It’s not uncommon for me to have women in my office dissolve into tears when I ask one simple question: How are you feeling?
What is it about this question that evokes such a response in these women? From my own personal experience with overwhelming stress, I can tell you it’s partly relief. Finally, someone is asking – and really wants to know the honest answer!
So when I ask, what comes out is a flood of emotions they haven’t even acknowledged yet: I’m overwhelmed; things that used to bring me joy don’t anymore and I can’t understand why; I feel hopeless; nothing matters to me anymore; I’m so irritable towards everyone I love; I just feel sad all the time.
If you’re feeling these things, I want to assure you that you’re not alone. In fact, I find it more rare these days to talk to women who aren’t experiencing this kind of thing. Why are so many of us feeling so sad and overwhelmed?
Part of it is the crazy demands we put on ourselves every day. But another large part may be that finally people aren’t afraid to talk about depression. The stigma of mental illness is diminishing and we are encouraged to discuss these issues, find the root causes, and look for solutions that go beyond reaching for a prescription pad.
Depression is caused by such a range of factors. And one of the most common – hormonal imbalance – might be missed by harried medical professionals who simply don’t have time to explore all of what is going on for a woman. That’s why I love practicing functional medicine. In this model, I’m required to take the time to really listen, to explore all aspects of a woman’s life, and help her make the best decisions for her own unique situation. There’s no easy fix, but natural solutions for depression are available, and often this begins with hormonal balance and digging deeply to find the root cause.
Let’s take a look at what depression is, some of the symptoms, and some root causes. Then we’ll talk about how hormones and depression are connected, and some natural ways to balance those hormones and enjoy life again!
What is Depression?
Everyone feels sadness and grief at some time in their lives. These feelings are often brought on by a loss of some kind, disappointing experiences, or difficulty with relationships. As crushing as these feelings can be, they are not the same as depression.
Depression is much more serious than “feeling blue.” With depression, you can’t just push through by ignoring it – and expecting yourself to do so may have serious consequences.
Depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is a common, serious medical condition that impacts how you feel, think, and act in negative ways. It can cause feelings of sadness and lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed, and make typical functioning at work or home difficult – and in serious cases, nearly impossible.
Like most illnesses, symptoms can ranges from mild to severe. In addition to sadness and loss of interest in activities, depression can bring changes in appetite; sleep challenges; fatigue and lack of energy; feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness; difficulty with concentration and decision making; and in severe cases thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts.
I know from the women I’ve talked to that depression can cause a sense of hopelessness and despair. They tell me that they feel disconnected from the world around them, even when they are able to move through their days as planned. They sometimes wonder why they should even get out of bed in the morning. And for some of these women, the fatigue and physical pain they experience makes it impossible to do so. They are desperate for answers. The good news is, depression can be treated. And that doesn’t always have to be with a prescription.
Having a bad day or two doesn’t mean you are depressed, but if you have at least four symptoms that linger for more than two weeks, your health care provider may diagnose you with depression. According to the World Health Organization, depression impacts more than 300 million people worldwide, with more women than men affected by depression.
Current data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that from 2013-2016, 8.1 % of Americans over the age of 20 had depression in a given two-week period, and that 10.4% of women had depression – almost twice the rate of men (5.5%).
Too often, the first (and sometimes only) solution offered is prescription medication. But without finding out the root causes of the problem, the drug is only masking the issue. Sure, you might feel better — but many people do not respond to drug therapy. And if they do, they end up on these drugs long term, often with major side effects to contend with.
That’s why I look at the big picture. What’s really going on here? And often, I’ve discovered, an imbalance in major hormones and depression go hand in hand. Let’s take a closer look at that, and then we’ll talk about what you can do to get on the path to feeling better.
What’s the Connection Between Hormones and Depression?
So many factors impact depression and anxiety, and women are all so unique that it’s important to look at all the angles when I talk to women about these issues. There are certainly many social and biological factors – genetics, brain chemistry, medication side effects, trauma, societal expectations, and so much more – that could play a role in depression.
But the fact that so many more women than men experience depression is of particular interest to me. While there’s no definitive answer as to why this is so, a connection between hormones and depression certainly makes sense to me! Let’s take a quick look at some of the hormones that could be behind your depressive symptoms.
Female Reproductive Hormones
A 2008 review in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience looked at the relationship between female reproductive events (menstrual cycle, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause) and increased risk of depression. There is ample evidence to support the theory that hormonal fluctuations that occur during these events can influence the neurochemical pathways to depression. Both estrogen and progesterone have been shown to impact parts of the brain connected to behavior and mood regulation.
Estrogen helps form the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can have significant impact on mood. Progesterone impacts the GABA receptors in your brain, promoting a sense of calm, as well as helping you get quality sleep. Imbalances in either hormone can prompt mood issues. And it’s not just about the hormones in isolation — maintaining a proper ratio is important as well. When the ratio of estrogen to progesterone is off, estrogen dominance can result, counteracting the effects of progesterone.
