Why is women’s mental health the last thing on everyone’s mind?
With one in five women experiencing some kind of mental illness this year, is it really as simple as just a neurotransmitter imbalance, or is there something more significant going on? (1)
Talking about women’s mental health, especially for mothers, is becoming less and less taboo, thankfully, but we still have a long way to go. For any mother who’s ever felt dismissed or judged by the medical system, or by friends and family, know that you are not broken, and that integrative medicine can help you heal your brain and body, giving your mental health the tools you need to be resilient.
Much of functional medicine revolves around reconciling what our bodies have evolved to handle, and what the modern world throws at us, and this is incredibly true for the unique demands mothers face in our modern world.
Where does the decline in mental health start? And why are women experiencing such an increase in mental health disorders?
Why is being a mom the hardest job?
Imagine this: You’re eight months postpartum with your first baby, working a full-time job, and holding down a household. You haven’t had a full night’s sleep in longer than you can remember, and because you’re so tired, your sugar cravings are higher than ever.
When your coworkers get on your nerves, it almost sends you over the edge on a daily basis. When you get home from work, you’re exhausted, but then become wired when it’s actually time to sleep. All of these things combined lead to hormone imbalance, neurotransmitter dysfunction, and systemic inflammation–all of which negatively impact mental health.
You’re worried you’re spreading yourself too thin, and sometimes your thoughts race when you think about it all. You used to have the support of several good friends, but life has gotten busy and Facebook is your main way of keeping social.
If this hypothetical scenario stressed you out while reading it, it’s easy to see how our lives contribute to the decline of our mental health, and manifest as conditions like depression, anxiety, or fatigue.
At least in part, mental health issues are brain health issues as well. And when we understand that what we do to the body, we do to the brain, we can see how life’s habits can make or break the hormonal, emotional, and physical aspects that create resilient mental health.
Hormone Balance & Mental Wellness
Women are unique in that there is a constantly fluctuating symphony of signals, impulses, and chemical messengers that dictate function in many important systems, several of them being mood, cognition, stress response, and anxiety. When mom is struggling with any change in mood, there’s a good chance hormone imbalance is playing a part.
Postpartum Depression (PPD)
Remember that mom with the crazy schedule and brand new baby? All too common when the new baby arrives, focus shifts from mom onto her bouncing bundle of joy.
Pediatrics appointments focus on milestones, eating, breastfeeding, pooping–but is there proper care being given to mom for her concerns in the fourth trimester?
After several weeks of disjointed sleeping, eating, stress, and inflammation, these changes start to take their toll, and we see an onset of postpartum depression in many women.
This can lead to a trigger for autoimmunity and other chronic conditions like anxiety, due to a lack of sleep and proper nutrition.
Postpartum depression (and other issues such as anxiety, frustration, sadness, and overwhelm) can manifest anytime in the first year–not just right after birth.
This is why working with an integrative practitioner is key to ensuring mom has the support she needs to go through this major physical and hormonal transition. If you’re struggling to navigate life after baby–reach out to a provider today.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)
If you experience PMS symptoms so severely before your period that they affect your daily life and mood, you might be suffering from a type of hormone imbalance called premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD.
PMDD causes severe anxiety, depression, or irritability in the week to 10 days before your period starts, and there are many factors involved in this (2). Healthy ovulation, estrogen and progesterone levels, and gut function are at the root causes of PMDD symptoms.
A rise in progesterone follows healthy ovulation, which stimulates GABA receptors in the brain. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter, and progesterone enhances the calming effects of GABA (3).
Without healthy ovulation, and if you have PCOS or symptoms of estrogen dominance, progesterone may not be stimulating the release of this neurotransmitter that calms anxiety. Just like that–your hormones have majorly impacted your ability to calm, focus, and also SLEEP.
The good news is that PCOS symptoms can absolutely be managed with diet and lifestyle. If you’re trying to conceive, and want to make sure you’re ovulating normally, contact a provider now.
And, to shift the balance of estrogen and progesterone more in favor of progesterone and more comfortable periods–Vitex promotes healthy hormone balance and progesterone levels after ovulation.
When we’re not sleeping, and feeling anxious, we’re more likely to crave sugar, and over time, this can lead to weight gain and inflammation–which can lead to a vicious cycle of poor energy to the brain and mood disorders.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the U.S., and sugar is a known culprit for worsening anxiety symptoms by contributing to inflammation and adrenal dysfunction.
