A survey commissioned by Dr. Anna Cabeca, author of The Hormone Fix, found that 43% of women say hormones have negatively affected their well-being, with 72% of women not understanding the cause of their hormonal imbalance. Despite its prevalence, many women don’t know what a hormone imbalance really means, how it may affect them, and how to treat it. Men also experience hormone imbalance. Though less prevalent, research has revealed that hormonal imbalances occurs in about 20% of men under 30, 25% of men between 30-39, 40% of men between 40-49, 60% of men between 50-59, and 80% of men between 60 and 69 years.
Before we unpack what a hormone imbalance means, it is important to understand what hormones are. Hormones naturally occur in the body and act as messengers, traveling through the bloodstream to organs and tissues. They are involved in several bodily processes, including reproduction, metabolism, mood, growth and development, and sexual function. Our endocrine glands include the pineal, thymus, pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands, as well as the pancreas. Hormones are incredibly powerful and have a significant impact on our body and well-being. Just a slight change in hormone levels can cause substantial changes in how we feel and how our body functions.
Hormones are involved in chain reactions. They trigger other hormones or organs to act in one of two ways. One way hormones do this is by releasing a specific hormone that stimulates another gland to change its hormone levels by increasing or decreasing the hormone it releases. For example, the pituitary gland will release a hormone called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which will then trigger the thyroid to release hormones. Your hormones also communicate directly with organs. For example, your pancreas will release insulin which directly communicates with your liver and muscles to process glucose.
A hormone imbalance is precisely how it sounds – you have either too much or too little of a hormone. Healthline describes it as a cake recipe. Too much or too little of just one ingredient will through the entire recipe off. Although it is normal to have some fluctuations over your life, like during menopause, an on-going hormonal imbalance can make you experience unpleasant symptoms.
In both men and women, hormone imbalances show up as similar symptoms such as:
- Fat between the shoulders
- Weight gain
- Joint pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Increased hunger
- Frequent urination
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Decreased sex drive
- Thinning hair
- Dry or oily skin
- Hot flashes
- Muscle weakness
- Sudden, unexplained weight loss
- Increased or lowered heart rate
Just as there are many symptoms of hormonal imbalance, there are also plenty of reasons it could be happening. It may be a hormone-related issue or another underlying medical condition. For example, a hormone imbalance could be triggered by medication, chemotherapy, tumors or cancer, stress, injury, or an eating disorder. Additionally, a condition that is initially caused by a hormonal imbalance can result in additional imbalances. This is often seen with diabetes, hypothyroidism, Cushing syndrome, Addison’s disease, or thyroiditis.
Let’s look at an example. A common symptom of a hormone imbalance is weight gain or weight loss. Although fluctuations in weight are expected, a significant sway in one way without substantial changes in your lifestyle can be a sign of an imbalance. Typically, when men experience hormonal weight gain, it is caused by heightened cortisol levels. This causes the body to induce the production of fat cells and slow the metabolism. In women, it can be caused by decreasing estradiol. Hormonal weight gain can also be caused by health conditions such as PCOS, androgen imbalance, growth hormone deficiency, leptin resistance, prolactin excess, or estrogen dominance.
Although you may have a number of the symptoms listed above, the only accurate way to know if you have a hormone imbalance is to get tested. The test you receive will depend on your symptoms and the imbalance in question. In many cases, a blood test can determine if you have a hormone imbalance.
Treating a Hormone Imbalance
To treat a hormone imbalance, you need to address the underlying cause. For example, suppose your hormone levels are irregular because of increased stress. In that case, you could try and reduce stress levels by meditating on a meditation pillow once a day or speaking with a mental health professional. When the imbalance is caused by another health condition, such as a benign tumor like an adrenal or pituitary adenoma, that will need to be addressed through medical intervention.
Research has revealed that a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet can also cause a hormone imbalance and that you may be able to balance your hormones through a healthy diet, exercise, and quality sleep. When it comes to diet, having an adequate amount of protein will help your body produce peptide hormones that play a critical role in metabolism, reproduction, and appetite. In addition to upping your protein, you should lower your sugar intake. Sugar fructose, which is found in many forms of sugar, including table sugar, honey, and high fructose corn syrup, is not suitable for hormone balance. Studies have shown that long-term fructose intake is linked to a disruption in the gut microbiome that can lead to a hormonal imbalance. It has also been found to reduce the production of the hormone leptin, which is what gives us the full feeling after we eat. This leads to increased weight gain as well as decreased calorie burning.
A diet high in healthy fats and fiber can reduce insulin resistance. For example, omega-3s increase insulin sensitivity by reducing pro-inflammatory markers and inflammation and preventing cortisol levels from rising. Another healthy fat called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) is unlikely to promote insulin resistance and is taken up by the liver for use as energy. Fiber also increases insulin sensitivity and stimulates fullness hormones.
In addition to a diet low in sugar and high in healthy fats and fiber, engaging in regular exercise will contribute to hormonal balance. For example, studies have found that exercise is able to increase insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin levels. In addition, when you are regularly active, you can also increase hormones that naturally decline with age, such as DHEA, human growth hormone (HGH), IGF-1, and testosterone.
Lastly, by consistently getting high-quality sleep, you can help maintain balance. Even with a perfect diet, low-stress lifestyle, and regular exercise, your health will be at risk without quality sleep. A lack of sleep or poor quality sleep has been linked to hormone imbalances, specifically imbalances with cortisol, leptin, insulin, ghrelin, and HGH.
The time you spend sleeping on your shredded latex pillow each night will affect your hormones. When you are sleep-deprived, your cortisol levels increase, which can lead to insulin resistance. One study deprived 14 healthy adults of quality sleep for five nights. The study revealed that their insulin sensitivity decreased by 25%! Additional research has shown that sleep deprivation results in reduced leptin levels and increased ghrelin, making you feel hungry and preventing that full feeling. Uninterrupted sleep is also critical for the release of human growth hormone.
There are other options when diet, exercise, or uninterrupted sleep aren’t enough to maintain balance. There are supplements available that can help support hormone balance. One of the most common is a phytonutrient called diindolylmethane (DIM). DIM naturally occurs in cruciferous veggies like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. It is commonly used for female hormone imbalances as it is found to promote estrogen metabolism. Although you get DIM from eating these veggies, you won’t get enough to impact hormone levels which is why the more potent supplement is needed.
Magnesium supplements can balance cortisol and insulin and lower blood sugar. When taken as an oral supplement, magnesium has been found to improve insulin sensitivity. Though present in foods like almonds, avocados, and artichokes, a supplement will provide much more concentrated amounts that are able to impact hormone activity.
When natural remedies don’t work, a physician may prescribe hormone replacement therapy. Hormone replacement therapy is received as an injection or pills and will often increase the hormone you are low in, which is causing the imbalance. For example, if you have hypothyroidism and your thyroid levels are low, you may be prescribed a synthetic thyroid hormone pill. On the other hand, if you have a hormone that is higher than it should be, treatment options may include medication as well as radiation therapy or surgery.
If you are concerned about a hormone imbalance, speak with your primary healthcare provider. They can issue tests or refer you to an endocrinologist. Endocrinologists are specialists in the field of hormones who can diagnose and prescribe treatment for hormone imbalances.