Anxiety & overwhelm - the hormonal link and some tips on how to help yourself
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Anxiety and overwhelm are both common but also underestimated symptoms of hormonal changes, particularly in the run up to your period or in the early stages of peri-menopause. It can take you by surprise, suddenly feeling a loss of confidence or a sense of anxiety, even when it hasn't previously been an issue for you in the past. Personally, I've always had stages of this at particular points in my cycle so I feel I'm probably someone who will get this symptom more frequently as I head at some point towards peri-menopause. So rather than bury my head in the sand, I find it better that I acknowledge these feelings, and understand why I'm feeling like that (rather than just think i'm a bit useless!) and try to find out how I can help myself and prevent it becoming a real impact on my life. So this is what I know and hopefully it might help you too.
Anxiety can appear to varying degrees, from being anxious about a specific challenge or event (very normal!), or when you find it difficult to rationalise or control fears on a daily basis, which can be crippling (and not so normal). Overwhelm is a bit different, and my tendency rather than anxiety, but it can also be an anxiety trigger. Overwhelm often occurs when the brain has too much to deal with, too many things going in, so that we find it hard to think straight and there's so much to deal with that we don't know where to start. I'm pretty sure this isn't just me!
In times of hormonal flux, including at peri-menopause, particularly changes in oestrogen and progesterone can directly impact our mental well-being and mood. Low progesterone in particular is linked to nervousness and anxiety, which is why just before your period as levels decline, that you can feel like this. A lack of sleep cause by hormonal changes can also play a part in mental health and anxiety.
What are the typical symptoms of anxiety & overwhelm:
worry or tension that just hangs around
loss of confidence
can't think straight or clearly
struggle to prioritise
rapid and / or shallow breathing
trouble sleeping / insomnia
How can nutrition help?
Tool 1: magnesium. Magnesium has many useful 'jobs' in the body, but it has a very calming influence on the body, meaning it is great for anyone struggling with anxiety and overwhelm. Magnesium is one of the supplements I take, but you can find it in lots of foods such as leafy greens, nuts and seeds, bananas and avocados!
Tool 2: b vitamins and vitamin c support the adrenal glands to function, and these glands control the stress response to challenging situations or people! B vitamins also support your mental health - in particular B1 & b3 aid cognitive health and memory. B5 & B6 support the nervous system and production of serotonin - the feel good hormone. B12 helps improve concentration and memory. All the B vitamins work together and a deficiency in one will impact on the others and their roles within the body. You can typically get enough b vitamins through a diet rich in wholefoods, except B12 which is found in animal food sources so vegans might need to supplement or consume fortified foods.
Tool 3: avoid low blood sugar. So try and avoid skipping meals and letting sugars get too low, or eating large amounts of sugar and causing a spike and subsequent crash. The low blood sugar can release stress hormones that then add to or fuel your anxiety. I wrote a blogpost on balancing blood sugars so check that out, but the key thing to remember is protein and fibre are your friends.
Tool 4: keeping your iron levels stable. An iron deficiency can cause palpitations and anxious feelings. So if you're having heavy periods and have a blood test for anemia if you're worried. Eat plenty of iron-rich foods.
Tool 5: protein. To support the production of serotonin and dopamine that support our mood and mental health. The body makes these using amino acids in protein. Taurine, another amino acid, also calms, - and comes from animal proteins or produced by the body in the presence of adequate vitamin b6.
Tool 6: omega 3. fatty acids help you to feel calm and 'clear' through supporting the cell membranes in the brain and associated neurological pathways. Fish, nuts and seeds are great sources.
Foods to avoid or reduce:
caffeine - as can cause insomnia and disrupt the nervous system making you feel nervous and jittery. So consider monitoring your consumption, any symptoms of anxiety, and then reducing or getting rid of caffeine altogether if it seems it's having a big impact. As well as coffee and tea, caffeine is in green tea, chocolate, cola and energy drinks.
alcohol - although there might be an initial feeling of calmness or numbing with alcohol, it is actually a depressant and your anxiety levels can increase as the levels decrease in your body.
high levels of refined sugars - found in sweets, chocolates, cakes etc disrupt blood sugars causing imbalances and the 'crash' mentioned above.
Are there other lifestyle tips to help?
deep and slow breaths can immediately calm you and your nervous system. 5-10 slow deep breaths in and out for a count of 3-5 can make a big difference and quickly!
epsom salts bath - the magnesium content helps get rid of tension and calm you and your body (also great for muscle aches)
mindfulness and meditation - can use apps to support this if it doesn't come naturally to you
spending time in nature - get outside, in the morning or lunchbreak, get some fresh air and can help reduce stress and anxiety
regular exercise - schedule it in to your week to use as mood booster and help you to think more clearly
turn off social media (incl whatsapp) and email notifications - and either only check them when you choose or schedule time to 'catch up'. Keeping up with it all can sometimes fuel the feelings of overwhelm and comparison / anxiety.
And lastly, as I said at the beginning of this post, just noticing and understanding why I'm feeling like I do helps me a lot. If I don't acknowledge it, then I just feel even more overwhelmed & low. I try to tell my family too so they both understand and also support me when it's all feeling a bit much. I hope that some of the tips in here help those of you who struggle with overwhelm and / or anxiety in some way or another, and bring you back to feeling calm and collected.