Hormone imbalance are your body’s chemical messengers. Produced in the endocrine glands, these powerful chemicals travel around your bloodstream telling tissues and organs what to do. They help control many of your body’s major processes, including metabolism and reproduction.
When the word “hormones” is uttered, visions of raging menopausal women come to mind for most. That’s so sad. Hormonal changes affect everyone from birth to death, yet we seem to have a very negative association with that word.
For women, the most pronounced changes come in their 40s and 50s, but can been seen as early as their mid-30s. Many more women are having hormonal symptoms earlier, which has a lot to do with not only our lifestyle and diet, but also the pollution, toxins and xenoestrogens (synthetic chemicals that act as estrogen in our bodies) that we’re exposed to every day.
Causes of a hormone imbalance
There are many possible causes for a hormonal imbalance. Causes differ depending on which hormones or glands are affected. Common causes of hormonal imbalance include:
Many causes of hormonal imbalance in women are related to reproductive hormones. Common causes include:
hormone drugs like birth control pills
primary ovarian insufficiency
Some of the most common symptoms of hormone imbalance are
Persistent weight gain.
Yes, there are lifestyle, diet and physical activity components to maintaining a healthy weight, but that isn’t the end of the story. Many women have underlying hormonal imbalances that make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight. Unaddressed or emerging insulin resistance is one of the most common; small changes in diet — such as eliminating processed foods, sugars and wheat — step in the right direction.
Belly fat and loss of muscle mass
When your endocrine system is under stress there’s an underproduction of certain hormones and an overproduction of others (mainly cortisol). This makes your body store fat for future use, making an increase in belly fat a clue to adrenal fatigue.
One of the most noticeable symptoms of hormonal imbalance is low libido, which starts with disturbed sleep. Without quality sleep, our sex hormone production can diminish.
Can’t make it past mid-morning without some sort of pick-me-up? How about that mid-afternoon crash? It isn’t normal to feel sluggish, scattered or mentally foggy. Easy dietary changes, such as eliminating wheat and most grains, will help stabilize your blood sugar.
Anxiety, irritability and depression
Not feeling like yourself? This isn’t the time for pharmaceuticals. Anxiety and depression are clues that you have an imbalance, toxicity, are overworked, stressed out, and most likely aren’t nourishing your body the way it needs. Listen to your inner voice and take the actions necessary to meet your needs.
Insomnia and poor sleep patterns
This starts the cycle of physical stress and increases cortisol levels, which directly causes many hormonal imbalances. There isn’t one area of your life that insomnia doesn’t touch.
For many women, night sweats and hot flashes are the first uncomfortable sign that something is amiss. This isn’t the time to start hormone replacement therapy, but begin a food journal by jotting down what you eat and drink, how you feel physically, and any emotions that come up after. Many times our emotions are the trigger that increases internal temperature. The next time you feel the flashes coming on, stop and think about the thoughts swirling around in your mind.
Gas, bloating and slow digestion are common hormonal problems that aren’t usually associated with hormonal imbalances but may be associated with eating bad foods, not chewing your food and eating too much. When you don’t have optimal digestion, your body is starving because of poor nutrient extraction.
After eating way more than you should have, or having gone through half a bottle of wine, do you look back and ask yourself why? Common causes of cravings and excess eating are adrenal fatigue, insulin resistance, and other hormonal imbalances. Again, minimizing sugars, alcohol, dairy and wheat — although difficult — not only will help control cravings, but your digestive issues as well.
Please note that many of these symptoms can be linked to other physical problems, and a simple blood test can tell you if there are other underlying concerns.
With consistent effort applied to improve diet and digestive health, stress management, improved sleep and consistent physical activity, true holistic health is attainable.
Common hormonal conditions affecting both men and women could cause any of the following symptoms
When female patients suspect sex hormones might be out of whack, I ask them to self-evaluate using this quiz:
I have premenstrual syndrome.
I have monthly weight fluctuation.
I have edema, swelling, puffiness, or water retention.
I feel bloated.
I have headaches.
I have mood swings.
I have tender, enlarged breasts.
I am depressed.
I feel unable to cope with ordinary demands.
I have backaches, joint, or muscle pain.
I have premenstrual food cravings (especially sugar or salt).
I have irregular cycles, heavy bleeding, or light bleeding.
I am infertile.
I use birth-control pills or other hormones.
I have premenstrual migraines.
I have breast cysts or lumps or fibrocystic breasts.
I have a family history of breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer.
I have uterine fibroids.
I have peri-menopausal symptoms (hot flashes, mood swings, headaches, irregular cycles, heavy bleeding, fluid retention, breast tenderness, vaginal dryness, brain fog, muscle and joint pain, low sex drive, weight gain).
I have hot flashes.
I feel anxious.
I have night sweats.
I have insomnia.
I have lost my sex drive.
I have dry skin, hair, and/ or vagina.
I have heart palpitations.
I have trouble with memory or concentration.
I have bloating or weight gain around the middle.
I have facial hair.
I have been exposed to pesticides or heavy metals (in the food, water, and/ or air).
