Hormones and Their Effect on the Brain

The original version of this post, published in 2019, was written by my good friend and former colleague and co-coach, Trina Cameron. I’ve made several updates and all of the personal anecdotes are mine.

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The word “hormone” comes from the Greek word horman, meaning “to impel or set in motion.” Our hormonal molecules are messengers—they’re produced in one place, such as the pituitary, for example, and send signals via the bloodstream to another site, such as the thyroid. 

If one hormonal pathway becomes compromised, it can lead to a cascade of other issues, given that our endocrine system is one interdisciplinary unit and that no organ or system operates as a silo. Many refer to our endocrine system as a symphony—an analogy I prefer, given my background in music.

When you hear the word “hormones,” what comes to mind? For many, it’s reproductive and steroid hormones: estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, etc. 

And what conditions do you associate with hormonal imbalances? For most, it’s…

  • PMS
  • Thyroid dysfunction (hypo or hyper)
  • Fertility challenges
  • Decreased libido
  • PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome)
  • Peri/menopause
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Mood swings

What about… 

  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • Skin tags
  • Altered heart rate
  • Pelvic pain
  • Decrease in muscle mass
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Inability to focus
  • Problems with word retrieval
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty learning new information
  • Worsening posture

This second set of symptoms may come as a surprise.

Worsening posture? Datis Kharrazian, DHSc, DC, MS, in his book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, explains our posture is neurologically based. As we lose various aspects of our nervous system integration, the tone of our spine changes, our heads move forward like a turtle’s, and walking becomes impaired.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the body’s systems are interconnected, not disparate organs and glands operating independently. And as they say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

While many factors can play a role in cognitive decline, hormones affect everything, especially our brains. Dr. Kharrazian goes on to say that hormonal imbalances affect neurotransmitter activity, can lead to brain inflammation and degeneration, and speed the aging of the brain.

Neurons (nerve cells) communicate by discharging a chemical called a neurotransmitter. You’ve likely heard of dopamine and serotonin, for example. While many think of neurotransmitters as hormones, they’re like a friendly double agent…they can act as a neurotransmitter in one region of the brain and a hormone in another.

Neurotransmitters must travel across a small, empty space to reach the next neuron. Inflammation, hormone imbalances, and blood sugar dysregulation can all sabotage neurotransmitter function. So clearly, if they can’t make a connection, our cognitive function will suffer as well.

For a neurotransmitter to communicate with a neuron, several ingredients are necessary. The neurons have “antennae” called receptors, or dendrites, that reach out for what they need to do their job. And some of these ingredients are…you guessed it, hormones. 

The following hormones have powerful effects on specific receptor sites:

  • Estrogen affects serotonin (the happy chemical) in both women and men.
  • Progesterone affects GABA receptors (the calm chemical) in both women and men.
  • Estrogen affects dopamine (the reward, motivation, memory chemical) receptors in women.
  • Testosterone impacts dopamine (the reward, motivation, memory chemical) receptors in men.
  • Estrogen affects acetylcholine (learning and memory) receptors in women.
  • Testosterone impacts acetylcholine (learning and memory) receptors in men.
  • Thyroid hormones impact ALL neurotransmitter receptors in men and women.

This list from Dr. Kharrazian highlights just how important our hormones are to our emotional and cognitive health. 

If you’re a visual learner, like me, you might enjoy this short video from Khan Academy on neurons and how they function.

[Go here for my ebook, Food and Mood: Eat Yourself Happy, where I show you how to support serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and noradrenaline naturally. And if you’re interested in the single best hormone test in the world, reach out. It measures both neurotransmitters and hormones (except thyroid).]

Common, But Not Normal

You know the drill. We’ve come to expect women to be moody at “that time of the month.” But contrary to popular belief, PMS (premenstrual syndrome) isn’t normal. The irritability and moodiness that some women experience before their periods is largely a symptom of hormone imbalance. 

Likewise, we expect perimenopause (which can last years for some women) to be riddled with unstable moods: anxiety, depression, insomnia, and sometimes rage and hysteria.

Many perimenopausal women frequently report feeling like a demon has taken over their brains. And as a society, we’ve come to accept these symptoms as “normal” when in reality, these cognitive struggles are largely preventable.

Speaking of menopause, a conventional misunderstanding persists that as estrogen and progesterone production decreases to the point that a woman is no longer ovulating and having a monthly cycle, we no longer need these hormones. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Dr. Janet Lang said, “We may not be reproducing a life, but we’re reproducing ourselves for the rest of our lives.”

When I first heard Dr. Lang say this in 2008, it stunned me. And in my nearly 19 years of health coaching, I’ve reiterated this quote to hundreds of women and I get choked up nearly every time.

Men are no exception to the phenomenon of hormone-related cognitive issues. You’ve probably heard the term “grumpy old man.” The frontal lobe of a man’s brain is saturated with receptor sites for testosterone and low testosterone (“low T”) is often behind this phenomenon. It robs them of their virility, drive/motivation, and general wellbeing and can lead to depression and general grumpiness.

Symptoms of low testosterone also include: loss of cognitive function, memory problems, and the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s. In his book, The End of Alzheimer’s, Dr. Dale Bredesen writes, “Men in the lowest quintile of testosterone concentrations are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

This is no way to spend our “golden years.” Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, it’s entirely possible to feel vibrant, energetic, happy, and sharp as a tack as we age. Despite his strokes, which made him a bit goofy and child-like, my dad was telling jokes and reciting dates, street names, people’s names he’d met years prior, and detailed directions until the day he passed at age 80. I’m so grateful that his cognitive capacity was fully intact into his old age.

