Following on from our discussion of neurotransmitters last week, this morning I want to talk a little about how hormones impact on our mental health.
We are all familiar with how teenagers get moody and hormonal, and how being premenstrual or going through menopause can affect our mood, but why does this actually happen?
Hormones are chemical messengers that play a vital role in many aspects of our physical and mental health. They regulate our mood, sleep, appetite, energy levels, and more. When our hormones are out of balance, it can lead to a variety of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and irritability.
There are many factors that can contribute to hormonal imbalances, such as stress, diet, exercise, and certain medical conditions. Some hormones that are particularly important for mental health include:
- Cortisol: This is a stress hormone that is released by the adrenal glands in response to threats, both real and perceived. It's sometimes referred to as the "fight-or-flight" hormone because it prepares the body to either fight or flee danger. Cortisol has a number of important functions, including: increasing blood sugar levels to provide energy for the body, suppressing the immune system to prevent inflammation during times of stress, helping to regulate blood pressure and heart rate, increasing alertness and focus. However, too much cortisol can have negative consequences for mental and physical health. Short-term exposure to high cortisol levels is typically harmless. However, chronic exposure to high cortisol levels can lead to a number of health problems, including: anxiety, insomnia, depression fatigue, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, weakened immune system, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
- Estrogen and progesterone: These hormones are responsible for regulating the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. However, they can also affect mood and behavior. For example, estrogen levels tend to drop before and during menstruation, which can lead to mood swings, irritability, and fatigue.
- Testosterone: This hormone is primarily associated with male sex characteristics, but it also plays a role in mood and libido in both men and women. Low testosterone levels can be linked to depression, anxiety, and decreased energy levels.
- Thyroid hormones: These hormones regulate metabolism and other bodily functions. Too much or too little thyroid hormone can cause a variety of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and irritability.
- DHEA: This hormone is produced by the adrenal glands and plays a role in stress response, mood, and libido. Low DHEA levels have been linked to depression, anxiety, and fatigue.
- Oxytocin: This hormone is known as the "love hormone" because it is released during bonding activities such as hugging, kissing, and sexual intercourse. Oxytocin has also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Melatonin: This hormone helps to regulate sleep. Low melatonin levels can lead to insomnia and other sleep problems.
- Serotonin: This hormone is often called the "happy hormone" because it plays a role in regulating mood. Low serotonin levels have been linked to depression and anxiety. Serotonin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. As a hormone, serotonin is produced by cells in the gut. It's then released into the bloodstream and travels to various parts of the body, including the brain. As a neurotransmitter, serotonin is used to send signals between nerve cells. Serotonin plays a role in regulating mood, sleep, appetite, and other bodily functions.
Hormones affect the brain in a number of complex ways. They can bind to receptors on nerve cells and alter their activity. They can also change the way that nerve cells communicate with each other.
For example, estrogen can increase the production of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that are important for mood regulation. Testosterone can also increase dopamine levels and improve cognitive function.
Thyroid hormones can regulate the production of many different neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Too much or too little thyroid hormone can lead to a variety of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and irritability.
Cortisol can inhibit the production of serotonin and dopamine, which can lead to low mood and decreased motivation. DHEA can also increase dopamine levels and improve mood.
Oxytocin can reduce stress and anxiety by binding to receptors in the amygdala, a brain region that is involved in processing emotions. Serotonin can also reduce anxiety by binding to receptors in the hippocampus, a brain region that is involved in memory and learning.
Melatonin can help to regulate sleep by binding to receptors in the pineal gland. This triggers the release of melatonin, which helps to promote sleepiness.
Hormones play a vital role in mental health. When our hormones are out of balance, it can lead to a variety of mental health problems.
As always, it's important to take good care of yourself to help your body produce good balance of hormones:
- Manage stress. Stress can trigger the release of cortisol, which can lead to hormonal imbalances. Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as exercise, yoga, meditation, or spending time in nature.
- Get regular exercise. Exercise helps to reduce stress and improve mood. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.
- Eat a healthy diet. Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to regulate your hormones.
- Get enough sleep. Most adults need around 7-8 hours of sleep per night. When you're well-rested, your hormones are more likely to be in balance.
- Seek support. If you are struggling to manage your hormones or mental health symptoms on your own, talk to a doctor, a naturopath or therapist.