Thyroid imbalances are another common issue for modern women. Because thyroid hormones also impact mood, it’s important to consider thyroid hormone levels when dealing with symptoms of depression. If you have either too much or too little of these important hormones, in addition to other serious symptoms, your mood can suffer.
I’ve talked a lot about the effects an imbalance in this vital stress hormone can have on your body — including the impact on your mood. Women are faced with constant stress in these modern times, which can mean constant production of cortisol. This overabundance of this powerful hormone can overload your adrenal glands, and cause adrenal fatigue. And adrenal fatigue can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mood issues.
DHEA is often called the “feel good hormone.” Even slight imbalances can make you feel like someone you just don’t recognize – much like the symptoms of depression can do!
When we look at hormones and depression together, we start to see patterns. So many hormonal imbalances can impact mood – and depression can likely impact hormone levels too! That’s why I recommend comprehensive testing when women come to me with mood-related symptoms. The more information we have, the more likely we are to find real solutions!
When we realize that hormones and depression are connected, we can stop turning to antidepressants as a first course of action and explore natural treatments instead. You can read more about how to naturally balance hormones, but let’s take a quick look at some ways to deal with depression without prescriptions.
5 Tips to Address Depression – Naturally!
1. Eat, Sleep, and Exercise Right
Okay, that’s three things, but together they make up the backbone of healthy living. When we pay close attention to the way we eat, the rest we provide our bodies, and staying active, we often find ourselves looking and feeling better than we thought we could. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with good eating, sleeping and exercise habits is one of the best ways to keep hormone levels balanced.
Avoiding excess salt, processed foods, caffeine, unhealthy fats, alcohol and simple carbohydrates can help keep energy levels – and mood -stable. Eating foods high in B vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids can also boost mood, as can making sure you are getting enough iron in your diet. And it’s not just what you eat that matters. It’s also important to eat often enough to avoid a drop in blood sugar, which can lead to irritability and upset. Taking a daily multivitamin is a great way to be sure you’re getting most of the nutrients your body needs to thrive.
Quality sleep is so important to your well being. Finding ways to improve your sleep can also keep hormones balanced and improve mood. Try setting a regular bedtime, and allowing for 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Establish a good bedtime routine that includes turning off electronics an hour before you head to bed; it’s best to leave screens out of the bedroom entirely. Set the scene for restful sleep by keeping the room cool and dark.
Keeping yourself active will help level out hormones and lift your mood. In fact, some studies have shown that regular exercise can have as much impact in boosting energy and decreasing fatigue as antidepressants do! And unless you’re really overdoing it, exercise doesn’t come with negative side effects. You don’t need fancy equipment or a large block of time, either – a brisk 30 minute walk is plenty.
2. Get Outside and Soak Up the Sun
Vitamin D is vital to boosting serotonin and improving mood. Vitamin D is manufactured by your body when it receives proper exposure to the sun’s UVB rays. Just a couple of hours of sun per week can keep you on the right track, as long as you don’t block out those valuable rays with sunscreen. Try to find 15 minutes each day to bask in the sun. In some regions, the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough to produce the Vitamin D you need several months of the year (October to April), so you might want to consider a Vitamin D supplement as well.
3. Seek Out Support
One of the most important messages I can give you is that you are not alone. Too often, women feel like they have to “power through” feelings of depression, never letting on that they are struggling. But reaching out to others is critical to being able to get the help you need. Whether you seek out professional support in the form of therapy, or ask your friends to help, reaching out can give you important new perspectives that you hadn’t considered before. Talking to a trusted health care professional can also help you identify any hormonal imbalances that might be at play.
4. Spend Time Supporting Others
Offering to lend a hand to others can be as much help in overcoming depression as reaching out for your own support. Research has shown that volunteering can improve mental health, particularly in those over age 65. Spending time on service will get you out of the house, and out of your own head. You don’t have to take on hours of volunteering every week to get the benefits. Something as simple as helping a friend in need can lift your mood as well.
5. Find Stress Relief Practices You Love
Stress can be constant, and as I said before, can really bring you down if you aren’t taking care of yourself. It’s essential that you find ways to relieve stress — but these have to be things you love, not one more thing to slog through. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing are all relaxation techniques that can work wonders on your mood when practiced regularly. But if those don’t work for you, there are plenty of other options. Try expressing yourself creatively through art, music or dance; take a day trip to somewhere you love – or have always wanted to see; find something that brings you joy, and do it every day.
Don’t Ignore Signs of Depression
Depression is a serious illness that, when ignored, can have dire consequences. If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or suicide, get to a hospital or call a crisis line immediately. If your symptoms are less severe, reach out to a trusted health care professional right away for support and guidance. Working with a functional medicine practitioner can provide the essential information you need about hormones and depression, and help you look at all the factors that could be impacting the way you are experiencing life.
Balancing Your Hormones Could Be the Key to Living a Life You Love!
Depression is a serious problem but it doesn’t have to control your life. Identifying what is behind your symptoms can give you the tools and strategies you need to balance your hormones and take control of your own life. You have more power than you know – and I can help you find it! And when you do, you’ll finally feel like yourself again – and live the joyful life you deserve!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD