The Hormonal Connect to Mental Health Concerns #MentalHealthAwareness
It's Mental Health Awareness Month and we’re zeroing in on the hormonal connection to mental health concerns, including a look at the specific hormone imbalances related to anxiety, depression, mood swings, irritability, emotional hypersensitivity and many other mood-altering symptoms!
Follow along as we dig into the root causes for these imbalances and also share some of our favorite lifestyle adjustments and herbs to support balanced hormones and better moods!
KEY HORMONE IMBALANCES LINKED TO MENTAL HEALTH
Cortisol / Adrenal Imbalance
The adrenal glands (often referred to as the “stress glands”) enable your body to cope with stress and survive. Shaped like two tiny pyramids, they sit atop the kidneys and are involved in producing over 50 hormones that drive almost every bodily function (many of which are essential for life)—mobilizing your response to every possible internal and external change within your environment.
When stress begins to dominate our lives day in and day out -controlling us rather than us controlling it - the adrenal glands have to work harder to keep up with demand and make enough ‘cortisol’, the master stress hormone that powers us through our day and maintains homeostasis in the body (i.e. stable blood sugar, normal sleep patterns and a robust immune response). If the stress switch is stuck at ‘ON’ and life’s pressures continue to mount, cortisol is pumped out in ever greater amounts, rising to chronically high levels linked with the classic symptoms of taxed adrenals: chronic anxiety, irritability, fatigue, depression and/or sleeplessness. But adrenals in overdrive can only keep up the pace for so long before their cortisol output eventually crashes from the heights to the depths where constant fatigue, sugar cravings, belly fat, allergies and frequent illness (all symptoms that can greatly impact our mood + outlook on life) are the new normal, leaving us mentally drained and emotionally overwhelmed.
Cortisol imbalance occurs primarily as a result of persistent or chronic stress, including unresolved stressors (i.e. overwork, taxes, toxic relationships, etc.), extreme exercise, restrictive diets or diets high in processed foods/sugar, exposure to environmental pollutants/toxins (BPA), excess caffeine, inflammation and inadequate sleep. Imbalances can also result from long term use of hormonal BC and prescription pills – which have a direct impact on our reproductive health and that of the immune system, which is regulated by the adrenal glands / HPA axis.
If these symptoms sound familiar, we encourage getting your hormones tested ASAP. At YHB, we offer at-home saliva testing, which measures ‘bio-available’ or active hormone levels (4x over the course of one day) which produces a diurnal (4 point) cortisol graph showing where your cortisol levels rise and fall throughout the day. Ideally, you want to see cortisol levels at their highest point in the morning (so you can jump out of bed with energy for the day) –gradually dropping to their lowest point at night (so you're ready for calm/sleep!). When levels are outside the “normal range,” (either above or below normal, or in worst case scenarios: flatlined), this indicates underperforming adrenals linked to all of the symptoms mentioned above–requiring a targeted rebalancing approach.
Estrogen and/or Progesterone Imbalance
Estrogen and it’s counterpart progesterone, are our primary female “sex steroid” hormones. Estrogen is necessary for cellular growth, differentiation of secondary sexual characteristics, and maintaining the health of the reproductive tissues, breasts, bones, skin, heart and brain. Progesterone helps to check and balance the growth activity of estrogen in the body and is essential for regulating menstrual cycles, breast development, maintaining pregnancy, relaxing blood vessels and influencing neurotransmitters in the brain.
When imbalances of estrogen and progesterone occur, it can greatly impact our mental health in the following ways:
Estrogen Dominance occurs when there is an excess of estrogen relative to progesterone (which can include high, normal or even low estrogen levels–in relation to low or inadequate levels of progesterone), which contributes to nervousness/ anxiety, mood swings, depression/ postpartum depression, as well as other mood-altering symptoms such as bloating/constipation, weight gain / difficulty losing, heavy/painful/irregular periods and severe PMS.
Estrogen dominance can result from the decline in ovarian progesterone production as ovulation becomes more erratic during perimenopause (late 30s to late 40s) and ceases at menopause. It can also occur from years on synthetic birth control, high body fat, chronic stress, poor sleep, low fiber diets, supplementing with synthetic hormone replacement therapy or estrogen alone (in the absence of progesterone), eating factory farmed meats and dairy injected with growth hormones (xenoestrogens), exposure to pollutants and toxins in the environment and household/personal care products (endocrine disruptors; parabens, BPAs etc.).
➡️ Low Progesterone. When progesterone is low, especially when it drops before menstruation, we often experience the customary PMS emotional symptoms of bad/sad moods, short temper, fatigue and headaches etc. Progesterone is also involved in the regulation of GABA (another neurotransmitter that helps to calm ‘cortisol’ stress hormones), so when progesterone is low or out of balance, we can’t experience the full calming / anxiety reducing benefits of GABA!