Score one point for every time you answered “yes,” and then check out how you scored using the scale below:
0 to 9 – You may have a mild sex hormone imbalance.
10 to 14 – You may have a moderate sex hormone imbalance.
15 or more – You may have a severe sex hormone imbalance.
Now that you have determined the severity of your imbalance, let’s talk about the one thing you can do today to begin treating your symptoms.
Hormonal Changes During Stress
In response to stress, the level of various hormones changes. Reactions to stress are associated with enhanced secretion of a number of hormones including glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone and prolactin, the effect of which is to increase mobilization of energy sources and adapt the individual to its new circumstance.
Activation of the pituitary-adrenal axis is a prominent neuroendocrine response to stress, promoting survival. Stimulation of this axis results in hypothalamic secretion of corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF). CRF then stimulates the pituitary to adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), 8-lipotropin and 3-endorphin. Plasma levels of these hormones can increase two- to fivefold during stress in humans.[rx] The paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus is responsible for the integrated response to stress.[rx] Norepinephrine, serotonin and acetylcholine mediate much of the neurogenic stimulation of CRF production.[rx]
Stimulation of the pituitary-adrenal axis is associated with the release of catecholamines. This leads to increased cardiac output, skeletal muscle blood flow, sodium retention, reduced intestinal motility, cutaneous vasoconstriction, increased glucose, bronchiolar dilatation and behavioral activation.[rx] Timio et al.,[rx] have reported increased activation of the adrenosympathetic system during occupational stress.
Acute stress leads to the rapid release of vasopressin from the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus along with corticotrophin releasing hormone CRH. Vasopressin can stimulate secretion of ACTH from the pituitary by acting on the V1b receptor, potentiating the effect of CRH. During chronic stress with corticotroph responsiveness, there is a preferential expression of hypothalamic vasopressin over CRH.[rx]
In stress, there is suppression of circulating gonadotropins and gonadal steroid hormones leading to disruption of the normal menstrual cycle.[rx] Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to complete impairment of reproductive function.[rx] Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone GnRH drive to the pituitary is decreased, probably due to increased endogenous CRH secretion.
Thyroid function is usually down-regulated during stressful conditions. T3 and T4 levels decrease with stress. Stress inhibits the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) secretion through the action of glucocorticoids on the central nervous system.[rx]
The growth hormone (GH) level is increased during acute physical stress. The level can increase up to two- to tenfold. Because of its insulin-antagonistic effect, GH may enhance metabolic activity. In psychological stress, however, GH responses are rarely seen.[rx] Rather there is GH secretory defect with prolonged psychosocial stress.[rx]
Depending on the local regulatory environment at the time of stress, prolactin level can either increase or decrease. Vasopressin and peptide histidine isoleucine may be involved in the secretion of prolactin during stress.[rx] However, the teleological significance of the change in the prolactin level is uncertain. It may affect the immune system or some aspect of homeostasis.
Insulin may decrease during stress. This along with an increase in its antagonistic hormones can contribute to stress-induced hyperglycemia.[rx]
Stress as a Precipitating Factor/Cause of Endocrine Disorders
Genetic factors such as HLA (Human leukocyte antigen) and CTLA-4 (Cytotoxic T lymphocyte antigen – 4) determine the susceptibility to GD.[rx] Stress may lead to immunologic perturbations and may affect the immune response to TSH receptor through modulation of hormones, neurotransmitters and cytokines. A defect of antigen-specific suppressor T-lymphocytes has been proposed to be partially responsible for the initiation of GD.[rx] Stress may result in a defect in the immunologic surveillance leading to production of TSH receptor antibodies.[rx] In genetically susceptible individuals stress favors the development of GD by shifting the Th1-Th2 immune balance away from Th1 towards Th2.[rx] This shifting may affect the onset or course of GD.
However, there are many studies which failed to show any relationship between stress and GD. No significant difference was seen in the number and nature of stressful life events up to six months before the onset of thyrotoxicosis between patients with thyrotoxicosis and nontoxic goiters in the study by Gray and Hoffenberg.[rx] Chiovato et al., could not find past or present Graves′ hyperthyroidism in patients with panic disorder.[rx]
Severe stress may be a risk factor for diabetes. Children aged five to nine years with stress were significantly more likely to be diabetic.[rx] However, recent-onset Type 1 diabetics, 15-34 years old reported no major stress factors within the year before diagnosis.[rx] Thus stress in early life may be a risk factor for diabetes, but not in young adults.
