT) axis: HPT axis primarily controls testosterone production from the testes. Elevated cortisol levels can disrupt HPT function and, eventually, testosterone production.
    • Diminishing testosterone production: Cortisol can reduce the production of luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary, which is required to activate the testes for testosterone formation. When you have low LH levels, your testosterone levels resultantly decline.
    • Accelerating testosterone conversion: Raised cortisol levels increase the aromatase enzyme activity that converts testosterone into oestrogen (a female hormone found only in small amounts in males). This further disturbs the hormonal balance.  

     

    Implications of disrupted hormone balance

    High cortisol and low testosterone levels can affect your overall health in the following ways.

     

    Muscle breakdown

    High cortisol levels are known to cause muscle protein breakdown, leading to loss of muscle mass and muscle strength. 

    Testosterone is important for stimulating muscle protein synthesis and inhibiting muscle fibre degradation. Both effects help maintain muscle mass.

    But your muscle strength reduces when you have high cortisol and low testosterone. It becomes hard to gain muscle no matter how many muscle-building exercises you try.

    Mood changes

    When you have high cortisol levels, you become anxious and irritable. Similarly, low testosterone levels make men less motivated and fatigued. Therefore, a balance in cortisol and testosterone levels is required for emotional well-being and mood regulation in men.

    Decreased sexual function

    Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone controlling various sexual functions in men, including sex drive, sperm formation, and erection. When you do not have enough testosterone to regulate all these functions, your sexual health declines, impacting your relationship with your partner and your self-confidence.

    Low energy levels

    Both testosterone and cortisol regulate energy metabolism. When there is an imbalance in their levels, your body produces less energy, causing lethargy, exhaustion, and reduced motivation.

    Poor cognitive function

    Testosterone regulates different cognitive processes, such as concentration and memory. Hence, low testosterone levels can result in memory retrieval, mental clarity, focus, and problem-solving difficulties. High cortisol levels also produce similar effects.  

    Low bone density

    Testosterone controls bone mineral deposition. Its low concentration can reduce your bone density, making bones brittle and prone to osteoporosis.

    Weight gain

    Testosterone regulates body fat distribution. Its low levels cause fat accumulation, particularly in the abdominal region. High cortisol also increases appetite, resulting in more food intake and weight gain.

     

    Ways to support a healthy cortisol-testosterone balance

    If your hormonal balance is disturbed due to high cortisol levels, here is what you need to do to restore it.

     

    Sleep 8 hours a day

    Studies show that chronic sleep issues like insomnia and sleep apnea lead to hormonal imbalances in men. They not only cause high cortisol levels but also reduce testosterone production. Hence, you should try to get enough sleep every day to maintain your hormone balance.

    Exercise regularly

    Regular exercise reduces stress and improves sleep quality, helping decrease cortisol over time. However, you should not overdo it as it can have the opposite effect. Do low-to-moderate-intensity exercises for 2 to 3 hours every week.

    Implement stress management techniques

    Become mindful, as it will allow you to be more aware of your thought process. Observe the effect of stressful thoughts on your body and try to formulate a conscious reaction to them. This way, you will feel more in control.

    Deep breathing is another stress management technique used to lower stress and cortisol. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces relaxation and restricts cortisol production.

    Have a nutritious diet

    What you eat can influence your cortisol levels. Studies show that the regular intake of a high-added sugar diet and saturated fats significantly increases cortisol levels compared to a diet consisting of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.

    Eat natural food items that support gut health, as a healthy gut microbiome is important for stress management.

    Consider supplements

    Certain supplements like omega-3 fatty acids and ashwagandha may help achieve a healthy cortisol-testosterone balance.

    In a study of 2,724 participants, researchers reported that people having high omega-3 levels had low cortisol and inflammation. Many other studies conducted on the effects of ashwagandha extract show that it can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and cortisol levels.

    Consult with a doctor before taking any supplement.

    Seek medical assistance

    If you have low T symptoms that are disrupting your social, family and work life in different ways, you should consult with a hormone specialist. They will conduct blood tests to assess your current hormone levels and suggest treatments like testosterone replacement therapy (TRT).

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    TRT for hormone balance

    Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is an FDA-approved procedure prescribed to men and women with clinically diagnosed testosterone deficiency. It can be crucial in managing low T symptoms and restoring hormone balance. It provides several benefits, including:

     

    There are different ways to administer testosterone, such as injections, topical gels, pellets, and pills. It is important to consult with a healthcare professional to determine which TRT form is best for you based on your health goals, lifestyle and preferences.

    It is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Professionals design a customised treatment plan for each patient based on his/her individual needs and medical condition. They conduct a comprehensive evaluation to check specific symptoms and medical history before designing the treatment plan.

    TRT is a safe procedure when conducted under the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional. However, it has some potential risks, including acne, breast enlargement, fluid retention, and prostate enlargement, that you can avoid through proper monitoring.

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    Summary

    Stress produces a significant impact on our health and can disrupt hormone balance, leading to serious health problems.

    For men with low T, TRT is one of the most efficient solutions to increase testosterone levels and restore hormone levels. However, the treatment has some potential side effects, so it is best to approach it under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

    At Balance My Hormone, we have qualified personal care managers and hormone therapy specialists who work together to evaluate a patient’s health and design a customised treatment plan. Get in touch with our experts to order a blood test today and find out the underlying cause of your health problem.

     

     

    References/Bibliography/Scientific Studies/Further reading 

    Francis, K.T., 1981. The relationship between high and low trait psychological stress, serum testosterone, and serum cortisol. Experientia37, pp.1296-1297.

    Brownlee, K.K., Moore, A.W. and Hackney, A.C., 2005. Relationship between circulating cortisol and testosterone: influence of physical exercise. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine4, pp.76-83.

    Armario, A. and Castellanos, J.M., 1984. Effect of acute and chronic stress on testosterone secretion in male rats. Journal of endocrinological investigation7, pp.659-661.

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    This article has been researched and written based on scientific evidence and fact sheets that have then been crossed checked by our team of doctors and subject matter experts.

    References, sources and studies used alongside our own in-house research have been cited below, most of which contain external clickable links to reviewed scientific paper that contain date stamped evidence.

    Our team of healthcare experts and GMC registered doctors are licensed to UK GMC standards. We strive to provide you with the latest evidence based, researched articles that are unbiased, honest and provide you with accurate insights, statistics and helpful information on the discussed topic to ensure you gain a better understanding of the subject. You can read more about our Editorial Process by clicking here.

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    About the Author: Mike Kocsis

    Mike KocsisMike Kocsis has an MBA with a focus on healthcare administration and is an entrepreneur and medical case manager for Balance My Hormones Ltd which offers medical services in the UK and Europe. Mike has over 20 years of experience in the healthcare sector, much of that working with people who have hormone imbalances. Mike has appeared on podcasts and radio and is an expert speaker on the subject of hormone imbalance. He specialises in Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and has helped thousands of people suffering from hormone imbalances recover and regain control of their lives. You can follow him on LinkedIn and on the Balance My Hormones YouTube Channel.

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