Thursday, February 28, 2013

Relationship Between Cortisol and Estrogen - Part 1

By Maggie McCarey

 Last Saturday, I watched Les Miserables. I enjoyed the movie, felt the characters’ pain, grieved their deaths, but I wasn't a wet mess of tears at the satisfying shmultzy end of the movie.  Just a few days earlier, I was so emotional, I blubbered over a Carnival Cruise Triumph news report. At that time, my left ankle had begun to swell and fill with inflammation, a sure sign that my body was on the verge of a “lipedema break out.”  But why? I had not been sleeping well and I was experiencing a lot of intense emotions. I needed to find out fast.
For some time, two question marks have been bobbing up and down in my brain:  cortisol and estrogen.  I know that cortisol is triggered by stress, one of the major causes of our lipedema inflammation.  And, anyone who has ever had pre-menstrual “blues” knows that overflowing emotion—stress-- is estrogen driven.  But do cortisol and  estrogen work together?  Are they related to each other?  These questions are the subjects of my research and now this blog.  Were cortisol and stress causing me to be a blubbering diva?

Cortisol, Stress, and Inflammation

Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy can help an individual fight or flee a stressor. However, elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Cortisol functions to reduce inflammation in the body, which is good, but over time, these efforts to reduce inflammation also suppress the immune system. Chronic inflammation, caused by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and stress, helps to keep cortisol levels soaring, wreaking havoc on the immune system in the process. (

Translated:  Your adrenal glands are the conveyor belt in the famous I Love Lucy chocolate factory skit, but, rather than chocolates, your factory functions to produce what you need to keep you healthy through both urgent, but momentary, and chronic life-sapping external events. One of its favorite defenses is cortisol, which is produced via cholestrol in the adrenal glands located above your kidneys.  As your body goes through anything from a missed appointment to the death of a loved ones, it calls for cortisol (literally little protein bars stored in the liver).  Obviously, the more chronic your life, the more cortisol you have unleashed until, like Lucy and Ethel shoving chocolates in their mouth, under their hats, and down their fronts, as the conveyor belt speeds faster and faster. Eventually, your adrenal glands burn out but not without a fight. 

Watch Lucy at the Chocolate Factory:  

Our bodies try to store the extra cortisol first. How?

One way to store the extra cortisol is via visceral fat storage. Cortisol can mobilize triglycerides from storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells (those under the muscle, deep in the abdomen). Cortisol also aids adipocytes’ development into mature fat cells. The biochemical process at the cellular level has to do with enzyme control (11-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase), which converts cortisone to cortisol in the adipose tissue. More of these enzymes in the visceral fat cells may mean greater amounts of cortisol produced at the tissue level, adding insult to injury (since the adrenals are already pumping out cortisol). (

Researchers have discovered that cortisol eventually overloads the adrenal glands which work so hard for so long, they eventually produce less active cortisol, and  thus leave the body vulnerable to other hormones like over abundance of estrogen, whose excess is stored forever in the liver.


What is estrogen? It is primarily a combination of three chemical messengers who travel by body fluid to affect all stages of reproduction, sexual behavior, and female characteristics in both men and women.
Estrogen is an entire class of related hormones that includes estriol, estradiol, and estrone. Estriol is made from the placenta. It’s produced during pregnancy. Estradiol is the primary sex hormone of childbearing women. It is formed from developing ovarian follicles. Estradiol is responsible for female characteristics and sexual functioning. Also, estradiol is important to women's bone health. Estradiol contributes to most gynecologic problems, including endometriosis and fibroids and even female cancers. Estrone is widespread throughout the body. It is the only estrogen present after menopause. (
Dr. Christine Northrup, arguably the world’s leading women’s health advocates, explains estrogen balance and dominance so well, I am just crediting it to her and adding it to this blog.  She explains:
The conventional medical mindset is that menopause is an estrogen deficiency disease resulting from ovarian failure. Women have been led to believe that at the slightest symptoms, they should run out and get estrogen replacement. While estrogen levels will decrease during menopause, the truth is, estrogen levels do not fall appreciably until after a woman’s last period. In fact, far more women suffer from the effects of "estrogen dominance" during the transition—that is, they have too much estrogen relative to progesterone. And some women can suffer from the symptoms of estrogen dominance for 10 to 15 years, beginning as early as age 35.

