When we think of anxiety, we usually envision worry, nervousness, and overwhelm alongside increased heart rate, perspiration, shortness of breath, muscle tension or tightness in the body, and even headaches, tingling sensations, or dizziness.
Feeling occasional anxiety is normal, such as before a test, interview, important event, or tough conversation. Likewise, anxiety alerts us to possible harm or danger. Primitively speaking, anxiety is a very important protective emotion.
In recent decades however, anxiety has evolved to be more than a survival emotion. Today, anxiety encompasses an array of mental and emotional, and physical health issues, and even disorders. Today, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., with women being especially vulnerable.
From a functional health perspective, anxiety can result from a number of root causes such as stress, sleep, trauma, caffeine, sugar, food sensitivities and nutrient deficiencies, alcohol, high LPS, 5HT2A receptor activation, viral infections, HPA-axis dysfunction, inflammation, and even Lyme diseases.
Anxiety can also result from blood sugar imbalances, irregular menstrual cycles, thyroid issues, polycystic ovarian syndrome (POS), and menopause, or in other words, hormones.
For women especially, hormones can play a leading role in anxiety. According to Dr. Jolene Brighten, a Functional Medicine Naturopathic Physician, “Hormones and anxiety can go hand in hand. Hormone imbalances like low progesterone or low thyroid can cause many women to struggle with anxiety, despite the medications or meditations they are offered.”
In short, treating anxiety as a symptom only without uncovering its real cause can lead to frustrating outcomes for women due to inaccurate diagnosing and inappropriate treatments and therapies.
Hormones And Anxiety
Although a number of causes of anxiety exist, common hormonal causes for women are puberty, menstruation, POS, thyroid, pregnancy, breastfeeding, perimenopause and menopause, insulin and blood sugar.
Collectively, these causes can be organized around: cortisol/adrenal, estrogen/progesterone, testosterone, thyroid, and insulin hormonal imbalances; all of which can cause a variety of symptoms, one of them being anxiety.
For example, optimal estrogen levels can have a calming effect on the brain. Estrogen levels that are too low or too high, or out of balance with other hormones can cause anxiety.
In addition, an overactive or underactive thyroid can cause a variety of symptoms such as increased heart rate, nervousness, anxiety, and even panic.
Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, rises and falls naturally throughout the day. However, if cortisol levels become chronically high or exceedingly low when they shouldn’t be, our risk for adrenal fatigue can increase, which can cause anxiety.
Likewise, an overproduction of insulin, which can lead to chronic low blood sugar and signal our body to create more cortisol can also cause anxiety.
Bottom line, hormonal imbalances stress the body, which can trigger the body’s normal stress or protective response and cause anxiety.
A Functional Medicine Approach to Hormonal Anxiety
When attempting to solve hormonal causes of anxiety, collaborating with a trusted healthcare provider, preferably one trained in a functional medicine approach is recommended.
Not always, however conventional practitioners are most often trained to treat symptoms. Functional medicine practitioners target the root cause of symptoms.
An example from my own personal experience occurred years ago when I went to see a conventional provider because of a recent surge of panic attacks. The visit resulted in the well-meaning provider sending me home with a prescription for Prozac.
Months later, after being bounced from one provider to another, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. One of the symptoms of hypothyroidism is anxiety and panic.
Functional medicine practitioners generally order different labs, rely on more accurate ranges when interpreting results, and dig deeper into the problem.
In my case, the conventional labs were not reporting appropriate ranges for my symptoms; plus, I was losing weight, which is usually the opposite with hypothyroidism. In other words, accurate labs, ranges, and interpretations lead to more accurate diagnoses, treatments, and outcomes.
Whereas functional lab results and treatment protocols can vary, the four pillars of functional health generally involved in treating hormonal causes of anxiety and most chronic health issues are: nutrition, sleep, exercise, and relaxation.
Quality sleep enables our body to release a variety of hormones that boost our immune system, regulate our appetite, and help our bodies repair and restore balance.
Regular exercise and movement can help balance insulin, cortisol, testosterone, and estrogen levels.
Eating a nutrient-dense diet can address insulin resistance and produce hormones that regulate our appetite.
Relaxation regulates cortisol levels and activates the hormone, oxytocin, which can reduce the body’s stress response and anxiety.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, “A woman’s health is a barometer of her environment.” This underscores the importance of also including lifestyle and environment assessments and recommendations when addressing hormone-related anxiety with women.
In my case, I had grown up in the era of no fat and eliminating fat from my diet. Because sugar was advertised as a fat-free food, I ate a lot of sugary foods, which overtime wreaked havoc on my overall health.
I also lived in a persistent state of stress, which was aggravated by a poor diet, lack of quality sleep, and virtually non-existent self-care. (None of which was ever mentioned by my primary health care providers.)
Of course, hormonal drugs and therapies are an option and can be a necessary component to a holistic treatment protocol.
However, getting at the root cause before diagnosing, prescribing, and treating can generate better and healthier outcomes. Likewise, functional medicine practitioners are generally more inclined to offer natural, gentler pharmacology options.
Uncovering the Root Cause
While a variety of hormonal imbalances can cause anxiety, self-diagnosing and blazing your own trail is not recommended; although I get why you would.
Whereas I understand the impulse to seek relief from Google, it is in your best interest to collaborate with a trusted medical provider, preferably a functional medicine practitioner, to uncover the root causes of your anxiety and receive the most appropriate treatment protocol.
Furthermore, even if hormones are the source of your anxiety, they may not be acting alone. In many cases, functional lab results along with environmental and lifestyle assessments can reveal the real cause of anxiety, which is often a combination of causes.
Furthermore, a collaborative approach involving a functional medicine practitioner and functional health coach can be a dynamic team for pinpointing the cause of your anxiety, if it is indeed hormones, and helping you make the necessary lifestyle and environment adjustments needed.
If you want assistance and support with adjusting the lifestyle and environmental problems uncovered by you and your healthcare provider, I offer a free consultation that can help you get started down the path to feeling better, balancing your hormones, and living well.
Your body and hormones with thank you!