When I turned 38 years old (now 41), I began experiencing what experts believe to be the earliest sign of peri-menopause: hormone related mood swings and anxiety. Every month I would erupt and project snide jags toward my loving, patient, all enduring husband, who suffers the wrath of my peri-menopausal storms. Thankfully, he has a strong understanding of human biochemistry, physiology, and temporally insane women! Oh, and don’t worry about him, he recognizes and knows how to protect himself now from my wild emotional winds and monthly flash floods (no pun intended) of tears. Unfortunately, I still get caught off guard and end up experiencing unexplainable bouts of weeping, nervous tension, moderate personality changes, irrational thoughts, and even episodic depression. At this point, I know to turn to my “mood – cycle” calendar. There I see, exactly why I feel so distant from my true self. It may seem odd to write this down, but I track it so I do not have to be so surprised, or in the dark at what’s going on. It also allows me to be more gentle and self-forgiving. My mood swings typically go wild around day 18-21 of my cycle. This is when I’m in the heat of it. My estrogen levels are dropping, and I begin to brace for the hormone roller coaster ahead which includes: cravings, low energy, less patience and empathy towards others, and less motivation and interest in life. With all of these irrational thoughts and emotions happening at once, another thing that I do is ensure my self-care rituals are in play. Some of these are: balanced nutrition, supplemental support, exercise, daily walks, breathing and meditation, sleep, hydration, and stress management. Eventually the storm passes, I feel instant relief as my hormones reset, and my mood stabilizes for another several weeks.
If you are a female over 35, and regardless of whether you are in peri-menopause or full-blown menopause, you have likely experienced a similar pendulum of moderate-to-severe mood swings and related symptoms. One study reports that peri-menopausal women who have no history of prior mood disorders are twice as likely to experience mood disorder symptoms as women who are premenstrual (Cohen & Soares et al., 2006). Fortunately for us, there are effective ways to tactically balance our hormones to better manage our mood. But before we go any further into the ways we can rebalance our brain, let’s talk about hormonal mood swings and what causes them to get worse as we age.
What Peri-menopausal and Menopausal Mood Swings Feel Like:
During our peri-menopausal transition, our levels of estrogen and progesterone (the ovarian sex hormones) decline with each menstrual cycle. However, neither of them decline in a smooth, orderly fashion. Instead, it’s a herky-jerky roller coaster ride. You can actually have dramatic hormone surges (e.g., very high levels of estrogen) followed by “crashes” which precipitate anxiety and feelings of panic. These unusually intense premenstrual (PMS) mood swings are a woman’s first indicator that peri-menopause is underway. If you have already reached menopause, think back to what your mood swings and emotions were like before, and how it’s changed overtime.
Mood swings associated with hormonal changes can range from feelings of rage to intense moodiness, anxiety, nervousness, despair, panic attacks, burst of anger, loss of self-confidence, vulnerability, irritability, and my go to – crying for no reason. Research even suggests that the risk of depression doubles when women enter peri-menopause; and if you have suffered from PMS or postpartum depression, you may be even more prone to symptoms often associated with depression (Chohen & Soares et al., 2006).
Do any of these menopausal mood swing symptoms sound familiar to you? If you’re struggling with any of these symptoms, you are almost certainly struggling with brain chemical and hormonal imbalances. These types of mood fluctuations are incredibly common for women during peri-menopause and beyond. The good news is that being aware of these symptoms can help you develop a supportive action plan and a well-rounded perspective on mood swings.
The Effects Hormones Have on Your Mood:
Hormones are chemical messengers which regulate, stimulate, and control almost every biological function in the body. They carry instructions to the cells, telling them how to behave, and thus directly impacting your metabolism, immune function, and brain chemistry. Hormones are made by tissue structures, called glands. These glands, include the thyroid, pituitary, adrenal, ovaries and testes, and they release their various hormones as needed.
Hormonesspecifically estrogen and progesterone) also act as necessary co-factors in synthesizing and in balancing your neurotransmitters (i.e., chemical messengers that the brain uses to communicate along neurons and neural pathways)(Foster et al., 2013). Your levels (and balance) of hormones strongly influence neurotransmitter function. Both estrogen and progesterone are required to work together to balance your mood at the synapses (i.e., the gaps beyond neural connections that contain receptor sites on the neurons) in the brain. The major chemical players in the brain for women include serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and GABA. All of these neurotransmitters have roles in maintaining your focus, motivation, sleep, and sense well-being. When neurotransmitters get out of balance (as is the case with hormonal fluctuations) the body can not maintain proper levels of these key pleasure enhancers in the your brain. Also, neurotransmitter imbalances can trigger or exacerbate hormonal imbalances (Soares, 2004; 2010). In response to fluctuating levels, you may experience moderate to severe symptoms, such as drops in cognitive function, mood, sleep quality, libido, and energy.
