ANXIETY: Are Hormones to Blame?
If anyone knows the power hormones have to shape emotional health, it's women. Most women have had their fair share of pre-menstrual mood changes and heightened emotional sensitivity. So, for women (at least) the link between hormones and mental health is very clear, and there is a good reason for this!
The sex hormones (e.g. estrogen) that regulate our menstrual cycle, also play a pivotal role in regulating stress hormones and brain chemicals. Since these sex hormones can fluctuate for many reasons, it's not just pre-menstrual tension that can disrupt our inner calm. Conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and normal hormonal shifts across ovulation, pregnancy and menopause, all have the potential to drive anxiety levels up.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
Let's talk about PCOS first. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is as the name says, a condition where the ovaries produce cysts. It is driven by high levels of androgens like testosterone and low levels of estrogen and progesterone. While millions of women around the world experience PCOS, not all are aware of it. The symptoms can include things like weight gain, irregular periods, hypoglycemia, fertility problems and other physical problems. Not surprisingly PCOS has been linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression. Aside from the emotional stress caused by having the condition, this likely due to the effect of hormonal imbalances on brain chemical activity, blood sugar and stress hormones.
Pregnancy and Estrogen
During pregnancy, our bodies go through a rollercoaster of hormones. This includes pumping out more estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are essential for the development and maintenance of the pregnancy, but they can also affect our mood and behavior. For some women in particular high levels of estrogen can increase feelings of irritability, anxiety and panic. One reason for this is that estrogen and stress hormones compete for the same pathway of elimination. When estrogen levels get very high this slows the break down of stimulating hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline. Women who already have a slower metabolism of estrogen and stress horones, are more likely to be affected by this.
While less dramatic, another time slow estrogen metabolism can affect anxiety levels, is during ovulation. Over the course of a normal menstrual cycle, a woman will ovulate about 2 weeks after her period began. Rising estrogen levels play a crucial role in making this happen and estrogen levels peak at ovulation. Peaking estrogen levels combined with a slower estrogen-stress hormone metabolism, can lead some women to experience more overstimulation and anxiety during this time.
Menopause is another time when hormonal imbalances can contribute to anxiety and panic symptoms. As we approach menopause, our levels of estrogen and progesterone begin to decline. This leads to a range of physical and emotional symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, mood changes, and anxiety. Once again a womans predisposition to faster or slower estrogen metabolism can play a role. In this case women who eliminate estrogen quickly are more likely to feel the impact of lower estrogen production on mood and anxiety.
Hormonal changes and imbalances can have a profound impact on our mental health and well-being. If you're experiencing anxiety or panic attacks and suspect that hormones may be contributing to your symptoms, don't keep it to yourself! It's never too late to seek help and start on the path to improved mental wellbeing.