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Spring 2008

Hormones Can Affect Mental Health

Hormonal changes and reproductive life events can increase women’s susceptibility to psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety. Women struggling with these challenges benefit most from a flexible, supportive and comprehensive approach tailored to their individual needs, says Vivien K. Burt, M.D., Ph.D., UCLA psychiatrist and director of the Women’s Life Center at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA.

hormones can affect mental healthThe Women’s Life Center is an outpatient program for women struggling with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, premenstrual syndrome, psychiatric conditions associated with pregnancy and postpartum (including breastfeeding), menopause, assisted reproductive technology, infertility and female-specific benign and malignant diseases. A multidisciplinary staff provides consultations as well as treatment options that include short-term psychotherapy, medication management and group therapy.

Although the precise reasons are unclear, research has shown an association between times of dramatic hormonal changes and vulnerability to psychiatric conditions, Dr. Burt notes. For example, in the postpartum period—when levels of estrogen and other hormones decline rapidly—women are much more susceptible to conditions such as depression, anxiety disorder and, in the most serious cases, psychosis. A previous history of a mood disorder increases this risk, but new cases are also possible. Declining estrogen levels during menopause are associated with similar risks, as are hormonal changes for women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder or premenstrual syndrome.

Dr. Burt says a range of women benefit from services offered by the Women’s Life Center. This includes women suffering from or at risk of hormone-related mood disorders, as well as those with more specific issues, such as women who are concerned about becoming pregnant or breastfeeding while on psychiatric medications, women undergoing infertility procedures who are experiencing mood or anxiety concerns, and perimenopausal women with recurrent or new-onset psychiatric difficulties.

“Women who have experienced depression or anxiety disorders should know that there are special times when they are particularly at risk for relapse and recurrence including these during pregnancy, postpartum, the transition to menopause and premenstrually,” says Dr. Burt. “They should also know that there is treatment available that can ensure they are able to remain stable and well throughout their lives, including in times of particular psychiatric vulnerability. It’s important that they understand they are not alone—there are experts specializing in reproductive psychiatry who can meet with them and provide clear and effective recommendations.”

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