When you think about mental health, you’re probably thinking about your brain and how that works. The picture is often much more complex. Hormones play a big part because these chemical messengers are the background to everything that happens in your body. How you feel, therefore, is not just psychological, it’s biological.
Did you know, there are a huge number of symptoms that are common to both depression and hormonal imbalance? These include low energy, dizziness, low mood, apathy, anxiety, irritability, anger, lack of enthusiasm, despair, headaches, poor concentration, feelings of hopelessness, lack of confidence, low libido, fuzzy brain, memory loss, and insomnia (although there are others).
Rebalancing your hormones naturally is not something that happens overnight, but it can be greatly improved with the help of nutritional and lifestyle change.
Mood and Cycle
Two of the main hormones that affect your feeling of mental wellbeing and clarity are oestrogen and progesterone, and these change throughout your menstrual cycle. It’s an over-simplification – but perhaps a helpful one – to think about oestrogen largely bringing positive effects to your mood and progesterone contributing more negative effects. With such a pronounced hormonal connection on mental health, it’s small wonder that women are twice as likely to suffer from depression than men.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 64% of women who suffer from depression say their symptoms get worse during the pre-menstrual period. Hormones are also likely to contribute to antenatal or postnatal depression, which affect around 10-15% of new mothers. And anxiety and depression are also starting to be recognised as symptoms of the perimenopause on top of hot flushes and night sweats.
How it works
At certain times in your cycle (in the run-up to ovulation), there will be lots of oestrogen in your system and women tend to feel brighter and better in their mood. You might even notice at this time you feel better at talking and articulating yourself. In the second half of your cycle, oestrogen dips, and progesterone comes into play. For some women, this can lead to lowered mood or depression.
You might already experience this as Pre-menstrual Syndrome (PMS), a very common condition linked to the changing levels of these hormones, that might include feelings of bloating, breast tenderness or headaches, or manageable emotional symptoms like irritability. For a small number of women (about 2-8%), the effect of these hormones on their mental wellbeing is pronounced. This is called Pre-menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD); an extreme form of PMS and one that, if you think might apply to you, you will want to ask your doctor about.
Why does this happen?
One of the first things to know is that the production of dopamine and serotonin (the two main brain chemicals associated with the development of depression and psychosis) is heavily linked to levels of oestrogen.
Research seems to suggest that there isn’t a noticeable difference in levels of oestrogen between those who are affected by mental health symptoms around their period or during the menopause – it seems some women are just especially sensitive to hormonal change, or perhaps also that lifestyle problems like stress may also play a big part.
Impact of hormones on blood sugar levels
Declining oestrogen levels have a role to play in insulin sensitivity (that means how sensitive – or not – the cells in your body are to the fat storage hormone insulin). In fact, a lack of sensitivity to insulin (or even being resistant to the effects of insulin) is lurking behind many of the common menopause symptoms, like hot flushes, fatigue and weight gain as well as symptoms of low mood like brain fog, anxiety and depression.
Hormones and mental health is a complex picture in which your physiological health and mental wellbeing are inextricably intertwined. It might be best to work with a nutrition practitioner to unravel this for you. We might be able to piece together a hormone balancing food and lifestyle plan to suit your circumstances. Get in touch if you feel you'd like to discuss this further.
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