➡️ Estrogen Deficiency. Estrogen is crucial to adequate production of “serotonin,” the neurotransmitter known as the “feel good” hormone or “happy center” of the brain. So when estrogen levels are deficient, this often leads to low serotonin levels and symptoms such as anxiety, tearfulness (i.e. crying at commercials), feeling nervous and out of sorts. This is one of the reasons why mood disorders are common in menopause – when estrogen production is greatly decreased (i.e. no longer produced by the ovaries) . Additionally, our body’s natural supply of endorphins is reliant on estrogens, so if they’re low, or out of balance, our endorphins are likely to be as well.
Estrogen deficiency can result from shifting estrogen and progesterone levels during perimenopause (30s to 40s) as ovarian hormone production wanes, and further declines throughout menopause (51+) This inevitable change is complicated by long-term contraceptive use. Other potential causes include use of hormonal birth control in younger women (suppressing ovulation/hormone production), diets low in protein + fats, low body weight, undereating and/or restrictive diets, over-exercising, family history of ovarian cysts or women who have had their uterus and/or ovaries surgically removed.
Imbalances of DHEA and/or Testosterone
Testosterone and DHEA are known as our “Androgen” hormones, also referred to as ‘anabolic’ because they build and maintain our structural foundation of bones, muscle and skin, and are the drivers of our libido, ambition and mental clarity.
➡️ High DHEA and/or Testosterone levels can lead to mood altering symptoms such as anxiety, aggression, irritability and edgy/bad moods. Meanwhile other high androgen symptoms (excess facial hair, acne, belly fat) indirectly impact our emotional well being by taking aim at our self-esteem and body image.
Androgens can get too high from a diet high in sugar, refined carbs, and processed foods, as well as from excess heavy weight lifting (which boosts testosterone production), over-exercise, over-supplementation with replacement androgen hormones (testosterone, DHEA), and/or overuse of muscle boosting steroids (common with body builders).
➡️ Low DHEA and/or Testosterone levels can be a major mood killer, with varying shades of depression–from decreased confidence and/or motivation to an overall lack of enthusiasm for life. Add to that their negative effects on energy, strength and stamina, both physical (sore muscles, aches and pains, decreased libido) and mental (poor memory, focus, concentration), and low androgens can be a real downer.
A major and inevitable cause of a drop in androgens is the natural aging process, aided and abetted by excess body fat/lack of lean muscle, overexposure to chemicals, xenoestrogens and/or heavy metals in the environment, synthetic birth control and hormone replacement therapy (HRT), radiation and high/ chronic stress, all of which sabotage naturally occurring hormones.
Vitamin D Deficiency
An estimated 75% to 85% of US adults are falling short of vitamin D, which is actually a “pro” hormone that gets converted via the action of sunlight upon the skin to vitamin D in the body!
If you struggle with seasonal depression (SAD) or just feel “down” and unmotivated, Vitamin D could play a large role (there’s a reason it’s called the sunshine vitamin!) since deficiency is also linked to anxiety, fatigue and depressive states. Studies have shown that people deficient in D are also prone to weight gain, the dreaded belly fat in particular, which does nothing for our confidence or wellbeing.
When it comes to detecting D-deficiency, the best first step is to request a blood test from your doctor to measure Vitamin D (or email us and we can provide a la carte vitamin d testing). Next, if levels are low, consider supplementing with a Vitamin D3 supplement (1000-2000 IUs per day) eating more vitamin D-rich foods (fatty fish, fortified nut based milks, pasture raised eggs, portobello mushrooms) and getting out in the sun for 15-20 minutes (ideally without sunscreen) every day with legs and arms exposed.
An important awareness to keep in mind: hormones work in synchrony, meaning that they are interdependent, so when one hormone is out of balance, all others can be impacted as well! Thus, being attuned to the signs + symptoms of hormone imbalance (take our symptom quiz HERE), testing your hormones regularly and learning how to rebalance is one of the best things you can do for your mental and emotional health and wellbeing!
For greater support, consider our testing + natural rebalancing guides and hormone health consultations to get a targeted rebalancing approach (based on your unique hormone results, we help you understand how your levels are connected to your top symptoms, and what you can do to rebalance - including diet/lifestyle+supplement/herb suggestions).
One of the best things you can do RIGHT AWAY is to put “stress management/self care” at the very TOP of your to-do list...starting by prioritizing the below lifestyle changes to support hormone balance at little-to-no additional cost to you!
