When people hear the word hormone, they often think of testosterone, estrogen, and sometimes progesterone. However, adrenaline, insulin, cortisol, thyroxine, melatonin, glucagon, and leptin are also hormones the body produces and needs to function properly. When the body experiences a hormonal imbalance, you could experience any number of symptoms from weight gain and fatigue to mood swings and digestive problems.
Hormonal imbalances are actually quite common. The symptoms of hormone imbalance can be as mild as slight mood changes to something as serious as full-blown headaches. Similarly, the treatments to balance hormones can be as simple as dietary changes, using essential oils or herbal remedies. Some cases require more intensive therapy such as medications or even surgery.
What are Hormones and How do They Work?
In very simplified terms, hormones act as messengers that influence cellular and organ functions. As with any type of communication or coordination effort, if one component is off, it can affect the entire system.
The endocrine systemis known as the body’s primary regulatory system. Hormones are produced by various endocrine glands.These glands are known as the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, thymus, adrenal glands, thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, pineal gland, kidneys, ovaries, and pancreas.
Each gland in the body produce different hormones, and some fluctuation is to be expected as we encounter various scenarios or different stages in life.
Endocrine glands and the hormones they produce are responsible for the regulation and maintenance of all of the most important body systems. This includes the reproductive systems, growth and development, the body’s energy production and usage, as well as the systems that determine our emotional and physiological response to your environment, stress, and injuries.
Depending on the hormonal imbalance, the results can be minor or outright catastrophic. Your hormones may be out of whack due to an underlying genetic or medical issue, in which case outside intervention is usually needed. However, there may be a behavioral or environmental issue causing problems. The list below details some of the most common causes of hormonal imbalance, and how you can fix them.
1. Insufficient Sleep
Lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your hormones faster than almost anything else. Cortisol, one of the body’s stress hormones, plays a huge role in the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). It’s also only able to reset while you’re sleeping.
Follow the following rules of thumb to take control of your sleep:
- establish a consistent bedtime
- get up at the same time every day
- stay active/exercise several days a week (preferably in the morning)
- avoid caffeine after lunch
- turn off/avoid electronic devices at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime
2. Unhealthy Diet
The most common example here is insulin, a hormone excreted by the pancreas in reaction to carbohydrates. Carbs increase blood glucose levels, and insulin helps bring them back down and allows the glucose to be used for energy.
Eating too many carbohydrates over an extended period of time can lead to insulin resistance. This condition where your body doesn’t respond to insulin like it used to. This leaves your body in a state of hyperglycemia.
Short-term side effects include can include a headache, fatigue, hunger, and blurred vision. Long-term side effects can include organ and tissue damage, nerve damage, vision problems, and kidney damage.
Stress has a direct impact on the body’s cortisol levels (it is the primary stress hormone, after all). Not reducing stress levels will have a similar effect to lack of sleep: cortisol levels remain elevated, resulting in weight gain, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and more. Stress also affects other hormones, such as glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone and prolactin.
Additionally, chronic stress can affect your sex drive, menstrual cycles, and energy levels. All of these are controlled by different endocrine glands.Take the necessary steps to reduce stressin your life as much as possible, even if it’s just for 5-10 minutes at a time. Remember that you can’t take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself first.
Menopause is an instance of a natural and expected hormonal imbalance. That doesn’t make it any less of an inconvenience, though.
Your body’s natural estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels are acting like toddlers on a playground – completely unpredictable and, at times, out of control. Luckily, there are steps you can take to make your transition less disruptive. Talk to your doctor or naturopath for more information.
Pregnancy is probably the best example of a naturally occurring hormonal imbalance. Think about it: a woman is not only growing a baby, but also an entirely new organ (placenta) at the same time.
She will also likely have trouble eating and sleeping at some point, leading to further hormone fluctuations. Look to natural treatmentswhenever possible, and be sure to consult your healthcare provider if you suspect your hormones are too imbalanced.
6. Thyroid Problems
As part of the endocrine system, the thyroid gland excretes hormones that affect your mood, weight, metabolism, and energy levels. An overactive thyroid gland causes the body’s metabolism to skyrocket, resulting in weight loss, irritability, and trouble sleeping, among other things.
An underactive thyroid is much more common and unfortunately has seemingly worse side effects. Side effects of hypothyroidism can include weight gain, fatigue, hair, and skin changes.
Obesity, medically defined by a body mass index of 30 or higher, wreaks absolute havoc on the body’s endocrine system. Regardless of the cause of a person’s weight gain, the hormonal consequences are almost universal:
- increased inflammation as a result of low androgen levels
- lower levels of growth hormone (GH), which leads to further increase in fat tissue
- increased cortisol levels
- thyroid hormone dysfunction
- high leptin levels and corresponding leptin resistance
Gaining muscle, of course, has a much more positive effect on hormone health.
While inflammation can be caused by hormonal imbalance, chronic inflammation can also affect every part of the endocrine system.When inflammation spreads beyond the affected site, it is called systemic inflammation. Uncontrolled systemic inflammation can lead to severe endocrine dysfunction, starting with increased levels of stress hormones.
If not treated and managed, the combination of systemic inflammation and hormonal imbalance starts a domino effect leading to multiple organ dysfunctions.
Toxicity, like inflammation, is a broad term that can refer to any number of factors and causes and subsequently affect any number of endocrine glands. For example, lead toxicity causes severe adverse effects on the hypothalamus and pituitary systems. This results in the disruption of at least seven different hormones, and in the long-term is tied to certain cancers and skeletal disorders.
10. Gut Issues
The impact of the digestive system on endocrine (and overall) health and wellness cannot be overstated.
Any significant digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and/or gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) will have an effect on the endocrine system and your hormones.
For that matter, chronic yet mild digestive problems can also impact hormone production and effectiveness.
It’s a two-way street: hormonal imbalance can also cause digestive distress.