A warrior in our private Facebook group recently asked if she was alone in feeling that her hormones affect her mind each month.
She’s not. You’re not. I’m not. Phewph!
And I thought it’d make a great blog post: digging deeper into the link between hormones and mental health. There are also some handy resources at the end of the post if you want to look into it further.
Because there’s definitely a connection.
Which raises the question: what if anxiety isn’t all in your head? What if hormones are playing a starring role?
Let’s start with serotonin
There’s a reason why anti-anxiety meds contain serotonin: it helps regulate mood and happiness. And low levels of the neurotransmitter are known to cause anxiety, depression, and many other related symptoms such as anger and insomnia.
But that doesn’t mean you have to take medication to get more of the ‘happy molecule’ (although that’s a convo to have with your doctor). Regular exercise releases ‘feel good chemicals’, while getting some sun, having a massage, and meditation have also been shown to help.
What even are hormones?
Before we look at the link between hormones and mental health, let’s have a quick biology refresher:
Hormones are essential for almost every process in our body. When your hormones are in balance, everything ticks along and you’re happy as a clam. But because hormones send messages to the brain, if you don’t have enough of them, you could end up with anxiety.
And yep, scientists say our hormones and mental health can be hereditary. Thanks, mum!
Which hormones cause anxiety?
You can blame these buggers:
- Cortisol: the stress hormone. When you’re under pressure, your body releases cortisol – the steroid hormone that raises your heart rate and blood pressure, makes you sweat, and gives you that jittery feeling. It also affects the brain, triggering anxiety. Too little cortisol (or adrenalin, the other stress hormone) and you’re left feeling down and gloomy.
- Thyroid hormone. An overactive thyroid can prompt panic attacks. Why? Because it revs up the body, boosting metabolism, raising your heart rate, and even instigating hyperventilation. And if you don’t have enough thyroid hormone? That can bring on anxiety, too.
- Oestrogen and testosterone. The sex hormones aren’t so sexy. They fluctuate throughout our lives – during puberty, pregnancy, menopause and if you take birth control – intense times when anxiety is known to arise.
It’s a little bit chicken-and-egg. Anxiety can trigger more hormones, which trigger more anxiety. Fun!
What is a hormone imbalance?
When your hormones are out of whack, that’s when things get tricky.
When might your hormones become unbalanced? There are many scenarios. Like when you go on or off the contraceptive pill, hormone replacement therapy, or any other type of medication that affects hormones. Puberty, pregnancy, menopause, thyroid issues, and nutritional changes can also spark an imbalance.
There are MILLIONS of different types of hormone imbalance. OK I exaggerate. But there are a tonne. And there are also a BILLION reasons why you might experience a hormone depletion. Frustratingly, you might not be able to figure out why it’s happening.
So instead, we’ll look at some of the most common that might plague you:
Twisting tummy. Acne. Fatigue. Menstruation is bad enough before you even add mood swings and PMT-related depression. But this monthly hormone imbalance has been shown to spark anxiety and depression in many of us. There’s even been the discovery of a new condition (which I have been suffering from in the 10 months since coming off the pill): premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Think severe anxiety, depression, alongside other delightful symptoms.
Oh yes, this one is the mother-load (pun totally intended) of hormone disruptors. During pregnancy, almost all your hormones go haywire. That’s why you might feel ravenous or more anxious as your baby grows.
Finally, a break from hormonal ups and downs! Or not. During this time, several hormones plummet, causing a mental minefield. There’s less oestrogen, prompting panic attacks. While lower levels of progesterone can make anxiety worse.
In menopause, you could also experience thyroid issues as mentioned above. Or you could have new adrenal issues – imbalances in cortisol and adrenalin, the stress hormones. If your stress hormones are high, it can trigger anxiety. Too low and you may experience depression, tiredness, sluggishness and trouble concentrating.
Also consider this insight from UCLA anxiety expert Jason Eric Schiffman:
Women who suffer more physical symptoms, experience negative life events or who are less functional, are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder during menopause than women without these additional stressors.
How to rebalance your hormones
So now you have the lowdown on the hormone-anxiety link, what can you do about it?
First step: chat with your doctor or therapist. They should take the time to chat with you about your feelings and symptoms – and suggest ways to get back in balance. For instance, they might recommend hormone replacement therapy.
Here are some health and lifestyle tips you can also try:
- Exercise every day. Even if you can only manage a walk around the block, it’s a proven way to get the right hormones flowing and put a spring in your step.
- Try natural supplements. I often take Estro-Block, Chaste Tree, omega-3 supplements, and a vitamin D oral spray. Again, only take these after speaking with a pro.
- Tweak your diet. Of course, dietary advice fluctuates as much as our hormones! But nutrition is key to balancing the mind and body. Chat with a dietician or nutritionist to find the foods that will suit you. I’ve been on a plant-based, low-sugar regime for a few months and feel a lot clearer, calmer and in control. I’m also doing my best to curb caffeine, because it stimulates the ‘flight or fight’ response.
- Meditate. Taking a few minutes to rest the mind is seriously a miracle cure. It helps me like nothing else, especially when my period hits.
- Talk about it. Find trusted friends – or join our private group – and share your feelings and thoughts. Hormone fluctuations are something almost everyone experiences at some point. When I’ve opened up about my struggles, I’ve noticed my loved ones feeling more comfortable being vulnerable with me too.
- Sleep. I know, it can be tricky sleeping well when you have anxiety. But getting a good night’s sleep can ease your anxiety and rebalance hormones. Bit of a catch-22. Try doing some breathing exercises before or in bed, a sleep meditation, and turn off your digital devices at night. I’ve been experimenting with an after-dinner digital detox for a month and I feeling SO much better before bed. (Post on that one to come soon!)