Estrogen and Mood

Colette Dowling, LCSW

Colette Dowling, LCSW, author of the following article on  Estrogen and Mood, also wrote, "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?": New Help for Depression, Anxiety and Addiction.

Colette has a psychotherapy practice in Manhattan and can be reached for further information or a free therapy consultation at 718-594-0201.

               The Impact of Estrogen and Serotonin on Women's Mood

         How do nerve cells in the brain communicate with one another in a way that affects mood?

Medical research has shown definitively that estrogen’s link to serotonin and other neurotransmitters accounts for women’s vulnerability to mood disorders across the reproductive lifespan–whenever estrogen levels drop.

  • Through the chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
  • Serotonin is the best known of these.
  • A brain chemical, serotonin influences women’s moods, playing a big role in anxiety, depression, and obsessional states.
  • Estrogen is a hormone required for the production of serotonin.

The Impact of Estrogen on Mood

   Women’s brain chemistry is exquisitively sensitive to the ebb and flow of our reproductive hormones.

    The impact of both estrogen and progesterone creates changes in the brain that can lead to disturbed mood. As Sichel and Driscoll have written, in their excellent book, Women’s Moods:  the estrogen-serotonin connection is “the critical vital component” in understanding what women need in order to sustain mental health.

They also write: "Too few clinicians in the medical and mental health professions are knowledgeable about the effect of hormone changes on women's mental health.

Estrogen is responsible for maintaining the orderly firing of brain neurotransmitters--among them, dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine, as well as serotonin. This orderly firing is what sustains a balanced mental state.

  • Estrogen can be thought of as the body’s own antidepressant and mood stabilizer.

  • When estrogen levels rise (as they do each month when menstruation begins), serotonin levels rise too, and mood improves.

  • When estrogen drops (and along with it, serotonin), the reverse happens and mood drops. 

  A fair percentage of women have a rough time with anxiety and depression, premenstrually, when their estrogen and serotonin levels are low. (Note that these levels start dropping off suddenly, at mid-cycle, precisely when ovulation begins.) This is a time when women may need to take action to offset lowered hormones--exercise to get the endorphins pumping, meditate to calm anxiety.

The sky-high levels of estrogen during pregnancy often produce enhanced mood states. But within hours of the baby’s delivery, surging levels of estrogen diminish very abruptly, causing a dramatic shift in the amount of serotonin the new mother has avalable in her brain.

This is the hormone action that can trigger post-partum depression

  The same fall-off in estrogen can cause depression to set in at perimenopause.

                                                  The Impact of Stress Hormones

  • Stress hormones can throw off the complex neurochemical balance required for sustaining a woman’s mental health.
  •  The body’s stress hormones are cortisol and adrenaline. These are what send your heart pumping and your stomach churning when you're afraid or anxious. The degree of anxiety determines how much stress your brain is being loaded with.

  • Lose your car keys and your anxiety level may be 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. Lose your child in a crowded store and that anxiety will zoom to 7 or 8. Lose a spouse in a car accident and your anxiety will go off the charts.

  •  Such a degree of trauma can trigger the brain to create a hyperalert arousal system that could last for the rest of your life.

        But even smaller stressors can set one up for a hyperlert arousal system. For example, the stress of leaving home for college can be enough to chemically dysregulate brain neurotransmitters.

The Effect of Stress From Early Life

Even though the hormones will balance out again once a stressful event subsides, the dysregulation can leave one sensitized. A woman who’s already experienced stress in her life will find that her biology can easily tip her into a dysregulated state. It's as if the earlier stress primed the pump.

To sum up, as Sichel and Driscoll write, in their very informative book, Women's Moods, a series of stressful events will load, strain and eventually change your brain’s mood pathways. “This sensitization becomes so profound that a normal female event such as the premenstrual period can easily trigger the biochemical disruption that leads to depression.”

Fearing a Character Flaw

  • Alas, women can become fearful that they have some character flaw that's causing their misery. This leads to  overwhelming feelings of worthlessness.
  • Some, afraid of being judged, will let guilt keep them from seeking treatment.

    In my therapy practice I find that women benefit from learning how different parts of their brain may be miscommunicating, and how medication or alternative methods such as stress reduction and mindfulness techniques can improve the the neurotransmission of brain  hormones,allowing mental/emotional balance to return.

Colette Dowling, LCSW, has a private thearpy practice in Manhattan. She earned a masters in social work degree at Smith Colllege , is a certified psychoanalyst, and is  trained in the use of EMDR and AEDP for the treatment of trauma.

Colette has written eight books, including "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?": New Help for Depression, Anxiety and Addiction.

For more information, or for a free therapy consultation you can reach Colette at, or at 718-594-0201.

Click here for a profile of Colette's therapy practice at Psychology Today..

For more information on anxiety therapy and depression therapy link to Colette's website on women's wellbeing and mental health.

Copyright Colette Dowling, 2006-2010