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Hormones and Brain Health: What Women Need to Know

Hormones and Brain Health: What Women Need to Know

Written by Jonathan Bailor, CEO SANESolution & Reviewed by Dr. Matthew Olesiak, MD Chief Medical Director, SANESolution

What Are Hormones?

Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through the bloodstream to tissues or organs. They are produced by glands located throughout the body, and the brain largely controls the production and release of these hormones. 

This is a two-way street because hormones in the body also send signals back to the brain, affecting its activity. Additionally, hormonal balance is crucial for the brain to function properly. This makes the brain highly sensitive to hormonal shifts. 

The sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are most commonly associated with cognitive function. But thyroid hormones and cortisol also play a big role in brain health and cognitive performance. 

Hormones that Affect Brain Health/Mental Health

Here are the 5 hormones that affect brain health and specifically impact women.  

Estrogen

Estrogen is one of many steroid hormones and the primary sex hormone for women. It helps regulate the menstrual cycle and the reproductive system. It is also responsible for the development of the reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics like breasts and widening of the hips.

It also has a major effect on a female’s moods and emotional wellbeing, which is one of the reasons for the intense mood swings women often experience around the menstrual period when estrogen levels are in flux.  

But estrogen affects much more than that. 

It has been found to act on the central nervous system thus having a huge effect on brain health and function.(1)

Specifically, this hormone supports cognitive function and aids memory, learning, and mood. It also plays a crucial role in neurodevelopmental processes and neurotransmitter production. 

Multiple studies suggest that estrogen may delay age-related cognitive decline. In fact, research shows a correlation between age-related decline in estrogen levels and an increased risk for Alzheimer’s.(2)

Research suggests that mood and cognitive function depends upon having a proper balance of estrogen. If you have too much estrogen in relation to progesterone, a condition called estrogen dominance, it can lead to intense mood swings and cognitive impairment. 

Women in menopause frequently experience the symptoms of low estrogen and may consider hormone replacement therapy (HRT). However, studies suggest that HRT may significantly increase the risk of breast cancer, stroke, and blood clots. 

Common Symptoms of High Estrogen 

  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Headaches 
  • Sleep disturbances 
  • Poor cognitive performance

Common Symptoms of Low Estrogen 

  • Hot flashes
  • Moodiness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Weight gain
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low libido

Progesterone

Progesterone appears to be a natural anti-anxiety hormone. It, too, acts on the central nervous system to regulate mood, cognition, inflammation, and neural nerve function. 

As an anti-anxiety hormone, progesterone supports healthy GABA levels in the brain.(3) GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps transmit messages between neurons or from neurons to muscles. 

Like estrogen, progesterone can lead to severe mood and cognitive dysfunction if it falls too low or becomes unbalanced. 

Common Symptoms of Low Progesterone

  • Mood swings
  • Dizziness
  • Bloating
  • Breast tenderness 

Common Symptoms of High Progesterone

  • Weight gain
  • Low libido
  • Memory loss
  • Mood swings
  • Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) 

Testosterone

Testosterone is considered a male sex hormone, and it’s true that it’s responsible for male growth, masculine characteristics, and male reproductive organs. But women need testosterone too, albeit in a much smaller amount.

This hormone is produced primarily in the testicles for men and the ovaries and adrenal glands for women. 

In both sexes, testosterone helps strengthen nerves, muscles, and arteries in the body as well as in the brain. Thus, testosterone helps regulate mood, contributes to mental clarity, and defends against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

In fact, low testosterone levels are associated with depressive disorders(4) and may significantly increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in elderly men.(5)

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia are women.(6) Researchers theorize that this could be due to the drop in their already low testosterone levels after menopause.(7)

Common Symptoms of High Testosterone

  • Menstrual irregularity
  • Excess body hair
  • Increased muscle mass

Common Symptoms of Low Testosterone

  • Depression
  • Moodiness
  • Low libido
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Cognitive decline 

Cortisol

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone for both men and women.

