Carrie sat in my office, sobbing.
“All I do these days is cry,” she said. “Or I’m flying off the handle with uncontrollable rage, or I’m exceptionally happy for a little while but there’s a huge crash that soon follows,” she added.
The emotional roller coaster is real and so frustrating for women who don’t know what’s going on in their bodies. They feel like they’ve lost control completely, and they’re desperate for answers.
Most of them know that hormones are connected to emotions, but they don’t realize just how many hormones impact the way we feel, or how severe the emotional ups and downs can be when hormones aren’t properly balanced.
Many times, I hear women tell me they don’t think there’s anything they can do about the highs and lows – especially those that come with PMS or when they’re in perimenopause.
I’m thrilled to be able to tell them that they have more control over their up and down emotions than they might think – they just have to understand the connection to hormonal imbalance. And they need to commit to changing whatever is in their power to change to level these hormones out.
That’s where I can help.
Let’s take a look at the hormones that impact our emotions, and how. Then I’ll give you some tips for maintaining the right balance to help keep your mood on a more even keel.
Neurotransmitters and Mood
Two especially important neurotransmitters carry messages throughout your body, impacting sensory perception, movement, and how calm and focused your brain can be, among other things.
Dopamine and Serotonin are often called the “feel good” hormones, since they have quite a positive impact on emotions. They can promote feelings of connection, pleasure and intimacy while also keeping depression and loneliness at bay.
Dopamine influences both motivation and feelings of accomplishment that increase with rewards. Completing an important task, for instance, can lead to a rush of positive emotion which then inspires you to repeat that behavior to feel the same rush. When levels of dopamine are low, motivation dips as well.
Serotonin has many important functions, including regulating mood.
About 90% of serotonin is found in the intestines, while the remainder is in your central nervous system. Low serotonin levels have been linked to anxiety disorders, memory problems, depression, insomnia and other mood changes.
While both serotonin and dopamine have an affect on behavior and emotions, their mechanisms are unique, so the impact isn’t the same. They also have an impact on each other, so it’s important to understand the way each works.
Related article: “Dopamine and Serotonin – the Happy Hormones.”
A wealth of research has been conducted on the impact of both serotonin and dopamine, showing links between low levels of these neurotransmitters and emotional difficulties.
Research on the rise in positive emotional processing upon the use of SSRIs over time suggests that serotonin helps you process emotions differently. It follows, then, that low levels of serotonin may make you see the world in a more negative light.
A dysfunctional dopamine system has been linked to bipolar disorder, ADHD, and addiction – all of which have strong emotional components. With addiction your body is seeking that rush I described earlier. But your dopamine system can become desensitized, requiring more of the same thing (whether a sense of accomplishment or a glass of whiskey) to elicit the same response.
Sex Hormones and Emotions
When I talk about hormones, many women think I’m only referring those related to the reproductive system.
While these certainly aren’t the only hormones to be concerned with, when it comes to emotions, there is a strong connection.
Sex hormones help regulate your sense of well-being. This can be seen quite clearly when you look at the cycle of hormonal fluctuations women experience each month, and the impact that has on mood.
It’s such a well-established relationship that it’s become the punch line of jokes and an expected reaction to certain times of the month. But these emotional ups and downs are no laughing matter to the women who experience them, especially when the impact on mood is severe.
Understanding how estrogen, progesterone and testosterone impact mood can inspire you to examine these hormone levels more closely and take steps to keep them better balanced rather than thinking the emotional roller coaster is an inevitable part of being a woman.
Estrogen can have a strong effect on your emotional state. Research has shown that high levels of estrogen can both produce or exacerbate symptoms of tension and anxiety. Low levels of estrogen can lead to depressive episodes.
Progesterone deficiency is a key factor in anxiety, due to the calming effect progesterone has on the brain. When this is absent, the brain stays on high alert.
The estrogen-progesterone ratio is just as important as imbalanced levels of either hormone alone – perhaps even more so. The combination of high estrogen levels and low progesterone levels at the same time can result in extreme mood swings.
The up and down nature of these mood swings causes more stress, which can keep levels imbalanced indefinitely.
While testosterone is a “male hormone”, women do need to have a small amount of this hormone circulating in their systems to feel well balanced.
The relationship between sex hormones and emotional response also helps explain why depression and anxiety disorders are so common in perimenopausal women.
Changes in sex hormone levels also impact those neurotransmitters I was just talking about, serotonin and dopamine, having an even greater impact on mood.
Other Hormones that Impact Emotion
Thyroid hormones are central to stimulating cell functions throughout the body, including the brain. When thyroid hormone levels are low, the brain’s neurotransmitters are impacted, which can lead to depression.
Because thyroid hormone levels also influence levels of blood glucose and the release of stress hormones, there are a lot of ways in which deficiency can lead to depression, fatigue, and low energy.
Fluctuations in blood glucose (blood sugar) levels can create major mood swings.
Since insulin converts glucose to energy to be used by the body, imbalanced levels of insulin due to insulin resistance, which is often associated with too much stress, and adrenal dysfunction, can keep blood sugar too high or too low.
Too much insulin can create low blood sugar levels, which have been correlated with aggressive, emotional outbursts and confusion.
