Last week, we barely scratched the surface of the topic of hormone imbalance. This week, we’re going to dive in a little deeper to find out how hormone imbalance can affect women in particular.
We already know that hormones are manufactured in the endocrine glands and that they are essentially messengers that make their way through the body telling systems and organs what to do and when to do it. But did you know that men and women have the same hormones? And they function in the same ways. The differences and variations can be found in how they interact and communicate differently within the male and female body.
Here’s a brief rundown of specific hormones and what they do in anybody, taken straight from the Hormone Health Network:
– Estrogen (or estradiol) is the main sex hormone in women. It causes puberty, prepares the body and uterus for pregnancy, and regulates the menstrual cycle. During menopause, estrogen level changes cause many of the uncomfortable symptoms women experience.
– Progesterone is similar to estrogen but is not considered the main sex hormone. Like estrogen, it assists with the menstrual cycle and plays a role in pregnancy.
– Cortisol has been called the “stress hormone” because of the way it assists the body in responding to stress. This is just one of several functions of this important hormone.
– Melatonin levels change throughout the day, increasing after dark to trigger the responses that cause sleep.
– Testosterone is the main sex hormone in men. It causes puberty, increases bone density, triggers facial hair growth, and causes muscle mass growth and strength.
Causes and Symptoms:
When hormones go awry and become imbalanced, you notice. We gave you a broad spectrum of symptoms of hormone imbalance last week, but let’s take a look at what causes imbalances in women. First, we should note that it’s absolutely normal for hormones to fluctuate through a woman’s life. There will be stages in her life such as puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause when hormones will be completely out of whack because simply put, there’s just so much going on that they’re just trying to keep up! Beyond that, however, there are other reasons why hormones might become unbalanced.
– Aging — This one is a no brainer. As a woman ages, her hormone levels will naturally decline. During the menstruating years, the two main hormones that are produced are estrogen and progesterone. The closer she gets to menopause, the more those hormones fluctuate and eventually decline. Dramatically. This drastic decline is what’s responsible for the dreaded hot flashes, weight gain, and trouble sleeping.
– Stress — If a woman is under chronic stress, cortisol (stress hormone) is elevated to a level that slows the total production of all hormones to a snail’s pace, forcing the body to steal from its bank of progesterone, leaving only estrogen in charge. If a woman’s body is dominated by estrogen, it significantly increases her risk of chronic illness, autoimmune disease, and breast cancer.
– Diet and Excercise — Just like stress, eating too many calories of simple carbs and refined sugars can raise cortisol levels. However, you can’t just severely restrict calories. That’s not good either! We know that all calories are not created equal. One study found that reducing calories by 470 a day compared to a baseline caloric need for three months disrupted menstrual cycles in women ages 18-30. Likewise, over-exercising can lead to poor estrogen production which can lead to osteoporosis, infertility, and you guessed it..hot flashes.
– Environmental Toxins — They’re everywhere! Toxic chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system and are called endocrine disruptors for obvious reasons. They’re in everything from pollution to household cleaners to pesticides. Be on the lookout for something called xenoestrogens. They are chemicals that are found in everyday items such as make-up and sunscreen. They’ll show up on ingredients lists as “BHA”, food “preservatives”, “parabens” and “benzophenone”. They are especially dangerous because they can mimic parts of the estrogen compound and may interfere with the actions of natural estrogen. Take a look at the Dirty Dozen Endocrine Disruptors to find out what’s hiding in plain sight.
There are many other causes of hormone imbalances ranging from medical procedures such as full or partial hysterectomy to medical conditions such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and Diabetes Types 1 and 2 to certain cancers affecting the endocrine system. Even something as simple as birth control medicine can cause some serious imbalances. For an extensive list of causes, take a look here.
Although it seems as though hormone imbalance is inevitable at times, there are a few things that you can do, naturally speaking, to curb the symptoms and severity:
Healthy diet — This is an obvious one. Make sure you’re eating a variety of fresh veggies and fruits, lean proteins and healthy fats. Stay away from simple carbs, preservatives, food dyes, and processed foods altogether, Eat whole, fresh, and organic whenever possible. Remember, the longer the shelf life, the worse it is for you. Rest — Again, obvious, right? Try to get the recommended 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Keep a consistent bedtime. Stay off the screens! The “blue light” tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime and your brain won’t produce the melatonin it otherwise would.
Regular Exercise — But don’t overdo it! Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise about four days a week. It helps to keep the blood pumping and your hormones communing.
Peace Out — If stress is starting to rule your life, it’s crucial that you find a way to cultivate peace and relaxation. Try stretching, praying/meditating, or deep breathing exercises. If you can carve out some tie in your day to take 10 minutes for yourself, do it. Even if you can only manage some time for yourself a couple of times a week, that will help. Taking time for yourself is not selfish, it’s essential. Women need to hear that more often. If you have trouble remembering, there are lots of phone apps designed to periodically remind you throughout the day to sit and relax.
Bioidentical Hormones — Unlike the synthetic hormones that traditional hormone replacement therapy uses, bioidentical hormones are a natural way to replace the hormones you may be missing. They are custom designed for your individual needs. These are the “big guns.” of re-balancing and are never the first thing to look into.
Hormones seem like they can literally make and break us. Even though there are natural ebbs and flows and fluctuations, hormone imbalance isn’t something that should take away your quality of life. Listening to your body — and understanding what it’s telling you — can keep you ahead of the game and out of hormonal hell.