I have long held that being a highly sensitive person a great asset. Learning how to be a sensitive person, however, in an insensitive world, is the key—but once mastered, the rewards are great, especially for women!13
A 2015 study in the journal Psychonueroendocrinology suggests that women experience 2-3x the stress and mood-related concerns that men do,1 but to say who handles stress better is complex and controversial. Many studies have failed to show that men handle stress better than women, but there is no doubt that women are more sensitive, aware, and intuitive.12,13
From puberty to menopause, women seem to be more sensitive to stress than men, but depending on the where women are in their menstrual cycles, studies show that women can handle stress better than men.3
The limbic emotional center in a female brain is more active than in a male brain, allowing women feel more, be more aware, and remember emotional up and downs with greater clarity—for good reason.2
New research finds a strong relationship between stress and the female reproductive system, which clearly has something to do with women being better able to sense danger and protect a newborn. It makes sense that women would have a stronger response to stress, be more aware, and have more intuition because such awareness, called “spidey sense” by our military, was required to protect the species from harm or extinction.
As it turns out, in the female limbic system that processes emotion, there is a higher concentration of cortisol (stress) receptors that may boost a stress, or survival, response. In women, the highest concentration of estrogen receptors in the brain is found in the emotional centers. When estrogen levels are high, during times of fertility and pregnancy, the estrogen receptors in the limbic emotional cortex are activated to boost sensitivity, awareness, intuition, and more.1,12,13
Are Women Superior?
Stay tuned for an article on whether or not women are superior to men. Until then, the science is very clear that the female hormonal system provides women with periods of super awareness, intuition, and intelligence that men just do not have. Once again, these hormonal shifts are geared to boost maternal instincts in order to protect children.
One study designed to explain the biology of intuition states, “Female superiority in terms of nonverbal behavior decoding skill and an estrogen-mediated striatal increased performance function on sequential learning tasks, provide empirical and anecdotal corroboration of a biologically based female advantage on many complex intuitive social cognition tasks. These female advantages seem to be manifest in enhanced cortical–subcortical connectivity.”13
In English, women are more intuitive, they are smarter due to increased brain activity, they learn faster, and are more social due to their boost in estrogen and the estrogen receptors in the brain that men do not have.13
Stress + HPA Axis
Estrogen levels increase during the first half of the menstrual cycle (the follicular phase) and decrease during the second (the luteal phase). If the woman becomes pregnant, estrogen levels stay high during the entire pregnancy, providing the woman with estrogen-mediated activation of the estrogen receptors in the emotional cortex. During the first half of the cycle, during the period of increasing fertility, estrogen levels also surge and, once again, higher estrogen provides heightened sensitivity, awareness, intelligence, and intuition.13
When pregnancy does not happen, the second half of the cycle is associated with lower levels of estrogen, which, when not in balance, can cause hypersensitivity and related issues, such as PMS.1,3
Stress, in its many forms, can predispose both women and men to dysregulation in the natural ebb and flow of these hormones and the body’s main stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis bridges the stress gap between the central nervous system and the endocrine or hormonal system. Dysregulation of the HPA due to excess stress has been linked to PMS related hypersensitivity in women during the second half of the menstrual cycle when a natural lower estrogen period can dip too low and cause sensitivity concerns.
Basically, the HPA works like this: when the body perceives stress, the hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary gland to release a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone, which binds to receptors on the adrenal glands to release stress-fighting hormones, such as cortisol.
Repetitive physical, mental, emotional, or chemical stress can potentially dysregulate the balanced function of the HPA, causing a host of nervous system, emotional, and hormonal health concerns, including hypersensitivity, burnout, fatigue, moodiness, memory concerns, weight gain, sleep, blood sugar concerns, and much more.4, 6 The perfect storm can happen when chronic stress disturbs the HPA and the intimate relationship to the ebb and flow of reproductive hormones.
The Ayurvedic HPA
According to Ayurveda, there are two major sources energy, or vata, that balance the nervous and endocrine hormonal systems: prana and apana. Prana is the life force that brings energy up to the central nervous system and brain, while apana brings energy down, regulating adrenal, reproductive, and eliminative function. Prana or qi energy has recently been linked to newly discovered subtle energy particles called biophotons or bioelectrons, which are the body’s subtle energy information carriers.11
The prana in the HPA represents the hypothalamic-pituitary production of ACTH, which then drives the production of adrenal stress hormones regulated by the downward moving apana vata. If stress is excessive, there can be overstimulation of the prana vata (mental-emotional stress) and a depletion of the apana vata (adrenal and reproductive energy), leaving the body fatigued, depleted, and susceptible to the list of HPA-related health concerns cited above.
There is an old saying in Ayurveda that if the prana and apana are in balance, the entire body is in balance. If the prana and apana are out of balance, the whole body will be out of balance. The same can be said about the HPA. If the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is balanced, then the whole body will be balanced, and if the HPA is dysregulated, the whole body will be out of balance.
When peri- and post-menopause are imbalanced due to stress, they can contribute to HPA dysregulation. As estrogen and progesterone levels, regulated by apana vata, become depleted from mental-emotional stress during peri- or post-menopause, prana vata can be depleted or overstimulated, rendering the HPA dysregulated.
Both estrogen and progesterone provide protection to the HPA and buffer an overactive stress response. As these hormones decline with age, stress, and menopause, the HPA can dysregulate, which has been linked to issues related to PMS, sleep, irritability, sadness, and worry.4
HPA + EMFs
Cell phones, screentime, wifi, and other electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) may dysregulate the HPA. Studies in mice show that exposure to EMFs can disturb the HPA and thus dysregulate the body’s natural stress response.7
While there is more to come on this issue, to be safe and protect your HPA, be sure that your cellphone, computer, or iPad device is not on or next to you while sleeping. Melatonin production at night is directly linked to healthy HPA function.6
In women, oral contraceptives have been shown to dysregulate the HPA by blunting the brain’s receptivity to cortisol or a natural stress response, suggesting that oral contraceptive use may not be considered a beneficial long-term treatment.5
HPA + Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) may be one of the world’s most well-studied herbal adaptogens or supports for stress. Helping the body adapt to stress, rather than be overstimulated by it, is key to protecting your HPA adrenal hormonal function for a lifetime.
Ashwagandha has been shown to support women in times of stress, while supporting healthy function of the endocrine and central nervous systems.8,10 In one study, 29 subjects were given either ashwagandha or a placebo to measure effect on stress-related mood concerns. In the group that took ashwagandha, 88% reported significant benefit, compared to only 50% of the placebo group.9
We RecommendAshwagandha for Anxiety, Stress, and Sleep
A More Balanced Life
Ayurveda suggests that we learn to recognize when we are pushing too hard, regularly overstimulated, overreacting to stress, and finding ourselves too sensitive or irritable. Learning how to calm ourselves with yoga, breathing, meditation, diet, and lifestyle in sync with the effortless flow of nature’s rhythms are the foundations of Ayurveda.
To learn more about living a more balanced life, consider my Yoga Journal course Ayurveda 101 and or our new course, Ayurveda 201: Ayurvedic Psychology, to help find that peace, calm, and joy that lives inside all of us.
Learn my free One-Minute Meditation here to get started.