How hormones affect your mental health
Hormones are the chemical messengers in your body that send out messages through the bloodstream, carrying information from one organ to the next.
For women, hormones control fertility but also have a powerful effect on brain chemistry, mental health and mood. The hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone all have crucial roles to play in women’s health and emotions, while for men, low testosterone can affect mood.
Mood changes can be overwhelming, but there are some things you can do to help, and signs to look out for.
How do hormones affect mood?
Hormones have different effects in different women, says Dr Rosie Worsley, endocrinologist at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health.
"Some women find no impact of hormones on mood, and others find that hormone changes make a big difference."
"For women whose mood is affected by hormones, it usually happens at a time of hormone change, for example, before a period or during perimenopause."
It can sometimes be tricky to work out whether your mood changes are hormonal or not.
Menopause and emotions
If you’re a woman going through perimenopause or menopause, your mood might swing from one extreme to another in a second. Dealing with night sweats and hot flushes can make it feel even worse, because you’re functioning on limited sleep.
Generally, the drop in estrogen and progesterone over the months and years as you approach menopause can cause symptoms such as:
- Hot flushes or night sweats
- Mood swings, low mood, anxiety and irritability
- Vaginal changes and painful intercourse
- Low libido
- Joint and muscle aches
- Itchy skin
- Weight gain around the stomach
"The years leading up to menopause, and the first few years after the last period, are described as a ‘window of vulnerability’ for mood change," Dr Worsley says.
"The most common mood symptoms would be feeling down or anxious. Irritability and brain fog are also very common."
Perimenopause is when women’s periods become less regular in the lead-up to menopause and for 12 months after the final period. Perimenopause can make anxiety worse: a hot flush can trigger an anxiety attack.
Symptoms of menopause such as hot flushes and night sweats can in turn make you more irritable and depressed because you haven’t had enough sleep.
Thankfully, this stage won’t last forever, Dr Worsley says. "These symptoms usually improve once hormones have settled down."
Past depression and anxiety
One woman’s experience of menopause will be different to another, depending on your health, culture, and whether you’ve had depression or anxiety in the past.
Some other things that can cause low mood around the time of menopause are:
- Previous depression
- Major stresses in your life
- Low self-esteem and body image
- Poor lifestyle such as drinking alcohol
- Relationship problems or frustrations
Women who have experienced abuse or traumatic events in the past may find that these issues come to the surface during menopause. Counselling can be extremely helpful to work through any issues that come up.
Men and hormones
Just like women, men can be affected by changes in hormones. But for men, these changes happen slowly rather than within a few years. Testosterone, the male sex hormone, is important for bone and muscle health, sex drive and general mood.
As men age, their testosterone levels gradually drop. After around age 60, low testosterone can cause poor mood, irritability and poor concentration.
Testosterone levels in men are highest between the ages of 20 and 30, and as men age, their testosterone levels gradually drop. Being overweight or some long-term medical conditions can cause a bigger drop in testosterone.
"Men are exposed to less episodes of hormone change," Dr Worsley says.
"For example, men whose testosterone is suddenly lowered because of cancer treatment can find they experience mood changes."
Tips for managing your moods
There are some things we can all do to help good mental health generally, such as:
- Getting plenty of rest
- Eating lots of fruit and vegetables
- Doing some regular exercise
- Not drinking too much alcohol
- Not smoking
But these lifestyle changes may not be enough to help women experiencing mood swings during perimenopause and menopause.
"For women who are struggling with difficult issues around menopause, lifestyle strategies alone are often not enough," Dr Worsley says.
"It’s important to know that it isn’t because a woman failed to do enough exercise or eat enough broccoli, it’s a sign that she needs medical advice."
When to get help from a doctor
If you have any mood swings that are so severe that they interfere with your life, you should seek help, Dr Worsley says.
"Particular symptoms to get help for are hopelessness or lack of enjoyment in things you used to enjoy," she says.
"Anxiety can also be a crippling symptom, and there are some very helpful treatments available for it."