18th October is World Menopause Day, so today I wanted to explore the impact that women’s hormones can have on mental health. Whilst the roles that the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone play in a woman's reproductive health are well known, it's less commonly known that they also impact mental health.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemicals made in the glands of the endocrine system, and they help to regulate many of the body’s everyday processes. For example, hormones help to control metabolism, mood, reproductive function, and sexual health.
For females, the hormonal needs of the body change a great deal as you leave childhood and enter puberty. They also change dramatically if you become pregnant, give birth, or breastfeed, and they continue to change as you near menopause. These changes are natural and expected, and often there’s not a huge amount we can do to impact the natural hormone changes and cycles of the body. Being aware of these changes however and taking proactive steps to support our health, can help us to better manage the symptoms which may impact our physical and mental wellbeing.
Why do hormones affect our mental health?
Hormones have a powerful effect on women’s brain chemistry, mental health, and overall mood. Oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone all have important roles in women’s physical and mental health, so if these hormones are out of balance, they can contribute to or worsen existing mental ill health.
For example, drops in oestrogen and progesterone can make women irritable and anxious, whilst increases in oestrogen can help to boost mood. "There are times in the menstrual cycle when oestrogen levels are high, and [at these times] women tend to feel better in their mood," says Professor of Psychiatry, Jayashri Kulkarni. "They also tend to be better with such things as what we call 'verbal memory' or talking skills. This is around ovulation and around the first part of the cycle, and this is why if a person is prone to getting premenstrual changes in mood, that is what's happening; it's happening at a time when oestrogen is low, just before a period happens."
Progesterone levels also start to climb in the second part of the menstrual cycle, after ovulation. This can, in some women, increase the likelihood of lowered mood, depression and other issues.
As we know, health and wellbeing is really personal and varies from individual to individual, so it's important to keep in mind that all women respond differently to their own hormonal patterns. Some women are particularly sensitive to their changing levels, while others may not feel any effect.
What happens to hormones during menopause?
The menopause is caused by a change in the balance of the body's sex hormones. It happens when your ovaries stop producing as much of the hormone oestrogen and no longer release an egg each month.
During menopause, there are a lot of hormonal changes within the body. “The ovaries still produce hormones, but the levels may be 50% of baseline, causing symptoms of hormone imbalance leading to stress which can affect the thyroid, causing further imbalances,” says obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Salinger. These imbalances can lead to a range of symptoms, often including low mood or mood swings.
What can we do to keep our hormones in balance?
Lifestyle factors such as poor sleep, poor eating habits, not getting enough exercise, or existing medical conditions can lead to chronic stress, which can result in hormone imbalances that contribute to mental health issues. Whilst hormones will naturally change throughout a woman’s life, some of the symptoms of these changes can be reduced by a healthy lifestyle; getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly and keeping stress in check can all contribute towards better overall wellbeing.
You can also speak to your doctor about different treatments for hormone imbalances depending on the cause of the imbalance. For example, during menopause hormone replacement therapy may be recommended to replace hormones which are missing/low, which in some cases can help to reduce menopausal symptoms. The NHS also recommends activities such as yoga and tai chi to manage stress levels, which in turn can impact hormone imbalances.
So, what else can you do to protect your mental health during menopause?
Here are 5 tips to support you:
- Be aware that mood changes may accompany other menopausal symptoms.
- Monitor your mood and make note of patterns in other factors such as sleep and stress levels. Seek professional help if symptoms become severe and interfere with daily life.
- Make lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise, getting adequate sleep, and controlling stress to reduce potential symptoms.
- Reach out to others. You don’t need to do this on your own.
- Know that it won’t last forever. Typically, the mood changes that accompany female hormonal changes during the menopausal transition won't last. If you do find that mood changes are lasting for longer periods of time, speak to your doctor or a health professional for further support.
If you have any questions, drop me a message! You can find me on Instagram or Facebook @myselfcareedit.