The symptoms listed below, as well as many others, often arise when estrogen over stimulates both the brain and body. All of these symptoms are exacerbated by stress of all kinds. Many women in their thirties and early forties find that they experience moderate to severe symptoms of estrogen dominance as they approach perimenopause.

                            Decreased sex drive
                            Irregular or otherwise abnormal menstrual periods
                            Bloating (water retention)
                            Breast swelling and tenderness
                            Fibrocystic breasts
                            Headaches (especially premenstrually)
                            Mood swings (most often irritability and depression)
                            Weight and/or fat gain (particularly around the abdomen and hips)
                            Cold hands and feet (a symptom of thyroid dysfunction)
                            Hair loss
                            Thyroid dysfunction
                            Sluggish metabolism
                            Foggy thinking, memory loss
                            Trouble sleeping/insomnia

Estrogen dominance has also been linked to allergies, autoimmune disorders, breast cancer, uterine cancer, infertility, ovarian cysts, and increased blood clotting, and is also associated with acceleration of the aging process.

When a woman’s menstrual cycle is normal, estrogen is the dominant hormone for the first two weeks leading up to ovulation. Estrogen is balanced by progesterone during the last two weeks. As a woman enters peri-menopause and begins to experience an ovulatory cycles (that is, cycles where no ovulation occurs), estrogen can often go unopposed, causing symptoms. Skipping ovulation is, however, only one potential factor in estrogen dominance. In industrialized countries such as the United States, there can be many other causes, including:
                            Excess body fat (greater than 28%)
                            Too much stress, resulting in excess amounts of cortisol, insulin, and norepinephrine, which can lead to adrenal exhaustion and can also adversely affect overall hormonal balance
                            A low-fiber diet with excess refined carbohydrates and deficient in nutrients and high quality fats
                            Impaired immune function
                            Environmental agents 

Next: Surprising Research on Estrogen Dominance. Tests at home to determine if your adrenal glands are too fast or to slow.  How I  tested my hypothesis and stopped my estrogen overload with herbs and watched Les Miserables without tears.

Relationship between cortisol and estrogen, part II
Relationship between cortisol and estrogen, part III


  1. Fantastic post! Should be in text books :)

  2. Can you post the link for the next article please?

  3. This is part 2:

  4. symptoms of estrogen deficiency and estrogen dominance appear to be almost exactly the same which is a bit scary, but people should know about this!

  5. Great article. Thanks for sharing. Estriol is not a phyto estrogen. Don’t confuse phyto estrogens with pure natural estriol USP. The natural estrogen, estriol USP, is made the same way natural progesterone USP is made. Sterol analogues found in many varieties of plants are combined with specific bacteria and the resulting hormone is bio identical in chemical structure to the hormone produced by the human body.

  6. I appreciate the post. I am trying to research the question linking adrenal cortisol and adrenal estrogen. I am reading in veterinary journals that the body can produce defective cortisol due to very high estrogen. When this happens the cortisol from the adrenals is seen as defectI've or foreign causing an autoimmune response by the body. Dr Al Plechner rights about this as well. Anyone having insight or data, I would appreciate your input. Thanks

  7. Anthony. Does part 3 address your question at all. I keep thinking if we figure out what leptin and estrogen are chatting about we might move forward a bit. I like where you are going. There is little doubt that estrogen plays a part as many women have their first symptoms during a hormonal milestone.

    1. It helps yes. I have followed Dr Jefferies work as well regarding cortisol. I'm trying so hard to put this all together. It's in the literature somewhere and I will continue to dig and find those clinical visionaries. Great job by the way!!!