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Understanding and Managing Hormone Imbalance

Your body has over 50 hormones, and they are constantly fluctuating. Here, how to keep them from getting too out of whack.

With Barry Sears MD

Our hormones are responsible for essentially every function in our bodies. Hormones are chemicals secreted by our glands in order to send “messages” through the bloodstream. Those messages then tell our organs what to do to keep us alive and healthy.

When we think “hormone,” we usually think about the sex hormones testosterone or estrogen, but there are actually more than 50 different hormones circulating inside your body right now. 

For example, your thyroid hormones oversee your metabolism, energy levels, and temperature, while cortisol, “the stress hormone,” plays a role in fetal development and your response to physical and psychological stress. From heart rate to appetite to sexual function, each and every hormone plays an important role.

When your hormones are balanced and working in sync, you won’t notice them, of course, and that’s a good thing. It’s when they’re imbalanced that you could start seeing cascading health issues take over.

Hormonal imbalance stems from your body making too little or too much of a hormone or a series of hormones. There are many hormones, such as insulin or adrenaline, that everyone shares, but specific hormones can affect men and women in different ways. For example, women may see an imbalance in estrogen and progesterone levels, while men may experience an imbalance in testosterone.

You have or will likely experience a hormonal imbalance at some point in your life, especially if you have an endocrine disorder. Age and lifestyle are factors, too. The symptoms of hormonal imbalance can vary widely, as each hormone is uniquely responsible for its role.

Symptoms of hormonal imbalance

  • sudden or inexplicable weight gain or weight loss
  • difficulty sleeping
  • feeling very hot or very cold changes, or extreme sensitivity to heat or cold
  • excessive sweating 
  • heart rate changes
  • dry skin or sudden acne
  • anxiety or other mood changes
  • sexual function or sexual appetite shifts
  • blurred vision
  • brittle hair and nails
  • excessive hair growth
  • breast tenderness

Causes 

There are a few main causes of hormonal imbalance, and they’re not uncommon. Firstly, medical conditions, as well as the medications or treatments for those conditions can all impact your hormones.

For example, some breast cancer treatments can reduce estrogen levels, while Cushing's syndrome or Addison's disease are marked by too-high or too-low (respectively) levels of the hormone cortisol. Other causes of hormonal imbalance may include type 1 and 2 diabetes, hypoglycemia, and thyroid disorders such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. In women, conditions such as menopause or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may cause hormonal fluctuations. In men, hypogonadism may lead to low hormone levels.

Other culprits include injury, trauma, or eating disorders. One of the most common causes of hormonal imbalance, however, is stress — which is unfortunately a stranger to no one.

In fact, stress can lead to gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and brain function problems. We’ve all been there. Running to the bathroom before a big deadline? Heart skipping a beat when you’re dealing with big life decisions? Blame stress.

Diagnosis

There’s no one solitary test that can diagnose or pinpoint a specific hormonal imbalance, so it’s important that you work with your endocrinologist to get to the bottom of your particular set of symptoms. Some of the things you’ll want to let them know include if you’re experiencing:

  • weight gain or loss
  • fatigue
  • skin problems
  • mood problems
  • high levels of stress and anxiety
  • sexual libido and function issues

Your endocrinologist could perform a blood test, a biopsy, an ultrasound, or another form of testing depending on your symptoms. Because there’s no one way of knowing which hormones are imbalanced, your doctor may need to do a bit of investigation and more than one test to determine the root of your symptoms and the best course of treatment tailored to your specific imbalance.

Treatments

Prescription treatments, which often involve hormone therapy (HT) should be discussed with a qualified endocrinologist. 

According to Sleep Coach Bailey Guilloud, sleep is key. “Hormones play a massive role in how you sleep, and your sleep plays a massive role in how your hormones are balanced. You need all five stages of sleep, about seven to nine hours, to help maintain and balance your hormones.”

For optimum hormonal balance, Guilloud says that you should be:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day as often as you can
  • Decreasing blue light at night 
  • Getting sunlight in the morning, and throughout the day as often as possible
  • Drinking water first thing in the morning
  • Creating a bedtime ritual

According to Barry Sears, MD, “Diet is the most potent agent you have to balance your hormones. This is because it allows you to directly change the levels of hormones (insulin, glucagon, and eicosanoids) depending on the balance of macronutrients consumed at every meal.” 

Make sure you’re eating regularly, and within a healthy calorie range for your body. Aim for lots of fatty fish, omega-3 fatty acids, eggs, healthy proteins, vegetables, and greens. 

According to triple board-certified physician Anna Cabeca, MD, you’ll also want to eat alkaline, or higher pH foods. What does that mean, exactly?

Dr. Cabeca explains, “Alkaline and plant foods such as green leafy vegetables and other low-calorie vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower sprouts have a natural detoxifying effect on the body. Choose free-range, wild-caught, and clean protein sources as well as more alkaline fats, such as avocado, nuts and olive oil.” Other alkaline-rich foods include tofu, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. 

Additionally, you may want to take a magnesium supplement and drink a cup of high-quality green tea each day. Green tea can help lower blood sugar levels, which is especially important for someone with insulin issues. Magnesium can also help us respond to stress.

Regular exercise is important when it comes to hormonal imbalance. It isn’t just about weight, either. Exercise can help regulate our metabolism, and it has an effect on how much cortisol is released in our bodies.

Hormonal issues do cause unwanted weight gain, though. In fact, losing weight has been shown to improve hormonal conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome and erectile dysfunction, while studies found that insulin sensitivity issues improve with regular exercise. Even walking regularly has been shown to make a difference.

But how does exercise benefit us? “Exercise will increase AMPK activity that has significant benefits on gene transcription factors which control metabolism and tissue repair, while stress management and improved sleep will decrease excess cortisol levels,” Dr. Sears says.

AMPK activity stands for “adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase.” This is an enzyme that helps our bodies maintain healthy energy levels—a beneficial boost for anyone feeling sluggish and fatigued from hormone imbalance.

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