Estrogen and Your Mood
Estrogen is your “feminizing” hormone. It is the sex hormone that gives you shapely, female characteristics. For instance, when levels are highest (as when you are young) you tend not to struggle with increasing fat gain, but may have a healthy amount of body curve around the hips and thighs. When estrogen levels decline in midlife, you begin to lose that hourglass shape, and gain excess weight around your abdomen.
Estrogen also helps maintain and stimulates many of your brain mood sites (at the synapses of the neurons), leading to the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin (your natural Prozac) as well as dopamine (your natural pleasure enhancer), GABA (your natural chill-pill), and endorphins (your natural painkillers).
When estrogen levels drop too low during PMS and the peri-menopause transition, we may experience drastic reductions our supply of serotonin in the brain (Kugaya et al., 2003; Soares, 2010). These low serotonin levels are the primary cause of panic attacks, depression and insomnia for women (Steiner et al., 2003; Kugaya et al., 2003).
Just as low estrogen can cause hormonal havoc and crazy mood swings, levels that are too high (a.k.a., estrogen dominance) do as well. Estrogen dominance is typically experienced by women entering or during peri-menopause, which occurs between the ages of 35-50. I like to call this the peri-menopausal-estrogen roller coaster. This is when our body is making twice the amount of estrogen as it did in our 20’s, but with lower levels of progesterone (which is also on the decline with each cycle) being produced. Our ovaries are basically trying to whip themselves into action in order to do the job they are supposed to do during our fertile years, until they finally quit trying. This high estrogen-to-progesterone imbalance causes a ton of grief for peri- and menopausal women.
Progesterone and Your Mood
Progesterone is your key reproductive hormone. It is vital in maintaining healthy breast tissue, bones, and brain. What is most interesting about progesterone and the brain is that it has been suggested that concentrations are 20 times higher in the brain vs. blood. This means that if progesterone production is insufficient, then you will likely experience more psychological imbalances and disruptive symptoms. Typically, female levels of progesterone decline around age 40, at the beginning of peri-menopause. Interestingly, however, at the same time that progesterone is in decline, the most current research is showing that estrogen swings wildly out of control (Steiner, et al., 2003). Both estrogen and progesterone have to be present in appropriate apposing ratios. Estrogen is excitatory in the brain, whereas the effect of progesterone is calming. You do not want this delicate balance disrupted and certainly not for long. You want enough progesterone on board to balance out the effects of estrogen. If estrogen is dominant, and progesterone is insufficient, then you will begin to experience the symptoms of low progesterone. Which goes something like this: anxiety, depression, PMS, PMS headaches, trouble sleeping, bone loss, fiber cystic breasts, and several other conditions.
Adequate amounts of progesterone is needed to increase your brain’s levels of GABA and the sensitivity of the GABA receptors in the brain (Barth, et al., 2015). GABA is a neurotransmitter with a similar effect as Valium, allowing you to feel calm. If progesterone levels do not rise high enough, you might feel restless, sleepless and tense. Low levels of both GABA and progesterone have also been linked to influencing a variety of anxiety disorders in females (Barth, et al., 2015). Progesterone not only works on GABA receptors, but it also works on dopamine receptors in the brain.
Dopamine is the pleasurable reward neurotransmitter. It is involved in movement, sleep, learning, and attention. If progesterone is low, your dopamine levels also will be low (Barth, et al., 2015). What is fascinating about this is that dopamine is needed for healthy frontal lobe function. The frontal lobe accounts for the largest portion of the brain’s volume, approximately 35-40% (Hofman, 2014). Humans have the largest frontal lobe of any mammal on the planet (Hofman, 2014). It allows us to be a dominant species, if you will. It controls the executive and personality parts of the brain. If you want to have a healthy quality of life, then you will want this region of your brain functioning optimally. Symptoms of poor frontal lobe function includes: anxiety, depression, aggression, poor impulse control and ability to plan, in addition to the lack of motivation.
In summary, balanced levels of progesterone allows you to feel a sense of calm with sharpened attention. It helps with insomnia and encourages feelings of peace. As you have learned here, an imbalance of either of estrogen or progesterone can greatly effect your sense of peace during this transformational time.
The First Step to Rebalance Your Mood and Hormones:
The number one thing you can do to reduce mood swings during peri-menopause and menopause is to reduce stress. I cannot “stress” this enough! You cannot be symptom free until you begin this critical self-care practice. Here is the reason why. During peri-menopause and menopause your adrenal glands have several critical roles:
- They (as they do when you are younger) handle stress by producing and releasing cortisol (“the stress hormone”), and;
- In midlife, they gradually become the major source of the sex hormones (e.g., estrogen, progesterone DHEA, and testosterone) circulating throughout the body in women (Herrera, 2015).
If your adrenal glands are on high alert (not able to rest) and pumping out tons of cortisol, they wont be able to produce adequate levels of these other mood-balancing hormones. This creates a serious hormonal imbalance and leads to all types of uncomfortable symptoms. Another common problem is when cortisol is chronically high and effects an area of the brain called the limbic system, which makes us act more self-involved, survival-based, and less connected to the needs of others (Gold and Chrousos, 2002). You will experience less calm and sleep, and frankly, some of us become a bit jerky too when driven by cortisol.
