If you regularly experience exhaustion, anxiety, brain fog, low sex drive, and weight gain, you may have a hormonal imbalance. But, with over 70 recognized hormones that the human body produces, it can be challenging to figure out which hormone(s) are out of balance.
The endocrine system controls the levels of hormones circulating in the body. And when even one hormone is out of balance, it can cause unpleasant symptoms and even major health problems. Think of hormones as messengers that travel through the bloodstream to deliver marching orders to another gland or organ.
If these messages are not delivered, or appropriately delivered, trouble occurs. While women are thought to have more hormonal issues than men, this really isn’t true. And sadly, this has made it difficult for men to get the diagnosis and treatment they need.
Hormonal imbalances in women can cause infertility, severe premenstrual symptoms, hot flashes, night sweats, osteoporosis, weight gain, and so much more. And hormonal imbalances in men can cause similar symptoms, including weight gain, hair loss, sexual dysfunction, and the loss of muscle mass and strength.
Hormonal imbalances can be triggered by chronic stress, inadequate exercise, an injury, poor nutrition, an infection, or an underlying health condition. However, hormone imbalance tests need to be ordered by your physician. For women, when things feel “out of whack,” hormones are often one of the first causes to be considered. But men may need to be more persistent with their healthcare team and push for hormone testing.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are the chemical messengers that travel via the bloodstream to organs and tissues in the body. These messengers are responsible for regulating functions such as:
- Sexual function
- Sleep cycles
Understanding the Endocrine System
It is essential to understand the endocrine system in order to understand hormone health. The endocrine system is a group of interdependent glands responsible for producing and secreting critical hormones. When one or more of the glands fail to produce the proper levels of hormones, a hormonal imbalance occurs.
The endocrine system is made up of six glands and six organs that produce and release hormones. These include:
- Pituitary gland
- Thyroid gland
- Thymus gland (only active until puberty)
- Pineal gland
- Adrenal glands (2)
- Parathyroid gland (4)
When all of these glands and organs are operating optimally, they release hormones in the right amount, at the right time, and with the right message, into the bloodstream. The efficiency of the endocrine system can be influenced by aging, certain diseases, environment, genetics, and stress.
Here is a quick description of the major players involved in the endocrine system.
The hypothalamus in the brain is responsible for controlling hormone production through the release of chemicals to the pituitary gland.
The pituitary gland is crucial for growth, mental development, and production, and it influences the rest of the endocrine system.
The pineal gland is the link between the endocrine system and the nervous system. It produces the hormones related to sexual development, as well as sleep/wake cycle hormones.
The thyroid gland is responsible for the release of hormones that control your metabolism and the way your body uses energy.
The parathyroid glands are responsible for the development of bone and overall bone health.
The thymus gland is crucial for healthy immune system functioning during childhood. After puberty, the tissue is replaced by fat.
The pancreas releases insulin after you’ve eaten carbohydrates to help the body metabolize sugars.
The adrenal glands release the essential hormone adrenaline. These glands also influence how the body uses energy.
The ovaries release egg cells and produce both estrogen and progesterone.
The testes produce the essential hormone testosterone responsible for maintaining sex drive, production of sperm, and muscle and bone health
The heart releases ANF (atrial natriuretic factor) and BNP (brain natriuretic peptide) that are responsible for blood pressure, fluid volume, and more.
The kidneys are responsible for producing erythropoietin and vitamin D. Erythropoietin stimulates the production of red blood cells, essential to maintaining healthy oxygen levels. Vitamin D is necessary for bone health as it supports the absorption of calcium from food.
In addition to these glands and organs, according to the Hormone Health Network of the Endocrine Society, the digestive tract is the largest endocrine-related organ system in the human body. It is believed that leptin and ghrelin are two essential hormones for regulating appetite and maintaining a healthy weight. These two essential hormones are mainly produced by the stomach but can also be generated by the brain, pancreas, and small intestine.
Overall, the endocrine system controls a wide range of functions in the human body including:
- Sensory perception
- Sexual development
Signs and Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalances
Hormonal imbalances in women can start even before puberty and last a lifetime. In fact, teen girls can be diagnosed with PCOS according to the Hormone Health Network from the Endocrine Society. This condition occurs in females when too much testosterone is produced.
