The Female Advantage

Reports that research results offer evidence that hormones, especially the female hormones known as estrogens, really do influence mental illness. Attribution of the lower rates of schizophrenia and other kinds of psychopathology experienced by premenstrual women partially to estrogen; How the estrogen estradiol protect women against psychosis; Effects of constant flactuations of estrogens in women's bloodstreams; Advantages of estrogen replacement therapy.

By Annie Murphy Paul, published on March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Teenagers are living proof that hormones can make you crazy. But new research offers fresh evidence that these secretions—especially the female hormones known as estrogens—really do influence mental illness.

The lower rates of schizophrenia and other kinds of psychopathology experienced by premenopausal women may be partially attributable to estrogen, says Mary Seeman, M.D., of Toronto's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. For example, estradiol, the estrogen most important to the brain, may protect women against psychosis by shieidling vulnerable neural circuits that become active in adolescence. This protective effect wanes when women's estrogen levels begin to decline as they approach age 40. Even before then psychotic symptoms are most common when estrogen levels drop after pregnancy and during portions of the menstrual cycle.

The constant fluctuations of estrogens in women's bloodstreams, however, may contribute to other types of mental illness. Since one ofestradiol's functions is to neutralize the effects of stress hormones, its repeated absence may predispose women to anxiety disorders, says Seeman. "It's possible that the cyclic withdrawal of progestins and estrogen `kindles' nerve tissues, making them more reactive and susceptible to anxiety states." The good news: research indicates that estrogen replacement therapy can restore to postmenopausal women many of the natural advantages of being born female.

A.M.P.