Parenting is a lot of work! But to be the best parents we can be, we have to take time to nurture ourselves as the people we are outside of being Mom or Dad. Psychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, and acupuncturist & nutritionist Jan Hanson, MS, authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, are here to help!
Rick Hanson, PhD and Jan Hanson, MS

In the past several columns, we have explored how parents can lift the mood of themselves and their children. The physical and psychological methods we've presented have been shown to be effective, but of course, this column is no substitute for professional advice. If your mood is seriously depressed or unstable, you should immediately consult with a licensed health professional.

Last week, we explained how good nutrition can make a major difference to your mood, and here we discuss the role three key hormones play with a mother's mood -- and what you can do about it.

Waltzing hormones
Rather like a family sometimes, all the parts of the body have to be told what to do in order to meet the ever-changing demands of life. There are two main types of substances that do this: neurotransmitters and hormones.

Neurotransmitters send instructions from nerve cell to nerve cell, while hormones send instructions from endocrine glands to targets throughout the body. Sometimes the destination of a hormone is the brain itself. As a result, hormones affect memory, self-control, and that moment-to-moment coloring of life that we call mood.

And sometimes the target organ is another endocrine gland, so hormones affect each other in intricate feedback loops of extraordinary complexity and dynamism, like dancers at a waltz moving through familiar patterns while also reacting to each other over time. Science is learning more every day about our hormones, but there is still a lot that is not yet understood about this marvelous system.

Thyroid, progesterone and estrogen
In this article we will focus on the three hormones -- thyroid, progesterone, and estrogen -- that probably make the most difference to a mother's mood. (Of course, other hormones also affect how you feel, particularly the adrenal hormones, and you should ask your doctor if you have any questions about these.)

Early in pregnancy many women feel some nausea, a side effect of the dramatic rise in progesterone and estrogen needed to make a good nest for a baby within a mother's body. Then women often feel happier than usual -- and maybe more emotional as well. Jan remembers pregnant days of crying in the car with happiness while listening to John Denver songs.

Then, out comes the baby -- and progesterone and estrogen crash, dropping to a hundredth or a thousandth of their previous levels within a few days. This leads to weepy moments, everything seems socomplex, life sometimes feels like being caught in the rinse cycle of the washer. Most mothers recover in a week or two from the "baby blues," but progesterone and estrogen levels may have landed somewhere other than their optimal spot in their rushed descent from the high sky of pregnancy. (Additionally, mothers enter the breastfeeding fog of prolactin, the nursing hormone -- What did I come into this room for? -- but that's another story.)

Meanwhile, thyroid hormone is controlling the fundamental energy thermostat of the body, the rate at which metabolic activities happen. For reasons that are not yet entirely clear, the thyroid gland of many mothers seems to be vulnerable during postpartum period. One possibility is that the immune system -- which has to be "turned off" in certain ways in order not to attack the developing fetus (whose DNA is different in some ways from the mother's) -- may go to the other extreme in some cases when it is "turned on" after childbirth and starts attacking the thyroid gland in an auto-immune reaction. (Thanks to Richard Shames, MD, a holistic physician and authority on thyroid, for this information.)

Whatever the source, disturbance in thyroid is thought by many researchers to be often implicated in postpartum depression, even after the most intense symptoms have cleared up after six to twelve months, a low-grade deficiency in thyroid may still linger.

And of course a new friend has moved into the mother's home: STRESS. The ongoing stress of everything from sleep disturbance to quarrels with her partner cause the sex hormones (including progesterone and estrogen) to drop and disturb thyroid as well.

When the balance goes awry
Although the complexity of hormonal interaction can make it difficult to point to a single hormone as the culprit, following are some symptoms that might indicate certain hormonal imbalances:

  • Low thyroid -- Fatigue; feeling of chilliness; dry skin; hair loss (but hair loss in the postpartum period may also be a normal side effect); depressive feelings
  • High thyroid -- Hyperactivity; heart palpitations; feeling hot; anxiety
  • Low progesterone -- Marked premenstrual symptoms of irritability, water retention, breast tenderness; depressive feelings.
  • Low estrogen -- Hot flashes; vaginal dryness; depressive feelings.

