Hormones and anxiety. Where do we even begin? There is so much that has been learned in recent years about different hormones and their effect on the body and mind. From puberty to pregnancy to birth control pills to overactive or under-active glands, it surely is a balancing act to achieve the optimum levels across the board. But most of us don’t really consider our hormones until they are out of whack. Or maybe we don’t realize that the problems we are faced with could even be because of a hormone imbalance. I’m not just talking about puberty or premenstrual stress (PMS) or menopause induced hot flashes. I’m talking about anxiety, a mental health disorder that affects an estimated 284 million people worldwide. Anxiety is the most prevalent mental health disorder around the globe.
Are all cases of anxiety due to hormone-imbalance? Probably indirectly, at least. Here’s the thing about hormones: they affect every aspect of your body, from forming in your mother’s womb to your personality to illnesses, you name it. There isn’t an aspect of your life that isn’t affected by hormones one way or another.
What are hormones?
We all know that the nervous system uses electrical impulses to send messages throughout your body with neurons. But did you know that the endocrine glands also send messages targeting cells through your bloodstream using hormones? Crazy, right? Hormones are chemical messengers that coordinate metabolism, growth, the function of the immune system, reproductive system, and behavior.
The human body has 10 endocrine glands that control the dispersion of hormones:
Hypothalamus- The hypothalamus, located in the brain, is responsible for maintaining homeostasis (or your body’s internal balance). The hypothalamus is directly related to; heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, fluid and electrolyte balance (including thirst), appetite and body weight, glandular secretions of the stomach and intestines, production of substances that influence the pituitary gland to release hormones, and sleep cycles. The hypothalamus is considered the link between the nervous system and the endocrine system as the nervous system communicates directly to the hypothalamus which then communicates with the endocrine system which is responsible for distributing hormones throughout the body.
Pineal Gland. The pineal gland, also located in the brain and somehow connected to light, is still under investigation by researchers. So far, the only thing they really know about this part of the endocrine system is that it produces melatonin which helps maintain circadian rhythm and regulate reproductive hormones. When the pineal gland isn’t functioning properly, you are likely to notice more sleep disturbances.
Pituitary Gland- The pituitary gland is located at the base of the brain and is directly connected to the hypothalamus by way of the “pituitary stalk”, or the “infundibulum”. The pituitary is directly in control of other parts of the endocrine system (thyroid gland, adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes). The hormones of the pituitary gland send signals to these glands to stimulate or inhibit their own hormone production.
Thyroid- The thyroid, located in front of the trachea, is a butterfly-shaped gland that controls metabolism. Metabolism is your body’s ability to break down food and convert it into energy. The relationship between hormones and weight (underweight or overweight) is primarily found in your thyroid function. Talk with your doctor if you have a sudden inexplicable change in weight to get tested to see if your thyroid is the cause. There are healthy lifestyle changes you can make to help with your thyroid function and medication if directed by your doctor.
Parathyroid- The parathyroid glands are four glands located behind the thyroid glands, in the neck, but are not related to the thyroid in function. Parathyroid hormones regulate calcium levels in the body. Calcium is used to help muscles contract as well as maintain normal conduction of electrical currents along nerves. When your body needs calcium, parathyroids make a hormone called parathyroid hormone (PTH). Your body reacts by absorbing more calcium from food and keeping it from leaving through your urine.
Thymus- The thymus is located behind your sternum and works with the lymphatic system as well as the endocrine system. Unlike the rest of your glands, the thymus is only active until puberty. Once you hit puberty, the thymus begins to shrink and eventually turns into fatty tissue. The thymus’ job is to help produce and mature T-lymphocytes (T-cells) which is a type of white blood cell that protects the body from threats like infections and viruses. Once mature, T-cells work with your immune system to fight disease.
Adrenal- The adrenal glands are located at the top of each kidney and control the release of the hormones cortisol that aids in metabolism and helps your body respond to stress, aldosterone that helps control blood pressure, and adrenaline which also helps your body react to stress.
Pancreas- The pancreas is located in the abdomen between the spine and stomach and is mostly responsible for maintaining blood glucose levels. Pancreatic hormones (insulin, somatostatin, gastrin, and glucagon) play an important role in maintaining sugar and salt balance in our bodies and work mostly in the digestive system.