The Thyroid Connection

As mentioned above, thyroid hormones impact ALL of the neurotransmitters in both men and women. ALL of them! 

Thyroid dysfunction is so common, it deserves a deeper look. If you have low thyroid function (hypothyroidism), you likely need some cognitive support. Dr. Kharrazian says, “A mismanaged thyroid condition is a mismanaged brain condition.”

Go here for a full, functional thyroid panel >

Three of the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism are fatigue, depression, and brain fog and research has shown that thyroid function is suboptimal in many people with cognitive decline. In fact, many functional medicine doctors say that when someone is suffering from depression, always assess thyroid function first.

Additionally, thyroid hormones are vital in dampening brain inflammation and an unmanaged thyroid condition may accelerate brain degeneration. 

Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s (autoimmune hypothyroidism) need to be managed carefully. Simply replacing the missing thyroid hormones does nothing to address the deteriorating thyroid condition caused by Hashimoto’s, which is responsible for well over 90 percent of hypothyroid cases. Nor does it address other causes of thyroid dysfunction such as chronic stress (that can lead to adrenal dysfunction), infection, or environmental toxicity. 

Thyroid hormones have a direct effect on microglia cells, which are the brain’s immune cells that have receptor sites for hormones. Sufficient levels are so important to healthy brain function that microglia cells produce hormones on an ongoing basis. This means that the brain receives hormones from two areas: the body’s endocrine (hormone) system and the brain’s microglia cells.

The “Paint Brush”

Our endocrine system produces the majority of the hormones the brain uses, which enter through the blood-brain barrier. Dr. Kharrazian refers to the endocrine hormones as “the paint on a large brush.” As the brush goes back and forth across a wall, the brush misses patches here and there. Yes…it’s the endocrine system that has the largest influence on the brain, but the hormones made by the microglia cells fill in these small gaps.

Microglia cells need DHEA, an androgenic or “male” steroid hormone, to make testosterone and estrogen. It’s made throughout the body, including in the adrenal glands, liver, testes in men, and ovaries in women. The majority of DHEA released into the body comes from the adrenal glands. 

Due to the many stressors, humans cope with today (physical, mental, emotional, chemical), many people suffer from compromised adrenal function and hence, insufficient DHEA output. Hectic lifestyles, blood sugar imbalances, and chronic and unresolved health issues are all implicated in adrenal burnout. 

[Go to my homepage to download my free Restore Your Adrenals chapbook—just scroll down a little to the teal area. You can also get my ebook, Hypothyroidism and Adrenal Health: The Often Misunderstood Link.]

DHEA is easily found in supplement form, but is only recommended when lab testing indeed shows that levels are low and then, in relatively low dose. 

As the adrenal glands begin to sputter due to chronic stress, a process called “pregnenolone steal” comes into play. The body adapts to the stress by “stealing” pregnenolone (“the mother of all hormones”) from cholesterol to make more cortisol (a steroid hormone). 

Pregnenolone (an “upstream hormone”) is the frontrunner to sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone (“downstream hormones”) and the result of the steal is that pregnenolone is shuttled into cortisol production, resulting in low levels of the other downstream hormones. 

Can you guess the most common cause of pregnenolone steal? Blood sugar imbalances. A diet high in refined carbohydrates (sugar, flour, junk food) and the repeated insulin surges are extremely taxing to the body, keeping it in a constant state of stress. And talk about mood disorders…ever heard the term “hangry” (hungry + angry)? If you want to see someone with dysglycemia (mismanaged blood sugar) go from pleasant to demon-possessed, watch what happens when they miss a meal. For some, their patience is nonexistent and some get downright weepy and emotional.

Chronic high blood sugar can also lead to metabolic inflexibility (aka metabolic gridlock), which decreases pliability of nerve cells, primarily in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation.

Critical: Cholesterol

The other ingredient that our microglia cells need to manufacture hormones is cholesterol, which is just upstream from pregnenolone. 

Go here to view a Hormonal Pathways flowchart showing how cholesterol sits at the top of our hormonal throne and how pregnenolone sits directly under it. This chart is also on page 329 of our Essential Thyroid Cookbook, in Appendix C, The Important Role of Fats in the Diet.

Many functional medicine practitioners believe that cholesterol less than 150 is too low for healthy hormone, brain, and immune function.

Cholesterol provides the precursors to phospholipids, a fatty compound that makes up much of the brain. One of the chief complaints in people who maintain a low cholesterol diet is depression. Poor cognition and memory are also common. 

Functional medicine seeks to find the root causes of hormone imbalances and fix them, not simply medicate them. Few of us are perfect hormonal specimens. But trust me, working towards some semblance of hormonal balance, with proper testing and treatment, can resolve a lot of cognitive issues. 

You’re not doomed to being forgetful, unfocused, or moody, even if you’re approaching your golden years. There’s so much you can do to feel better and keep your brain health intact.

If you’d like to talk through any of this, I invite you to schedule a Jumpstart session with me. Rest assured, it IS a coaching session and at the end of the conversation, I’ll share with you what it would look like to move forward with a private, precision coaching program. 

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