How do hormones affect your mental health?
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman
Written byElise Burley
Last updated: 10/13/2022
I like to think that I’m way more in touch with the intricate workings of my own endocrine system than the average person—a.k.a. the network of glands and organs that make hormones. Ever since I started practicing mindfulness, I’ve gotten really good at paying attention to the subtle messages my body sends me.
When I’ve had too much sugar, I can actually “feel” the chemical-like shift taking place in my bloodstream, like a wave rolling through my whole body. And if I ever decided to stop tracking my menstrual cycle, I’d probably still be able to tell you the approximate day I was on just by assessing my alertness, mood state, cravings, energy, and sleep quality—all of which change throughout the month in relation to fluctuating hormones.
I’m no endocrinologist (a doctor who specializes in the treatment of hormones), but I think hormonal balance is one of the most interesting things about the human body. I also think it’s one of the most important parts of yourself to be in tune with for the sake of your mental and physical health.
What Are Hormones, Anyway?
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through your bloodstream, carrying messages to different organs in the body with instructions on how they should behave. They’re produced by endocrine glands—the pituitary gland at the base of the brain is arguably one of the most important ones—and can have effects both big and small over time.
Some hormones that we tend to hear about a lot include:
- Estrogen and progesterone, which are two of the primary female sex hormones that help control menstruation and pregnancy.
- Testosterone, which is the primary male sex hormone that helps control libido, muscle building, and more.
- Glucagon, cortisol, and adrenaline (and other “stress hormones”), which help regulate blood sugar levels and your response to stress.
- Insulin, which helps your body absorb and process sugar (glucose) from food.
- Thyroid hormone, which helps your body run at an efficient speed and affects energy and weight.
- Growth hormone, which helps the body heal, develop, and grow.
How Hormones Differ Between Men And Women
All genders have the same hormones, just at different levels. Sex hormones are influenced by biological sex, with people who are born female having a much higher baseline level of estrogen and people who were born male having a much higher level of testosterone.
Fluctuating estrogen and progesterone levels in people with a uterus can affect their mental health by impacting everything from mood to libido. On the other hand, people with a prostate have no monthly cycle to account for or fluctuating sex hormones that can influence their mental health—which means that testosterone levels are almost always at a consistent level on an everyday basis.
This has some important implications for both sexes: Women are at a higher risk for mental illness than men, often beginning around puberty and peaking during childbearing years. However, once women reach menopause and experience a drop in estrogen levels, they tend to be at a similar risk to men.
Men are less likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness than women, but once they reach middle-age, their rate of diagnosis may increase. This may be due to the fact that testosterone levels tend to decrease with age, which can lead to reduced energy, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
How Hormones Impact Your Mood & Mental Health
Hormones work by sending messages that tell your body what to do—including which mood states to take on and which emotions to feel. When our hormones are balanced, we tend to feel good overall. This may look like:
- Generally positive or optimistic thoughts and emotions
- Alertness and clarity of mind
- Enhanced focus and concentration
- The ability to remember things, learn, and motivate ourselves
- The ability to feel, express, and manage negative thoughts and emotions
- The ability to manage stress and cope with change or uncertainty
- The ability to maintain relationships
- The ability to be productive at work, at school, or at home
- Minimal problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting good quality sleep
But when our hormones are out of balance, we tend to feel “off,” and the effects can be pretty tough to handle. We might experience:
- Obsessive or negative thoughts and feelings
- Mental fatigue or sluggishness
- Reduced mental focus and concentration
- Memory loss, forgetfulness and trouble making decisions
- Feeling overwhelmed by stress or unable to cope with change or uncertainty
- Obsessive or negative thoughts and emotions
- Difficulty feeling, expressing, and managing negative emotions such as anger or sadness.
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping
Hormonal imbalances can also worsen pre-existing mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. In addition, they can contribute to physical health conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and more.
What Causes Hormone Imbalances?
Hormone imbalances can happen for a number of different reasons. In many cases, they’re influenced by lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and stress.
Consider a diet that’s very high in processed foods, for instance. The preservatives and additives contained in these processed foods can lead to a hormonal disruption if consumed regularly. Likewise, the physical stress of insufficient sleep can impair hormone regulation by disrupting the normal circadian rhythm of your body.