Inflammation and the Brain
Have you joked about “mom brain” since having kids? Are you experiencing fatigue, memory loss, or depression?
Systemic inflammation is at the root of many chronic conditions, including depression (4). Together with changes in hormone function, it can impact the production and function of neurotransmitters, like serotonin, affecting mood, memory, and energy levels.
In the presence of inflammation, the body activates an enzyme that breaks down the precursor for serotonin–tryptophan–into kynurenine instead. Kynurenine is then converted into quinolinic acid, which is a neurotoxin, and leads to excessive glutamate production. Too much glutamate can decrease brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which the brain needs for growth, repair, and protection of brain cells (5).
This is a problem because without serotonin, your feelings of well-being and happiness are at an all time low, and excess glutamate can cause the excitation and eventual death of brain cells.
One of the most significant discoveries in the past 5 years was the connection of the immune system to the brain via lymphatic vessels (6). This has huge implications for anyone managing autoimmunity, and also experiencing mental health symptoms or fatigue.
Decreasing inflammation is a crucial therapy in restoring balance to the connection between the gut-immune system and the brain.
Working with a qualified practitioner to identify the source of inflammation is pivotal for brain health. This could be food sensitivities, leaky gut, stress, chronic bacterial or candida infections, and other conditions.
Integrative Solutions for Mental Wellness
Pass on the Sugar.
Refined carbohydrates and sugars spike blood sugar, contribute to insulin resistance, and don’t provide the brain with a steady source of energy. Large fluctuations in blood sugar put the body into a stress state, contributing to adrenal fatigue and cortisol dysregulation over time.
Begin by omitting grains and sugar, and replacing them with nutrient-dense veggies, plus fruits if you need a sweet fix.
Vitamin D is really more like a hormone–regulating many systems in the body, including mood. This is why Seasonal Affective Depression is very real in parts of the world where they don’t see sunlight for a significant part of the year.
We’ve talked a lot about vitamin D and the current health crisis, but given optimal levels, vitamin D supports happiness and an even mood.
Heal your gut.
The functions of your gut bacteria are many! Not only do they protect from leaky gut by making short-chain fatty acids, they also use food to synthesize neurotransmitters. Work with a practitioner to identify inflammatory gut issues such as sensitivities or toxin exposure.
Balance your hormones.
Not only will your mental health thank you, but weight, energy levels, and immune function are all closely tied to proper hormone balance.
Establish healthy connections.
Social media is one thing that has contributed to the breakdown of community. Research shows that Facebook negatively impacts how satisfied people feel about their lives (7).
Connecting digitally may satisfy some of the same centers in the brain as in-person meetings, but after this pandemic we can also say we’ve learned the value of true HUMAN connection.
One study found that Facebook hindered recovery from stressful or traumatic events (8). So if there’s one thing you can do after this health crisis–it’s to seek out healthy connections, and encourage others to do the same.
The effects of social media on our biology aren’t always ideal. There is SO much beneficial information at our fingertips, and social media has many positive impacts, but we need the tools to navigate it in a way that is also healthy for our mind.
Work with an integrative practitioner who can see your body as a whole, because what we do to the brain, we do to the body, and vice versa.
Holistic Mental Health
Mental health, like any other system in your body, needs some TLC from time to time. The trouble is, mental health isn’t something we can see or feel like, for example, when you’re experiencing digestive upset.
Symptoms of poor mental health often fly under the radar until they’re severe enough to impact daily function. Until that point, we attribute it to stress, poor sleep–or maybe we’re just not sure why we’re feeling less like ourselves, which is the most difficult of all.
Think of it like this: your mental health is like being in a relationship with yourself. And like any other relationship (with your kids, spouse, or friends), it’s a dynamic and lifelong process of care and adaptation. You nurture different parts at different times–hardship, loss, celebrations–responding to the parts of that relationship that need support. You even act proactively, doing nice things for those relationships you care about.
Creating mental wellness isn’t unlike creating bodily wellness. There are many factors at play, and working with an integrative approach can help you address the root causes responsible for changes in mood or energy.
Changes in mental wellbeing are the body’s way of telling us something internal is out of balance, and an integrative practitioner can help get to the root of that imbalance. Begin your virtual visit today and receive personalized treatment based upon YOU.