Hormones affect every aspect of your wellbeing, from your appetite to your zest for life. Despite their large impact on overall health, hormonal imbalances can be frustratingly difficult to recognize. That’s partly because our hormones must maintain a delicate balance and even a slight shift can have negative repercussions.
Think of your hormones as messengers delivering instructions to the rest of your body in order to regulate many things, including mood, appetite, stress levels, metabolism, sleep, sexual functions, blood sugar and more!
Many organs are involved in maintaining hormone balance. The hypothalamus, a small region in your brain, sends signals to your endocrine system, which controls the secretion of hormones. The endocrine system contains the adrenals, hypothalamus, ovaries, testes, parathyroid, pineal and pituitary glands.
When these glands receive a signal from the hypothalamus, they react by releasing hormones. For example, if your brain perceives a threat, your hypothalamus tells your adrenal and pituitary glands to secrete the “stress hormones” adrenaline and cortisol. This dynamic is sometimes called the HPA axis and it has far-reaching effects on your body. Those hormones tell your heart to speed up, your muscles to tense, your breathing to quicken, and your liver to release more glucose for extra energy. Those responses likely served us well way back in history, when we were more likely to be under an actual attack, because they primed our “flight or fight” response. Today, however, stress is often more chronic, and we’re not typically able to flee or fight the stressors. Instead, the long-term effects continue to take a toll.
We all experience some hormonal imbalances over the course of a lifetime, but certain developmental stages raise the risk. Puberty is one obvious stage when hormones are sometimes wildly out of balance because the ovaries and testes receive signals to start producing more hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and growth hormone. Middle age ushers in a new era of hormonal changes. For women, the production of estrogen starts to slow with the transition to menopause. For many women, however, this isn’t a smooth decrease in hormone production, but rather, something that occurs in fits and starts, which can make symptoms harder to manage.
Men aren’t immune from midlife hormone imbalances. Around the age of 40, men’s level of androgens (“male” hormones like testosterone) starts to decline by about one percent a year.
Outside of age-related hormonal changes, other factors can lead to hormone imbalance, including stress, disordered eating, nutritional deficiencies, medication, exposure to toxins, birth control pills, and many medical conditions.
Wild mood swings. Unexplained sadness. Disabling irritability. Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, isn’t much fun, and hormones are to blame. PMS is caused by the drop in estrogen and progesterone that occurs in the second half of the menstrual cycle. Low estrogen and progesterone levels can lead to a decrease in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in mood stabilization.
Many hormones influence our moods, including norepinephrine and epinephrine, testosterone, and oxytocin, so it is not surprising that fluctuating hormones can lead to an emotional rollercoaster, for all genders.
Hormones play an important role in energy levels, so an imbalance often leads to unexplained fatigue. A decrease in thyroid hormone in particular can lead to extreme tiredness. And decreases in another hormone, progesterone, can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
Lower levels of estrogen in women and testosterone in men often lead to a loss of libido.
Low levels of estrogen and difficulties with thyroid hormone levels can lead to periods that don’t follow a regular 28-day cycle. As women enter the perimenopause stage, this often becomes more pronounced, and the timing of their periods becomes difficult to predict.
Anyone who struggles to control their weight, despite conscientious exercise and careful calorie control, should have their hormone levels checked. The impact of hormones on weight is complex, and can involve ghrelin, cortisol, insulin, thyroid hormone, and leptin. Imbalances with just one of these can easily derail weight-control.
Studies (and plenty of anecdotal evidence) suggest that hormonal fluctuations, particularly those tied to the menstrual cycle, lead to cravings for sweet and high-carb foods. Stress hormones can also play a role, as they send signals to your body that it needs more energy to fight the perceived stress. The “pleasure” hormones like dopamine can also contribute, as your body seeks to repeat the temporary feelings of satisfaction from eating certain foods.
That feeling of not being able to think clearly can be influenced by many hormones, including cortisol, insulin, estrogen and testosterone.
For women, low levels of estrogen can lead to an increase in headaches. Imbalances in other hormones, such as cortisol and thyroid hormone, can also contribute.
Disruptions in levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin lead to issues with your circadian rhythm, but other hormones also play a role in a good night of sleep.
As you can see from the above list, hormonal imbalances can lead to many health issues. It’s important to note their connectivity: Hormones influence each other in a complex chain. For example, a disruption in melatonin levels can lead to less sleep. In turn, not getting enough sleep can inhibit testosterone production, even in young men. It’s all connected!
These intertwined relationships point to the importance of taking a holistic approach to hormonal balance. Here are just some proven strategies that I use in my practice (and in my life):
Yes, this can feel like a Catch-22 when your hormones aren’t cooperating. Focus on whole, natural foods, centered around organic produce and high-quality protein sources, healthy fats, and whole grains. Avoid drastically reducing calories, as that can be counterproductive. Eliminate (or reduce) alcohol, caffeine and processed foods.
Stress reduction helps stabilize hormones by minimizing the flight or fight response and its impact on hormones. Studies point to the success of meditation and other stress-reduction activities such as yoga or tai chi.
Even simple walking can regulate hormone levels. Work with a knowledgeable professional to figure out what’s the best approach for you.
We’re growing increasingly aware of the impact of certain chemicals on our hormones. Some chemicals, for example, “mimic” certain hormones, which confuses the body’s response. Others change the way we process hormones, or change our sensitivity to them. These chemicals can be found in pesticides, many kinds of packaging, household cleaners, cosmetics and toiletry items, and more. It all points to the importance of becoming an informed consumer.
More research needs to be done on the effectiveness of natural supplements to balance hormones, but historically, people have turned to supplements such as ginseng, black cohosh, evening primrose oil, and red clover.
Your hormones have a profound impact on your health. Maintaining balanced hormone levels is one of the most important things you can do to enjoy a healthy life. If you’d like more information on testing and a tailored health plan to gain control of your hormones, reach out to me -I can help!