The Link Between Female Hormones and Anxiety
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Hormone imbalance is a term that’s often used, but what does it really mean? According to experts, it is defined as an excess or deficiency of one or more hormones in the body. Balanced hormones are important for both physical and mental health, as they regulate growth, reproduction, sexual function, and mood. However, hormonal imbalances can also cause disruptions in normal functions, leading to issues such as mood swings, anxiety, and depression. Women often experience complex hormone fluctuations that can impact their mental health, making it important to understand these fluctuations.
Hormonal Imbalances – Signs to Look Out For
When hormone levels become imbalanced, it can cause a range of symptoms, some of which may be difficult to identify. Some signs of hormone imbalance that are worth looking out for include:
- Inability to focus
- Mood swings, anxiety, and depression
- Stubborn belly fat, weight gain, bloating, and food cravings
- Muscle loss and weakness
- Cold hands and feet
- Infrequent or lack of menstrual cycles
It is important to note that it is normal for levels of some hormones to fluctuate over time. For example, women going through menopause can expect a dramatic decrease in estrogen levels. Pregnant women will experience an increase in the human chorionic gonadotropin hormone (hCG). Even our daily sleep-wake rhythms are driven by the hormone melatonin, which fluctuates throughout the day. Additionally, the hormone cortisol in our system can change on a minute-by-minute basis. Since there are over 50 types of hormones in the body, it can be challenging to diagnose when there is an imbalance. The best way to ensure accurate results is by consulting a primary care doctor or an endocrinologist for testing.
Hormones that Impact Stress, Mood, and Anxiety
Sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, can have a significant impact on our mood, especially in women. Estrogen and progesterone are involved in regulating the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, and can affect serotonin levels in the brain. According to researchers at Harvard University, women with low estrogen levels during certain points in their menstrual cycle may be more vulnerable to trauma, while high levels of the hormone can offer partial protection against emotional disturbance. Researchers suggest that women may be at a higher risk of experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when their estrogen levels are low during their menstrual cycle, although the reason for the higher prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders in women compared to men requires further investigation.
Testosterone, on the other hand, can impact mood, aggression, and libido in both men and women. Researchers have found that low levels of testosterone are associated with elevated levels of worry or panic. This is seen especially in individuals struggling with PTSD. Women may be more susceptible to this disorder due to the conversion of testosterone into estrogen in the male brain, leading to more stability in men’s brains than in women’s. This suggests that men may be less susceptible to PTSD than women because of their higher levels of testosterone.
Both estrogen and testosterone are metabolized by the liver and secreted as non-absorbable compounds with the bile into the small intestine. Certain gut microbes are able to further metabolize these hormones which then can be absorbed and reenter the systemic circulation. Depending on the prevalence of such gut microbes, this mechanism can add a significant amount of estrogen and testosterone to the circulating pool. This mechanism adds significant inter-individual variations to sex hormone levels.
Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, are responsible for our fight or flight response, but persistent elevations are common in chronic stress situations. Adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands in response to stress. Noradrenalin is released from nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system and both can increase heart rate, blood pressure and changes in bowel habits. Cortisol on the other hand, is released in response to severe stress and regulates blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and immune system function.
Thyroid hormones are responsible for regulating our metabolism, and they can impact mood, energy levels, and anxiety. Thyroid dysfunction can result in either an underactive or overactive thyroid, also known as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism can cause symptoms such as depression, fatigue, and weight gain, while hyperthyroidism can cause anxiety, irritability, and weight loss.
Finally, oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone”, is involved in social bonding, trust, and intimacy. Oxytocin can reduce stress levels and promote feelings of relaxation and well-being. It is released during physical touch, such as hugging or kissing, and can also be released during positive social interactions.
How to Reduce Hormone-Related Anxiety
This list of hormones and their effects on physical and emotional health offers insight into ways in which females can manage hormone-related anxiety. One of the most accessible ways to improve hormone health is through physical activity. Regular exercise is an excellent practice that can help regulate metabolism and the body’s response to stress. Implementing a healthy workout routine can have a positive impact on hormone regulation. However, it is important to avoid overexercising to avoid menstrual changes or nutritional deficiencies. In addition to exercise, relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga are great practices for dealing with stressors and avoid elevated levels of stress hormones. Even focusing on behavioral practices like showing generosity towards others and spending time with loved ones can help regulate hormone-related anxiety by increasing oxytocin levels. Pairing these techniques with fiber-rich foods, fermented foods, and essential vitamins like omega-3s can optimize nutrient intake and support the endocrine system. While there are several options to choose from to support hormonal health, it is always best to work with an experienced healthcare practitioner to identify the imbalance and find an individualized treatment plan.