Supporting emotions by recognising our hormones
Supporting emotions by recognising our hormones
In nutritional science, we recognise that male and female bodies are different. We need different things. We often, though, still underestimate just how different we are and fail to recognise that our biological differences go deeper than our physical differences.
Thankfully, we are now beginning to appreciate the differences more and in particular the significant impact that hormones – particularly female hormones - have on our health.
Throughout history women have been depicted as dangerous, unpredictable, hysterical even mad! In fact, female hysteria was, for several centuries, classified as a medical diagnosis. Hippocrates, widely recognised as the father of modern medicine, wasn’t, it seems, that in tune with female physiology. In fact, it’s referenced that, as far back as the 5th century BC, Hippocrates was the first to use the term hysteria. Indeed, he also believed that the cause of this so-called disease lies in the movement of the uterus.
The portrayal of female mental health throughout history
If you look back at any historical representation of women it won’t take you long to come across a character with symptoms we may now recognise as a diagnosable mental health condition. Take the character of the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper. The story describes her hallucinations from the wallpaper, and she frequently describes her emotional state yet her husband, who is also her physician, responds by locking her up in a room and treating her as having a ‘temporary nervous depression-a slight hysterical tendency’.
Yet the narrator is constantly giving us clues to her true state and experience, something we would now recognise as part of a post-natal illness, such as psychosis or depression: -
“It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.” (266).
“I cry at nothing and cry most of the time.” (268)
As disturbing as The Yellow Wallpaper is, it at least seems to end with the female lead, whilst in the midst of a mental health crisis escaping her captors (husband and physician) by ‘creeping over him’ as he faints in the doorway.
There are many other depictions of female health conditions portrayed as madness/frailty/hysteria. In fact, the first English work on hysteria was the alarmingly titled; ‘A brief discourse of a disease called the Suffocation of the Mother’ (1603) - written by the physician and chemist Edward Jorden.
Like Hippocrates, the author (Jorden) believed that the womb (described historically, rather oddly as the ‘mother’) could move around the body and create and I quote “monstrous and terrible’ symptoms such as ‘suffocation in the throat, croaking of Frogges, hissing of Snakes … frenzies, convulsions, hickcockes, laughing, singing, weeping, crying’
With singing, laughing and crying being described as monstrous and terrible symptoms it seems hardly surprising that female hysteria was a common enough condition but what would have constituted such a diagnosis? It would appear that such a diagnosis was perhaps used too readily in cases that men didn’t understand or have direct experience of. According to a quote in Medical News Today “For centuries, doctors readily diagnosed women with “hysteria,” an alleged mental health condition that explained away any behaviours or symptoms that made men…uncomfortable.”
It is fascinating to look back at these historical portrayals but thankfully we have moved on and do now understand much more about the links between our emotions, our hormones and our physical and mental health. While there is still some way to go in fully understanding women’s health, we are now seeing movements to support the hormonal changes women experience as they go through the menopause, such as the Equality Act 2010 covering menopause under three separate protected characteristics (Age, Sex and Disability discrimination).
What are emotions?
The dictionary definition of an emotion is: -
‘Instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge’
We now understand more about the intuitive side of emotions and how these originate from the nervous system (the old physicians did used to say “it’s her nerves” but these observations weren’t quite in tune with their subsequent ‘treatments’). The biological explanation for this is that chemical reactions take place within the nervous system, where synapses are able to operate as a transmitter for neurons sending messages known as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters influence and regulate our moods and emotions.
Emotions are perfectly normal, we all have them. In fact, to be devoid of emotion would be unhealthy. Within any given day we all experience a wide variety of emotions - some of which we are able to deal with well whereas others might cause us distress – e.g. anger, sadness. Sometimes we feel these emotions seemingly without explanation or cause. But the explanation could be in our hormones. If we can begin to understand our hormones and their role in our emotional health and well-being, we will be better able to manage our emotions. Tuning our emotions in with our hormones’
Hormones and chemicals are required by our body to maintain our health and wellbeing. Sometimes, however our hormones fall out of balance which can heighten our emotional state historically, this would be the type of scenario that triggered the so-called ‘female hysteria’ medical condition, but now we understand more about our biology and how to work with it rather than against it.
Let’s look at some examples of hormones and chemicals below:
Oestrogen is the female reproductive hormone and a positive mood hormone. It therefore makes sense that our emotions will change when our biological changes begin to take place, such as the peri menopause and menopause where our oestrogen levels decline. The link between oestrogen and mood is also apparent with monthly symptoms of PMS as well as mental health problems like postnatal depression.
As with many hormones and chemicals, oestrogen is linked to the maintainenance of our serotonin and dopamine levels, both of which are discussed in more detail below. This link allows us to understand why low levels of oestrogen can lead to mood swings, depression and anxiety.
Known as the ‘happiness hormone’, serotonin is a calming and regulatory neurotransmitter that helps us feel calm and content. Low levels are linked with low mood, appetite disruption, poor sleep, anxiety disorders, sadness and depression.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward and it is activated by the hypothalamus. Dopamine also helps us to feel alert, have cognitive clarity and supports our memory. When we have low levels of dopamine we can experience, depression, mood swings, impulsive behaviour, low attention span, cognitive issues, feeling unsatisfied and food cravings
Oxytocin is known as the ‘love hormone’ due to its role in making us feel content, calm and secure, which subsequently reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Low levels of oxytocin unsurprisingly lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety and fear. It also contributes to poor sleep which in turn leads to increased cravings for sugary foods and an increased level of irritability.
GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid)
GABA is described as the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter – blocking, weakening or inhibiting certain signals within the brain to decrease the activity of the nervous system. In this way GABA produces a calming effect on the body by slowing down or stopping some anxiety-inducing symptoms and messages before they have chance to affect us. GABA therefore helps prevent feelings of being overwhelmed.
The reason why I have selected these particular hormones out of the many we produce is that they all have a highly significant role in regulating our mood and emotions, and yet levels of all the above are adversely affected as a woman goes into the perimenopause and menopause.
With regards to dopamine and it’s link to women’s decreased levels of oestrogen during the menopause, Dr Eugene Redmond, Jr, professor of psychiatry and neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine said:
"Without oestrogen, more than 30 percent of all the dopamine neurons disappeared in a major area of the brain that produces the neurotransmitter, dopamine”.
Support our hormones through nutrition
We know that our levels of hormones naturally decline and that this can have a significant impact on our health, particularly our emotional well-being. So, what can we do to support our hormones, in turn helping us to balance our moods and understand our emotions?
Nutrition and the food we eat has a big role to play in the creation of neurotransmitters. – Below are some of the foods we should choose if we require an increase in certain hormones.
||Impact on mood/emotion
cottage cheese, milk, red meat (lean), fish, chicken,
chickpeas, bananas, almonds, sunflower seeds, spirulina, peanuts.
These foods contain the amino acid Tryptophan. This acts as a precursor in a biosynthetic pathway to make the neurotransmitter Serotonin.
It is the serotonin that creates the mood-altering feelings associated with these foods.
| Calm, content, able to relax, promotes feelings of happiness and enables the body to transition into the sleep phase of the circadian rhythm.
| Eggs, chicken, beans, apples, bananas, beets, watermelon, dark chocolate and Wheat germ.
| These foods aid production of Oxytocin – this is often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ as it is associated with feelings of intimacy.
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone which is created by sensory stimulation, food can trigger it as can the smell/thought/memory of food.
No foods contain oxytocin but those listed can enhance production.
| Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls certain metabolic processes, such as hunger, body temperature, thirst, sleep and circadian rhythms.
| Proteins – eggs, dairy produce, lean meats, fish, cottage cheese, seeds, wholegrains
|| These foods contain the amino acid Tyrosine. This acts as a precursor in a biosynthetic pathway to make the neurotransmitter Dopamine. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward along with the many functions in the body as outlined. With dopamine it is very important to trigger this naturally rather than via addictive foods such as high sugar/high fat items. Remember the pleasure and reward centre of the brain is also where addictions are formed.
|| These foods and the nutritional science they create impacts on; motivation, attention, happiness, management of pain, cognitive function, heart rate, blood vessel function and sleep
| Chocolate (definitely dark, preferably raw cacao as this is high in magnesium), Brazil nuts (for their selenium) and foods rich in vitamin C such as fruits and vegetables
|| Endorphin – like oxytocin this is a hormone. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relief.
Usually associated with people who exercise and for good reason; people who are active have significantly higher levels of endorphins, and as exercise is addictive so are the endorphins
| Eating these foods will trigger the body’s natural pain relief and enhance mood.
Below are some additional dietary considerations to support our hormones:-
- Eat a naturally colourful diet – the natural colours from foods provide different health benefits and support the production of antioxidants. Choose naturally purple/blue foods as these are high in anthocyanins which promote the growth of good bacteria Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus
- Eat plenty of calcium-rich foods, it’s not only hormone levels that dip when our body goes through changes - its bone-density too.
- Choose oily fish to keep your heart- healthy – women lose the protective benefits that oestrogen has on the heart so choosing oily fish and cutting down on saturated fat and processed foods will support cardiovascular health
- Eat Magnesium rich foods – magnesium increases our GABA levels, which reduce feelings of overwhelm. Foods include green leafy veg, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, plain yogurt, kidney beans and salmon.
- Look after your gut microbiome! Up to 95% of serotonin is manufactured in the gut, and you can support your gut by including probiotics (live bacteria) such as live yogurt and prebiotics (foods that feed your ‘good bacteria’) such as (apple cider vinegar, barley, flaxseeds, apples)
- Another form of Prebiotic is resistant starch (RS) which is found in; bananas, peas, grains & seeds)
- Insulin is yet another form of Prebiotic and it’s found in; onions, leeks and garlic, chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus & bananas
- Exercise - Being sedentary is incredibly dangerous for our health. Moving every day is essential for overall health, mental health and bone-density. Daily light exercise has multiple health benefits but it is also linked to supporting your immune system due to a temporary increase in the production of macrophages, the cells that attack bacteria.
Biological changes are inevitable but we can work with these changes, respond to the signs and equip ourselves with nutritional and lifestyle information that can support our overall health and in turn, balance our emotions. This doesn’t mean we will constantly be happy, but with a little help from some small changes we can hopefully prevent the feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, sadness and irritability that come naturally with biological changes.