When you are under stress, your adrenal glands release a cascade of cortisol and other hormones to help you survive what it sees as a threat. Cortisol increases respiration and heart rate and prepares your muscles to either fight or flee the danger. This is part of the well-known “fight or flight” response. 

Stress is supposed to be a short-term bodily response. When the danger has passed, the adrenal glands reduce cortisol production and your respiration and heart rate return to normal. Your body relaxes.

But if you’re under constant stress, as many people are these days, the physiological response to stress does not return to normal. Instead, your adrenal glands continue to pump cortisol into your bloodstream.  

Multiple clinical research studies show an association between elevated cortisol levels and increased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.(8)

Common Symptoms of High Cortisol

  • Poor cognition
  • Extreme fatigue
  • High blood pressure
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Muscle weakness

Common Symptoms of Low Cortisol

  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Cravings for salty food

Thyroid

The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the lower neck below the voice box. It is controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain that tells it how much thyroid hormones to produce and release.

The thyroid regulates metabolism. It also plays a major role in mood, heart and digestive function, and much more. 

Thyroid hormones are also essential for normal brain development and may even promote the healing of brain injuries.(9) 

This makes the thyroid an essential hormone for brain health. 

Common Symptoms of High Thyroid

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Mania
  • Memory loss

Common Symptoms of Low Thyroid

  • Weight gain
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration

4 Ways to Balance Hormonal Levels

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to balancing all hormone levels. But there are a few easy ways to improve hormonal balance and brain function. 

Improve Diet

There is scientific evidence that poor diet may directly affect hormonal levels and expression. (10a) For instance, a low fat high fiber diet has been shown to decrease circulating estrogen levels in women, (10b) and fat intake is associated with higher levels of testosterone in men. (10c).

Getting the proper intake of nutrients is also especially protective against cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases.(10d)

Research shows that getting proper nutrition is one of the best ways to improve mood, cognition, rebalance hormone levels, and support overall health. For instance, foods that may increase estrogen include beets, cucumbers, olives, peas, pomegranates, and yams. 

Certain foods and nutrients may also reduce inflammation in the brain and body, which also improves hormone balance. For instance, research suggests that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may improve cognitive performance,(10) which may be due in part to its  anti-inflammatory properties.(11)

Great sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish, flax seeds, chia seeds, eggs, soybeans, and walnuts.

Get Regular Exercise

Adding regular physical activities to your daily routine, whether or not it’s part of a formal exercise regimen, can also positively affect your hormone levels.

Hormones influenced by exercise include cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.  However, exercise can have varying effects on hormones, so it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor before embarking on an exercise program for hormonal balance. 

Regular moderate physical activity is always good for your health and hormones, though. This can include walking, leisurely bike riding, and playing golf.

Reduce Stress 

Managing your stress is important for your hormones and your health. As previously mentioned, stress triggers a release of cortisol that may negatively affect memory, mood, and other aspects of cognition. 

Therefore, taking time to reduce stress whenever necessary is important for your brain function and mental health.  

Some great stress-relieving activities include sitting meditation, mindfulness meditation, breathwork, practicing progressive muscle relaxation exercises, taking up an enjoyable hobby, and going out to dinner with good friends.(12) 

Get 7-8 Hours of Sleep Each Night

Many people underestimate the need to get enough sleep, but it’s extremely important for your hormones, brain health, and body.

Research indicates that extremes in sleep duration can change hormonal levels and sleep patterns.(13) For example, sleep deprivation is associated with elevated cortisol levels.(14) This can lead to increased stress, weight gain, and mood swings. It can also lead to memory loss because during deep sleep, the brain transfers short-term memories to long-term storage.   

Consequently, fluctuating hormone levels can contribute to sleep disturbances. (Menopausal women often report insomnia and other sleep issues.)

There are many ways to improve sleep, such as going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time each day. Maintaining a sleep schedule trains your body to be ready for sleep at a particular time. Also, avoid eating 2-3 hours before bedtime, as the digestive process can interfere with restful sleep. 

