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Hormones and Mental Health: It’s Okay to Talk about It

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

By simply writing the word “hormones” in the title of this blog post, I feel like I’m committing some sort of taboo. Hormones and their effect on mood and mental health (especially among women) have either been ignored or been the subject of countless jokes and parodies in television, film, and novels. In fact, I was recently watching an old episode of “Dexter” (you caught me – yes, I like the show) when Dexter’s fiancée, Rita, goes on a tirade about pancakes during her early months of pregnancy.

Heaven forbid that a man should ever suggest to a woman that she feels the way she does because of hormone fluctuations – at least on television. The usual result is a very angry woman and perhaps a slap across the face. But here’s the thing – hormone fluctuations do affect mood and mental health, in a big way. If the man (or woman) acknowledges this in a sensitive way, I applaud that person for recognizing an issue that often gets relegated to bad office humor.

I’ll focus on women here, because they are more susceptible to hormone fluctuations than men, but please know that balanced hormones are extremely important to the health of both sexes. Women have many, many hormones coursing through their bodies naturally, and these levels change when life events occur such as menstruation, pregnancy, post-pregnancy, perimenopause (the years of irregularity leading up to menopause), and menopause itself.

Hormone levels also change during “unnatural” events such as taking birth control pills or going through fertility treatments. These experiences expose the woman to synthetic hormones – sometimes in large quantities – that can wreak havoc on her hormonal system and create chronic unbalances. Certain foods also contain estrogen or promote its production, while others inhibit the body’s ability to produce estrogen. It’s no wonder that women experience so many fluctuations in their hormone levels and the accompanying physical and emotional symptoms.

An article in UCLA’s Vital Signs newsletter describes how hormonal changes can increase a woman’s risk for mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. Even women who have been treated for mental health conditions are more at risk for relapse during times of hormonal fluctuations.

If you are concerned about how your hormones may be affecting your mental health, there are a couple of steps you can take, according to Dr. Robert J. Hedaya in an article in Psychology Today:

  • Write down a history of your mental health and hormonal events. Include any mental health diagnoses or major events such as menstruation, birth control use, or pregnancy.
  • Track your current symptoms for at least three months to try to gain a picture of what you are experiencing in relation to your cycles.
  • See your doctor. Hormone levels can be tested over a complete menstrual cycle to see how they are fluctuating each month. Be sure to bring your history and your symptom log when you see your doctor.

Treatments for hormonal problems vary greatly depending on their nature. The good news is that we now live in an age where hormones can be discussed without snickering – at least with our doctors, and on this blog.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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