Feeling stressed is a reality for most of us at the moment. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, with second waves of the virus trying to emerge across Australia. I wanted to blog specifically about stress and men’s health because it’s not often focused on. Stress can impact specific aspects of men’s health, some might be obvious and others not so much.
There are three main topics of concern that always come up when talking about stress and men’s health:
- Hair loss
- Testosterone levels
Long term stress management is obviously the number 1 solution. I have spoken about building your resilience to stress in previous posts. I wanted to highlight the short term solutions that naturopathy can offer to assist these problems.
Herbal medicine is really amazing when it comes to hormone work. It has been commonly spoken about for women’s health, but it can do so much for men’s health too. Herbal medicine is able to modulate hormones through several mechanisms of action:
- Detoxification of hormones
- Signalling and feedback between the hypothalamus and the adrenals/ovaries/gonads
- Inhibition of certain enzyme pathways
- Acting as an agonist or antagonist at a receptor site
So let’s explore the three main concerns when it comes down to stress and men’s health.
A herb I have focused on a lot lately is called Saw Palmetto or Serenoa repens. This herb has an “anti-androgen” effect, which means it has been shown to inhibit an enzyme called 5 alpha-reductase. 5 alpha-reductase converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
DHT has been shown to reduce the size of hair follicles, contributing to androgenic alopecia. Androgenic alopecia is the loss of hair from the front corners of the hair line, where the hairline recedes to an M shape. This also includes typical thinning of hair at the crown of the head.
By targeting this enzyme, we usually see a reduction in hair fall within a few weeks, specifically if they reported an exacerbation of hair loss with the onset of stress.
Hormone work is complex, so don’t go out and start mega dosing on saw palmetto because you want to stop your hair falling out.
By working with the 5 alpha-reductase enzyme, we are mimicking an “anti-androgen” mechanism of action. This anti-androgen action is actually a group of pharmaceutical drugs in itself. A potential side effect from these medicines can be a condition called gynaecomastia.
Gynaecomastia is the development of breast tissue in men. This happens because DHT is actually up to 6 times more active than regular testosterone. If we are inhibiting the cascade of testosterone into DHT, that allows the potential for oestrogen to become more dominant.
I mention this because many men experience varying degrees of gynaecomastia following use of anabolic steroids. It is likely that users of steroids will also experience hormone imbalances and issues with hair loss, so they may be the type of patient you will work on this enzyme with. It is important to consider the potential to exacerbate this condition as steroid use is quite common.
When we work with hair loss and the 5 alpha-reductase enzyme it is important to support hormonal balance using a range of herbs, not just Saw Palmetto by itself. This is how we can do our best to steer away from any unwanted side effects like gynaecomastia.
Stress and Libido issues come hand in hand. Extended periods of stress and anxiety can cause hormone imbalances. This is because your body favours more towards survival hormones over sex hormones. As a result, problems like lack of libido and erectile dysfunction occur.
Herbal medicine can be used to support healthy hormone production, as well as the adrenal glands and nervous system. These areas of your health need to be in check for “other things” to work effectively. It is important to note, that alcohol and recreational drugs will also negatively impact libido. If these are coping mechanisms for you in times of stress, it’s important to remember that these will have an additive effect to any problems you experience.
One of the main concerns when talking about stress and men’s health is testosterone levels. Testosterone levels peak pretty early; in your late teens in fact. This sounds kind of scary, but there is no reason you can’t have healthy levels throughout your life if you look after yourself.
All your hormones including testosterone, are made from a “building block material” known as pregnenolone. Pregnenolone basically converts through various cascades and enzymes to create all your hormones including cortisol, testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone. If you are under lots of stress, the body will favour creation of stress hormones (cortisol) over sex hormones (test, oest, prog). This is because our primal instinct sees survival is more important than reproduction. This is how stress can affect your testosterone levels.
Herbal medicine works to support your adrenal glands, as well as the signalling pathways between your brain, adrenals and your testes. They don’t work directly on testosterone, but by supporting this important pathway, your body usually naturally works out the rest.
How to have healthy hormones:
- Consume a healthy diet including healthy fats, complex carbs, lean proteins and lots of vegetables
- Have healthy liver function so we can absorb healthy fats and turn them into good cholesterol (hormones are made from cholesterol)
- Ensure good quality sleep so the adrenals can restore and not feel as susceptible to stress
- Seek guidance from a naturopath if you have any concerns about how stress is affecting your health