LIFESTYLE APPROACHES TO BALANCE HORMONES + MOODS
Just as our bodies swing out of balance, they can be guided back to it. We encourage you to focus on the following recommendations that resonate most with you, and commit to 1 or 2 small steps you can take this week or month to empty your stress bucket, nourish your body and hormones, and support balanced emotions and positive moods!
1) Practice Stress Management
When you’re feeling down, try to ease back on high intensity workouts – alternating with more stress releasing exercises like stretching, yoga, Pilates, swimming, brisk walking, dancing, etc. Focus on exercise that releases tension held in the muscles and lowers stress demands on our adrenal glands.
To support adrenal rest and rebalancing, try meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4.7.8. deep breathing technique to lower cortisol levels and manage anxiety and overwhelm. We love The Shine App with short guided daily meditations, reflections and a community for mental health support and connection.
Reduce Screen Time Before Bed:
Aim to turn off cell phones and laptops one to two hours before bed. LED (blue) light emitted from electronic devices blocks production of the master sleep hormone melatonin, making it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep. Studies have found that those who use social media the most (particularly at night-time), have higher levels of anxiety and depression. If you must be on screens, use the flux app on your computer, wear blue light blocking glasses, update your phone to the night shift setting and/or try the “Eye Just” blue light blocking filters for iPhone, iPad and laptop computers here.
Delete / Reduce App Usage
One of the key things you can do for your mental health (and productivity) is to delete the apps you check the most completely off your phone during the week OR at least for 24 hours. Don’t just move the app off your home screen - it’s too easy to still check it. If you need to post for work you can still post, then delete the app until you need to post again (it’s so easy to re-download!). Challenge yourself to replace the time you would have spent mindlessly scrolling with creative or meditative pursuits.
Increase Light Exposure
Sunlight is an essential element of a healthy and happy lifestyle, but for those who struggle to get enough exposure, consider ‘light therapy’ with a product like the HappyLight by @verilux!
Our brain’s chemistry and body clock are affected by light which stimulates specific hormones (re. Vitamin D above) and neurotransmitters that influence our overall feelings of well-being. Bright light exposure early in the day/soon after you wake in the morning stimulates our body's production of serotonin (improving mood and happiness) which in turn helps to regulate melatonin production in the evening (promoting deeper sleep).
Light therapy involves exposure to specific levels of light under controlled conditions and is most effective when you have the proper combination of light intensity, duration, and timing. The typical recommendation for intensity is 10,000-lux at a distance of about 16 to 24 inches from your face. For the majority of people, early morning exposure for about 20-30 minutes is most effective! Research suggests this targeted therapy can successfully reduce seasonal affective disorder (SAD), insomnia, and depression!
Please note: the light emitted from the HappyLight is full-spectrum white light and is UV-free (so you aren’t actually synthesizing vitamin D directly from the happy light).
2) Quality Nutrition
Opt for Cruciferous Vegetables:
Such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts that help to rid the body of excess estrogens and other accumulated toxins that stress both mind and body. Note: steam or roast (vs having them raw) for easier digestion and to avoid negatively impacting thyroid levels.
Grass-fed, hormone-free meat & dairy:
If you’re not eating grass-fed or organic, your consumption is most likely coming from a factory farm where beef and dairy cattle are injected with hormones and almost always fed GMO, highly inflammatory corn. Eating hormone-containing meat and dairy can directly contribute to high estrogen / estrogen dominance. Look for labels that read “organic,” “hormone-free,” “antibiotic-free” and always go for wild- caught fish versus farmed. A balanced approach could look like keeping these hormone-friendly options at home and if not available when eating-out, don’t stress and allow yourself the 80/20 approach!
Not all fat is created equal. Choose foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, nut & seed butters, olive and coconut oils, etc. for improved moods, more calm and consistent energy, less brain fog and reduced cravings!
NOTE: Two omega-3 fatty acids in particular (EPA and DHA) are thought to have the most potential to benefit people with mood disorders and can be found in seafood like salmon and oysters and for plant-based options: seaweed and algae which can also be taken in supplement form.
Reduce sugar, alcohol and caffeine:
Both are stimulants that wreak havoc on adrenal function, leading to anxiety, mood swings and feeling hyper! Caffeine and alcohol both interfere with melatonin production, a lack of which will also disrupt the deep REM sleep that nurtures mood and energy levels!
You can find amazing low and zero caffeine alternatives with superfood ingredients via our health coach @bodyblissbyjess. Jess has created a line of sugar & dairy-free latte blends that you simply add to hot or cold milk. Flavors include: beet matcha, rose cacao, coconut chai, and decaf golden chai + seasonal variations too. Shop HERE with code BALANCE10 for 10% off your order.
