Hormones are chemical messengers in the body that control and influence metabolism, reproduction and other central functions.
Hormone imbalance is when your body produces too much or too little of a given hormone.
Reproduction relies on a carefully choreographed mix of hormones being secreted in sequence each month during the menstrual cycle, so even a small change can affect the process.
There are hormone receptors all over our bodies: from our brains to our ovaries.
As well as being involved in every part of our bodies, hormones are also highly interactive so a disturbance to any hormone in the body can have a knock on effect to others, including reproductive hormones.
The first hormones that usually become imbalanced are cortisol and insulin — the “stress” and “blood sugar” hormones.
These hormones have a knock-on domino effect on our thyroid, sleep and ovarian hormones because they can disrupt how thyroid hormones, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and melatonin work in the body.
Two hormones, follicle stimulating hormones (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), are secreted by the pituitary gland and stimulate the ovaries - they are part of a group of hormones called gonadotropins.
FSH signals to the ovaries to mature an egg, until a surge of LH triggers ovulation.
The LH surge sets off a chain reaction that release progesterone and estradiol to thicken and prepare the uterus lining in anticipation of pregnancy.
If a viable sperm meets a mature, good quality egg and it implants in the endometrium, another hormone called hCG is produced (this is what pregnancy tests measure, as this hormone is only present during pregnancy.)
Hormones are one of the first things that should be checked if you are experiencing problems conceiving, as they are so central to the entire reproductive cycle.
Sometimes doctors will stimulate your system with LH, FSH or progesterone to give it a helping hand to create the optimal environment needed for pregnancy.
Symptoms of disrupted hormones
Fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold and hot, changes in bowel movements, dry skin, a puffy face, weight changes, urinary incontinence, brain fog and even memory loss can be symptoms of imbalanced hormones.
Dysregulated cortisol or insulin (or both) may be implicated if you have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night, if you struggle to get out of bed even after seven to nine hours of sleep and you need caffeine just to get going in the morning.
Excessive energy crashes and 'hanger' can also suggest imbalance.
Causes of hormonal imbalance
Many factors (both internal and external) can throw hormone balance off, including weight loss or gain, stress, injury, medications, chemical exposures and tumors.
Medical conditions such as diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), thyroid problems, as well as Addison's disease and Cushing syndrome (high levels of cortisol) are linked to hormone imbalance.
But in most people it’s more likely to be stress, thyroid issues, some nutritional deficiencies, poor eating habits, being under or overweight, eating disorders, hormonal birth control, drug abuse, infections, allergies, autoimmune disorders and exposure to toxins, pollutants and pesticides.
In other words, many things that we have some control over.
The good news is that hormone levels can be checked by your doctor with a simple blood draw and there are some lifestyle changes you can adopt (see below).
Significant fluctuations in body weight
Both extreme or rapid weight loss and weight gain can cause menstrual cycle irregularities and even delay or prevent ovulation.
Losing a lot of body fat can lead to a reduction in the estrogen and LH, whereas gaining weight can lead to lead to a state known as 'estrogen dominance' where the body produces and stores high amounts of estrogen.
Both high estrogen AND low estogen cause problems in our bodies.
Signs of estrogen dominance in women can include:
Changes in sex drive
High levels of estrogen can ALSO lead to weight gain particularly around the hips and waist.
On the flipside, if you body is not producing enough estrogen this is sometimes known as 'progesterone dominance.'
Athletes, dancers and gymnasts are at risk of low estrogen, as is any woman with low body fat.
Estogen levels also fall at menopause, and even during perimenopause, the natural period of transition, usually between age 40 and 55.
Still, women of all ages could develop low estrogen, and experience symptoms like:
An increase in UTIs
Irregular or missing periods
Painful sex due to lack of vaginal lubrication
Low estrogen can also result in weight gain, because the hormone regulates glucose and fat metabolism.
When the "stress response" is activated in our bodies, levels of cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenalin, neurotensin and DHEA react.
This can impact the effects of LH, estrogen and progesterone, which can in turn suppress the signals needed to stimulate ovulation.
Thyroid problems can cause irregular periods and other menstrual cycle changes.
An underactive thyroid may cause irregular cycles and heavier periods; meanwhile when thyroid hormones are overactive someone may not get a period at all.
How common are imbalances?
Our bodies have an amazing internal regulating system called homeostasis. The theory goes that if you leave the body alone it will harmonize to it’s own best rhythm.
That’s not the case for all of us though, thanks in part to some genetic or physiological conditions - and because of the increased environmental toxin load we’re all living with in our modern, busy, post-industrial lives.
