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Stress

Happy Hormones: The Endocrine System and Brain Connection

Neuroendocrinology and the connection between stress hormones and mental health.

Key points

  • The field of neuroendocrinology covers the functional interactions between the nervous system and the endocrine system.
  • Fluctuations in stress hormones can affect mental health.
  • Stress-relief practices that can help keep hormones balanced include journaling, exercising, meditating, and breathing exercises.

In a previous post, I discussed the connection between the mind and the skin. In that article, I called for patients and clinicians to become more aware of the relationship between cutaneous and psychiatric disorders. However, I didn’t go into the underlying hormone imbalances which may be responsible for both.

According to a long-standing theory called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis imbalance theory, a range of factors can interfere with the functioning of the HPA axis, the mainstay of the endocrine system. These factors — including exercise, anxiety-reducing drugs (e.g., benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin), and sexual experiences — can affect the secretion of stress hormones leading to neurodevelopmental pathologies, such as major depressive disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, and others.

In this post, I discuss the field of neuroendocrinology, the connection between stress hormones and mental health, and some stress-relief practices that can help keep your hormones balanced.

Hormones: The Great Communicator Between Brain and Body

Endocrinology is the study of hormones secreted by glands in one part of the body, which travel through the blood and affect other body parts. Neuroscience is the study of the brain. In particular, it’s the study of neurons that release chemicals called neurotransmitters and the mechanisms by which they affect cognition and behavior.

This split between experts who study what happens below the neck and those interested in what goes on above it has been reflected in differences in methodology, technology, and treatment.

But in the 1950s, British physiologist Geoffrey Harris discovered that the pituitary gland is regulated by the hypothalamus, earning his nickname, “the father of neuroendocrinology.” It turns out that hormones send important messages both within different parts of the brain and between the brain and the body.

In addition to the nervous system, the endocrine system is a major communication system in the body. While the nervous system uses neurotransmitters to communicate, the endocrine system uses hormones.

Here’s how the endocrine system works:

  • Neurons in the brain control the pituitary gland.
  • The pituitary gland secretes hormones into the blood that increase or decrease hormone production along the HPA axis and other endocrine glands.
  • From there, the endocrine glands communicate back to the pituitary gland, and the pituitary gland communicates with the brain, creating a feedback loop.

This system is necessary for the activation and control of behavior such as sex, emotion, stress responses, eating, drinking, and regulating bodily functions like growth, reproduction, energy use, and metabolism.

So let’s look at how a hormonal imbalance can wreak havoc on the body and brain.

Hormones and Stress

Hormones enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain and other organs in response to stress and changes in our environment. For example, at night, our melatonin levels increase, causing us to get sleepy. Throughout the day, though, sunlight prevents the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland found in your brain, from producing melatonin.

This is a normal and healthy cycle of wakefulness and sleep, but inadequate sleep has been associated with several health challenges. Consistently depriving yourself of sleep can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to illness. This is because sleep controls your stress hormones (primarily cortisol) and maintains a healthy nervous system.

A hormonal imbalance can alter the way the parts of the brain communicate and affect the structure of brain cells. While hormones are necessary to protect the body and brain and give us the power to adapt to our environment, stress hormones, such as glucocorticoid cortisol, can alter brain function, impairing the brain’s learning capacity.

Also, fluctuations in stress hormones can affect mental health. While more research is needed, we know that your endocrine system works in tandem with your nervous system to maintain homeostasis in the body. If the communications are off or the feedback loop gets disrupted, it can profoundly affect your mental health.

For example, the adrenal glands help regulate our internal stress response by releasing cortisol, but if someone has a lot of stress in their life, their adrenal glands may not function properly. Uncontrolled stress compromises the body’s ability to produce or use cortisol. Low levels of cortisol can lead to mood disorders such as depression, lethargy, and anxiety. On the flip side, high levels of cortisol can reduce the activity of the hypothalamus, affecting sleep, eating, sex, cognition, and more — all of which can contribute to depression and other mood disorders.

What can you do if you believe your hormone levels are affecting your mental health?

Holistic, Healthy Lifestyle Habits for Stress Relief

In addition to speaking with your healthcare providers about any physical or mental changes you experience, you can create healthy lifestyle habits that support your mental health. In general, good sleep hygiene, avoiding alcohol as a stress-relief tool, and building healthy exercise habits can help to reduce depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues.

Here are some stress-relief practices to try:

  • Daily deep-breathing exercises, like inhaling for a slow count of five, holding your breath for a slow count of five, and exhaling for a slow count of five.
  • Create a bedtime, prioritize sleep hygiene, self-care routine.
  • Move your body for at least 20 minutes each day.
  • Take a walk or meditate in nature.
  • Start a journaling practice (or simply list) your worries and anxieties, as well as gratitudes each day.
  • Use a meditation app or free meditation videos on YouTube.
  • Sit still for a few minutes and simply focus on your breath.
  • Make art or dance.
  • Practice yoga or tai chi.
  • Integrate short, stress-relief practices throughout your day.
  • Make self-care a priority.

Additionally, if you are suffering from an endocrine issue and notice mood changes, talk to a clinician about how your hormones might contribute to your mental health. There are also support groups that can help you feel less alone. And of course, if you aren’t already seeing a therapist, now is a good time to consider seeking support.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Leng, G. (2018, December). The endocrinology of the brain. Endocrine Connections, 7(12), R275–R285. https://doi.org/10.1530/EC-18-0367

Sheng, J. A., et al (2021, January). The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis: Development, Programming Actions of Hormones, and Maternal-Fetal Interactions. Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2020.601939

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