If Insulin levels are consistently low (or your body can’t use the insulin it has circulating properly) blood sugar can remain high, causing a wide range of issues, including persistent neuropathy (nerve pain). Chronic pain can lead to depression and anxiety as well.
Cortisol is another important hormone to be attentive to when thinking about emotional state.
Trauma, both acute and chronic, can lead to chronically high levels of cortisol, which can have a significant negative impact on mental health. High cortisol levels impact the brain directly, and can lead to anxiety, rage, and even suicidal thoughts.
Since hormones are all a part of an elaborate communication system in your body, they all influence one another. That means that one imbalance can make it difficult to correct another – and your emotional state is stuck in a cycle of dysfunction.
Balance Hormones to Balance Emotions
While conventional practitioners often reach for the prescription pad first, I believe in taking a more natural approach.
Antidepressants or anxiety medications simply mask the symptoms, and while that may indeed make you feel better, it won’t correct the problem that led to the emotional instability in the first place.
For women, hormone replacement therapy may be a viable solution if the problem is severe (using bioidentical hormones) but it’s worth trying these other steps first.
Here are some steps you can take to begin correcting hormonal imbalances and level out your emotions.
Be very aware of what you put in your body
Food is the most important medicine we have available, and when your hormones are creating emotional difficulty, it’s even more important to give your body the best nutritional support you can.
Fresh, organic whole foods are the best choice, including plenty of lean protein, fresh fruit and vegetables, and whole grains. Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B6, magnesium, and zinc are particularly helpful for healing hormonal imbalances.
Equally important is what you don’t put in your body.
When trying to balance hormones, a crucial step is to limit consumption of anything that contributes to hormonal fluctuations.
Alcohol can act as a depressant, caffeine can induce anxiety and changes in energy and mood, and sugar can cause your mood to reach great heights then free fall quickly to a severe low. All are best avoided as much as possible, especially if you are experiencing signs of imbalance.
While this may seem like I’m suggesting you give up all the “good stuff” these things make you feel good for a short time. When you delete them from your diet, I think you’ll feel so good you’ll discover it’s worth it.
Of course, you can enjoy an occasional dessert or glass of wine, and one cup of coffee in the morning probably won’t cause much harm once you’re healthy again. Moderation is the key.
Processed foods, anything with ingredients you can’t identify, and excess salt, artificial sweeteners and additives are also best avoided, especially when trying to heal hormonal imbalances. Drink plenty of water to keep yourself well hydrated.
Timing is important
Eating regular meals helps keep your blood sugar stable, eliminating the “hangry” reaction we often get when we wait too long to eat.
When working to balance hormones, I suggest eating three meals and two healthy snacks each day. Stop eating well before bedtime to give your digestive system a chance to do its job. When you don’t eat too close to bed, you’ll sleep more soundly too.
Set yourself up for optimal sleep
Speaking of sleep, making sure you get high quality rest is essential to keeping your hormones balanced. It’s all too easy to get caught up in all you have to do and burn the candle at both ends – but that will leave you exhausted and susceptible to emotion overload.
Have you ever noticed that you’re weepier the day after a restless night? That’s because just one night of sleep can throw hormonal balance off and leave you feeling out of sorts.
Set up your environment for ideal rest. A cool, dark, quiet sleeping area is best. Keep electronics out of the bedroom, no exceptions! Create a routine that signals to your body that you’re headed to bed. Maybe have a warm cup of tea, brush your teeth, and read a chapter or two from a book (paper, not electronic).
Consider a little supplemental boost
It’s tough to get the nutrients you need solely from the food you eat, even when you’re eating all the right things.
If you’re noticing real ups and downs emotionally, you might want to talk to a functional medicine practitioner about supplements that can help regulate your hormonal balance, like vitamins B6 and B12, magnesium, zinc and calcium.
I recommend that all women take a daily, high-quality multivitamin/mineral complex.
Let your body move
Regular exercise not only helps you release tension and built up stress, but it can also keep your emotions on an even keel as well. Exercise is one of the best “pick-me-ups” when you’re feeling down because of the endorphins released when you are moving.
When exercise is a typical part of your daily routine, you’ll have a steady supply of those feel good chemicals to keep your spirits high.
Self-care is not selfish.
It’s fundamental in keeping stress levels low, which is necessary for keeping hormones balanced. And you deserve just as much time and attention as you give to everyone else. Self-care goes far beyond a massage or pedicure.
I’m talking about scheduling time for yourself every single day. What you do doesn’t matter if it’s something you genuinely enjoy and are doing for no other reason than that you want to.
You may think you don’t have time to indulge in taking care of yourself, but the truth is that you’ll lose far more time when you’re too exhausted and emotionally spent to do anything at all.
Don’t let yourself reach the point of overwhelm – start prioritizing yourself NOW.
Emotional Stability IS Possible (even during natural hormone fluctuations)
As a woman, your hormone levels will fluctuate regularly throughout your lifetime. But despite what the media and conventional medicine may want you to think, you don’t have to ride out huge emotional waves when they do.
Your mood will rise and fall from time to time and allowing yourself to feel the full range of emotions is healthy.
But if mood swings are taking over your life – like they were for Carrie – help is available.
Understanding the impact that hormones have on emotions allows you to take charge and find your way to stable ground. Try these steps now and let me know how it goes. I can’t wait to hear how great you feel!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD