As much as we talk about our hormones in terms of our periods and how they affect us on a monthly basis, very few of us are aware of the ways in which our hormones influence our body as a whole – including our mental health.
From anxiety and insomnia to forgetfulness and irritability, hormonal imbalances can trigger a whole host of problems, especially when it comes to the disruption caused by menopause.
That’s an experience Gabrielle Union knows all too well. The actor, who was diagnosed with perimenopause (the period before menopause in which a woman’s body begins making less estrogen) in her 30s, has revealed how her symptoms “reached a fever pitch” in September last year, especially when it came to her mental health.
“I thought I was losing my mind,” Union said during a conversation at Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Health virtual summit. “I thought I had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s. I gained 20 pounds overnight of water retention.”
She continued: “Now, when I have to public speak in the last few months, I’m so anxious because I’m like ‘Am I going to remember the words?’”
For Union, who has spoken openly about her mental health experiences in the past, one of the worst parts of the experience was the depression, which triggered a period of suicidal ideation.
“I’ve had more depressive episodes, but never for long periods of time – maybe a couple of weeks,” Union said. “I fell into something so dark in December that it scared me. I had a stupid argument with [Dwyane, her husband], and instead of my usual problem-solving, immediately my brain, that little inner voice said, ‘he’s never going to get it unless you’re dead’.”
At this point, Union said her past experiences with therapy helped her realise the voice talking to her wasn’t her usual intuition, and she needed to get help.
“I was able to get through it with talk therapy and diving into how I can regulate my hormones,” she explained. “Luckily I was at home and I alerted everyone.”
Although Union’s experience is a more extreme example of the way your hormones can impact your mental health, it’s a reminder of just how powerful these chemicals can be – and why paying attention to what’s going on inside your body is so important.
“Hormones are imperative to life,” she said. “They regulate every single function in our body, from metabolism to brain function to movement and more. If your hormones are not balanced, your health will falter.”
Although balancing your hormones isn’t as easy as flicking a switch, having an awareness of the role they can play in your mental and physical health – and speaking to your GP if you have any concerns – is a great place to start.
As much as we, as women, tend to fight back against the idea that we’re “hormonal”, Union’s story shows just how strong they can be, and why being aware of this part of our health – especially as we grow older – is so important.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
Additionally, you can ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com.