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When people think of hormones and hormonal imbalances, one of the first things that might come to mind is menopause. The hot flashes, weight gain, and irritability are stereotypical symptoms.
But women aren’t the only ones suffering from hormonal fluctuations. Men and children can also have hormonal issues. Babies can even be born with a hormonal imbalance passed to them through the placenta!
Let’s take a look at how hormones work, what can throw them off balance, and some surprising tell-tale signs of a hormonal imbalance.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are powerful chemical messengers that travel through your bloodstream. These chemicals reach your tissues and organs and give them instructions.
When hormones arrive at their target cell, they “talk” to the cell’s receptors, proteins located either inside a cell or on its surface. The hormone and protein form a bond that allows information to be communicated to the cell. For example, one hormone might send a signal to your brain that you’re full, while another might regulate your mood.
Hormones can affect many of your body’s functions, including:
- Body temperature
- Growth and development
- Reproduction and reproductive health
- Sexual function
- Sleep cycles
Some hormones, such as insulin, are dedicated to one specific task—in this case, the regulation of blood sugar. Other hormones might play a role in several bodily functions. Estrogen, for example, is responsible for the development of female characteristics such as breasts and wide hips, and it also helps in the development of strong bones.
Where Are Hormones Produced?
Hormones are a product of your endocrine system. More specifically, they are produced by the endocrine glands which include:
Your stomach, intestines, and heart also produce some hormones. However, since that’s not their primary function, they aren’t considered to be part of the endocrine system.
How Hormones Communicate
Hormones communicate in one of two ways.
From One Endocrine Gland to Another
Some hormones transmit communications from one endocrine gland to another. The first gland produces a hormone. That hormone then travels to another gland. The second gland receives instructions telling it to adjust the level of the hormones that it’s producing.
This gland-to-gland communication can be seen in action with the pituitary gland. This gland produces a hormone that travels to the testes or ovaries and stimulates them to produce estrogen and testosterone.
From an Endocrine Gland to Target Cells
Other hormones convey instructions from the endocrine glands to the target cells. One great example of this is insulin. The pancreas (gland) releases insulin (hormone) which instructs muscles and fat (target cells) to absorb glucose.
Different hormones communicate and elicit responses at different speeds. Estrogen, for example, works slowly when it comes to the development of the female body. It’s a process that takes time. By contrast, adrenaline will receive a response within seconds.
The Most Common Hormones
The human body produces roughly 50 types of hormones. For the most part, you won’t even notice the day-to-day functioning of your hormones, unless of course something goes wrong!
All hormones are important, because they keep your body functioning in an optimal state. However, some of them are used more than others in our everyday activities.
Here are the most common hormones in the human body and their functions:
- Adrenaline: Helps the body respond to stress or perceived threats and regulates the “fight or flight” response.
- Cortisol: This is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland. It helps control metabolism and immune response. It also plays an active role in the body’s response to stress. If your cortisol levels are too high it can lead to an anxiety disorder from the increased hormonal stress response.
- Estrogen: In women, it promotes feminine traits (such as breasts) and prepares the body for reproduction as this is the hormone most responsible for ovulation and PMS. In men, it helps develop sperm and maintain a healthy sex drive.
- Ghrelin: Alerts your body when it’s time to eat
- Insulin: Regulates sugar and moves it into the bloodstream, where it can be used as fuel.
- Leptin: Tells your body when it’s full
- Melatonin: Helps regulate your sleep cycles
- Progesterone: Regulates menstrual cycles and supports the early stages of pregnancy
- Testosterone: Typically known as the male hormone, but it can be found in women too. In males, it promotes masculine traits such as a deeper voice, body hair, and muscular development. In women, it also promotes muscle strength and body hair, such as armpit hair.
- Thyroxine (thyroid): Promotes growth of the brain, bone, and muscle. It also helps regulate the heart, digestive tract, and weight gain or loss.
What is Hormone Imbalance
When your endocrine glands aren’t functioning properly, they will make either too much or too little of a hormone your body needs. Because they are so powerful, even a slight fluctuation in hormone levels will have significant developmental and biological consequences.
An imbalance in either direction can lead to disease or illness. A prime example of this is how insulin levels can affect diabetes. An insulin deficiency, where your body is producing little or none of this essential hormone, will lead to Type 1 Diabetes.
A common women’s health issue related to hormonal imbalance is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This is a more serious indication of low levels of estrogen and higher levels of androgen hormones (testosterone and/or androstenedione). This condition affects women of reproductive age. It causes small cysts in the ovaries and irregular periods, often leading to skipped periods entirely, making it hard for the affected woman to get pregnant.
Other serious medical conditions related to hormonal imbalance are hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). These conditions are brought about by the body producing too much or too little thyroid hormone and are typically related to autoimmune disease. Hypothyroidism is usually linked to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and hyperthyroidism is typically linked to Grave’s disease. Both conditions slow down the metabolism which can cause obesity. While women are more likely to get either thyroid condition, men can be affected as well.
Causes of Hormonal Imbalance
Hormone imbalances can occur naturally. The most common causes include stress, aging, diseases, and genetics.
But your hormones can also be thrown off by hormone disruptors, sometimes called hormone mimics or endocrine disruptors. These imposters are similar enough to real hormones that, when they arrive at a cell, the cellular receptor will read their information and respond.
Hormone disruptors function in several ways:
- Activating a cellular response where none is needed
- Activating a cellular response but at a lower level than desirable
- Limiting a necessary cellular response
All About Hormone Disruptors
Hormone disruptors occur all around you, and you can ingest them without even knowing just by eating, drinking, and breathing. You can even absorb them through your skin!