References

1- Genazzani AR, Pluchino N, Luisi S, Luisi M. Estrogen, cognition and female ageing. Hum Reprod Update. 2007 Mar-Apr;13(2):175-87. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dml042. Epub 2006 Nov 29. PMID: 17135285.

2- Janicki SC, Schupf N. Hormonal influences on cognition and risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2010;10(5):359-366. doi:10.1007/s11910-010-0122-6

3- Gulinello M, Gong QH, Smith SS. Progesterone withdrawal increases the alpha4 subunit of the GABA(A) receptor in male rats in association with anxiety and altered pharmacology – a comparison with female rats. Neuropharmacology. 2002;43(4):701-714. doi:10.1016/s0028-3908(02)00171-5

4- Zitzmann M. Testosterone and the brain. Aging Male. 2006 Dec;9(4):195-9. doi: 10.1080/13685530601040679. PMID: 17178554.

5- Lv W, Du N, Liu Y, Fan X, Wang Y, Jia X, Hou X, Wang B. Low Testosterone Level and Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease in the Elderly Men: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Mol Neurobiol. 2016 May;53(4):2679-84. doi: 10.1007/s12035-015-9315-y. Epub 2015 Jul 8. PMID: 26154489.

6- Alzheimer’s Association. Facts and Figures. Accessed Aug 6, 2021. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures

7- Grimm A, Mensah-Nyagan AG, Eckert A. Alzheimer, mitochondria and gender. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016 Aug;67:89-101. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.04.012. Epub 2016 Apr 29. PMID: 27139022.

8- Ouanes S, Popp J. High Cortisol and the Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Review of the Literature. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Vol 11 , 43 pages, 2019.  ISSN=1663-4365. DOI=10.3389/fnagi.2019.00043    

9- Liu YY, Brent GA. Thyroid hormone and the brain: Mechanisms of action in development and role in protection and promotion of recovery after brain injury. Pharmacol Ther. 2018 Jun;186:176-185. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2018.01.007. Epub 2018 Feb 9. PMID: 29378220; PMCID: PMC5962384.

10- Bauer I, Hughes M, Rowsell R, Cockerell R, Pipingas A, Crewther S, Crewther D. Omega-3 supplementation improves cognition and modifies brain activation in young adults. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2014 Mar;29(2):133-44. doi: 10.1002/hup.2379. PMID: 24470182.

10a- Bishop DT; Meikle AW; Slattery ML; Stringham JD; Ford MH; West DW; The effect of nutritional factors on sex hormone levels in male twins. Genetic epidemiology. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3360302/.

10b- Bagga, D., Ashley, J.M., Geffrey, S.P., Wang, H.-J., Barnard, R.J., Korenman, S. and Heber, D. (1995), Effects of a very low fat, high fiber diet on serum hormones and menstrual function implications for breast cancer prevention. Cancer, 76: 2491-2496. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-0142(19951215)76:12<2491::AID-CNCR2820761213>3.0.CO;2-R

10c- Bishop DT, Meikle AW, Slattery ML, Stringham JD, Ford MH, West DW. The effect of nutritional factors on sex hormone levels in male twins. Genet Epidemiol. 1988;5(1):43-59. doi: 10.1002/gepi.1370050105. PMID: 3360302.

10d- Reichelt, A. C., Westbrook, R. F., & Morris, M. J. (2017, May 19). Editorial: Impact of Diet on Learning, Memory and Cognition. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience.

11- Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002 Dec;21(6):495-505. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2002.10719248. PMID: 12480795.

12- Yim J. Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2016 Jul;239(3):243-9. doi: 10.1620/tjem.239.243. PMID: 27439375.

13- Frank S, Gonzalez K, Lee-Ang L, et al. Diet and Sleep Physiology: Public Health and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in Neurology. 2017 ;8:393. DOI: 10.3389/fneur.2017.00393. PMID: 28848491; PMCID: PMC5554513.

14- Leproult R, Copinschi G, Buxton O, Van Cauter E. Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. Sleep. 1997 Oct;20(10):865-70. PMID: 9415946.