Changes in hormones and hormonal imbalances can impact your health in many ways. Your hormones are essentially the chemical messengers of your body, responsible for telling tissues and organs what to do. Your hormones play a part in controlling everything from reproduction cycles and your metabolism, to potentially even your weight and your mood.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for your hormone levels to be disrupted. Some people are born with conditions which cause a hormonal imbalance, such as PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). For many others, hormonal imbalances or changes in hormones happen as a result of exposure to certain stimuli.
Throughout your life, your hormones and your hormone levels will naturally rise and fall, but these changes in hormones happen more aggressively during certain periods of your life.
Changes in hormones are more likely to happen to people during puberty, pregnancy, or menopause, for example. On a day-to-day basis, everything from the foods you eat and eating behaviours, to your stress level or use of certain medications, can cause fluctuations in your hormone levels.
Because hormones play such a significant role in the way your body and brain function, even the smallest changes in hormones can have a significant impact on your health.
7 Ways Changes in Hormones Influence Your Health
Notably, dozens of medical conditions are caused by hormone issues or changes in hormones. Your body needs a very specific blend of hormones at any given time. Too much or too little causes hormonal imbalances, which can influence your health and your overall well-being.
Chronic and long-term hormonal issues can cause high blood pressure and heart disease (from changes in the stress hormone, cortisol), depression or anxiety (dopamine and serotonin), and even loss of muscle mass (changes in growth hormones). Some of the most common ways hormones influence health include:
1. Weight Gain and Weight Control
Fluctuating hormones can trigger weight gain and weight control issues in a multitude of ways. This has a lot to do with the hormone estrogen. Decreases in estrogen levels can trigger mood changes in some women during the menstrual cycle, prompting them to reach for foods higher in fat and calories, often known as ‘emotional eating’.
Falling estrogen levels also affects levels of leptin – a hormone responsible for inhibiting hunger. Menopause can also lead to significant problems with weight gain, caused by fluctuations in estrogen.
Hypothyroidism, a condition associated with low levels of thyroid hormones, causes the metabolism to slow down. This means you process the food you eat more slowly, even if you’re not eating more than usual, leading to weight gain.
Cushing’s syndrome, a condition in which the body produces more cortisol, can lead to rapid weight gain in certain parts of your body, such as your face, neck, and chest.
2. Anxiety and Depression
Hormonal imbalances often have a serious impact on our emotions. For women, estrogen and progesterone have a significant impact on mood. Post-menopausal women often experience mood changes due to shifts in these hormone levels. Men with lower levels of testosterone can also suffer from instances of depression, anxiety, and fatigue.
If you have hyperthyroidism, this means your body has too much thyroid hormone, speeding up your metabolism. This can cause nervousness, anxiety, irritability, and restlessness. Excess cortisol, caused by periods of stress, could also increase your levels of negative emotions including anxiety and depression.
Issues with levels of dopamine in the brain can also lead to depression. Dopamine is a major player in the brain’s reward system, responsible for creating feelings of pleasure. People with low levels of dopamine, as well as imbalances in their serotonin levels, are more likely to experience depression. Depression medications help to rebalance these hormones, among other medications.
3. Fertility Problems
Several hormones are involved when it comes to a person’s fertility. Lack of testosterone in a man can lead to problems with fertility and sperm count. Problems with estrogen levels in a woman can lead to irregular menstruation, and may make it more difficult to conceive.
Some people with conditions caused by hormone imbalance, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), are more likely to struggle with fertility. With PCOS, the hormonal imbalance in your system interferes with ovulation, and women can’t get pregnant if they’re not ovulating.
Prescription medications are available to stimulate ovulation and increase your chances of becoming pregnant, however. When you become pregnant, hormonal imbalances can also lead to a higher rate of complications during pregnancy. Women with PCOS are at a higher risk of experiencing:
- Gestational diabetes
- High birth weight
4. Acne and skin problems
Have you ever noticed you’re more likely to struggle with acne during periods of stress? Stress, created by high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, can contribute to an increased risk of breakouts. Cortisol and other stress hormones lead to an increase in oil production in the skin.
Stress hormones can also disrupt levels of hormones responsible for regulating sebum production. This means the pores in your skin are more likely to become blocked. Various forms of hormone imbalances can lead to issues with sebum production, including changes in the levels of estrogen and testosterone in people going through puberty.
Estrogen and testosterone are commonly involved in the onset of “hormonal acne”, or “adult acne”. During pregnancy, menopause, or testosterone therapy, the shift in your sex hormones change the way your skin cells work. Some doctors even prescribe anti-androgen medications and birth control pills to assist with hormonal acne.
Skin problems could also be due to genetic skin conditions. Read your genetic skin profile from CircleDNA for DNA insights about your skin.
5. Hair Loss
Aside from influencing your skin from a sebum production perspective, changes in hormones can also influence the skin cells lining hair follicles, causing issues with hair loss and hair thinning. The sex hormone Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is heavily involved in the hair growth cycle.
