Hormones and moods: understanding depression and anxiety in women

On my journey through the uncharted seas of perimenopause at the age of 44, I encountered some rather rough sailing. My days were filled with the swells and troughs of depression, tears, mood swings, irrational angry outbursts, lethargy and fatigue. My nights found me in turmoil with gripping anxiety and panic attacks along with soaking night sweats. Add to this the unexplained weight gain and low libido and I knew something was seriously awry. My moods and my body seemed totally out of control. What was happening to me?

The emotional roller coaster that accompanies premenstrual syndrome, perimenopause and menopause is most profoundly connected to the flow of two powerful hormones, estrogen and progesterone. Nature has designed estrogen and progesterone to be partners in a delicate balancing act. When that balance teeters in either one direction or another, a whole host of health problems ensue.

Our modern lifestyle, with its stressful demands, irregular eating habits, junk food cuisine, frequent use of pharmaceutical drugs and environmental toxic exposure, has shifted the hormonal balance way over to the estrogen excess side. When estrogen is out of balance with progesterone, a condition called estrogen dominance occurs. The imbalance that results causes depression, mood swings, anxiety, irritability, anger, insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, bloating, mental fogginess, low libido and sore breasts.

Estrogen excess plays a huge role in causing PMS symptoms. Progesterone is the dominant hormone during the luteal phase, the two weeks before menstruation. It is produced in amounts 200 times greater than estrogen at that time. However, due to the many stresses, nutritional deficiencies and eating indiscretions, estrogen levels can far exceed progesterone during the luteal phase. Many of the woes of PMS, including the wild, emotional ride, are the result of this topsy-turvy hormone production.

Far from deficiency in estrogen, the modern menopausal woman is also more likely to experience high levels of estrogen and low levels of progesterone, creating that all too familiar estrogen dominant profile. In fact, The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that an overweight postmenopausal woman has more estrogen circulating through her body than a skinny premenopausal woman. Through the use of saliva testing, the most valid way to test hormone levels, according to WHO, the prevalence of estrogen dominance has been confirmed. Instead of estrogen deficiency, modern women are really suffering from a progesterone deficiency.

Even perimenopause, a five- to ten-year journey of hormonal adjustments preceding menopause, is now recognized as a time when the body is making really high levels of estrogen along with low progesterone output due to irregular ovulations. According to studies conducted by Dr. Jerilynn Prior, researcher and professor of endocrinology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the various symptoms of perimenopause are due to an excess of estrogen not a deficiency. Dr. Prior's research has also discovered that as many as 50 percent of young women in their 20s are not ovulating every month (although they continue to menstruate) leading to a month-long estrogen dominant condition worsening PMS mood swings and other symptoms.

When the steroid hormones drugs are used, either in the form of the Pill or hormone replacement therapy for PMS, perimenopause or menopause, estrogen levels may be raised by as much as 100 times more than what the body would normally be making. For many women, these treatments will not only create but worsen, depression, anger flare-ups, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, lethargy and unpredictable mood swings. The Pill and HRT also rob the body of vital nutrients such as vitamin Bs, E, C, folic acid, magnesium, selenium and zinc, which further compromises physical and emotional health.

In addition, estrogen can interfere with the uptake of the thyroid hormones, contributing to a sluggish thyroid condition known as hypothyroidism. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include depression, postpartum depression, mood swings, lethargy, mental fogginess, weight gain and menstrual irregularities. In addition, under stress, the adrenals produce an excess of the stress hormone, cortisol, leading to various harmful effects including brain aging and bone loss. Excessive demand placed on the adrenals will lead to adrenal exhaustion, causing anxiety, panic attacks, depression or rapid mood swings, mental sluggishness, feeling mentally and physically over-stressed, crying bouts, insomnia, night sweats and generalized fatigue.

A woman's ability to feel and express her deep emotional life is one of the greatest gifts of being a woman. However, hormone balance is a delicate matter. Working long hours, getting too little sleep, daily stresses, a diet of too much sugar, caffeine, refined carbohydrates, alcohol and hydrogenated oils, being dehydrated and skipping meals will not only create hormonal imbalance but seriously alter many other key functions of a woman's body including the liver, the pancreas, the adrenals, the .digestive system and the immune system. Whenever these systems are thrown out of kilter, emotional imbalances are expressions of disharmony. Even candida, hypoglycemia and blood sugar surges, parasites, food allergies and heavy metal toxicity can have an emotional counterpart.

Whatever emotional imbalance a woman may be experiencing, it is a powerful signal to address and resolve the underlying imbalance. Mood swings of whatever variety have many causes, which is why it is important to work with a competent holistic practitioner to discover and correct the underlying health problem. The popularly prescribed drug therapies such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and minor tranquilizers may only alleviate the symptoms, never the cause, and are often accompanied by serious side effects which include mood swings, depression, anxiety, insomnia, hypertension and sexual dysfunction.

My perilous perimenopausal journey was a time of profound learning about my body and its hormonal transitions. With the assistance of my natural healing team of a traditional Chinese herbalist, chiropractor and holistic physician, I was able to navigate myself back to balance. I increased my deficient progesterone levels by using a transdermal natural progesterone cream as well as the Peruvian herb, Maca, an excellent adaptogen herb for the endocrine system. Since a sluggish liver can contribute to depression, anger, irritability and frustration, I gave my liver extra support by adding the herb milk thistle, the antioxidants vitamins A, C and E, Coenzyme Q-10 and alpha lipoic acid. I added healthy portions of liver friendly foods such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, pumpkin and kale while reducing liver toxic foods such as sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine, alcohol, preservatives and trans-fatty acids such as margarine and fried foods.

In addition to being committed to a nutritional and herbal program, I also included more hormone balancing foods such as plenty of fresh organic vegetables and fruits, quality proteins, essential fatty acids and pure water. Regular exercise, meditation and personal quality time were given prominence in my stress-reduction program. Within just a couple of months, my panic attacks permanently ceased, my mood swings disappeared, the night sweats ended, my energy increased, my sleeping was sound, my weight went down and libido went up. I realized for the first time, that a woman's life doesn't need to be a journey of perpetual emotional storms.

Each woman's journey to hormonal health and emotional well-being is unique. As women plot their own course with dedication, awareness and guidance from trained holistic health practitioners, mood swings, depression, anxiety and panic attacks and irritability can be replaced with emotional harmony. Empowered with an understanding of the hormonal cycles at all stages of one's life, coupled with a desire and a commitment to regain inner balance naturally, women of all ages can explore the seven seas of their hormonal life with a true sense of wonder and joy...and smooth sailing.

PHOTO (COLOR): Our modern lifestyle, with its stressful demands, irregular eating habits, junk food cuisine, frequent use of pharmaceutical drugs and environmental toxic exposure, has shifted the hormonal balance way over to the estrogen excess side.

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By Sherrill Sellman

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