Are you feeling tired and irritable? Noticing that your hair is thinning and your waistline expanding? How about your sex life? Is your drive at an all-time low, and intercourse not as “exciting” as it once was? You might think these things are just an unfortunate result of getting older or from everyday stress, but it could be your hormones that are causing chaos in your body.
Hormones can be the culprit behind a wide range of health issues, and we’re not just talking about the usual suspects like your sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.) Your thyroid, kidneys, pancreas, adrenal glands, pituitary gland, brain, and nerve cells also produce hormones that can throw your body off balance.
Scientists have identified over 50 hormones in the human body. All it takes is one being out of whack to cause a domino effect, resulting in hormone imbalances and female hormone disorders. And while it’s true that hormone imbalances are more likely to happen with age, they can affect anyone, no matter their age or gender. Genetics, stress, poor diet, exercise habits, environmental toxins, the state of your gut, and certain medical conditions and medications can all lead to hormone imbalances.
In this article, we will discuss the key hormones that affect your health, the most common hormone disorders women face, and how to determine if things like weight gain, low sexual desire, painful intercourse, and thinning hair are a hormone imbalance that you should discuss with your OBGYN, or something else. We will also explore the common symptoms of hormone imbalances and the steps you can take to improve your hormonal health and overall well-being.
By understanding the different types of hormones that affect your health and the factors that can lead to hormone imbalances and female hormone disorders, you can take control of your hormonal health and feel like your best self at any age.
Understanding Hormonal Imbalances and Hormone Disorders
Hormones are critical in regulating many bodily functions, from metabolism and mood to energy levels, sex drive, sexual function, appetite, sleep, and even gut health. They are essential messengers that help to maintain balance and harmony within the body’s complex systems.
For example, hormones like ghrelin and leptin help to regulate hunger and satiety, while cortisol plays a role in stress response and can impact sleep quality, weight management, and digestion. And insulin, yup, that is a hormone, too, that helps to regulate blood sugar levels and plays a role in energy metabolism.
Those are only a few examples. As mentioned, your body has over 50 hormones. They constantly fluctuate, and if any of these hormones become imbalanced, it can lead to a range of symptoms and health issues like fatigue, mood swings, insomnia, weight gain, low libido, and gastrointestinal problems.
We’ll go into more detail about the specific hormones that typically cause these issues next. But first, it’s important to understand the difference between a hormone imbalance and a hormone disorder and be aware of all the different hormone disorders that could be causing your symptoms.
A hormonal imbalance occurs when there is either too much or too little of a hormone in the body, which can be caused by various factors, such as genetics, stress, poor diet, lack of exercise or even too much exercise, environmental toxins, and certain medical conditions and medications.
While hormonal imbalances are common and often treatable, prolonged imbalances that are not treated can lead to hormone disorders, which are more serious and complex conditions that require medical attention.
Hormone disorders occur when there is a dysfunction in the endocrine system, which produces and regulates hormones. These disorders can be caused by prolonged hormone imbalances, genetic factors, tumors, autoimmune diseases, and other underlying medical conditions.
Hormone disorders can affect any of the glands that produce hormones in the body, including the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, adrenal glands, ovaries, testes, and more.
Some common hormone disorders include:
- Hypothyroidism: A disorder in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and sensitivity to cold.
- Hyperthyroidism: A disorder in which the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as weight loss, increased heart rate, and anxiety.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: An autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, leading to hypothyroidism.
- Graves’ disease: An autoimmune disorder in which the immune system stimulates the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone, leading to hyperthyroidism.
- Cushing’s syndrome: A disorder in which the body produces too much cortisol, a stress hormone, leading to symptoms such as weight gain, high blood pressure, and muscle weakness.
- Addison’s disease: A disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol and aldosterone, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, muscle weakness, and low blood pressure.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): A disorder in which the ovaries produce too many androgen hormones, leading to symptoms such as irregular periods, acne, and excess hair growth.
- Perimenopause and Menopause: A natural process in which the ovaries gradually produce less estrogen and progesterone, leading to symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and mood changes.
- Type 2 Diabetes: A disorder in which the body has high blood sugar levels due to problems with insulin production or sensitivity.
- Adrenal insufficiency: A disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, and low blood pressure.
- Endometriosis: Technically, endometriosis, often called “endo,” isn’t considered a hormone disorder because it doesn’t stem from an imbalance in hormone production. Instead, it’s a condition where the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus, causing pain and sometimes infertility. However, it’s worth mentioning because endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent condition and can impact hormones in several ways. While endo may not be a hormone disorder in the traditional sense, it’s a condition to be aware of for anyone experiencing hormonal symptoms or infertility.