High levels of androgens such as DHT can shrink your hair follicles and shorten the hair growth cycle. This causes hair to fall out, and new hair to grow in looking thinner and more brittle. Male pattern hair loss is often linked to reduced androgen levels too. This form of hair loss often causes issues particularly in the front and crown of the head.
Harvard researchers have also suggested that chronic stress, and hormones such as cortisol associated with stress, can also lead to hair loss. Chronic stress impairs hair follicle stems and stops hair from growing according to the standard hair growth cycle.
Hormonal changes can cause temporary hair loss. It’s actually quite common for women to experience hair loss during pregnancy, childbirth, and the onset of menopause. This is a result of changes in sex hormone levels.
6. Problems with Concentration
Research has found that various hormones can have an impact on focus and concentration. In women, the female hormone estrogen plays a significant role in cognition, assisting with processing information and remembering words. Memory and information processing can therefore be influenced when a woman is in the midst of their menstrual cycle.
Women in perimenopause and post-menopause women also tend to report more complaints with difficulty concentrating and memory than pre-menopausal women. Hypothyroidism is also connected with a reduced volume in the hippocampus.
Lower thyroid levels could therefore lead to a range of cognitive issues, including trouble concentrating and “brain fog”.
7. Cancer and Diseases
The significant impact hormones have on our bodily functions can unfortunately result in various chronic diseases that can occur as a result of a hormonal imbalance. The most common endocrine (hormone-focused) condition in the United States is diabetes. For people with diabetes, the pancreas fails to make enough of a hormone called insulin, or the body doesn’t use it correctly.
Other potential diseases which can result from hormonal imbalances include:
- Heart disease: Insulin issues, high levels of certain hormones, such as cortisol, and even estrogen levels can all increase your risk of heart problems. The hormones influence many parts of the cardiovascular system, including managing heart and blood vessels. Hormone fluctuations can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and an increased risk of heart attack.
- Sleeping conditions: Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland to assist with the regulation of the sleep/wake cycle, among other processes. Without enough melatonin in your system, you might struggle to fall asleep at night, leading to insomnia. Hormones can also lead to issues with obstructive sleep apnea.
- Cancer: Studies indicate that a woman’s risk of breast cancer is linked to the levels of estrogen and progesterone made by the ovaries. Hormones control how and when cells multiply, and changes in hormones can interfere with this process, causing various cancers. Hormonal imbalances have also been linked to endometrial cancer.
Other Issues Caused by Hormonal Imbalances
Hormonal imbalances are complex. There are a range of hormones in the human body responsible for various processes, and an imbalance in any of them can lead to various issues, such as:
- GI disturbances: Hormonal fluctuations or imbalance can impact the speed food moves through the intestines, causing diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pains.
- Fatigue: Low thyroid hormone levels are commonly associated with a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue, and trouble concentrating.
- Mood swings: Changes to estrogen and testosterone can also influence serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, causing mood swings and irritability.
- Headaches: A decrease in estrogen levels in women during menstrual cycles, or during the post-menopausal period has been linked to an increased risk of migraines and headaches.
- Sex drive: Low levels of testosterone are a common cause of low libido and sex drive. Low levels of estrogen can also lead to vaginal dryness, which also causes issues with sex drive.
How to Overcome Hormonal Imbalances
The first step in treating a hormonal imbalance is understanding what’s causing it. If you’re suffering from temporary changes in hormones due to an increase in stress, for instance, the best solution is to find ways to reduce stress, and practice relaxation techniques.
If you have lower-than-normal hormone levels consistently, the main treatment will usually be hormone replacement therapy. Depending on which hormone level is low, you may need to take pills or injections to rebalance your hormone levels. For instance, a low dose of estrogen is a common treatment for people going through menopause. Thyroid hormone pills can also help people with hypothyroidism.
Other treatments for hormonal issues include:
Natural supplements can help some people to manage the issues caused by hormone imbalances. Evening primrose oil is a common treatment for irritability caused by menopause, while ginseng is often recommended for irritability and anxiousness.
Many of these supplements contain plant-derived hormones, or ‘bioidentical hormones’, which chemically resemble the body’s natural hormones. However, there isn’t any research available to suggest these supplements will be effective for everyone.
Dr. Natasha Turner is well known for championing the “hormone diet”. This is a three-step, 6-week process designed to promote hormonal balance through exercise, detoxification, and supplementation. The process regulates what you eat, and the right time to eat to support healthy hormone levels.
According to the author, the hormone diet can help with re-balancing hormones when combined with other lifestyle changes, such as managing stress, sleeping well, and exercising regularly.
Many lifestyle changes can assist with balancing your hormones. For instance, if you’re exposed to regular periods of stress which increase your cortisol levels, you could try practicing yoga to relax, and reduce your exposure to stress triggers. This could involve walking away from toxic relationships, or changing careers if your job is too stressful.
Losing weight can often be a good way to rebalance hormones, however hormonal imbalances can also contribute to struggles losing weight.
Managing Your Hormones
Your hormones play a significant role in how you think and feel, as well as how your body operates. Learning how your hormones work, as well as what you can do to get them back into balance is a fantastic way to boost your well-being.