Physical health can have a significant impact on mental well-being. As experts learn more about the relationship between hormones and mental health, it has become increasingly clear that the body’s ability to produce certain chemicals can have a profound effect on a person’s psychological health.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are chemicals that deliver messages throughout the body. They play an essential role in a variety of vital functions and characteristics, including respiration (breathing), digestion, growth, metabolism, the sleep/wake cycle, sex drive, stress response, and mood.
Hormones are similar to neurotransmitters, which also pass messages. The main differences between these two messengers are where they are produced and where they work.
- Hormones are produced by organs within the body’s endocrine system, and they travel through the bloodstream.
- Neurotransmitters are created within the central nervous system, and they function in synapses, which are the small gaps that separate nerve cells.
Both neurotransmitters and hormones can impact a person’s mental health. For example, disruptions in the production and distribution of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine (all of which are neurotransmitters) have been associated with mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
In terms of hormones and mental health, chemicals such as cortisol, progesterone, testosterone melatonin, and insulin are all significant. We’ll discuss these hormones and their impact on mental health in greater detail in the next section.
What Is the Relationship Between Hormones and Mental Health?
Now that we understand what hormones are, and we’ve identified a few that are associated with mood and emotions, we’re ready to focus on the relationship between hormones and mental health.
Cortisol is often referred to as “the stress hormone.” When a person is threatened or subjected to certain levels of stress, their body may respond by ramping up the production of adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol triggers increased glucose in the bloodstream. It also limits bodily functions that are not essential to the “fight or flight” response. An abundance of cortisol can initially cause a significant increase in mood. However, the continued presence of elevated cortisol levels has been linked to depression and irritability.
Progesterone prepares the body for pregnancy and influences the processing of emotions. On the negative side, fluctuations in progesterone levels appear to be associated with concerns such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and postpartum depression (PPD).
Hormonal contraceptives, many of which impact progesterone levels, have also been linked to mental health side effects such as anxiety, mood swings, depression, and irritability.
Testosterone is often called “the male sex hormone.” Its functions include regulating muscle and bone mass, sex drive, and sperm production. It is also responsible for the development of primary and secondary characteristics that are typically associated with males.
Both too much and too little testosterone have been linked to several mental health concerns:
- A February 2015 article in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience noted that diminished testosterone levels may be associated with anxiety, depression, and memory decline, among other emotional and cognitive challenges.
- An August 19 Harvard Health article reported that elevated levels of testosterone may be contribute to mental and behavioral health challenges such as mood swings, irritability, delusions, impaired judgement, and aggression.
Insulin’s primary responsibility is regulating glucose (sugar) levels in the blood. Since the body relies on glucose for energy, abnormal insulin production can have a devastating impact on a person’s health. Type I diabetes is characterized by low or nonexistent natural production of insulin. In addition to its effects on physical health, insulin can also influence a person’s mental well-being.
According to a September 2021 article on the Stanford Medicine website, people who suffer from insulin resistance (which is the inability of certain cells to bind to naturally produced insulin) have a significantly higher likelihood of developing depression. than do people whose bodies produce and process insulin effectively.
A study that was described in the Stanford article found that a moderate increase in resistance to insulin was associated with an 89% increase in diagnoses of major depressive disorder.
Melatonin, which is produced in the pineal gland, helps manage the sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to light at night can lead to insufficient melatonin production, which can, in turn, cause a person to experience disrupted sleep patterns and insomnia. Natural melatonin production also decreases as a person ages.
Unfortunately, evidence shows that reduced melatonin levels have also been associated with a variety of physical and mental health concerns, including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and depression.
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