Many of us knowingly or unknowingly suffer with imbalances: a survey of 2,000 American women, aged 30 to 60, also found that nearly half have experienced symptoms of a hormonal imbalance.
One of the most common hormone imbalances that can cause fertility issues is polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. It affects at least 1 in 10 of us - maybe 1 in 5 by some measures.
How to naturally balance hormones
Hormone ups and downs are a fact of life, but you shouldn't have to put up with uncomfortable or unwelcome side effects of extreme fluctuations.
While doctors may prescribe medications for diagnosed hormone disorders or for specific times in life such as menopause, there are many things you can do naturally to encourage hormone balance.
Some lifestyle modifications are known to be effective.
10 Tips for Promoting Natural Hormone Balance
1. Eat protein with every meal
To optimize hormone health, experts recommend consuming a minimum of 20–30 grams of protein per meal.
Not only can this this can help you feel satisfied and decrease levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin, which will help you manage your blood sugar level and avoid weight fluctuations - but also the body needs amino acids in proteins to make hormones.
2. Avoid hormone havoc white carbs and sugar
Sugars and refined carbs cause havoc to your hormones -- they mess with your insulin and in turn that messes with your levels of reproductive hormones.
Remember, they’re all connected like a big string of dominoes.
Some people also advocate avoiding soy, because it contains phytoestrogens that mimic estrogen in your body.
Generally, experts say it’s ok in moderation, but maybe skip the soy if you’re experiencing symptoms of high estrogen or you think you might be entering perimenopause.
3. Go easy on the alcohol
Alcohol interferes with your hormones because it messes with your body’s production of antidiuretic hormone, which causes you to release more urine and you risk becoming dehydrated.
This may elevate estrogen levels as your preoccupied liver is busy processing the alcohol and can’t get on with it’s normal job of eliminating excess estrogen.
This can trigger heavier, longer periods.
4. Eat more hormone hero foods
Some foods have a beneficial affect on hormones:
Turmeric - a phenomenal anti-inflammatory agent
Avocado - which contains beta-sitosterol, which naturally reduces cortisol
Dark leafy greens - they help fight inflammation and lower cortisol
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, asparagus, kale, spinach and sprouts) - they can help keep estrogen at a healthy level
Eggs -- they have been shown to lower levels of insulin and the hunger hormone ghrelin.
4. Drink green tea
Research suggests it may increase insulin sensitivity and lower insulin levels.
Try to replace some of your daily coffee, if you drink it, with green tea.
5. Heal your gut
An unhealthy gut can wreak havoc on your digestive system and cause hormonal problems.
Add in fermented foods such as sauerkraut or kefir, high-fibre foods like leafy greens, and even good old plain yogurt.
6. Get enough sleep
Many hormones are synthesized during rest.
7. Consider supplements
There seems to be a link between Vitamin D3 and hormone imbalances, though it’s not well understood yet.
Vitamin D can also help play a part in regulating insulin and the thyroid hormone. Vitamin B6 has been shown to help alleviate some of the symptoms of (PMS) and Vitamin E has been shown to help with hot flashes and night sweats, as well as lowering inflammation and reducing stress.
You should find these in a good quality prenatal vitamin.
If you have PCOS, you may also want to check out the supplement Inositol which has shown notable results in reducing insulin/testosterone and LH and increases the testosterone carrier SHBG.
Few natural supplements that claim to 'treat' hormone imbalances are backed by scientific evidence (though green tea may be beneficial).
Some people like to introduced adaptogenic herbs - specifcally maca and ashwagandha. Adaptogens are plant medicines that have shown a clinical ability to help the body rebalance itself.
Essentially, they can help you manage stress, reduce inflammation and balance hormones.
They work by regulating the sympathetic nervous system and reducing the impact of stress on the body.
Over the long term, heightened levels of cortisol and other stress hormones can wreak havoc on your health, leading to heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and autoimmune conditions.
Maca is a plant sterol said to restore balance to overworked adrenal glands and improve hormonal imbalance symptoms.
Ashwagandha has shown evidence of lowering serum cortisol levels in the blood in humans by as much as 30% after 60 days.
Remember to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before taking any supplements or herbs.
8. Eat more fiber
This helps to flush out excess hormones, as does with staying well hydrated!
9. Keep your body moving
Exercise has been shown to have a beneficial affect on hormone balance.
10. Try yoga or meditation
Studies have shown these calming practices have benefits on stress hormones and the central nervous system.