Hormones are chemical messengers that are secreted directly into the blood, which carries them to organs and tissues of the body to exert their functions. They are secreted form the endocrine glands in the body which include: the pituitary gland, pineal gland, thymus, thyroid, adrenal glands, pancreas, testes and ovaries. (Figure 1)

Figure 1.1

Hormones help to control many functions, such as growth, repair, sexual reproduction, digestion and homeostasis. However they can also affect your mood. Have you ever heard the expression: “It’s that time of the month – stay away from her!” This is all about hormones. Gonadal hormones have the most impact on emotions, mood and behavior. They are secreted by the gonads (the ovaries and testes) and the main representatives are estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
 

Estrogen appears to be a “protective” agent in the brain. This may in part explain why some women feel worse, in terms of their mental state, in the low-estrogen phase of their monthly cycle.

Estrogen appears to have direct impacts on dopamine and serotonin, the key brain chemicals associated with the development of depression and psychosis. In fact, animal and clinical studies show that administering estradiol (the most potent form of estrogen) can improve symptoms of psychosis and depression.

figure 2

Fig. 2 A classic 28 day cycle and the respective hormone level. Ovulation occurs on the 14th day.

The impact of gonadal hormones on mood is apparent at many other life stages. Around puberty, a time of major hormonal change, many girls experience various mood swings and other changes in mental health. Postnatal depression and psychosis are key mental illnesses related to childbirth and have a major hormonal component to the onset and course of illness. This is thought to be triggered by the sudden, rapid drop in the high levels of pregnancy hormones shortly after birth.

During the transition to menopause, women experience major hormonal shifts. At this time, they are 14 times more likely than usual to experience depression. This is known as perimenopausal depression. It affects women differently than other types of depression, causing anger, irritability, poor concentration, memory difficulties, low self-esteem, poor sleep and weight gain.

Recent research suggest that in men, just like in women, gonadal hormones influence mood and behavior. In particular, low levels of testosterone can lead to an age-related condition called andropause.

Andropause is sometimes described as the “male menopause” and it is caused by a significant decline in testosterone levels to below the normal range for young men. This can result in erectile problems, diminished libido, decreased muscle strength and decreased bone mass.

Many other factors such as obesity, diabetes and excessive alcohol consumption can also cause low testosterone levels. So andropause should not be viewed as a disease, but as a clinical syndrome with a great deal of variability.

In some men, testosterone-replacement has been used successfully to treat andropause. But this needs to be done under strict medical supervision because of the many potential side effects including prostate problems, elevated cholesterol and increased rage.

There is still a lot of research needed to be done in order to get a better understanding of the connection between hormones and mental health in both women and men, but definitely the gap between the body and  mind is filled.

References:

  1. http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/chemical-messengers-how-hormones-affect-our-mood
  2. http://www.news-medical.net/health/What-are-Hormones.aspx
  3. Harrison’s Endocrinology 2nd Edition
  4. Guyton & Hall. Textbook of Medical Physiology. 11th Edition
  5. Kierszenbaum L. Abraham. Histology and Cell Biology. An Introduction to Pathology
  6. Image adapted from: http://veganismylife.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/nature-woman-256403.jpg

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