Because hormones are so intensively taxed during pregnancy and immediately thereafter, and because they have far-reaching effects on the brain, a mother who is experiencing low mood should consider having her hormones assessed, especially if there are other signs of hormone imbalance, or if symptoms are routinely worse at a particular point in the menstrual cycle. Assessment is not treatment, and it cannot possibly harm your health (although your finances may feel a little injured).

And if you do find something amiss, correction can begin early, when it can do the most good. There are various ways to assess your hormones.

Thyroid testing is most commonly done through blood tests that measure the two thyroid hormones, T4 and T3 -- plus thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which tells the thyroid gland to pump out more thyroid. High TSH is a sign that thyroid levels are low enough that the body's feedback mechanisms are calling for more. Low TSH means that there is too much thyroid hormone, so the thyroid gland is being asked to cut back.

The levels of TSH are generally considered more informative than those of T3 or T4. Some physicians think that blood tests are not adequately sensitive. They utilize a urine test that provides an indication of the amount of thyroid actually used by the body. These doctors believe that the results of urine testing correspond more reliably to symptoms of low thyroid.

Because thyroid regulates our metabolic rate, the basal body temperature can be used to infer thyroid levels. You can test yours at home for the cost of a thermometer. Basal body temperature is another important source of information about thyroid levels, and it can be used as an indication for further testing.

Progesterone and estrogen
When these hormones are tested in the blood, it is important to measure them at the right time of the menstrual cycle. Progesterone is usually checked three to five days before your period begins, when it is at it peak. Estrogen has two peaks during the menstrual cycle, and your physician will tell you when to measure it.

Progesterone and estrogen may also be tested in the saliva, which is thought by some practitioners to be a more sensitive measure of the hormones that are actually available for use by the body. Saliva testing is easy and relatively inexpensive, and there are panels available from some medical labs that allow you to test your hormones over your entire menstrual cycle by taking a sample every three days. This can provide a very clear picture of your hormonal rhythms over time.

Finally, basal body temperature can also indicate the status of progesterone. (See below)

Our discussion of what you can do to remedy hormonal problems focuses on low levels, since those are more common.

The goals of intervention
Hormones are transported by the blood like messages in bottles sent to distant islands. Once they arrive, they slip into special biochemical sites called receptors and deliver their signal. As with any communication, difficulties can arise with the sender or the receiver. Sender problems include not enough "bottles" or poor signaling to release them into the bloodstream. Receiver problems include receptor sites that are too few in number or blocked. Successful interventions help an endocrine gland and its target organs "talk" with each other more effectively.

Hormone supplementation
Conventional medicine will often supplement hormones when they are low. This can be very effective -- sometimes, literally a lifesaver -- but there are also potential drawbacks. When some hormones are supplemented, such as thyroid, the body can "turn off" that gland so you need to take thyroid as a medicine for the rest of your life. There are also risks with certain protocols, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for women in menopause, that need to be weighed thoughtfully against the possible benefits.

If you and your physician decide to supplement hormones, several options are available, depending on the hormone. Thyroid is available only by prescription. It comes in the form of either a natural extract of the thyroid gland of cows or pigs, or as a synthetic product; some professionals consider thyroid extract to be more effectively used by the body.

Progesterone is available in several forms. In What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause, John Lee, MD, has written about natural progesterone made by extracting certain substances from plants (often wild yams or soybeans), and then converting them to progesterone in the laboratory. What is "natural" about the result is that it is identical to the progesterone found in your body.

Progestins (available by prescription) are progesterone-like products, similar to but not identical to progesterone. These are promoted by the pharmaceutical companies that have been able to patent them. Because they do not naturally appear within the body, progestins may have side effects for some individuals that natural progesterone does not have.

Various creams containing natural progesterone are available in health food stores, along with other hormones such as DHEA, melatonin and cortisol. But just because something is "natural" or available over-the-counter does not mean it is harmless to use indiscriminately. Hormones are powerful substances, and we recommend that you always consult with a licensed health practitioner about their use.