Imbalances in hormones don’t only result in hormone disorders. You might have noticed that several hormone disorders listed above are technically autoimmune diseases. Hormone imbalances are closely connected with autoimmune disease due to the impact hormones have on the immune system.
Hormones play a crucial role in regulating the immune system’s activity. Any disruption in this balance can trigger an immune response that leads to autoimmune disease. For instance, imbalances in the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone can lead to the development of autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
Additionally, autoimmune disease and hormones have a bidirectional relationship, meaning that hormonal imbalances can not only contribute to autoimmune diseases, but autoimmune diseases can also affect the proper functioning of glands that produce hormones.
Hormonal imbalances and hormone disorders are complex conditions that can significantly impact your health and well-being. It’s essential to seek advice from a doctor knowledgeable in hormone disorders and board certified in obstetrics and gynecology if you suspect you have a hormonal imbalance or female hormone disorder.
What Are The Symptoms Of Hormonal Imbalance In Females?
If you catch a hormone imbalance early, there are often things you can do to prevent it from becoming a hormone disorder. We will discuss ways to treat hormone imbalances and hormone disorders a little further down.
The problem is that many people brush their symptoms off as “normal” and don’t seek treatment until they have progressed into one or more of the hormone disorders listed. For example, prolonged insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes, and prolonged thyroid hormone imbalances can lead to hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
Additionally, many doctors don’t understand how hormones are connected and do not understand how to read labs. Your labs may show your hormone levels are normal at first glance when they are not.
Hormonal imbalances in females can manifest in various symptoms, some of which may be subtle or easily overlooked, such as weight gain and low libido. Excess body fat and decreased muscle mass are two of the most common signs that your hormones might be imbalanced. Especially if you eat a healthy diet with proper portions and regular exercise. Low sex drive or less than pleasurable intercourse is another common sign of female hormone imbalances that many women write off as stress or relational issues.
Although weight gain and low sex drive are two of the most prevalent symptoms, signs of female hormone imbalance can vary based on the particular hormone or hormones that are out of sync. For instance, a thyroid hormone imbalance can lead to fatigue, weight gain, and sensitivity to cold. On the other hand, a sex hormone imbalance, such as estrogen or progesterone, can lead to irregular periods, mood swings, and hot flashes.
Additionally, it’s important to note that many symptoms of hormonal imbalance can overlap or be mistaken for other conditions. For instance, fatigue and weight gain are common symptoms of hypothyroidism, but they can also be caused by other factors such as stress or a poor diet. Similarly, mood changes and irregular periods can be symptoms of both perimenopause and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), among other conditions.
Other common symptoms that may indicate a hormonal imbalance in females include:
- Hair loss or thinning
- Breast tenderness
- Vaginal dryness
- Decreased sexual pleasure
- Pain during or after sex
- Sleep disturbances
- Digestive issues such as bloating or constipation
Hormones perform critical functions in your body, which means that even a minor imbalance can impact your overall health. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially if you are struggling with more than one, it’s essential to talk to an ob-gyn to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment plan.
And in case you are curious, hormonal imbalances can also happen to the fellas in your life. Some symptoms are very similar to the ones females experience, while others differ. Symptoms of hormonal imbalance in men may include:
- Decreased libido or erectile dysfunction
- Fatigue or decreased energy levels
- Muscle loss or weakness
- Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- Depression or mood changes
- Breast tenderness or enlargement
It’s important to note that some of these symptoms may also be associated with other conditions. For example, erectile dysfunction can also be caused by poor blood flow or nerve damage. Additionally, mood or energy level changes can be caused by various factors, including stress or poor sleep.
Types of Hormones and How They Affect Your Health
As part of our complex and intricate endocrine system, our bodies produce dozens of hormones that regulate various physiological processes. But some really stand out regarding how our bodies function and how our health is impacted.
Below are the 10 key players that significantly impact how our bodies function.
A hormone primarily produced in the testicles of men, but women also make and need testosterone, just at lower levels. Testosterone controls the body’s sex drive, bone mass, fat distribution, and blood cell production. Testosterone, either too low or too high, can result in many issues, such as low sex drive, hair thinning, irregular periods, and loss of muscle mass.
Estrogen is mainly produced in the ovaries. In women, it primarily regulates menstruation, menopause, reproduction, and sex drive. Women with low estrogen levels might experience low energy levels, depression, and hair loss. Menopause is also caused, in part, by lowering estrogen levels, which can cause hot flashes, sleep issues, and decreased sex drive. High estrogen levels can also cause many problems, such as moodiness and weight gain.
