Hormones get a lot of attention in the wellness community.
This is for good reason.
Although they circulate our body in only minuscule amounts, hormones are powerful, complex, and wide-reaching. These chemical signals are one of the main forms of communication between our different organ systems, and that’s a big deal.
We all know what happens when communication is effective, and when it’s not.
The Mind-Body Systematic Effects of Hormones
The endocrine system uses hormones to control and coordinate many interactions in the body. These include regulating:
- metabolism (e.g., maintaining homeostatic balance via blood pressure, blood sugar, temperature, cellular energy, etc.)
- reproduction, fertility, and sex drive
- growth and development
- responses to injury, stress, infections, and/or environmental factors
Due to the impact of these tiny chemicals, their production, transport, utilization, and removal from the body has many tight control mechanisms. (R, R) Hormones are also very specific. This means they will only communicate with receptors that welcome their signal.
Think of each hormone as a key that opens the lock to enter the door of their target tissue. Organs can be picky about what they let into their systems.
Hormone Regulation and Communication
Hormones communicate in two ways with your body.
1. One way is between two or more endocrine glands.
In this process, one gland releases a hormone which influences another gland’s hormonal output. This creates a feedback loop.
Your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and thyroid gland connect in this way. First, your hypothalamus releases thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH). This then stimulates the pituitary gland to let out thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Next, TSH travels to your thyroid gland and causes it to discharge its thyroid hormones (TH).
The result of this chemical game-of-tag is that TH finally enters circulation to reach their targets in various locations in the body. TH, as all hormones, affects many different signaling pathways and shapes many aspects of wellness.
When the body finally has its full of TH, the feedback loop ceases, and the hypothalamus stops pumping out TRH.
The stress response occurs in a similar manner. The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is the term often used to explain this link between these three glands. You likely heard “HPA axis” if you listen to online health summits. This is medical jargon referring to the role of the endocrine system in the stress response.
2. Hormones also communicate via directly from an endocrine gland to its target organ. For example, your pancreas releases insulin, which then acts on your muscles and liver to help process glucose.
These are only a few examples. There are hormone receptors located all throughout your body, from your blood vessels, kidneys, pancreas, and heart to your brain.
With all this in mind, you can imagine that hormonal imbalances can result in perpetuating, contributing, and/or causing an array of physical, emotional, and/or mental health imbalances.
The Factors that Influence Hormone Levels
To add to the intricacy of these processes, there are many factors which impact how hormones are utilized, distributed, metabolized, and excreted. Some of these influencers in hormonal balance include:
- lifestyle (such as sleep (R, R) and movement)
- food and nourishment (“diet”)
- toxic exposure
- the microbiome (estrobolome) and reproductive microbiome
- genetic variations in hormonal production, transport, detoxification, and elimination (R, R, R, R) (common examples include: MTHFR, COMT, SHBG, CY1B1, and VDR)
- prenatal environment and adverse childhood events
- relationships and social connections
- blood sugar balance
Due to these weblike links, it is important to address the whole person using a personalized approach when addressing hormones. If the foundations for health are missed, and the triggering factors of an imbalance are not addressed, treating hormones alone will only result in chasing laboratory levels. This will likely never fully resolve symptoms.
The Hormone-Mood Connection
Many women have experienced mood shifts throughout their lifespan co-occurring with their menstrual cycles. (R, R, R) So, it probably comes as no surprise that the sex hormones influence your brain signals and that they also have effects on overall brain functioning.
Estrogen and progesterone have intricate interactions with brain neurotransmitters, including serotonin, GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric), glutamate, and dopamine. (R, R, R) They can also affect the nerve pathways in the brain, playing a role in brain communication. Specifically, estrogen and progesterone have been implicated in regulating brain neurology (i.e., neurite outgrowth, synaptogenesis, dendritic branching, myelination, and other important mechanisms of “neural plasticity).” (R)
One article entitled, “Sex hormones affect neurotransmitters and shape the adult female brain during hormonal transition periods,” explains these concepts in exquisite detail. The authors explore the numerous interactions between the various neurotransmitters and the sex hormones. These connections play a role in your cognition, emotions, mental tasks, and processing information.
How Estrogen, Progesterone, Thyroid, Testosterone, and Oxytocin Hormones Affect the Brain
Previously, I explored in an article series how several, distinct hormones impact your mood.
Part one of the series highlighted:
- the connection between chronic stress and hormone biosynthesis (a.k.a., the HPA-axis)
- the many aspects and factors involved in hormonal regulation and their effects on the body that are listed above
- an introduction to how sex hormones interact with specific neurotransmitters that impact mood, cognitive, and psychological processes (again, summarized above)
In the subsequential parts, I further explored how specifically estrogen, progesterone, thyroid, testosterone, and oxytocin affect your brain, behavior, and emotions.
Part two reviewed:
- The interactions between estrogen and progesterone and the brain neurotransmitters of serotonin, GABA, dopamine, and glutamate
- the connections between estrogen and progesterone and psychiatric disorders including anxiety, depression, and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
- the caveats of using hormonal replacement to treat mood disorders (the negative ramifications of not addressing root causes)
- naturopathic solutions to achieve optimal estrogen and progesterone levels and emotional harmony (i.e. examining all the various influencers leading to hormonal imbalance and personalizing a protocol for each individual.)
Part Three discussed:
- The crucial role of thyroid hormones (TH) in brain formation and the functioning of the central nervous system
- The brain-thyroid interactions throughout the lifespan
- How thyroid hormone impacts adult psychological and cognitive states
- The mixed results of thyroid hormone treatment for mood disorders (again, demonstrating that just tweaking hormone levels for symptom management won’t work without addressing the root causes)
- Naturopathic approaches to treating thyroid hormone imbalances (a personalized wellness approach as explained above)
- The interaction between testosterone and specific neurotransmitters
- Studies exploring how testosterone impacts emotional regulation in men and women (testosterone won’t necessarily make one more aggressive… there are nuances)
- The conflicting results in using oxytocin for mood and psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, OCD, and autism)
Why You Can’t Just Replace Hormones for Mood Improvement
As noted above, studies on using hormones for mood show mixed results in the literature. These differing reports are likely related to individual variations in genetics, epigenetics (lifestyle and environmental factors that influence cellular response), personality type, and biochemical individuality.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may work if one has a legitimate low level of that hormone. HRT is most beneficial for those whose lifestyle factors are keyed in and who have a strong foundation of health. On the flip side of the coin, many likely won’t benefit from hormone prescriptions if the underlying triggers that influence hormonal balance remain unaddressed.
Naturopathic Approaches to Addressing Hormonal Balance
The link between emotional and hormonal harmony is not only reciprocal, but many of the factors which impact each are shared. Although this makes their interactions complex and far-reaching, it also demonstrates the connectivity between all the systems of your body.
When a naturopathic and functional medicine doctor holistically addresses nervous system and brain health, or focuses in on sex steroid signaling issues, achieving equilibrium with one will also benefit the other. This is because integrative medicine not only address symptoms, but also their contributing and underlying conditions. As a result, one ends up with a better functioning mind-body as a whole.
In a follow up post, I’m going to address how perimenopausal shifts contribute to irritability, and even rage. Though it is specific for mood disorders in perimenopause, I think everyone will find it helpful to learn how sex hormones influence the brain and the role hormonal shifts have on mood.
Naturopathic Medicine and Holistic Resources for Hormonal and Mood Support
Free resources and more education on essential oils and mind-body wellness are available to you here.
If you are struggling with mental health issues, please seek professional help: National Mental Health Hotline
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Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.