The Link Between Hormones and Mental Health

by Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, CDN

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Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, CDN, details the connection between hormones and mental health. Plus: specific hormones to watch out for when it comes to imbalances and your mood.

Do you ever feel sad prior to getting your period? Downright hangry if you haven’t eaten? Nervous and stressy when over-tired?

It’s not your imagination—it’s your hormones.

What do hormones do?

Hormones are your body’s messenger system, and your body produces dozens of them.

These chemical messengers influence many aspects of your overall health, including:

  • appetite
  • weight
  • sleep cycle
  • emotions
  • reproduction
  • fatigue
  • mood
  • mental health

Hormones and Mental Health

It’s normal for your hormone levels to fluctuate throughout the day and month. That’s why you get sleepy when it’s dark and feel more alert during the day. It’s also why you may feel sad before getting your period.

That said, it’s no surprise that hormones play a role in mental health.

While you may be familiar with PMS, it’s just one isolated situation illustrating hormonal imbalance and mental health. However, even simple, mundane stressors can make an impact.

Man chasing a bus, with his cortisol levels spiked due to stress

4 Hormones That Impact Mental Health

If you constantly feel moody, sad, stressed, and/or irritable, consult your physician to discuss the role your hormones may play in your mental health.

In the meantime, here are the key ones worth understanding when it comes to hormones and mental health.

1. Cortisol

If you’ve ever been stressed (who hasn’t?), you know that it’s no walk in the park. One of the most underrated hormones that influences your mental health is cortisol, a key stress hormone.

Most cells in your body have cortisol receptors. On a daily basis, cortisol influences how your body uses the nutrients you eat, your sleep/wake cycle, your blood pressure, and more. Your cortisol levels normally wax and wane throughout the day.

When you face an acutely stressful situation, your body releases a burst of “fight or flight” hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. You can think of it as a fire alarm going off in your body, mobilizing you to stress-fighting action.

However, if your body doesn’t calm down, your cortisol levels remain elevated.

When your cortisol levels stay elevated, your body’s at risk for things like weight gain and a weaker immune system. Further, constant stress and heightened cortisol levels can compromise your mental health in the long run.

It’s important to actively work to reduce daily stress. Here are some ideas that may help beat stress and stabilize cortisol levels:

  • get adequate physical activity
  • practice mindfulness/meditation
  • eat a well-balanced diet rich in fish, berries, eggs, and even chocolate(!)
  • maintain proper sleep hygiene

2. Thyroid Hormones

Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ positioned in the front of your neck. It’s responsible for producing thyroid hormones, which play a role in your overall energy levels, weight, body temperature, metabolism, and more.

When your thyroid goes awry, becoming either under- or overactive, you can feel both physical and mental repercussions.

Mental health issues tied to thyroid imbalances have been well-established. Even small deviations in your thyroid hormones can lead to moodiness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and more.

These symptoms can be prominent in those on both ends of the spectrum. More specifically, people with an under-active thyroid more commonly experience mood imbalances. On the other hand, those with an overactive thyroid typically experience greater stress and worrying.

If you’re concerned about your thyroid health, speak with your physician and registered dietitian.

Anxious woman sitting on bed with her mouth resting on her hands, trying to balance her hormones for their mental health repurcussions

3. Serotonin

Serotonin is responsible for happiness, pleasure, memory, sleep, mood, and more. Anything from listening to your favorite music, reading a good book, and exercising can boost your serotonin levels.

Since serotonin is your “feel-good” hormone, lower serotonin levels correlate with a low mood. Currently, researchers debate whether serotonin levels influence mood or vice versa.

In addition, female reproductive hormones (detailed below) may interact with serotonin. They can potentially cause mood swings or sadness before/during menstruation, postpartum, or during menopause.

However, you can support your body’s natural serotonin production. Here’s how:

  • maintain good gut health (95 percent of serotonin production occurs in your gut!)
  • eat well-balanced meals, including protein and fiber-rich carbohydrates
  • get enough vitamin B6, which is essential for the amino acid tryptophan to convert into serotonin

4. Reproductive Hormones

Progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone are the key reproductive hormones that may influence your mental health.

In particular, PMS, mood swings, and postpartum and menopausal mood imbalances all illustrate the power of female reproductive hormones.

PMS

Premenstrual mood swings, nervousness, and low mood are common among up to 50 to 80 percent of women. Due to the cyclical nature of a female’s reproductive cycle, the dip in progesterone and estrogen leading up to a woman’s period may instigate mental health changes.

For instance, progesterone typically has a calming effect, and the lack of progesterone during this time can contribute to the symptoms shared above.

However, some hormone experts argue that PMS symptoms aren’t normal or necessary. To alleviate PMS and promote optimal mental health, be sure to:

New mother holding a crying baby, stressed out from postpartum hormonal imbalances

Postpartum Imbalances

Welcoming a child is a big life change. However, there’s also a sharp drop in progesterone and estrogen after childbirth, which can instigate mental health changes.

During pregnancy, your body floods with various hormones. Almost immediately after childbirth, there’s a hormonal avalanche out of your body. This can instigate low mood and heightened stress and nerves. Alongside a lack of sleep for new mothers, this quick transition can lead mood imbalances.

As much as it’s possible, postpartum mothers should:

  • rest when they can
  • prioritize a healthy diet
  • seek support from family and friends

Menopause

Lastly, there’s another time of major hormonal shifts that occurs later in life: menopause.

Menopause can potentially instigate mental health challenges in some women. Studies show that even women with normally stable moods were more susceptible to psychological burden during the during the menopausal transition.

Further, the hormonal shifts that occur during menopause can disrupt sleep. On top of that, a lack of sleep can also lead to irritability and moodiness.

Finally, another factor that can influence mental health during menopause is changes in body size. Hormonal shifts may more easily lead to weight gain, which can impact your mood.

To balance your hormones during menopause, eat a well-balanced diet that includes:

  • leafy greens and non-starchy vegetables
  • fruit
  • high-fiber complex carbohydrates
  • adequate protein
  • healthy fats

Additionally, limit your intake of sugar and processed and fried foods. A good rule of thumb is to eat food in its whole, simplest form, as guided by your hunger and fullness levels.

The Bottom Line

If you’re experiencing mood fluctuations or other changes in your mental health, your hormones are likely at work behind the scenes.

Hormone balance is a complex topic, to say the least. It’s important to speak with your healthcare professional to understand how to best balance your hormones, especially if hormonal fluctuations are influencing your mental health.


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