Progesterone is a hormone that plays a vital role in female reproductive health. It helps to prepare the uterus for pregnancy by thickening the lining and also helps to maintain a healthy pregnancy. In addition to its reproductive functions, progesterone also affects the brain, the bones, and the immune system. Low progesterone levels can cause irregular periods, mood swings, and difficulty getting pregnant. On the other hand, high levels of progesterone can cause fatigue, bloating, and other symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol is pumped out by your adrenal glands when your brain recognizes that you are undergoing distress. It is an essential hormone that helps you escape dangerous situations, but if it sticks around too long or high at the wrong times, it can cause problems. High levels of cortisol over long periods can result in weight problems, difficulty sleeping, migraines, heart problems, anxiety, and irritability.
Insulin is produced by the pancreas and converts glucose in the food we consume into a form our body can use for energy. Insulin is a chief concern for people with diabetes as their bodies can’t properly regulate their insulin intake. The release of cortisol triggers a bodily release of insulin as well. Overproduction of insulin in tandem with cortisol can cause excessive weight gain.
6: Human Growth Hormone:
Human growth hormone (HGH) is produced by the pituitary gland and stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and generation. It is most important for children to have high levels of HGH so that they can grow up. Certain adults also seek to develop their production of human growth hormone to increase metabolism and muscle tone.
7: Hunger Hormones (Ghrelin and Leptin):
Ghrelin is a hormone produced in the stomach that stimulates appetite and promotes the release of growth hormone. Ghrelin levels increase when the stomach is empty, signaling hunger to the brain. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells that helps regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger and promoting feelings of fullness. Low levels of leptin can lead to overeating and weight gain. In contrast, high levels can contribute to obesity-related health problems.
8: Thyroid Hormones (T3 and T4):
The thyroid gland produces two main hormones; triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). T3 is the more active form of the hormone, and T4 is converted into T3 as needed by the body. These hormones play a crucial role in regulating the body’s metabolism, which affects energy levels, weight, and body temperature, among other things. When your thyroid hormone levels are too low (a condition known as hypothyroidism), you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and depression. Conversely, when your thyroid hormone levels are too high (a condition known as hyperthyroidism), you may experience symptoms such as weight loss, anxiety, and tremors.
Serotonin is a chemical produced by nerve cells that functions as a natural mood stabilizer. It helps regulate mood, appetite, digestion, and sleep. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and anxiety, while high levels of serotonin can cause a serotonin syndrome which results in agitation, restlessness, and rapid heart rate.
A hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles and is produced in the brain’s pineal gland. Disruptions to melatonin production can cause sleep disturbances and may contribute to various health issues.
Common Causes of Hormonal Imbalance in Women
Hormonal imbalances in women can be caused by various factors, some of which are more well-known than others. While aging is often cited as the leading cause of hormonal changes, it is important to note that many women in their 20s and 30s may also experience hormonal imbalances. Here are some common causes of hormonal imbalance in women:
Stress: People often wonder if too much stress can cause hormonal imbalances– the answer is yes!! Chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body’s hormone levels, especially cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that regulates metabolism and helps the body cope with stress. Chronic stress can cause the body to produce too much cortisol, leading to weight gain, fatigue, and other health problems. Stress can also cause excess adrenaline, which can disrupt the balance of hormones like insulin, estrogen, and progesterone.
Eating a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats can lead to imbalances in insulin and other hormones. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates blood sugar levels. Eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods can cause the body to produce too much insulin, leading to insulin resistance and weight gain. Imbalances in insulin can also affect other hormones like estrogen and testosterone.
Lack of physical activity:
When we don’t exercise regularly, insulin resistance can develop, which can throw off the balance of other hormones like estrogen and progesterone. Regular exercise can help regulate hormone levels and reduce the risk of hormonal imbalances. In addition, lack of exercise can contribute to weight gain, which can be a major player in hormone imbalances. Excess weight can lead to imbalances in insulin, estrogen, and other hormones.
Over-exercising and over-dieting:
Just as eating poorly and not exercising can lead to hormone imbalances, over-exercising and dieting excessively can do the same. Overdoing exercise and restricting calories can disrupt the body’s hormone levels, especially in women prone to hormonal imbalances. Excessive exercise can cause the body to produce too much cortisol and disturb the balance of other hormones like estrogen and progesterone. Similarly, over-dieting can cause the body to go into starvation mode, leading to hormone imbalances like thyroid hormone and insulin.
Lack of sleep:
Not getting enough sleep or poor-quality sleep can disrupt the body’s natural hormone cycles. Sleep is important for regulating the body’s hormones, including cortisol, growth hormone, and melatonin. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to imbalances in these hormones, leading to weight gain, fatigue, and other health problems.
Exposure to toxins such as pesticides, plastics, and chemicals in personal care products can disrupt the body’s endocrine system. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormone system, leading to imbalances in hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormone. It’s impossible to altogether avoid environmental toxins. Still, you can limit them by ensuring they aren’t in everyday products like cleaning supplies, plastics, and personal care products.