In addition to PCOS, hormonal imbalances can cause troubling, sometimes debilitating symptoms including:
|Acne||Anxiety||Changes in appetite|
|Cold hands and feet||Depression||Digestive issues|
|Fatigue||Generalized pain||Hair loss|
|Irregular periods||Irritability||Low libido|
|Nails breaking or cracking||Thinning eyebrows||Unwanted hair growth|
|Weight gain||Weight loss|
Both men and women undergo essential sexual health hormone changes with age, with men being most affected by age-related testosterone reduction. It is also vital that we start to recognize that other hormones can be out of balance in men, including thyroid hormones, estrogen, vitamin D, insulin, and others.
Hormone Imbalance Test
Fortunately, it is quite easy to test for hormonal imbalances. If you experience one or more signs of hormonal imbalance, see your doctor for testing. Testing may include:
- Saliva test
- Urine test
- Follicle-stimulating hormone test
Conventional hormonal imbalance treatment depends on how the imbalance presents. Generally, hormone replacement through medications may help to balance hormones, and in some cases, as with insulin, you may need a conventional approach for effective treatment. For other hormones, namely those associated with sexual health including testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen, bioidentical hormones may be an option.
Medical Conditions Related to Endocrine Disorders
The endocrine system’s role in the body simply cannot be overstated. And, when we have an imbalance in hormones, one or more of the following endocrine disorders can occur.
|Addison’s disease||Adrenal insufficiency|
|Certain types of cancers||Cushing’s disease|
|Gigantism and other hormone-related growth problems||Grave’s disease|
|Hypopituitarism||Multiple endocrine neoplasias (MEN)|
|Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)||Thyroiditis|
|Turner syndrome||Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes|
9 Hormonal Imbalance Risk Factors
Our lifestyles, as well as our genetics, influence the endocrine system. The following conditions can dramatically increase your risk for developing a hormonal imbalance. The good news is that the majority of the issues on this list can be mitigated by healthy living. Here are the top nine risk factors for hormonal imbalance.
- A poor diet: If you eat prepared foods and/or foods with artificial colors and flavors and artificial sweeteners you may not be getting enough vital nutrients in your diet.
- Being overweight: This is a catch-22. A hormonal imbalance can cause weight gain, and as it turns out, being overweight can cause hormonal imbalances.
- Sedentary lifestyle: We’ve all heard that sitting is the new smoking. If you aren’t getting a minimum of 30 minutes a day of physical activity, you are considered sedentary.
- Genetic susceptibility: There isn’t much we can do about a genetic predisposition to endocrine problems like diabetes and osteoporosis—except for being proactive in reducing other risk factors.
- Food allergies and sensitivities: Foods that cause our immune systems to jump into action can temporarily slow the release of hormones, thereby causing an imbalance.
- Inflammation: Chronic inflammation is often caused by food allergies or sensitivities and can lead to hormonal imbalances in men and women.
- Toxicity exposure: According to a report in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, exposure to pesticides interferes with hormone function in women.
- Chronic fatigue: This is another item on the list that is a catch-22. Hormonal imbalances can cause chronic fatigue, and chronic fatigue can cause an imbalance.
- Chronic stress: Stress is perhaps the most telling, and the most common, risk factor for developing a hormonal imbalance. In fact, the Mayo Clinic states that long-term activation of stress can cause overexposure to the hormone cortisol, leading to a disruption in virtually every process in the body.
4 Hidden Causes of Hormonal Imbalances
Now that we’ve addressed what puts us at higher risk of a hormonal imbalance, let’s look at some of the hidden causes that may make it difficult to diagnose.
1. Endocrine Disruptors
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals (natural or manufactured) that interfere with the endocrine system. These disruptors may produce developmental issues, immune system problems, neurological issues, and reproductive troubles according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health.
Endocrine disruptors are found in everyday products like plastic bottles, metal food cans, foods, toys, cosmetics, detergents, and flame retardants. The disruptors cause a problem, as they actually mimic naturally occurring hormones. This can cause hormones to be blocked or interfere in the body’s production and release of hormones.
Recognized endocrine disruptors include:
- Dioxin and dioxin-like compounds
- Genisten and daidzein phytoestrogens
2. Birth Control Pills
Oral contraceptives are popular for birth control because of their effectiveness. They contain a blend of synthetic estrogen and progesterone or only synthetic progesterone. These are hormones that trigger the suppression of ovulation through manipulation of your hormone levels.
