Stress: The influence of sex and gender

For a long time, male subjects were the focus of mental health studies. Considering the biological and psychological differences between men and women, are clinical approaches and treatments for mental illnesses-and our understanding of them-effective to the same degree for both sexes?


From August 19 to 22, 300 renowned international researchers will attend the 44th Annual Meeting of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology (ISPNE) at the Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth in Montreal to talk about sex and gender differences in brain-hormone interactions and thereby better understand stress and its impact on mental health. This event was organized by Sonia Lupien, Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal and professor at the Université de Montréal's Department of Psychiatry and by Jens Pruessner, a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute.

Sex and gender: What's the difference?

“Over time, researchers have incorporated the concepts of sex and gender into their work to better understand the brain-hormone interactions that may trigger the development of mental illness. Pharmacological and psychosocial treatments must therefore be tailored to these characteristics,” stated Sonia Lupien, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine at Université de Montréal. “Here at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, we've observed that gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are open about their sexual orientation show lower levels of stress hormones and have fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression and burnout.”

Although the terms sex and gender seem conceptually distinct, in everyday life they overlap a great deal.

Sex refers to an individual's biological “signature” either from a genetic standpoint, as individuals are genetically predisposed to being male or female, or a hormonal standpoint, as males produce primarily male sex hormones (androgen) and females secrete mostly female sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone). Given these biological differences, it is logical to wonder how men and women react differently in different situations.

Gender, on the other hand, refers to the sociocultural aspects of how an individual identifies with a particular sex, particularly in terms of what is considered appropriate for that sex when it comes to relationships, personality traits, attitudes, behaviour, values, power and social influences. For example, studies in this area look at whether stay-at-home dads are more fulfilled than women who run companies.

International researchers at the forefront

A number of international researchers will attend this event on the study of how brain-hormone interactions and differences in sex and gender lead to the development of mental illness.

  • Jim Pfaus, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada), conducts research mainly on animals and investigates how environmental behaviour and context can influence sexual behaviour. For example, he looks at various sexual practices from fetishism and partner swapping to monogamy and examines differences between humans and animals.
    > Wednesday, August 20, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
  • Sari van Anders, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan (United States), studies associations between hormones and sexual intimacy among men and women and is looking at the quality of life of people with active sex lives.                         > Thursday, August 21, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
  • Gillian Einstein, Director of Psychology and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto (Canada), uses a holistic approach to conduct both qualitative and quantitative research on women's health, particularly on how hormones can influence mood changes. She is also looking at whether aging makes us more depressed.
    > Thursday, August 21, from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Brigitte Kudielka, a professor at Regensburg University (Germany), examines stress reactions based on how hormonal differences between men and women impact stress reactions. For example, she is investigating the extent to which estrogen changes in women can influence their stress levels.
    > Friday, August 22, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

The influence of sex and gender on the brain and hormones

The International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology (ISPNE) promotes and disseminates knowledge on hormones, their interactions with the brain and body processes and behaviour, and their clinical applications. ISPNE researchers are looking more and more at how sex and gender differences affect brain-hormone interactions so that they can gain a better understanding of mental health. The annual meeting will therefore highlight clinical and fundamental perspectives of sex and gender across the lifespan. The symposia will also deal with notions of sex differences in hormone measures across different age ranges as well as gender issues in psychiatric disorders related to stress.

Media contact :
Catherine Dion
Communications Department – Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal
Phone: 514-251-4000, extension 2986 - Cell.: 514-235-4036