The bottom line is that unmanaged stress is a huge issue for women, and it is closely related to our mood and hormonal problems. Please pay attention to your stress levels and learn to manage it daily. When you do this you give your adrenal glands a chance to rest and rejuvenate and produce more progesterone for you. This becomes more and more important the further into peri-menopause you go because the ovaries are no longer the primary producers of sex hormones.
Here are some suggestions to reduce and manage stress levels. Try forming a mediation or breathing practice. Work on quieting the mind and breathing deeply, slowly, especially during the exhale. Breathing in through the nose and into the chest and ribcage. Fill and expand them both upwardly and horizontally; completely saturating them with fresh oxygen. Also, step away from chaos and drama. Get it out of your life-space as much as possible!
Some Other Things To Improve Your Mood – Hormone Balance…
- Change your diet. Eat a variety (and a lot) of quality, organic plant foods daily. Focus on mostly colorful and seasonal, low-starch vegetables, both cooked and raw if your digestive system can handle the fiber. Be sure to eat healthy fats and lean proteins at least 2x a day. Healthy fats include organic, cold-pressed olive oils, coconut oils, and other nut oils. I like adding a tablespoon of high quality coconut oil into my protein shake in the mornings. It keeps my brain satiated for hours and provides me with healthy fats (i.e., medium chain fatty acids) which my nervous system needs to survive. Incorporate lean (and some fattier meats-only if hormone and antibiotic free, and fed a grass or natural diet, not a grain/corn fed diet) animal proteins, such as bison, chicken or fish/shellfish, to help support your brain’s neurotransmitter production and hormone synthesis. Always choose the highest quality meats, eggs, and dairy (as long as you do not have an egg or dairy protein intolerance issue) you can afford. It is worth the money to buy better food, even though you pay more now, it will save you money on your health later. Eat no more than 3 average sized meals throughout the day (around every 4 hours), especially when you are less active. This stabilizes blood sugars between meals and helps with brain fueling and function.
-Make sleep an important part of each day. Good sleep hygiene is super important to regulating your mood and hormones during the “change in life”. Sleeping is analogous to washing your brain with shampoo each night. Adequate sleep restores the brain by flushing out toxins that build up during waking hours (Kuhn, et al., 2016). Aim for 7-8 hours a night in a cool, completely dark room. This means no sleep-disturbing blue light alarm clocks, electronics or TV’s on while in bed. Make your bedroom a place for sleep and sex only.
– Exercise regularly. Exercise is an perfect way to change your body, and BRAIN. When you engage in moderate-to-intense exercise you release endorphins which triggers a positive response in the brain, that makes you feel better.
–Don’t go it alone. Sometimes we need to seek out others to help us get through the tough times. Bonding with other women (or anyone for that matter) with whom you are close to and care for can help increase calming-hormones like progesterone and oxytocin (a.k.a., “our love hormone”). To increase oxytocin, hug and bond with good friends or your partner more. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it positively influences your mood.
When to Seek Help
If you are experiencing severe mood swings and getting little relief from a nutrition and lifestyle balancing program, or you have trouble coping with life and are chronically stressed, not sleeping, and/or experience depression for more than 2 weeks, then you may want to seek out a professional to help get you through this time. You will want to find a functional medicine practitioner in your area. A good functional practitioner can help you determine whether you are experiencing cognition problems from insufficient production of neurotransmitters, or if your cognitive problems are a result of your neurotransmitters not working as well as they should because of insufficient hormone levels or imbalances. They can conduct non-invasive tests in order to determine baseline neurotransmitter and hormone levels. These tests allow them to develop a treatment plan to correct the imbalance which is disrupting your body’s hormone regulation. Why a functional medicine practitioner? In my experience, most traditionally trained medical doctors are not willing to take the time (or simply don’t have the time) with you to investigate the cause, nor are they able to chase the “cause” pathways. It is really the job of a functional medicine practitioner to look at all factors in determining where you are deficient, where the problem is originating, and how balance can be restored. An alternative treatment used by many functional practitioners is natural, bio-identical hormone therapy. For some women, a combination of natural hormone therapy, herbal supplements, and specific amino acids may be necessary to ease emotions by boosting neurotransmitters that help regulate moods.
The best solution to address the causes of the uncomfortable peri-menopausal mood swings should always begin with a holistic approach that considers these factors: diet, lifestyle changes, nutritional supplement needs, a basic level of detoxification, balancing the body’s minerals, and reducing stress. In most cases, the most dangerous and disturbing mood-related peri-menopausal and menopausal symptoms are remedied with a natural, balancing approach.
For information and help on how to balancing hormones in peri-/menopause, and living younger longer: visit: www.balance3hplus.com
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