Certain medications, such as birth control pills and antidepressants, can affect hormone levels. Birth control pills work by altering hormone levels to prevent pregnancy.
However, they can also cause imbalances in hormones like estrogen and progesterone. Antidepressants can also affect hormone levels, leading to imbalances in serotonin, dopamine, and other hormones. You should never stop taking your medications cold turkey. If you believe your medications could be causing hormonal imbalances, talk to your doctor.
Hormonal imbalances can also be caused by medical conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), thyroid disorders, and diabetes. PCOS is a common condition that affects women’s hormone levels, leading to imbalances in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Thyroid disorders like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can also cause imbalances in thyroid hormone, leading to weight gain, fatigue, and other symptoms. Diabetes can also affect hormone levels, leading to imbalances in insulin and other hormones.
Hormonal imbalances can also be influenced by genetics. Certain genetic conditions, such as Turner syndrome and Klinefelter syndrome, can affect hormone production and regulation. In addition, family history can play a role in hormonal imbalances. For example, if a woman’s mother or grandmother had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), she may be at higher risk for developing the condition as well. While we cannot change our genetics, being aware of family history can help identify potential risks and allow for early intervention if necessary.
How to Determine if You Have a Hormone Imbalance
If something seems off, even if you’ve had a doctor tell you that your blood work “is fine,” you need to listen to your body. Hair loss, weight gain, loss of muscle mass, a low sex drive, painful periods, and extreme mood shifts are not “normal” and should not be swept under the rug.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a hormone imbalance, it’s crucial to determine the root cause and get proper treatment. There are several ways you can work with your doctor to determine if you have a hormone imbalance.
Firstly, your doctor may order blood tests to check your hormone levels. Commonly checked hormones include estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid hormones, cortisol, and insulin. These tests can give your doctor a good idea of whether or not you have a hormone imbalance and what type it is.
Additionally, if you’re a woman, your OBGYN may perform a pelvic exam and/or a Pap smear to check for any signs of abnormality or irregularity in your reproductive system. They may also ask you questions about your menstrual cycle, sexual history, and any symptoms you may be experiencing.
Your OBGYN can also help determine the cause of your hormone imbalance and provide treatment options. Depending on the type and severity of your hormone imbalance, treatment may include lifestyle changes, medications, or hormone replacement therapy.
It’s important to note that hormone imbalances can be complex and may require a thorough evaluation by a healthcare professional. If you suspect you may have a hormone imbalance, it’s best to talk to your OBGYN to determine the appropriate course of action.
Treating Hormonal Imbalances: Options and Risks
If you suspect you have a hormonal imbalance, it’s important to consult with a trusted OBGYN that has experience treating hormone imbalances. They are experts in women’s health and can help you determine the best course of action.
Several options for treating hormonal imbalances are available, including medications, birth control, and hormone therapy. Each option comes with its own risks and benefits.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
Hormone replacement is a treatment that replaces the hormones that your body is no longer producing or is producing too little of. HRT is most commonly used to treat menopause-related symptoms such as hot flashes, mood changes, and vaginal dryness. However, it can also be used to treat other hormonal imbalances, such as those related to thyroid disorders. HRT is available in several forms, including pills, patches, and creams.
Our preferred method of HRT at Cool Springs Medical is Bio-Equivalent Hormone Replacement Therapy (BHRT.) The key difference between BHRT and HRT is the source of the hormones used. BHRT uses hormones that are chemically identical to those produced naturally in the body, whereas HRT may use synthetic hormones or hormones that are derived from animal sources. BHRT is often marketed as a more natural and safer alternative to traditional HRT.
Birth Control Pills
Birth control pills are another treatment option for hormonal imbalances. Birth control pills contain synthetic hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, which can help regulate hormone levels in the body. Birth control pills are most commonly used to prevent pregnancy. Still, they can also treat hormonal imbalances that cause irregular periods or other symptoms.
The type of medication that might be prescribed for a hormonal imbalance will depend on which hormone is affected and the severity of the imbalance. For example, suppose a woman has an estrogen deficiency. In that case, she may be prescribed medications such as clomiphene or letrozole to increase the levels of this hormone. If your thyroid is the problem, a doctor may prescribe medication to replace the missing thyroid hormones. Additionally, drugs not specifically designed for hormone therapy can be used off-label to treat hormone imbalances. For example, some medications that treat diabetes or high blood pressure can also help regulate insulin and other hormone levels.
Surgery or Radiation Therapy
These options are generally only considered in extreme cases where other treatments have been unsuccessful or if there is a risk of cancer or other serious health problems and are considered as last resort options for treating hormonal imbalances. For instance, a woman with severe endometriosis or