Hormones and emotions. We often think of emotions as being side effects of hormone or biochemical imbalances. It has become common in everyday conversations, and even in medical writings, to blame our hormones for how we feel.
There is also a common belief that if we just balance the hormones by eliminating or enhancing certain hormones, we will be cured. This approach does help us feel better but it often requires a lifetime of pills to maintain, which can be expensive and have side effects.
In addition to these challenges, this approach has a fatal flaw: it sees emotions as the effect rather than the cause of hormonal imbalance.
The Relationship Between Hormones and Emotions
Since the ground-breaking work in the 1980s of neuroscientist and pharmacologist Dr. Candace Pert, research has consistently shown emotions generate profound changes in the autonomic nervous system activity (i.e. heart, lungs, digestion) and in the endocrine system activity (i.e. hormones).
Each emotion has its own pattern of physiological activity based on the neurotransmitters and hormones it creates.
In this article, we will look at the relationship between hormones and emotions, specifically how three emotions could be impacting your hormonal balance, plus one emotion that rules them all.
Here Are 3 Emotions That Could Be Messing With Your Hormones:
What we’re typically told about hormones and emotions is that your hormonal imbalance leads to emotional issues, but in reality, your emotions can actually influence your hormones. Read on to learn how!
Emotion #1: Anger
In 2009, scientists from Spain conducted a clinical experiment to answer the question, what happens when we get angry? They looked at heart rate and blood pressure to assess the effects on the autonomic nervous system.
They also measured two hormones of the endocrine system, testosterone and cortisol. High levels of testosterone have been blamed for causing anger and aggressive behavior. Cortisol was chosen because of its role in activating the stress response since anger is a form of stress.
As seen in other anger research, the Spanish scientists found heart rate and blood pressure went up significantly after the anger experience. However, when they measured the hormones, they found something surprising. After subjecting healthy subjects to an anger-inducing procedure, there was a significant increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol.
All subjects had normal healthy levels of testosterone and cortisol prior to the anger experience. All other variables that could impact these hormones were controlled for, so the only cause of the hormonal changes was experiencing the emotion of anger.
Emotions generate profound changes in the autonomic nervous system activity and in the endocrine system activity.
To illustrate, let’s apply this new understanding to one of the most common endocrine disorders in women – PCOS, polycystic ovary syndrome. According to the CDC, the exact cause of PCOS is unknown. What we do know is that women with this condition have high levels of testosterone, have insulin resistance and are at high risk for developing diabetes (cortisol plays a role here).
There are also numerous studies showing a correlation between psychological distress, namely anger and anxiety, and levels of testosterone. Yet first-line therapy for PCOS involves the use of birth control pills and/or insulin-sensitizing drugs like Metformin, both of which have long-term side effects. So . . . is this therapy a mistake?
Perhaps you have PCOS and don’t believe anger is an issue for you. Keep in mind that all emotions, including anger, exist within a spectrum of intensity. So, anger can exist in the form of frustration or jealousy or it can be more extreme like hate and rage.
Anger can also be directed outwardly towards someone or something, or it can be directed inwardly towards oneself, like thinking “I hate my body.”
Do you ever feel angry? How often do you feel angry? Is your anger directed towards yourself or someone else? Even if you do not have a disease like PCOS, there is a dynamic between hormones and emotions. When you experience anger, the same changes in hormones, heart rate and blood pressure are happening to you.
Emotion #2: Fear
Does reading about how our emotions impact our hormones make you afraid or anxious about your own health? Do you worry a lot about your health? Do you worry often about other things in your life like your finances, your family, your job, politics or the environment?
Fear, worry and anxiety are natural, defensive states triggered by internal and external threats, with the overall aim of protecting you from harm. Fear is considered a reaction toward an imminent, specific danger whereas anxiety is considered a reaction against a potential or anticipated threat.
It is the excessive, inappropriate and chronic expression of both that are hallmarks of the variety of disabling anxiety disorders affecting 40 million Americans. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States and include panic attacks, phobias, stress, OCD and PTSD.
So what happens when we feel afraid? When we experience fear, it activates specific neurons in the brain to produce the neuropeptide, orexin. Orexin sends information to the amygdala, a part of the brain that helps us learn by creating memories. In this case, a ‘fear’ memory.
Orexin also stimulates the release of adrenal hormones which reduce inflammation, increase metabolism and disrupt sleep in order to help the body respond to the fear. Orexin also causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
Neuroimaging done on humans showed significant activation of the amygdala when fear was simply perceived or anticipated suggesting that the same neurochemical and hormonal changes occur even if there is no apparent threat to fear.