Holistic interventions
This approach can be less potent than hormone supplementation and less researched (since there is little economic interest in spending money on studies of materials that cannot be patented), but it has some advantages as well. These methods aim at correcting the underlying source of endocrine problems by providing more of the building blocks and catalytic co-factors used to make hormones or by increasing receptor sites. And they emphasize balance of the entire endocrine system. Several holistic interventions are discussed just below.

A diet high in protein and unrefined carbohydrates, and low in sugar (sorry), is a good base for hormonal health. A high potency multivitamin and mineral is an excellent support to make sure you're getting all of the nutrients and co-factors you need. Additionally, the following suggestions may be useful:

  • Really fresh veggies and sprouts -- right from the garden or farmers market -- have phytohormones, beneficial compounds with hormone-like activity in the body.

  • Soy has been shown to have hormone-like properties, particularly of estrogen. Extracts are made from soy that have estrogenic benefits, from reducing hot flashes to building strong bones. Soy products include soy beans, tofu, soy milk and soy flour.

  • For thyroid, make sure you are getting adequate zinc, iodine and selenium. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of zinc is 20 milligrams. Iodine is well-assimilated in the form of kelp tablets; 150 milligrams is the RDA, but many health practitioners go as high as 600 milligrams in order to stimulate thyroid production. The RDA of numerous minerals, including selenium, has not been established; the daily amount of selenium given in supplements from reputable companies is 70 to 200 micrograms.

  • Vitamin E can be helpful for overall hormonal balance. The RDA is 33 International Units (IU), and commonly used therapeutic levels are 100 to 400 (IU).

    Chinese medicine
    Both acupuncture and herbs can have well-established benefits for the endocrine system. Sometimes herbal formulas are given at different times in your menstrual cycle to boost specific deficiencies. Acupuncturists can be found through referral or even looking in the Yellow Pages.

    Western herbs
    Various Western herbs are known to effect hormones, and these are usually available at your health food store. Black cohosh, red clover, siberian ginseng, and licorice have all shown estrogenic effects. Another herb, vitex, has been shown to have a balancing effect on estrogen and progesterone.

    This method involves consuming sugar pills coated with purified water containing a tincture of various substances that has been diluted so many times that literally not a single molecule of the original material can possibly remain. For reasons that no one knows for sure, homeopathic treatment sometimes seems to have remarkable results. Homeopaths are listed in the Yellow Pages. Ifeoma Ikenze, MD, in San Anselmo, California, has written the book, Menopause and Homeopathy, which contains much information relevant to hormones.

    Of course, one of the most direct ways to affect your hormones is to lower your stress levels. You can do this by altering your circumstances (such as maybe more childcare), getting support (perhaps join a mothers' club), or changing your reactions (such as through exercise, meditation, or developing more insight into why certain things upset you so much).

    Taking your basal body temperature
    The right thermometer. Basal body temperature is your resting temperature without the influence of activity. To measure it, you will need a highly accurate "basal" thermometer with two-tenths-of-a-degree increments between 97 and 100 degrees; mercury is best, and you may have to check a few pharmacies to obtain a proper thermometer.

    Taking your temperature
    Shake down the thermometer before you go to bed and put it next to you on a bedside table. When you awaken in the morning, put the thermometer in the middle of your armpit with as little movement as possible and lower your arm. Leave it there for 10 minutes, resting as deeply as possible. Then remove the thermometer and record the reading. For maximum precision, take your basal body temperature for three to five days and chart all of the results.

    Checking thyroid
    For thyroid, do this test during your menstrual period, while progesterone and estrogen are relatively low; if you are in menopause you can do it at any time. The ideal reading is between 97.8 and 98.2 (the familiar temperature of 98.6 is an orally-measured temperature we have when we are active). The further above or below that range you are, the more likely it is that thyroid is out of balance. If your temperature is four-tenths or more out of range, we encourage you to discuss further testing with your physician.

    Checking progesterone
    For this hormone, you need to take your basal body temperature throughout your menstrual cycle and chart it. The sign of progesterone is an increase of a few tenths of a degree at the middle of your cycle when you ovulate. Your temperature should stay at this slightly higher level until just before your period begins. If you do not find this rise in temperature, further evaluation of your progesterone could be

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