Hormone disruptors are most often found in chemicals. BPA (in plastics) and DDE (in pesticides) are two of the most common hormone disruptors.
They can also occur in nature. Examples include soybeans and fungi. But here’s the tricky part: foods that aren’t truly hormone disruptors can become contaminated through water, pesticides, run-offs, and other means. Foods that should be “clean” may actually be full of chemicals, such as fruit that has been sprayed with pesticides.
Other than food, some of the most common (yet unexpected) places where hormone disruptors can be found include:
- Flame retardants, including those used in carpeting
- Laundry detergents
- Liners of metal food cans
- Personal care items
- Plastic bottles and containers
Many of these environmental disruptors are slow to break down. This makes them particularly dangerous, since they remain present and hazardous for a potentially long time.
An Example of How Hormone Disruptors Work
One of the most common natural hormone disruptors is soy. Soy molecules resemble estrogen closely enough that a cellular receptor can be confused into thinking that it received a legitimate estrogen signal.
In response, levels of estrogen will fluctuate and the body will slowly start to produce more feminine traits, such as wider hips and fuller breasts. In young girls, this can lead to early puberty. This can also occur in males, who will then start developing more feminine physical traits. Too much estrogen can be especially dangerous as high estrogen levels are a high risk factor of breast cancer.
However, not all soy and soy products are equal and there are several factors which can influence how it affects the human body including ethnicity, age, health status, existing hormone levels, the presence or absence of specific gut microflora, and the type of soy.
Other estrogen level disruptors (such as fungicides) will have the opposite effect. They will mimic estrogen closely enough to fool the receptors, but will send a weaker signal. The body will react, but not effectively. This can result in things like delayed puberty in young girls.
And this is a double-whammy effect. Not only does the estrogen disruptor produce a less effective reaction, it also blocks the cellular receptor. That means that if a legitimate estrogen hormone makes its way to the cell, it would be unable to communicate with it.
Symptoms of Hormone Imbalance
With so many different hormones in your body, symptoms can vary greatly. They can range from something as simple (and obvious) as weight fluctuations to something as difficult to notice as brittle bones.
That said, here are some of the most common symptoms of a hormonal imbalance:
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss or gain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Dry skin or skin rashes
- Irritability, anxiety, or depression
- Reduced sex drive (a tell-tale sign of low testosterone levels for men or women)
- Thinning, brittle hair
- Changes in blood pressure
- Changes in blood sugar levels
- Increased thirst
- Changes in appetite
- Increased or decreased heart rate
- Constipation and bloating
- Higher cholesterol
- Brittle bones (osteoporosis)
If you notice any of these signs of hormonal imbalance , you should make an appointment with your doctor to investigate your hormone health.
How to Diagnose a Hormonal Imbalance
If you or your healthcare provider suspect that you might have a hormonal imbalance, they will run laboratory tests to confirm it. These will include saliva, urine, and blood tests which will measure your hormone levels. Some hormonal imbalance signs, such as acne, are clearly visible and can be diagnosed by appearance. Laboratory tests will verify the diagnosis and measure the level of imbalance present.
One of the most common hormone tests can actually be bought at the grocery store! It’s a pregnancy test, which measures the amount of pregnancy hormones in your urine.
Treating Hormonal Imbalances
If your test results show that a hormonal imbalance is present, it can usually be addressed with medication. As an example, a hormone deficiency can be treated with a synthetic hormone. In the case of excess hormones, you can take medication to counteract and curb the effects.
In more serious cases of hormonal dysfunction in women, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is used to balance hormones, especially estrogen deficiency, after menopause.
Ideally, though, you and your medical provider will also work to find the cause of your hormonal imbalance. So instead of treating hormone imbalance symptoms, you can eliminate the root cause. Sometimes all it takes is incorporating healthy lifestyle changes, including:
- Reducing stress, through meditation or other means
- Choosing more nutritious foods, especially those lower in sugar
- Changing medications such as birth-control pills
- Losing weight through a healthier diet and moderate exercise
- Adopting a more consistent sleep schedule
You might also be exposing yourself and your loved ones to environmental toxins that act as hormone disruptors: plastics BPA, smoke from burning waste, flame retardant materials in flooring or furniture, and so forth. Your doctor can help you narrow down the possibilities so you can eliminate these from your household.
Women and Hormones
Because of the many changes a woman’s body goes through, they are particularly susceptible to hormone imbalances. In fact, most women experience several hormonal changes during their lifetime including:
At these times, the hormones that most affect women are estrogen and progesterone, the female sex hormones. This is such a common occurrence that studies show up to 80% of women suffer from hormonal imbalances.
Some symptoms include:
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Night sweats and hot flashes
- Unexplained weight gain
- Hair loss or unwanted hair growth
- Pelvic pain
- Cold extremities
- Severe Premenstrual Symptoms (PMS)
- Heavy menstrual periods
- Breast discharge (when not pregnant or breastfeeding)
- Sleep problems
- Digestive issues
- Mood swings/depression
- Loss of libido
- Vaginal dryness
Women often dismiss these symptoms as part of their monthly menstrual cycle, but they could also be caused by treatable hormonal imbalances. Any of these should be discussed with a doctor.
Hormones are powerful chemicals. Even a minimal deficiency or excess can wreak havoc on your body mentally, emotionally, and physically. And while hormonal imbalances affect both genders at all ages, women are especially susceptible.
If you suspect you have a hormonal imbalance, don’t suffer in silence! Go see your doctor for a proper diagnosis. With lifestyle changes and medication, you can return to optimal hormone levels.
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