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.
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
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
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.
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