Balance blood sugars:
We can balance blood sugar levels and keep our moods stable by not skipping meals (or waiting too long between meals) and following Jess's "Sexy 6" Formula: i.e. incorporating plenty of protein, fats, fiber, veggies, nutrient-rich carbs and bliss “boosts” (fresh herbs & seasonings) at every meal. Stable blood sugar levels are the best insurance we have against hypoglycemic drops in blood sugar that spike cortisol in tandem with anxiety levels and mood swings. When enjoying carbs, go for a nutrient-dense, high fiber variation like sweet potatoes, quinoa, beans, lentils, bananas and Ezekiel sprouted grain bread!
In addition to lifestyle and nutritional changes, many supplements and herbs can effectively relieve hormone imbalances associated with the mood related symptoms and concerns we’ve covered. However, it’s a good idea to first test your hormone levels to ensure that what you’re supplementing with will be most beneficial for YOUR unique levels (test don’t guess!). And if you’re currently using depression or anxiety medication, you’ll want to cross check herbs or supplements with your prescribing doc or pharmacist to ensure there are no contraindications.
→NOTE: when it comes to hormone health / mental health concerns, finding the right doctor can make all the difference. We suggest seeking out an integrative/functional medicine doc (who is trained in getting to the ROOT cause of hormonal health issues and exploring the impact of nutrition, lifestyle + stress management), VS. masking symptoms with short term solutions like birth control or prescriptions (more common w/ the traditional 'old school' medical model) that can make it more difficult to get to the root cause of symptoms and experience long-term relief.
All that said, the following supplements are generally considered safe and beneficial for daily use (although testing and/or discussing with your doc is still suggested):
Magnesium– One of the most abundant minerals in the body, magnesium plays an essential role in the workings of the central nervous system, having much to do with feelings of calm or nervous tension, patience or impatience, even or uneven moods, deep or disrupted sleep and high or low stress levels. The Office of Dietary Supplements recommends an upper limit of 350 mg daily, but this is for general nutritional needs, not symptom reversal, which often requires 500 to 1000 mg per day - work with your medical provider if considering a higher dosage to make sure it’s the right fit. We love 2x4 Liposomal Magnesium Glycinate highly absorbable liquid (use code BODYBLISS for 20% off your order).
L-Theanine- This unique amino acid, present in the green tea plant, has been shown in studies to enhance mental focus, mood, relaxation and natural sleep.
Adaptogens/Mushrooms- These hearty herbs like ginseng, ashwaganda, reishi, mushrooms, maca, rhodiola, etc. are known to strengthen your adrenal glands and help them adapt to various stressors. We suggest using them combined in tincture (liquid dropper) form.
Brands we like:
Wishgarden Herbs Kick-Ass Daily, 4 dropperfuls in a little water in the morning & then 2-3 times more throughout the day.
Mary Ruth’s Ginseng Vitality, 1 mL (30 drops) 1-3 times per day between meals for energy as a replacement for coffee or energy drinks (use daily for one month, take 2 weeks off, then use again daily for 2-4 weeks at a time).
Note: avoid use in the later part of the day, as ginseng can be energizing, and may not be best for those with high cortisol levels in the evening and/or at night.
Wishgarden Herbs Deep Stress, 4-8 pumps (2-4 droppers or 2-4 ml) in liquid for taste. Repeat as necessary in the moment, or use 1-3 times daily as a tonic during periods of heavy stress.
Reishi Hot Cocoa-Reishi is a functional mushroom that when combined with organic cacao, helps you leave today’s stress behind so you can feel great tomorrow (and it’s delicious steamed with nut or coconut milk & cinnamon!). Use code “yhbalance” for 10% off.
CBD - creams and capsules can greatly help with anxiety, moods and sleep issues (note: “full spectrum” CBD includes traces of THC, while “broad spectrum” is THC free). Brands we like: CBD + Nature (full spectrum CBD; enter code “BALANCE” for 20% off); BEAM (broad spectrum, various CBD product options. Use code BODYBLISSBYJESS for 15% off); Mayflower CBD (Broad spectrum soft gels; use code “BALANCE” for 20% off).
Have you experienced any of the symptoms discussed in this article that we know can affect our emotional and mental health, that you now suspect may be related to / caused by hormone imbalances? -OR- do you have a question about hormone imbalance and the connection to mental health? We’d love to hear it!
→ Drop a comment below, or shoot us an email!
Interested in testing your hormone levels and getting started on an all-natural rebalancing plan? Check out our at-home hormone testing + all natural rebalancing packages HERE.
And learn about our 6-week “Hormones in Harmony” course HERE (which reviews the fundamentals of natural hormone rebalancing)!