Hormones are smaller than the eye can see, but despite their size, they play a big part in both our mental and physical health.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are chemicals which live in our body as part of our endocrine system. They act as chemical messengers, communicating between cells in different parts of our body. Different hormones do different things and carry different messages. Each of them has a specific function and chemical formula. There are so many different types of hormone that we don’t know how many types there are.
Hormones affect most parts of our body and influence most of the functions we carry out each day. These functions include our sleep, memory, growth and development, metabolism, reproduction, cognition (thinking), body temperature and mood.
How Do Hormones Work?
Hormones tell our body what to do, when to do it, and how long to do it for. Small changes in hormone levels can make big differences.
Hormones travel in our bloodstream. They’re sent from cells and glands in one part of the body, to cells in another part of the body. Each cell has receptors for specific hormones. They usually have a few different receptors so that they can receive more than one type of hormone.
Every hormone is a different shape. When hormones connect with cell receptors, it acts a bit like a jigsaw or lock and key. Hormones can only be received by cells with the right receptors. To ensure a connection, the receptor has to be an exact inverse shape of the hormone. The more receptors a cell has for any given hormone, the more sensitive it is to that hormone. Over time, the number of receptors a cell has can change.
When a hormone connects with and binds to a receptor, it passes on a signal, which then triggers an action from that cell.
Some Key Hormones
Of the hormones we know about, some are particularly relevant to our mood:
- Cortisol – another name for cortisol is our ‘stress hormone’. It’s vital for our ‘fight or flight’ reflex, and our parasympathetic nervous system. Most cells have cortisol receptors, and the more cortisol we have moving around our body, the higher our stress and anxiety tend to be. Cortisol also interferes with some of our neurotransmitters, including serotonin, GABA and dopamine. These three are important when regulating our mood. So it follows that high cortisol levels often lead to low mood.
- Thyroid – our thyroid hormones regulate energy, weight, temperature and metabolism. If our thyroid is over-active then we often feel stressed and worried. An underactive thyroid can negatively impact on our mood, increases our fatigue, and cause concentration problems. Thyroid hormones only need to deviate ever so slightly from the ‘ideal’ for us to start feeling the consequences.
- Insulin – many of us will have heard of insulin in the context of diabetes. It helps to manage our sugar levels. When we have too much insulin, it can cause brain inflammation which then creates mood problems.
- Vitamin D – lots of us are deficient in vitamin D, especially if those of us who live in areas with limited sunshine. There’s a link between low vitamin D levels and low mood.
- Oestrogen (sometimes written as estrogen) – for those assigned as female at birth, oestrogen can cause our emotions to fluctuate. If we have too much of it, then we often feel extra irritable and anxious. On the other hand, if we don’t have enough then we might feel tearful and have a low mood.
- Progesterone – our GABA receptors are stimulated by progesterone. GABA neurotransmitters help us to feel calm. If we don’t have enough, we’re likely to have increased levels of anxiety and might experience insomnia and brain fog.
- Testosterone – though often thought of as a ‘male’ hormone, all genders have testosterone. If we don’t have enough of it then our motivation and mood tend to drop, and our anxiety levels rise.
Our circadian rhythm manages our sleep time, wake time, metabolism, thinking, and various other functions. To do this, it responds to signals such as how light or dark it is, how physically active we are, and when we eat.
When it’s dark, our pineal gland produces melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. As it gets lighter, melatonin production stops and we start to feel awake again. But that’s not the only hormone involved in our sleep-wake cycle. A second hormone, adenosine is the opposite of melatonin. It increases during the day and decreases as we sleep. When adenosine binds with our cell receptors, it slows down nerve cell activity, making us feel drowsy. So the more of it we have, the drowsier we feel.
One of the reasons that we’re advised to avoid caffeine if we struggle with our sleep, is because caffeine has a similar shape to adenosine. This means that it can bind to our adenosine receptors. Not only does this reduce the number of receptors that adenosine can bind to, but rather than slowing down nerve cell activity, caffeine speeds it up. So we feel more awake.
Sleep can have a huge impact on our mood. We all know how rubbish we feel after a broken night’s sleep, or too many late nights in a row. Our mood drops, patience evaporates, and we become snappy and irritable.
Puberty And Hormones
Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are all involved in both puberty and our reproductive health more generally. All three of these hormones can impact our mood, so it’s not particularly surprising that puberty can affect our mental health.
Puberty causes our hormones to fly all over the place. Often, we’ll experience hormone surges, causing them to become unbalanced for a while. This can cause low mood and high anxiety in some people.
Those with female hormones are more likely to experience psychological problems than those with male hormones. Oestrogen can be linked to depression, and during puberty, our oestrogen levels rise.
Our physical and mental health are often linked. During puberty, our hormones prompt several physical changes These changes can affect our mental health as we grapple to come to terms with each change.
Puberty isn’t easy and it can cause us to feel incredibly self-conscious, lowering our self-esteem. Our behaviour might change as we struggle to understand and cope with the changes we’re experiencing. Unbalanced hormones don’t make this any easier; it can be hard to work out how we feel from one moment to the next.
Anyone who has periods will know that they can play games with our mood. They can leave us feeling tearful, irritated, low, anxious and wobbly. We might struggle to think clearly as the brain fog descends. Sometimes all we want to do is cry and nap.
Some people live with Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) or Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). These conditions can cause much more significant mood changes at different points in our monthly cycle.
Ageing And Hormones
As we move past puberty and into adult life, we might stop experiencing such rapid physical changes, and our hormones are likely to settle down a bit. But the interaction between age and hormones doesn’t stop there.
Progesterone starts to decline rapidly from around the age of 35. Lower progesterone means higher levels of cortisol, which means higher levels of anxiety. It can also make our insomnia and ‘brain fog’ worse.
From our mid-40s, our body stops producing as much melatonin. As melatonin is such an important part of our circadian rhythm, this can cause big problems with our sleep.
Around half of us will experience menopause. Menopause can have a significant impact on our mental health. It has a huge range of possible symptoms including mood changes. During menopause, our oestrogen and progesterone levels drop, causing low mood and irritability. If that wasn’t enough, menopause can also affect our sleep, making everything feel even harder to manage.
Hormones And Our Physical Health
Our hormones play a part in our physical health as well as our mental health. They’re an important part of homeostasis, which is a long word for ‘keeping everything in the body stable’.
When things go wrong, we can experience all sorts of physical health problems such as infertility, over- or under-active thyroid, weak bones, tumours, irregular menstruation, diabetes, and weight issues.
It’s Not All Doom And Gloom
Hormones can negatively affect our mental health, but that means that they can also positively affect our mental health.
Our body is often very good at keeping things relatively stable. But when things do go wrong, it can be helpful to have an understanding of some of the science behind it, because then we can do something about it.
For example, if we’re struggling to sleep then we know that scientifically it makes sense to have our evening meal a while before we go to bed, make our bedroom dark when we want to sleep, and possibly to consider taking melatonin. Those struggling with symptoms of menopause could look into hormone replacement therapy (HRT). If we have an over- or under-active thyroid, then there are medications we can take to level it out.
Hormones affect so many different things, but the more we knowing about them helps us to have an idea of options that might be available to us when we’re going through a hormone-related rough patch. If we’re struggling with our mood, wider mental health, or any other hormone-related problems, and we want some professional support, then our GP is usually a good place to start.
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