There could be many reasons behind depression, but if you can’t pinpoint exactly its causes, it could be your hormones.
“Women are more likely to experience mental health symptoms such as low mood, anxiety, irritability and depression due to hormonal changes associated with female-specific biological changes and life events,” Dr Rachel Jones, consultant psychiatrist and bioidentical hormone replacement therapy expert practising at UK-based The Hormone Clinic, tells Vogue Singapore.
In general, women are twice more likely than men to develop the condition.
Vogue Singapore speaks to two leading medical experts about hormonal depression: from the tell-tale signs of hormonal depression to possible causes to managing it through tweaking your nutrition needs and lifestyle.
Possible causes of hormonal depression
While there is no single cause for depression amongst women, triggers can vary including genetic factors, traumatic childhood experiences, poor health and diet and lifestyle choices.
Experts say a good indication is hormonal imbalance. Depressive symptoms are especially prevalent when a woman is going through her monthly cycle which can exhibits premenstrual syndrome (PMS), or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Additional causes include using hormonal contraceptives, existing thyroid problems, major life changes such as puberty, pregnancy, postpartum and during menopausal years: perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause.
What are the signs of hormonal depression?
A drop in hormones can lead to a reduced level of serotonin, which can result in increased levels of sadness, anxiety, irritability, and depression.
According to medical experts, some signs you may have hormonal depression include:
- Panic attacks
- Mood swings
- Brain fog
- Sleep disturbances
- Low libido
- Lack of motivation
- Trouble concentrating
- Bipolar disorder
- Chronic stress
- Irritability or mood swings
- Insomnia or other sleep issues
Fortunately, you can reverse the effects of hormonal imbalance. According to medical experts at American Psychiatric Association (APA), treating the underlying condition may help relieve symptoms of depression.
Dr Jones says depression is “highly treatable.” The APA states that around 80 to 90 per cent of people respond well to treatment over time.
5 Common hormonal imbalances that can cause depressive symptoms
There are over 50 hormones in our body and when one of them goes out of track, your body goes out of whack. There are five hormones known to lead to symptoms of depressive disorders when they are out of balance:
- Oestrogen promotes the activity of neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and GABA in the brain, which encourages emotions of happiness and motivation. When they’re out of balance, it can lead to feelings of depression.
- Testosterone, at optimal levels, promotes dopamine activity and helps with well-being, and confidence. It improves cognitive function and wards off depression. Low testosterone levels were reported to exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Progesterone, aka ‘relaxation hormone’, has a calming effect when it is produced in optimal levels. When out of balance, it can lead to depression, irritability, anxiety, sleepless nights, and brain fog.
- Thyroid plays a crucial role in the production of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, all of which regulate our overall mood. When it’s imbalanced, it can lead to depression. In fact, thyroid dysfunction is directly linked to one-third of all depression.
- Cortisol, aka ‘stress hormone’, has many roles: from helping to control your mood, motivation, and fear to boosting your immune system and metabolism. Cortisol abnormalities appear to be positively correlated with depressive severity.
Read next: Signs you’ve got a cortisol imbalance
“If a hormonal imbalance is suspected, blood tests measuring oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels will help to identify this. If an imbalance is identified, an individualised approach to balancing hormones with bioidentical hormones may significantly improve depression. If mental health is not fully optimised, it may be necessary for them to seek help from a mental health professional where antidepressants and therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy may be considered,” Dr Jones says.
Can we beat hormonal depression through diet?
“When it comes to mental health, up to 95 per cent of serotonin (happy hormone) is produced in the gut. This hormone is essential in maintaining mood balance, as well as regulating things like sleep and appetite,” explains Eli Brecher, Nutritionist and Founder of Eli Brecher Nutrition.
Research reveals low levels of serotonin have been linked with depression and anxiety, demonstrating the importance of nutrition and gut health on our mental health.
Experts says certain foods may be able to help reduce stress and boost mood.
“Avocado can help lower blood pressure and stress response, dark chocolate can help lower stress hormones and can help ease menstrual cramps and symptoms of PMS,” says Brecher.
She adds: “Oily fish, including salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring, contain omega-3 fatty acids help reduce depressive disorders, although more studies are needed to confirm this. If you don’t eat fish, you can also get omega-3 from walnuts, flax, chia and hemp seeds.”
Consuming a diet high in tryptophan is proven to boost the levels of serotonin. Brecher recommends adding more of this into your diet strategy to beat hormonal depression. Tryptophan rich foods include turkey, salmon, spinach, nuts, eggs and soy products.
“Vitamin D may increase serotonin levels and deficiency in vitamin D has been associated with an increased risk of depression. The best sources of vitamin D is sunshine (it’s absorbed through the skin), but it can also be found in tinned fish with bones such as salmon, as well as egg yolks and fortified products such as milk and plant-based milk alternatives,” says Brecher.
While eating certain foods may help combat hormone-related mood imbalances, and may play a role in supporting mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, Brecher warns: “Nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle, alongside exercise, sleep, stress management techniques and potentially therapy and/or prescribed medications.”
Dr Jones also adds: “Practising mindfulness, reducing stress, improving sleep hygiene and reducing alcohol intake would help.”