By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
Many women I have spoken with over the years list irritability as one of the complaints that brings them to a naturopathic consult. First of all, this is a common response to being overwhelmed in life – too many demands and not enough time for self-care. Building in some regular time for yourself can make a big impact on day to day irritability. There are however, many physiological imbalances that can also lead to more irritability. Here are the top issues:
Poor sleep quality:
- Insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality basically means that you’re starting your day without enough rest and time for regeneration. Without adequate sleep, we can’t deal with stressors appropriately, and can get overwhelmed more easily.
- Signs of poor sleep quality include: waking frequently through the night, waking after 7 or more hours still feeling unrested, waking in the night or early morning hours unable to fall asleep, waking due to body pain or headaches, heavy snoring or gasping in the night (possible sleep apnea).
Running on empty:
- Low cortisol / HPA-axis dysfunction (adrenal fatigue): One key symptom of adrenal dysfunction and low cortisol is feeling overwhelmed by everything. That overwhelm often means that small irritations seem much bigger and you are living in a state of constant irritability. The good news is that once the adrenal system is repaired, your resilience to life’s small stressors will also improve.
- Low thyroid function: This is another form of running on empty because your thyroid greatly influences energy levels too. Signs of an undera-ctive thyroid include: fatigue, feeling cold all the time, weight gain or difficulty losing weight, dry skin, constipation and hair thinning. Low thyroid function also includes low-free T3 levels due to prolonged high stress.
- Nutrient deficiencies – B12 and iron: Deficiencies of nutrients can also cause significant levels of tiredness, which make it harder to push through the day. If you have been feeling tired for a while, testing for blood levels of iron and vitamin B12 may be a good start, especially if you have a vegetarian diet.
Blood sugar imbalance – hypoglycemia:
- Hypoglycemia: Period of low blood sugar are notorious for creating the anger, impatience and irritability. Pay attention to your moods – are you feeling most irritated in the late morning or mid to late afternoon? Adjusting your nutrition to include protein with each meal, and regular snacks can make a big difference to your mood.
- Low progesterone: Hormone imbalance with low progesterone creates the typical PMS picture – irritable and emotionally sensitive. There are often physical symptoms too – breast tenderness, bloating, food cravings for example. Progesterone is very closely affected by stress levels, meaning that premenstrual irritability will be more noticeable during and after times of prolonged high stress. Progesterone also drops for most women beginning in the late thirties and continuing through the forties, so if you are feeling more premenstrual changes, that could be why! Learn more about progesterone here, and perimenopause here in other blog posts.
- High testosterone: Women with relatively high testosterone levels can be more prone to anger and irritability with stress, due to the role of higher androgens on their emotional state. On a positive note, women with higher androgen levels can also be more ambitious, competitive, athletic, and successful in their careers. The tendency towards anger and irritability becomes more intrusive when stress levels are high, because it will further increase the hormone imbalance. (Learn more about testosterone and women’s health here).
- Depression: Depression doesn’t always present with sadness. Many people express their depression in a state of negativity and irritation, and in some cases anger is a more dominant emotion. I love the perspective that depression is a sign that something is off in the body – either circumstantially, or internally with inflammation, blood sugar imbalance, nutrient deficiencies, the microbiome, or others.
Hypersensitivity to stimuli:
- Sensory issues are diagnosed very frequently in children now, but I do suspect that many adults are hypersensitive to stimuli, it just wasn’t the trend to identify them in the past. What this means is that sensory stimuli feel more intense to you than to other people – it can be to touch, certain types of clothing, sound, scent, food texture, or several senses. In people who are hypersensitive, their nervous system becomes overwhelmed quickly and they can become irritated by further stimulation.
As you can see, there are so many areas to examine in the treatment of general irritability, and the good news is that it can often be remedied with a combination of addressing the underlying imbalance, and extra attention to self care. Remember that symptoms are simply your body’s way of talking to you, pointing towards something that is out of balance.