In females, stress can lead to anovulation, amennorhea and other menstrual irregularities. Among newly incarcerated women with stress 9% had amenorrhea and 33% had menstrual irregularity.[rx]
In males, there can be decreased sperm count, motility and altered morphology. Ejaculatory disorders, impotence and oligospermia may be associated with psychological factors in male infertility.[rx]
This is an extreme form of failure to thrive and may be associated with dramatic behavioral abnormalities. Defective GH secretion has been reported with a stimulation test. Reversal of GH insufficiency within three weeks of removal from the hostile environment has been reported.[rx] Munoz-Hoyos et al. observed a conspicuous reduction in the levels of neuroendocrine markers (melatonin, serotonin, β-endorphins and ACTH) in children suffering from affective deficiency, a diminution which was even more noticeable in the children presenting delayed growth. The organic incapability of confronting stress on a genetic basis, and/or the fact of repeated stresses, from the exhaustion of the homeostatic mechanisms, could make some groups of patients liable to suffer depressive symptoms associated with a wide range of deleterious consequences in the endocrine system leading to delayed growth.[rx]
Mental stress leads to chronic activation of the neuroendocrine systems. Cortisol favors central fat deposition, a decrease in the adipostatic signal leptin and an increase in the orexigenic signal ghrelin, inducing increased appetite and food intake. This phenomenon contributes to the current epidemic of obesity. The “stress” genes which have been selected under pressure in ancient environments may have not adapted to the rapid environmental changes of today.[rx]
The Right Diet Becomes Your Number-One Reset Button
Balancing your hormones is a process, and sometimes it has little twists and turns. But by sticking with it, you can become vital, happy, alert, brilliant, and thriving.
Your diet is the foundation that helps balance your sex hormones.
The first step involves removing the bad stuff. We know that sugar, caffeine, alcohol, stress, and lack of exercise all contribute to worsened PMS and all hormonal imbalances – including menopause.
Imbalances in your hormones are triggered by bad food. If you eat sugar, you’ll produce more insulin, more estrogen, and more testosterone. Any type of flour and sugar can lead to these imbalances. Dairy and gluten are often triggers for inflammation and hormonal imbalances. Xenobiotics or environmental chemicals like pesticides in our food can act like powerful hormone disruptors and trigger our own hormones to go out of balance. If you are interested to know how these toxins disrupt our hormones then read Our Stolen Future by Theo Colburn.
Dairy is one of the biggest triggers of hormonal imbalances because of all the hormones found naturally in milk and because of the hormones and antibiotics added to milk. Even organic milk can come from pregnant cows, jacking up hormone levels. In fact, dairy has over 60 hormones that can contribute to imbalances. Dairy and gluten are among the most common food sensitivities that you might benefit from eliminating from your diet.
After removing the bad stuff, you will want to replace it with good stuff. Eat a whole, real, unprocessed, organic, mostly plant-based diet with organic or sustainably raised animal products. When you focus on this type of diet, you minimize intake of xenoestrogens, hormones, and antibiotics. Taking simple steps like choosing organic food and drinking filtered water can hugely impact hormone balance.
You might consider doing my , which will naturally help reset your hormones by eliminating sugary, processed foods and food sensitivities while focusing on organic, whole, unprocessed foods. To reset female hormones, focus on specific hormone-balancing foods. Increase certain foods like flaxseeds, cruciferous veggies, good fats, and traditional organic non-GMO whole soy foods (tofu, tempeh, miso, natto, and edamame). Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds a day to your diet.
Other Strategies to Balance Your Sex Hormones
Diet aside, there’s a lot you can do to balance your sex hormones without resorting to medication.
Supplement smartly. Fish oil and additional vitamin D and B vitamins help balance estrogen. Take these in addition to a good multivitamin and mineral with sufficient calcium and magnesium. Probiotics, antioxidants and phytonutrients (vitamin E, resveratrol, curcumin, n-actetyl cysteine, green tea, selenium), and the anti-inflammatory omega-6 fat (GLA or gamma linoleic acid) can help balance sex hormones. You can find these and other hormone-balancing supplements in my store.
Exercise. When you exercise, you have less PMS and other problems. Find something that you love to do. Running, long walks, weight training, dance, or any other form of movement that you enjoy.
Reduce stress. Chronic stress can trigger or exacerbate hormonal imbalances. The key here becomes finding something that works for you to reduce stress. That might include meditation, yoga, tapping, therapy, or finding a creative or expressive outlet. My UltraCalm CD helps melt away stress, anxiety, and tension.
Sleep well. Insufficient sleep can adversely impact PMS, menopause, and other conditions. Getting eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night is one of the best things I can think of to balance hormonal levels.
Reduce or eliminate alcohol. Alcohol – yes, even red wine – jacks up estrogen and increases chances of cancer.
How to Do Hormone Replacement Therapy Safely
For more than three decades, women were the subject of widespread experimentation founded on absent or weak evidence, creating unnecessary harm through increases in uterine, breast, and ovarian cancer, as well as heart attacks and strokes. These methods provide a temporary solution to intractable (and often transient) menopausal symptoms.
Despite potential drawbacks, there are some cases in which hormone replacement and medications are helpful and even necessary for women whose symptoms are unmanageable. Occasionally, despite lifestyle therapies – diet, exercise, stress reduction, nutrient supplementation, and herbs – hormone therapy can be lifesaving (as well as mood- and brain-saving).
Only a physician knowledgeable and experienced with bio-identical hormone therapy should prescribe them. I recommend if you go that direction, talk with a knowledgeable functional practitioner who could discuss the pros and cons of hormone therapy so you make the most informed decision.
If you believe hormone replacement therapy might be necessary for you, please discuss the pros and cons with your Functional Medicine practitioner.