The longer you take oral contraceptives, the longer your natural hormonal balance is upset. Essentially, birth control pills are telling your pituitary gland you are pregnant, so it doesn’t produce follicle-stimulating hormone and you don’t ovulate. If you have symptoms of hormonal imbalance, like weight gain or thyroid problems, talk to your doctor about your choices.
Hydrocortisone, cortisone, and prednisone, are all corticosteroid drugs. They are often prescribed for conditions like asthma, arthritis, or lupus to suppress inflammation. The way that these drugs work is by mimicking the effect of hormones produced in the adrenal glands.
Corticosteroids suppress the immune system and can cause fluid retention, changes in mood and behavior, weight gain, and blood pressure elevation. Long-term use can cause osteoporosis, harm the immune system, worsen diabetes, and suppress the adrenal glands’ hormone production.
4. Underlying Conditions
A wide range of underlying health conditions can disrupt the endocrine system’s production of essential hormones. This can include an injury to one of the critical organs or glands in the system or an acute infection.
9 Ways to Balance Hormones Naturally
If you have been diagnosed with a hormonal imbalance that is considered severe, your doctor may suggest specific conventional treatments to help bring your body back into balance. However, there are effective ways that you can balance certain hormones naturally.
1. Address Your Diet
Highly processed foods, foods that you are allergic or sensitive to, and artificial colors and flavors can disrupt your hormonal balance. Change your diet to include a variety of healthy fats. Short-, medium-, and long-chain fats are essential for building hormone production. These fats can also boost metabolism and help you lose unwanted weight.
It is also important to eat a variety of foods. Change up the kinds of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins you eat at each meal. This helps to ensure you get a balance of nutrients from your food. Different colored foods feature different vitamins, minerals, and phytocompounds that support the endocrine system partners.
2. Get Moving
Exercise is key to mitigating some of the symptoms of a hormonal imbalance, and regular exercise removes one of the risk factors! Researchers are still striving to understand the exact relationship between hormones and exercise, but it is clear that exercise improves insulin sensitivity, self-confidence, lowers the risk of depression, and moderates stress hormone release.
When you are creating an exercise plan, be sure to mix up your exercise routine to include stretching, core work, strength building, cardio, and balance. Also, as the overall goal is to get active and to stay active, include activities that you enjoy. Swimming, biking, hiking, yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, indoor rock climbing, strength training, or even belly dancing keep you engaged and moving.
3. Limit Toxin Exposure
Start limiting your exposure to known toxins, including the endocrine disruptors mentioned above. In your diet, eat organic foods, free-range poultry, pasture-raised meats, and wild-caught seafood. In your home, use natural cleaners and avoid harsh chemicals whenever possible.
4. Create a Personalized Stress Management Plan
Chronic stress can cause long-term health consequences and hormonal imbalances. It is essential that you relieve stress through activities that work for you. Connecting with friends, listening to music, journaling, and deep-breathing exercises can reduce stress and anxiety.
According to an article in Psychology Today, acupuncture is an effective treatment for depression and it can improve hormone balance by releasing endorphins. And for stress, an animal study from Georgetown University found that acupuncture significantly reduces stress hormone response.
Mind-body practices like meditation and yoga have long-been practiced to relieve stress and anxiety and improve sleep. According to a study published in the journal Alternative Medical Research in Clinical Practice, regular yoga practice significantly improves stress levels.
A lack of sleep substantially contributes to hormone imbalance. Cortisol, the stress hormone, regulates at midnight. When you don’t get enough sleep, you never get a break from the hormonal flight/fight response. Sleep is also essential for building energy and for emotional and physical recovery. When you don’t get enough sleep, your immune system suffers, anxiety and depression rise, brain fog appears, and weight balloons.
In fact, according to Stanford University School of Medicine, the less you sleep, the more weight you may gain. This landmark study shows that sleep loss impacts key hormones related to appetite—ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is produced by the stomach and triggers the appetite. The higher the level of ghrelin, the more you want to eat.
Leptin, on the other hand, is produced by fat cells when the body believes there is insufficient metabolic reserves. Low leptin levels signal a starvation response, thereby increasing appetite. Researchers give this startling research—people who sleep fewer than eight hours have a BMI increase proportional to their decreased sleep.
Insomnia is a real problem today in western countries, and according to the Mayo Clinic, women and those under stress are at a higher risk for developing chronic insomnia. While there are a number of prescription sedatives available today, many come with side effects, and they aren’t recommended for long-term use.
