So you’ve been feeling a little off. Nothing major, but you’ve been gradually losing sleep, gaining weight, or simply put, just not feeling like yourself. And maybe you’ve brushed off these feelings, laying the blame on a busy schedule and not enough hours in the day. But it’s possible, too, that a hormonal imbalance might be the culprit—and restoring your out-of-whack hormones could be the only way to start feeling better fast.
By Alexandra Hruz
What are hormones –and how do they get off balance?
If it’s been awhile since your high school biology class, you may need to brush-up on your knowledge about hormones and how they affect your body. Hormones are a tricky part of your body’s makeup. Released by the endocrine glands (like the pituitary, pineal, thymus, thyroid, and pancreas), they are essential in keeping your body balanced.
As your body’s chemical messengers, hormones travel in your bloodstream to tissues and organs where they affect many different processes, including growth and development, metabolism, and your mood. Although they work slowly, over time, they affect the brain, heart, bones, and muscles, and act as regulators of the activity of cells and tissues throughout the body. That’s why the balance of hormones is so critical to your health and well-being.
In addition to the hormones released by the major endocrine glands, sex hormones are also produced in the body, with women producing hormones in their ovaries and men producing hormones in their testes. Hormones may seem like a small part of what makes your body tick, but they are powerful. Too much or too little of a certain hormone can mean serious issues for your health. Sex hormones (including estrogen and testosterone) and other hormones (like thyroid-stimulating hormone and stress hormone cortisol) create powerful effects throughout a person’s entire life.
Hormones help the body function properly. With that in mind, what triggers them to get out of sync? A variety of issues – age, medications, certain medical conditions, stress, poor eating habits, lack of sleep, and a sedentary lifestyle – can lead to a disruption of hormones, which may lead to more serious health problems.
What happens when hormones aren’t in sync?
When your hormones are out of balance, your health and sense of well-being can deteriorate. If you’ve experienced any of these side effects, symptoms, or conditions, it may be related to a hormonal imbalance.
Appetite change. There are two major “hunger hormones”: ghrelin, an appetite increaser which signals feelings of hunger to your brain, and leptin, the appetite suppresser which sends signals to the brain about how full you are. Understandably, when these hormones are skewed, it may cause you to change your eating habits.
Fatigue. If you’re constantly plagued by low energy, it’s possible you may be suffering from abnormal blood levels of hormones produced in the hypothalamus, pituitary glands, or adrenal glands.Chronic fatigue can also be a symptom of low thyroid levels (the hormones T3 and T4).
Weight gain. Many people struggle to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise, but there might be underlying hormone issues – such as high estrogen, low testosterone, low DHEA, high insulin, and high cortisol – causing excess pounds to accumulate on the body, especially on the belly.
Infertility. Luteinizing hormone (LH),
follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), estrogen, and progesterone are all essential hormones for a women’s reproductive health, and they can affect a woman’s fertility if they are out of
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). If a woman has experienced irregular periods, acne, ovarian cysts, abnormal hair growth, and/or male-pattern baldness, she should schedule an appointment to see a doctor. These symptoms all point toward PCOS, a hormonal condition that is the most common cause of female infertility.
Hypothyroidism. This condition occurs when not enough thyroid hormone is released and your metabolic rate decreases, making the body slow down. Symptoms for hypothyroidism (which include fatigue, depression, weight gain, muscles aches, and high cholesterol) are sometimes attributed to other conditions, leading it to be oftentimes undiagnosed.
Hyperthyroidism. Oppositely, when too much thyroid hormone is released into the body, hyperthyroidism occurs. When your metabolism speeds up as a result, it can lead to symptoms like nervousness and irritability, weight loss, insomnia, and changes in appetite.
Cancer. A hormonal imbalance or an overproduction of a particular hormone can sometimes lead to hormone-related cancers, namely breast cancer, endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid cancer, and bone cancer. Always see a doctor if you are concerned about a possible hormone imbalance.
How to Bring Balance Back
While the side effects of a hormonal imbalance can be irksome and troubling, it’s important to understand that there are often solutions for getting your body back on track.
Schedule an appointment. If you think you may be suffering from out-of-whack hormones, it might be time to head to the doctor’s office. A physician can run tests to determine whether further treatments may be needed to find relief. Don’t hesitate to see a doctor if you’re struggling with a suspected hormone imbalance. Excess production of estrogen and testosterone can lead to negative health issues for both men and women, including depression, mood swings, and an increased risk for certain diseases.
Dr. Richard M. Loftis, Jr., an OB-GYN with Associates in Obstetrics and Gynecology, says that if a woman who is menopausal comes in to see a doctor and her symptoms are consistent with age-related hormonal changes, she may not need blood tests – a doctor may be able to make a diagnosis by assessing her symptoms.
However, for younger women who are having atypical symptoms that suggest a hormone condition, a doctor will usually begin trying to find out whether there may be a problem with the ovaries. “To check for that, the most common test done is an FSH level, because FSH (follicle- stimulating hormone) is one of the hormones that helps to control the menstrual cycle and the production of eggs by the ovaries,” he says. “After that, I would also want to screen for diabetes and thyroid disorders, because those are other common conditions that can cause patients to present with bothersome symptoms.
Head to the gym. Exercising daily may help to regulate hormone levels. Try spending a quick 30 minutes walking, biking, swimming, or jogging – this can help combat stress, increase energy, and improve overall quality of life.
Stock a healthy pantry. Nutrition plays a vital role in keeping the body balanced. A diet rich in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids (fish oils, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils), as well as plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, can help you maintain a balanced body. Doctors often suggest eliminating artificial sweeteners from your diet as well as limiting intake of alcohol and caffeine to help keep cortisol levels in check.
It’s not uncommon to hear that if you think you are having hormonal issues, you should cut back on certain foods – like milk or soy – that contain hormones or molecules that lead to hormone-like effects. But Dr. Loftis says most of these associations are only hypothesized – there are no conclusive studies that show certain foods can lead to hormonal issues.
He says that it’s more likely that common symptoms such as weakness and low mood are due to the typical western diet in combination with a lack of exercise. “As our diets have gotten worse and we eat more sugary and fried foods, we tend to end up feeling more drained and that can lead to mood symptoms,” he says. “It’s easy to associate hormones with these symptoms, when really, eating a healthier diet along with the addition of exercise may make a significant difference in symptoms.”
Soothe your stress. When approaching any health issue, it’s important to limit stress and get plenty of rest. A physician might suggest spending time every day resting, reflecting, and doing meditation to reduce stress.
You snooze, you win. A solid night of sawing logs can be the most effective and natural way to reset your hormones. Try and snooze for at least seven to eight hours every night to boost your health and reset your body’s natural circadian rhythm.