Brain chemicals and hormones can disrupt the entire body's function.
Brain chemicals and hormones can disrupt the entire body’s function. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

I think about brain neuro-transmitters (or brain chemicals) like money in the bank.

We all make brain chemicals when we sleep, and we spend them throughout the day to accomplish everything we do. Some chores and events “cost” more brain chemicals than others—the more stressful the event, the more chemicals are used and the higher the “cost.”

We all experience periods of stress throughout our lives, and stressful events we feel the least control over cost us the most brain chemicals.

For genetic reasons, some of us make more brain chemicals than others.

Unfortunately, when our estrogen level is low, we go through brain chemicals faster. Read on to learn about three separate women who are all dealing with brain chemical issues, and find out how one treatment worked for all three.

Sally’s battle with postpartum depression

A patient I’ll call Sally came to me at age 35, after recently giving birth to her first child, a little boy we’ll call Sam.

Sally had a difficult time getting pregnant, and she used a tremendous amount of her energy preparing for his arrival. She attended childbirth classes, read numerous books and joined online chat rooms to learn everything she could to become the best mom possible.

Sally took a leave from her job, and her husband was just as excited about becoming a new parent as she was.

Fortunately, the delivery went well, and she fell instantly in love with Sam when she saw him for the first time.

The first three weeks as a new mom proved difficult, but the bright moments made the long nights worthwhile. Then “it” hit and things changed very suddenly. Sally and Sam were enjoying a day at a park. While Sally chatted with other moms, a wave of sadness quickly moved over her. The sky went from blue to gray, and she felt her happiness fade.

So, what changed?

Sally was a new mom, breastfeeding (a naturally low estrogen state), and she wasn’t sleeping. She placed high expectations on herself and spent large amounts of brain chemicals on trying to be the perfect parent. Therefore, she was not making her usual amount of brain chemicals, and she spent more than she made.

Sally experienced what experts call postpartum depression.

Linda’s PMS-on-steroids experience

Another patient I’ll call Linda was 43 and known for being outgoing and happy—able to seamlessly juggle a busy household with four kids, several dogs and a husband who traveled for work.

Linda exercised religiously, had numerous friends, and worked at home while her kids were young.

At first, Linda began to lose her motivation to clean and decorate her house. Then, she stopped making her kids’ favorite cookies or muffins. Eventually, everything she enjoyed—exercising, sex, preparing healthy meals, going out with friends— simply became too much work and not worth the effort.

Other changes started occurring as well: hot flashes and night sweats starting three days before her period, jeans felt tighter, and she lost her temper quickly over insignificant events.

Linda felt completely overwhelmed. What happened to her perfect life?

Linda had regular periods but didn’t sleep well for several nights before they started, and she ran a lifestyle that required a significant amount of brain chemicals. Doctors call her situation late reproductive phase or perimenopause with PMDD, otherwise known as PMS on steroids.

Susan’s hormone nightmare

A third patient I’ll call Susan wasn’t surprised when her periods became irregular and stopped by the time she turned 53. Her mom had a similar time frame on menopause.

She also began having hot flashes and night sweats, but they didn’t interfere with her life enough to cause great concern.

Susan didn’t sleep well, but she thought she was just going through a phase and it would pass.

Then, little things began to irritate her—her husband’s snoring, his loud chewing and preparing her classroom for her fourth graders.

In addition, Susan began dreading the weekly scheduled cocktail hour in the summer with her husband and other couples. She used to look forward to catching up on the details of her friends’ lives, but it all seemed irritating to her.

Even worse, her usual one drink soon became two drinks, and she became short-tempered over small things. And to top it off, Susan completely lost her sex drive and would get angry if her husband even suggested sex to her. What was wrong with her?

Susan lost her estrogen levels overnight, and she had unknowingly relied on them to keep her sleep patterns and brain chemicals in good balance. This is called new-onset hormone-related depressive disorder.

The solution for all three

Many of us can relate to at least one of these three stories in one way or another.

So what is the treatment and how can these women (and all of us) regain control of their lives?

The answer begins with figuring out which body changes are intersecting with which lifestyle changes and starting to care for yourself again.

It begins with the basics:

  • Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night
  • Drink 80 oz. of water per day
  • Take vitamins daily—especially B Complex and Vitamin D
  • Exercise regularly (at least 10,000 steps per day)
  • Minimize simple carbohydrates, including alcohol (instead eat sweet potatoes, brown rice, fruits and vegetables).

If you truly can’t bring yourself to take these simple steps, see your doctor.

It could be time to boost your brain chemical levels (especially serotonin) with a short course of medicine. These medicines—so-called antidepressants—can be safe and helpful for many women.

Other options for some women include a prescription for estrogen (in the form of birth control pills, topical gels or patches) and/or progesterone. The most important thing to keep in mind is that help is available for many different situations—just ask!