Instead, natural insomnia treatments may help you get the sleep you need. The key is finding the treatment, or combination of treatments, that work for you. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, focuses on getting your mind and your body to relax and sleep. Certain supplements like valerian root, melatonin, magnesium, or passionflower may help too.
Make sure that your bedroom is a haven of relaxation and supports sleep. Sleep in a cool room, on a comfortable bed, and don’t watch the clock. Avoid caffeine and exercise in the four hours before bedtime to make sure you don’t release stimulating hormones.
6. Adaptogen Herbs
Traditional Chinese medicine practices and Ayurvedic healing traditions have used adaptogens for centuries. In essence, adaptogens are herbs that help the body handle and manage stress. They give us the ability to adapt to chemical, environmental, and physical stressors and return to our center.
They work by interacting with the HPA axis— hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis—which is deeply involved in the body’s stress response. They can also tweak the production of hormones and help our body respond to stress properly. There are a number of adaptogens that are associated with hormone balance.
In a clinical trial published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, ashwagandha root significantly reduces mental and emotional stress. Ashwagandha works to soothe hormonal imbalances caused by chronic stress, and alleviate the manifestations of stress and imbalance. An additional animal trial published in the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology found that ashwagandha root can stimulate thyroid activity when administered daily for 20 days.
Also known as tulsi, holy basil is one of the more popular adaptogens used to normalize hormones. In a recent clinical trial published in the journal Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, researchers note that holy basil an normalize glucose levels, balance cholesterol levels, regulate blood pressure, and assist in the management of metabolic-related disorders.
This adaptogen is associated with mediating our flight/fight hormone stress response. Rhodiola can also help enhance physical and mental performance, reduce stress and increase longevity according to a study from Swedish researchers.
In a double-blind crossover study, researchers found that Siberian ginseng improved erectile dysfunction in 60% of study participants. While this study published in The Journal of Urology was quite small, the results are promising, and researchers urge further research.
7. Essential Oils
Essential oils have been used for thousands of years in traditional healing practices including Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Certain oils are recognized for their power to balance hormone levels, including cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and thyroid. Diffusing essential oils, and in some cases topical application, may help to relieve hormonal imbalance symptoms.
Clary sage is a phytoestrogen that is associated with thyroid health and estrogen. According to a study published in the Journal of Phytotherapy Research,inhalation of clary sage essential oil can reduce cortisol levels by 36% and improve TSH, a key measurement of thyroid hormone levels. Phytoestrogens like clary sage are also associated with regulating the menstrual cycle, reducing anxiety and depression, relieving PCOS symptoms, and more.
A recent study published in Holistic Nursing Practice indicates that lavender inhalation beneficially influences insomnia and anxiety. Inhalation of lavender essential oil is effective for relieving anxiety, depression, and stress, and it can induce a restful night of sleep.
This essential oil is a known pain reliever, performing better than acetaminophen in a clinical trial on headaches. Peppermint oil delivered through an inhaler also has the ability to increase mental clarity, lift brain fog, and reduce mental fatigue and burnout according to a pilot study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The authors of the study urge further research.
8. Vitamin D
According to a report published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vitamin D deficiency can adversely impact the endocrine system. To boost your vitamin D levels, try to get at least 15 to 20 minutes of direct sunlight a day—without sunscreen. When that isn’t possible, consider a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement. Start with a small dose of 2,000 IU and work your way to 5,000 IU a day to keep your endocrine system operating properly.
There is a connection between the gut and the brain that researchers refer to as the “gut-brain axis.” The communication along this axis is essential for the production and regulation of digestion. By introducing healthy bacteria into your gut through probiotic-rich foods or supplements, you can improve digestion and improve the regulation of insulin, leptin, and ghrelin.
In addition, probiotics are associated with relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression and lowering inflammation. As the thyroid glands are susceptible to inflammation, the anti-inflammatory effects of probiotics may help relieve hormone imbalance symptoms.
Incorporate a diverse group of probiotic-rich foods into your diet, such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut. If you want to add a supplement, choose one with multiple strains and at least 30 billion CFUs.
Considerations in Treating Hormonal Imbalances
It is important to note that certain hormonal imbalances may need to be treated with conventional medicines. If you are diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, Cushing’s disease, Addison’s disease, Grave’s disease, hypothyroidism, or diabetes, speak to your doctor about treatment options.