Like anger, fear can exist within a spectrum of emotions ranging from overwhelmed and embarrassed to helpless, insecure and anxious.
It can feel subtle, like butterflies in your stomach, or it can feel extreme and cause you to freeze in your tracks.
Regardless of the label or intensity, the brain sees all fear and responds with the same neurobiology to create the same outcomes – heart racing, high blood pressure, insomnia, stomach distress and reinforcing the fear memory. This allows you to learn and be prepared for the next time you sense fear.
Emotion #3: Sadness
Just as fear can progress to anxiety, sadness can progress to depression, becoming more easily triggered over time.
When you feel sad, your brain perceives it as stress and releases the neuropeptide, corticotropin-releasing hormone. This hormone triggers a neurochemical reaction through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) resulting in the increased production of cortisol.
Cortisol is beneficial in times of stress because it reduces inflammation and mobilizes glucose reserves for quick energy.
Chronic stress (i.e. prolonged sadness) causes an overproduction of cortisol disrupting the circuitry in the brain which leads to an inability to feel pleasure, rumination, lack of motivation and depression.
The excess cortisol produced also creates inflammation in the brain and body, causing fatigue, loss of appetite, pain and more depression. It is well documented that patients with inflammatory conditions are more likely to develop depression and depressed patients have an increased rate of autoimmune disorders.
Perhaps you or someone you know suffers with depression and has been taking anti-depressants like Prozac, Zoloft or Lexapro for years. The current treatment of depression is still based on the 1950’s monoamine hypothesis which states that a deficiency of serotonin causes depression.
Yet many people on anti-depressant drugs still suffer from depression and often need to increase the dose of medication, switch medication or take several medications to feel better. The fact that this happens is further evidence we are following a flawed theory.
It isn’t the lack of serotonin that is the problem and, in fact, recent data shows that a reduction of serotonin is not enough to cause depression.
The One Emotion That Rules Them All Is Love
That’s right my friends, love is the answer, love conquers all, love can move mountains. These aren’t just inspirational sayings – they actually reflect love’s ability to stimulate growth, create resilience to stress and provoke healing.
When you feel love, which can take many forms like joy, appreciation, hope and faith, and be experienced in many ways like love of self, love for others or love for nature, your brain produces the neuropeptide, oxytocin.
Oxytocin influences the autonomic nervous system and the immune system. It can function as an anti-inflammatory and an anti-oxidant. Oxytocin also has the ability to affect other hormones, namely vasopressin and dopamine.
Vasopressin is a neuropeptide which plays an essential role in regulating blood pressure and water and electrolyte balance. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that regulates motor control, mood and reward systems and regulates pancreatic endocrine function including insulin release.
When you feel love – joy, appreciation, hope and faith – your brain produces the neuropeptide, oxytocin.
The numerous functions of oxytocin and its many connections to other neurochemicals reveal it as a significant modulator of human behavior and health. Thousands of articles have been published studying the therapeutic properties of oxytocin for physical and behavioral disorders, often with the goal of developing an effective drug based on oxytocin.
However, an effective drug has yet to be developed that can mimic our naturally produced oxytocin. Luckily for you, there is a solution! It is an effective therapy you can use today that will naturally increase your oxytocin. It is free, has no side effects, and is simple and backed by science.
The Solution: Heart-Focused Breathing
The heart-focused breathing technique was developed by researchers at HeartMath and based on extensive scientific discoveries about the heart’s role in managing emotional stressors.
This technique teaches you how to quickly and easily halt the stress response and put yourself into a more calm and relaxed state which strengthens your resilience to stress and benefits your overall wellness. If you would like to learn more, visit HeartMath and watch the HeartMath Experience.
Follow These Steps to Invite Love In and Experience the Dynamic Between Hormones and Emotions:
Step 1: Focus your attention in the area of your heart. Imagine your breath flowing in and out of your heart/chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual. If you are able, inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds.
Step 2: Activate a loving feeling by recalling a time when you felt loved or appreciated or a time when you loved or appreciated someone or something. Experience this feeling as you continue to breathe in and out from your heart.
Do this activity for one to two minutes or until you no longer feel as stressed as you were before the breathing exercise. This is a good exercise to practice any time you are feeling stressed but it is also a great way to start and end your day.
As Dr. Deborah Rozman, CEO of HeartMath once said, “If you don’t manage your emotions, then your emotions will manage you.” I hope you will give this solution a try. Please share your experience between hormones and emotions – you can comment below. We love hearing from you!
All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. The views expressed are those of the author and should be attributed solely to the author. For medical questions, please consult your healthcare provider.