Men’s and women’s brains process stress differently, and that relates to gender differences in chronic disease such as depression, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience and reported by HealthDay News.  

Researchers examined brain activity from MRI scans of men and women who were shown stress-triggering images. Women underwent two MRIs, once at the beginning of their menstrual cycle and again during ovulation.

The findings showed that the ovulating women had a lower response to stress compared with men who viewed the same stressful images. But at the beginning of their menstrual cycle, the women’s response to stress was similar to men’s.

“We found that women have been endowed with a natural hormone capacity to regulate the stress response in the brain that differs from men,” said study author Jill Goldstein, director of research at the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Researchers said the most significant differences occurred in areas of the brain that control autonomic arousal responses (physical functions of the body we don’t consciously control, such as heart rate, digestion and hormone regulation). This suggests, the researchers concluded, that gender variations in stress response are hormonally regulated through the control of arousal.

“The results were striking given that men and women reported experiencing the stressful stimuli similarly even though their brains were activating differently,” Goldstein said.

And because stress-related diseases manifest differently in men and women, she said, “understanding sex differences in stress regulation in the brain can provide clues to understanding the nature of these chronic medical disorders.”

Goldstein added: “Mapping out sex-specific physiology in the brain will also provide the basis for development of sex-specific treatments for these diseases.”

Read RH’s “Relax, Relate, Release” to learn how to curb stress.