Thursday, June 24, 2010

How Hormonal Imbalances Affect Your Brain

I'm sorry. Yesterday got away from me, and tomorrow is more of the same. So this will be it until Sunday. Shoulder is acting up again, but the hormones, they are much better. As always, when things go askew, I look for answers, so last week I read the book Women’s Moods: What Every Woman Must Know about Hormones, the Brain, and Emotional Health. It was a great book about overall hormonal health and described how hormonal issues are physiological imbalances in the brain that manifest as emotional behavior, because the hormones involved affect the areas of the brain that regulate our emotions.

On the one hand, I wish I’d read this book years ago, as it was first published in 1999. On the other, I’m glad I didn’t. While the authors completely explain the devastating effects women's hormones can have on your emotional life, they are firmly in the camp of using medication to treat these brain disorders that affect women throughout our reproductive years.

That’s fine if you want to go that route, but there are other options available now to women who suffer from hormonal imbalances. These options are given a cursory mention and dismissed. Which, if I’d read the book ten years ago, or even five, I would have come to the conclusion that there was no alternative to my hormonal imbalance short of medication.

That, for me, would have been very depressing indeed. I know there are millions of women out there who have severe hormonal imbalances that may well require medication to control them—notice I say control them—not manage them. Me, I manage my symptoms through nutrition and exercise and positive lifestyle choices. If I took medication I wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about my health—the medication would handle the problem for me. But in my case, with the PMDD, I can’t see taking medication every day for something that only occurs a few days a month.

Still, there are days when the thought of it tempts me. But most days it does not.

As I said, to have read this book five years ago would have been devastating for me. Because the authors insist over and over that without treatment, your imbalance will only get worse. There is no light at the end of the tunnel without treatment—this is absolutely true--but their treatment of choice is medication.

So, that aside, I was able to read the book and learn much about the causes of hormonal imbalance and how and why these imbalances can and do get worse later in life without some type of intervention.

Hormonal imbalance is a very serious and practically rampant problem for women, and is all but neglected by the medical community. The only people paying attention are those who can profit from the condition. Most of the information women receive regarding hormonal imbalances comes from companies whose drugs have been approved for treatment of these imbalances.

Which is why we need more books like Women’s Moods to read, even if it is somewhat outdated. Because we need more than to be told a certain medication can solve all our problems. We need to understand the underlying causes of these imbalances and find ways to heal ourselves and prevent the need for chemical solutions. We need to understand the unique female brain/body connection and how it makes us vulnerable to mood problems at the most challenging times in our lives. Puberty, pregnancy, post-partum, peri-menopause, menopause, and post menopause. Every time you have a child, your hormones undergo an enormous amount of stress, and yet society acts as if there’s nothing to it. Life goes on and you cope.

But what happens when your ability to cope fails you? What happens when, as these authors aptly describe it, you have an internal “earthquake” and mood disorders erupt?

All this attention is given to heart health, but brain health is equally important. We need to learn to care for our brains as diligently as we do our hearts. Not only the heart can be strained by a woman’s genetic make up, life experiences, and stress load, but so can the brain. If our brain doesn’t work right, we don’t work right, and all sorts of mayhem can ensue.

No amount of “being strong” is going to re-regulate a brain that has gone askew. It just isn’t going to happen.

The way this book and many others describe it, our brains have neurological pathways that become worn over time like ruts in a road. When any situation arises, our brains immediately locate the memory of how we dealt with that situation in the past, so that we can effectively do so again. And each time we deal with that situation again, a new pathway is created over the old pathway.

This works fine if your brain is healthy, or operating at optimum level. But what if your brain is not? Then your brain is creating new pathways over damaged roads, and only more damage ensues.

Genetics plays a factor in this, of course, but so do your thought processes. In short, how we deal with stress affects our hormones, which in turn affects our brain. This stress can come from any and all sources, trauma from an accident or abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual, mental, spiritual, financial, you name it, or from naturally occurring life events such as birth, death, marriage, divorce, loss of a job or health or relationship, to name just a few.

When your hormones are in balance, your body deals with these stresses in a normal and healthy way. When your hormones are out of balance, your body and brain do not. Little stresses can be magnified into big stresses, completely out of proportion to the situation. When your hormones are out of balance and your brain is dysregulated, you can feel like you are under attack 24/7. Your brain makes no distinction between the threat of an oncoming car or someone who simply disagrees with your point of view. Both, to your dysregulated brain, are threats to your very existence.

It’s not logical, in fact is completely irrational, but that’s what it is. Your dysregulated brain is not properly processing the threat.

This is why women with mood disorders or even simple hormonal fluctuations seem so irrational at times. But we’re not crazy, we’re simply out of balance.

Come back next week for ways to regain that balance.


P.L. Parker said...

From a family that has these problems - I understand totally. I'm one of the lucky ones - I've managed to curtail the "unbalanced" moments. Great blog.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Great blog, but you should know that it's not just during the child-bearing years. Hormonal imbalances continue (aren't you thrilled to read that?) and not receiving the hormones needed will cause vaginal dryness and other problems. I'm glad I'm a woman instead of a man, but there are a few things I wouldn't mind skipping. LOL

susan said...

I wish this book was written a few years ago. I had to learn the hard way about the unbalanced things life throws your way. A great book from what I see here. susan L.