The Dance of Hormones and Neurotransmitters

Most women past the age of puberty sense an interaction sometimes between their mood and their hormonal state. Why is this?

Well, in fact, hormones and neurotransmitters – the chemical communicators in the brain – are interconnected in a very complicated web, which science is only beginning to understand.

Estrogen is the primary “female” hormone, and it’s intimately related to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps us feel at peace and happy. In fact, some studies have shown estrogen to function like a natural Prozac, inhibiting of the breakdown of serotonin, and making serotonin more potent in the brain. When estrogen goes down, serotonin – and happiness – go down, too.

Progesterone is another very important hormone for women. It interacts with a neurotransmitter called GABA, which helps us feel relaxed and calm. Progesterone does this by stimulating the GABA receptors in the brain, which has the net effect of making GABA more potent. Therefore, when progesterone decreases, the effect of GABA can diminish, leading us perhaps to feel more irritable and anxious.

These hormones have a rhythm throughout the life of a woman. Over the course of a month or so, estrogen and progesterone interact with each during the natural menstrual cycle. And over the course of adulthood, as a woman approaches menopause, typically her progesterone levels begin dropping years before she actually stops having a period. Additionally, estrogen levels are often somewhat erratic in the years right around menopause, and they ultimately drop fairly dramatically as a woman stops cycling.

Because there is an interaction between hormones and neurotransmitters, there are many types of interventions for hormone-related blues. Besides using hormones directly (typically, with a prescription), one can enhance the neurotransmitters they affect.

For example, the nutrient 5-HTP, which is converted into serotonin, can be a very good intervention for premenstrual syndrome or for menopausal blues. If sleep issues are a problem, the amino acid, tryptophan – taken right before bed – may be more useful than 5-HTP. Last, theonine – another nutrient – can gently help enhance the function of GABA if hormonal ups and downs are creating a feeling of anxiety.

Please see additional articles for more information on these substances, including dosages and cautions. In particular, unless a licensed provider instructs you to do so, you should not take any serotonergic agent such as 5-HTP or tryptophan if you are already using an antidepressant.

And of course, there are many other steps that could help:

  • Mindfulness and meditation practices, observing the ups and downs without being so identified with them . . . and carried along by them.
  • Routine exercise
  • Social support; this has a particular psychological and hormonal benefit for many women
  • Focusing on the positive (e.g., good news about yourself and the world around you, what you’re grateful for), savoring the experience, and feeling it sink in

Last, to put this topic in perspective, I’d like to add that:

  • Men also naturally produce a little estrogen and progesterone in their bodies, while women have a little testosterone, illustrating one aspect of the deep underlying commonalities of the genders, which can get overlooked sometimes in the focus on differences.
  • There is a lot of individual variation in hormonal levels, patterns of interaction, and effects. Beware the common pitfall of assuming that a conclusion from some study – usually based on the average of the group of subjects – applies equally to every member of that group, and to the population as a whole. For example, you’ll routinely see statements like, “Women want more closeness than men do;” well, probably the average woman does, but there are also many men who want more closeness than many women do. Your biochemistry – let alone your whole nervous system! – is as individual as a snowflake, and always deserves personalized consideration.
  • Women go through hormonal cycling, both monthly and over their life time, for the sake of the perpetuation of the species, one reason among many to hold the effects of that cycling on them (and sometimes others) in a context of compassion and respect.
  • Over the centuries, female hormonal cycling has been the subject of religious awe, crippling taboos, profound misunderstandings as to its nature, subtle and not-so-subtle shaming, and in many groups, considerable efforts at social control by men. In our own time, that cycling has been used as a pretext to deny women political authority as well as many everyday opportunities at work and elsewhere; on the other hand, in part as a counter-reaction to that discrimination, there’ve been attempts to minimize the effects of the hormonal dance inside a woman’s body.

Yet at the end of the day – or month, or one’s 50’s – the body still has its say, independent of whatever religious, cultural, or political story we tell about its natural and necessary activities. It just is what it is. It’s just biochemicals rising and falling, like the breath rising and falling. It’s just the wheel of life turning. It has an objective nature beyond all our subjectivity. And if you like, you can use skillful means to gently nudge that nature in what could be for you a more comfortable and ease-full direction.

Category : Articles &Hormones Posted on January 4, 2012

2 Comments → “The Dance of Hormones and Neurotransmitters”

  1. karen parrish
    10 years ago

    I really appreciate this information. I’m 57 and have been struggling with my moods for years. I have a number of unresolved health issues which are aggravated by the fact that I grew up in an alcoholic home. I’ve been working to resolve all my issues for years but still feel I haven’t gotten the comprehensive help I need. I am impressed by the thorough approach to depression and anxiety outlined in the web site. I get Jan’s info through her husband who presented at Awakening Joy with James Baraz.

    Thank you!

    Karen Parrish


  2. Diana Brito
    8 years ago

    Thank you for this site. I’ve tried different anti anxiety meds. Their are really only 3 types, and the only ones that worked, work with GABA production. So now I realize that my very low progesterone levels are linked to my issue.


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