Ovaries- The ovaries are located on opposite ends of the pelvic wall, on either side of the uterus and are responsible for maintaining the health of the female reproductive system and secrete estrogen and progesterone (sex hormones) when triggered by the hypothalamus. When estrogen levels are low, serotonin is low and an unstable mood and anxiety can develop. Estrogen levels rise and fall twice during the menstrual cycle contributing to mood swings known as premenstrual syndrome or PMS. Birth control pills contain both estrogen and progesterone to try to trick your body into thinking it’s pregnant, so you won’t become pregnant. In doing so, many women have noticed an increase in anxiety or depression because of these synthetic hormones.
Testes- The testes are responsible for producing testosterone (sex hormone) which is essential for proper physical development in boys. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland control the production and release of testosterone which controls physical growth, facial and body hair growth, promoting a healthy bone density and more. Both men and women have testosterone in their bodies, though men contain 7-8 times more than women. Women produce testosterone in several different areas including the ovaries and adrenal glands. Low levels of testosterone can cause anxiety or depression in men and women.
How hormones affect anxiety
The human body is amazing. So many things are interconnected and working together to make our bodies function at optimal levels. Hormones seem like one of the most complicated, delicate and intricate of the systems. Hormones are affected by everything and in turn, affect everything. If left unchecked, a downward cycle can occur. For example: in order to maintain healthy hormones, one needs adequate sleep, but adequate sleep is hard to get when your hormones are not balanced. It is common for women to experience sleep disturbances during menstruation and menopause because of the extreme fluctuations in hormones, specifically estrogen, increasing the likelihood for mood swing and hot flashes. As a quick overview:
Stress hormones, cortisol and epinephrine, protect us and help us focus when we really need to. (Who here does their best work after they’ve procrastinated a little bit too long?) Stress hormones increase our awareness and improve our reflexes and trigger our adrenaline’s fight or flight response. But when too much is released, they can be a cause of anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Testosterone is another major contributor to anxiety. Studies have shown that women experience more anxiety than men, specifically in social settings. One of the reasons for this gender difference can be because of testosterone levels. Testosterone is known to regulate the part of the brain that assesses the emotions of others and social threats. So, when our testosterone levels are too low, we have a harder time understanding our surroundings which can induce a stressed or anxious response.
TSH or Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone has a direct correlation with severe panic attacks. Hyperthyroidism is when we become anxious due to an over-active thyroid. Alternatively, hypothyroidism is when we become depressed due to an under-active thyroid. Imbalanced thyroid hormones are also known to contribute to weight gain since it is directly responsible for your metabolism.
Oxytocin, usually known as the “love hormone”, is a tricky little hormone released by the pituitary gland into the bloodstream. Oxytocin strengthens social memory in the brain. So, if you were bullied as a child or ridiculed for (insert behavior here), oxytocin remembers those feelings and can trigger anxiety and fear in the future for similar situations. Oxytocin is directly linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Clinical studies have found that women with depression or PTSD have elevated oxytocin levels. In this study:
Oxytocin increased male mice’s motivation for social interaction. However, in stressed female mice, oxytocin had no effect, and in non-stressed female mice, oxytocin reduced social motivation.
The researchers found that stress affected the production of oxytocin differently in males than in females. After being stressed, females produced more oxytocin than males.
How meditation affects hormones
And now, for some good news. There are ways to regulate your hormones to manage anxiety. Some methods are healthy living by eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting good sleep and spending less time on media devices. Depending on your specific situation (and after blood testing) a medical professional might even recommend hormone replacement therapy. But in addition to those coping strategies, I would urge you to try meditation. Studies have shown that:
Meditation leads to a reduction in the release of norepinephrine, resulting in a reduced amount of corticotropin-releasing hormone. With the subsequent lower amounts of cortisol, there would be less stress, while also ensuring the hypothalamus is not over-stimulated. Meditation also impacts the release of GABA, serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters that interact with the hypothalamus. Meditation has also been proven, by fMRI scans of the brain, to help create new pathways in the brain allowing circumstances that used to trigger anxiety, to no longer have that negative effect.
It is my firm belief that a Christian approach to mindfulness meditation can have a beneficial mental and emotional impact on our lives. What we believe about God and ourselves and our circumstances has a profound effect on our lives.