Environmental toxins are another big lifestyle factor that can throw off your hormones, which many people tend to overlook. We actually ingest, inhale, or apply multiple substances to ourselves and our skin on a daily basis. Bisphenol-A (BPA), for example, is a toxin that’s been shown to disrupt normal estrogen function. It’s been found in plastics, the lining of food cans, and even cash register receipts.
Your age also plays a role in certain aspects of hormone balance. As you grow older, levels of certain hormones decline with age, and this is what eventually leads to menopause in women.
If you currently take medication, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or have a preexisting health condition, you may be more susceptible to hormone imbalances. Conditions known to contribute to hormone imbalances include hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and diabetes.
How to Balance Your Hormones
Balancing hormones is tricky because they’re constantly being influenced by so many different factors. If you’re a healthy individual, however, making certain lifestyle changes can help balance your hormones in ways that have a positive impact on your mental health and overall sense of well-being. Here’s what you can do:
Eat whole foods: Foods that are nutrient-rich, minimally processed, and in their natural form are best for providing your body with what it needs to produce hormones. These include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats like olive oil or avocado oil, nuts & seeds, beans and legumes, and lean sources of protein like poultry and wild-caught fish.
Limit sugar and refined carbs: Foods that are heavily processed or sweetened with sugar can cause hormonal imbalances by promoting inflammation and blood sugar fluctuations. You might find it helpful to track your carbohydrate intake for a few weeks to determine how much, if any, you need to cut back in order to improve hormone balance.
Focus on fiber: Soluble fiber, particularly in the form of fruits and vegetables, can help regulate insulin function by slowing down digestion. This may also impact your body’s normal circadian rhythm and help regulate other important hormone functions.
Avoid or limit alcohol: Alcohol is known to impact serotonin levels, which affects your mood and sleep patterns. Many alcoholic drinks are also full of sugar. If you’re trying to balance your hormones naturally, alcohol should be avoided.
Beware of toxins: Harmful chemicals found in things like pesticides, detergents, cosmetics, and even nonstick pans can disrupt your hormones by mimicking the natural function of certain hormones like estrogen and testosterone. Choose organic foods glass over plastic when possible, do some research on the ingredients in your foods, and choose natural, chemical-free products whenever you can.
Exercise: Exercise helps boost serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, which can help improve mood and reduce stress. It also helps regulate hormone production—particularly when done in a fasted state.
Get enough sleep: Sleep is your body’s time to restore and recharge. If you aren’t sleeping well, you aren’t giving your body the opportunity to regulate hormones effectively. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
Maintain a healthy weight: Excess fat cells release estrogen, which can have a negative impact on hormone balance. If you’re overweight or obese, address it as part of your overall health plan.
Manage your stress levels: Chronic stress causes a spike in cortisol, which can interfere with normal reproductive and thyroid functions. While it may be difficult to manage your stress levels completely, doing what you can to reduce it—whether that’s through exercising or meditation—will help balance hormones naturally.
Address any preexisting conditions: Conditions like thyroid disease and diabetes may need to be treated medically before symptoms improve. In some cases, you may need to take hormone replacement medications.
Keep a journal: Write down your symptoms, what you eat, how much you exercised, how much you slept, and how you’re feeling that day. By keeping track of your daily habits and your mood state, you can get a sense of what might be causing hormone imbalances.
In addition to restoring balance to your hormones, all of the above strategies can also be used to prevent imbalances from happening in the first place. Having said that, sometimes making healthy lifestyle changes isn’t always enough to restore hormonal balance.
Depending on your particular situation, you may need to see an endocrinologist so they can test for possible medical conditions that are known to contribute to hormonal imbalance. You can also opt for a holistic approach by seeking a natural health practitioner or acupuncturist. In addition to being able to help you balance your hormones naturally, these types of professionals can also help you identify any other lifestyle factors that might be complicating your condition.
Your hormones are constantly in flux, so there’s no single way of restoring balance. Be conscious of your lifestyle and make adjustments accordingly to help restore hormonal balance naturally.
Start Taking Action to Balance Your Hormones
I hope this information has been helpful. Putting the above suggestions into practice in my own life has done wonders to bring my body back into balance. My energy levels have improved, stress is more manageable, and my mood is much more positive and optimistic these days.
I encourage you to try some of these tips as well. Start small, if necessary. Listen to your body. Get familiar with what it’s telling you. It’s totally worth it—for the sake of your health and well-being!
About the author
Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.