It’s widely recognized that growing up in an abusive home environment or surviving physical trauma can impact your psychological well-being. I know this only too well because I had a chaotic upbringing, which I describe in raw, uncensored detail in my new book The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, which comes out January 5, 2021.
But did you know that trauma can also be harmful to your hormones? Or that the resulting hormonal disruption can contribute to problems with anxiety, depression, fatigue, and even a depressed immune system?
The Trauma-Cortisol Connection
Enduring a traumatic event triggers the release of stress hormones, including cortisol. Almost instantly, you start breathing faster, your heart starts racing, and your mind feels like you’re on high alert. You’re ready to run from the threat or fight back with everything you’ve got. When the threat is gone or the traumatic event ends, the release of stress hormones is supposed to fall back to a normal level.
For some people, however, the trauma never ends—think of ongoing sexual abuse, having parents who are alcoholics or drug users, or witnessing recurring domestic violence at home—and cortisol production gets stuck on high. In other people, experiencing a single trauma leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where you keep reliving the trauma and your adrenal glands continue to respond by pumping out more cortisol.
I recently checked in with Mark Filidei, DO, the director of integrative and functional medicine at Amen Clinics, to find out more about the connection between past trauma and hormone dysfunction. He says, “Growing up in a traumatic household and dealing with trauma or abuse sets up the adrenals for failure later in life.”
Dr. Filidei adds that it can make you more vulnerable to colds, flu bugs, and other infections like COVID-19. It can also lead to serious ailments like chronic fatigue syndrome or Epstein-Barr virus. Unfortunately, most people never make the connection between their symptoms and the past emotional trauma they suffered.
How Physical Trauma Impacts Hormones
In the case of physical trauma in which there is some sort of head injury, it can seriously disrupt hormone production. “Head trauma often damages the pituitary gland in the brain where hormones are produced,” says Dr. Filidei.
In some instances, head trauma can literally wipe out hormone production, leaving people with severe hormone deficiencies. Dr. Filidei, who sees many patients at Amen Clinics who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, says that many of them end up depressed and anxious. Once again, they often don’t realize that the past trauma is affecting their physical and mental health.
“The vast majority of people have never had their hormones tested because most doctors don’t check them,” says Dr. Filidei. “They might check your thyroid, but it is often not a thorough test.”
Because of the lack of comprehensive testing, hormonal imbalances and deficiencies remain dramatically underdiagnosed and undertreated. This leads to a lot of unnecessary suffering.
That happened to me. I’ve had thyroid cancer 3 times and underwent surgery and radiation, and it turned out the doctors weren’t checking the right thyroid numbers. When I finally found the right doctor who looked at the right numbers, it felt like they took a straightjacket off me. I felt better really quickly.
The first step in optimizing hormones is to know your numbers. Dr. Filidei recommends seeing a functional medicine doctor to get the proper tests. At Amen Clinics, comprehensive testing includes a brain scan that can help detect past brain trauma as well as complete lab tests to provide a clear picture.
Hormones that commonly need optimization include thyroid, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and others. To correct any deficiencies or imbalances, Dr. Filidei recommends using bio-identical hormones when possible. “They have the same molecules that are naturally present in the body,” according to Dr. Filidei.
Optimizing hormones can have a major impact on people who suffered past trauma, whether it was emotional or physical trauma. Dr. Filidei says, “I’ve seen it help my patients feel better, sleep better, and think better. I tell my psychiatry colleagues at Amen Clinics that it’s possible to get rid of a multitude of prescription medications just by optimizing hormones.”
To learn more about past trauma, hormones, and hormone optimization, make an appointment with an integrative psychiatrist or functional medicine doctor at Amen Clinics. To make an appointment with Dr. Filidei, who sees patients at Amen Clinics’ Costa Mesa location as well as via video conference, call 1-844-818-0616.