Hormones are the most potent chemical messengers in our bodies, telling your body what to do and when. That’s why when your hormones are out of balance, you may be able to feel the effects, whether it be via insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, hair loss, or mood swings. But usually, these imbalances are reversible—learn the symptoms of hormonal imbalance to look out for and how to balance hormones naturally.
What is a hormonal imbalance?
Produced by our endocrine glands—the parts of the endocrine system including adrenals, thyroid, pancreas, and female or male reproductive system that communicate with our nervous system—hormones perform essential functions, relay important warnings, and communicate messages throughout the body. Everything from your appetite and metabolism to heart rate, sleep patterns, reproduction, and mood is dictated by your hormones. That means your hormones make sure everything is running smoothly and that your rhythms stay in sync.
When your hormones aren’t communicating properly, and your body incorrectly produces too much or too little of any hormone, this is what’s known as a hormonal imbalance. And if the production of just one hormone in any of these glands is thrown off, it can affect all the others, quickly creating a snowball effect that leaves you feeling off. For example, a thyroid hormone imbalance, which is very sensitive to changes in stress levels, can contribute to a cortisol imbalance, and a cortisol imbalance can contribute to a thyroid hormone imbalance. And either of these imbalances can cause symptoms such as fatigue, mood changes, digestive issues, and unexplained weight gain or weight loss. So since all of our hormones are so closely interrelated and often bidirectional in nature, the symptoms of hormonal imbalance of each one can look very similar. This is why maintaining balance in our endocrine system as a whole is essential to keeping our system running smoothly.
Potential causes of a hormonal imbalance
There are many things that can challenge your endocrine system, therefore disrupting hormone balance and function. The longer a system is “out of order” the more difficult it can be to bring it back into harmony. Identifying and correcting the causes of hormonal imbalance early on will help maintain your health and prevent the onset of chronic disease. Some of the most common underlying causes of hormonal imbalance include:
- Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
- Chronic stress
- Birth control or hormonal replacement
- Poor diet
- Cushing syndrome
- Exposure to endocrine disruptors
So how do you know if you have a hormone imbalance? Find out the signs of hormonal imbalance to look out for, and natural remedies that can help balance your hormones.
10 signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalances
These are ten major symptoms of hormonal imbalance to look out for.
Everyone is tired sometimes. But you should recover with adequate rest, hydration, and a healthy diet. If you feel you are taking care of yourself but are still exhausted or just can’t seem to get back to your best, consider having a comprehensive evaluation of your hormone levels. Adrenal fatigue and hypothyroidism are more prevalent in our high-paced society than you may think and a hormonal imbalance test can help diagnose this.
Nope, it’s not all in your head. Nearly 18 percent of Americans suffer from an anxiety-related disorder and 7 percent from a major depressive disorder each year. Women may be at a higher risk because changes in estrogen during menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or menopause are associated with worsening depression. A study on the effect of estrogen receptors in the brain found that estrogen calms the fear response and anxiety in both humans and rodents. Higher levels of estrogen were correlated with less fearful responses when stimulated by fear-inducing scenarios. Men with low levels of testosterone are more prone to developing anxiety or major depressive disorder when compared to those with normal levels.
3. Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
Why do so many people struggle with weight loss and maintenance? Usually, it’s because they are eating nutrient-poor foods and working too hard. The body processes this hard work as stress and when the body is stressed, it goes into survival or “fight or flight” mode, producing cortisol. When you’re chronically stressed, your cortisol is always high and in an effort to protect itself from whatever danger it senses, your body holds onto fat as a form of energy.
4. Trouble sleeping
Insomnia can be linked to a dysregulated hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which is your central stress response system, where your endocrine system and central nervous system interact. It’s also responsible for regulating the sleep-wake cycle through the release of hormones, such as melatonin and cortisol. Melatonin works on the part of the brain that controls our circadian rhythm, allowing us to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. An inability to secrete melatonin may result in difficulty falling asleep or adjusting to a new sleep pattern. Similarly, when your cortisol levels are too high in the evening, you may have trouble falling asleep and feel wired but tired in the evening.
40 percent of women going through perimenopause, the phase in which your body is nearing menopause, also report sleep disturbances, such as waking up in the middle of the night with chills and drenched in sweat.
5. Digestive issues
There are more neurotransmitters in the gut than there are in the brain, so it should be no surprise that hormonal imbalance and anxiety and depression are sometimes accompanied by digestive symptoms. Hormones influence gut function through the microbiome and bacterial system in our intestines, so a hormone imbalance can impact the population and function of the bacteria in your gut, leading to symptoms like bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or nausea.
6. Skin and hair changes
Acne. A sudden increase in acne is one easy way to identify a possible hormonal imbalance. One of the few hormones involved is androgens. Androgens, typically referred to as “male hormones,” but found in both males and females, regulate your skin’s sebum production. If your body produces androgens in excess, sebum can build up in your pores and cause a pimple to surface.
Hair loss. The quality and vitality of your hair is also directly related to your hormones. Thyroid abnormalities, for example, may cause dry hair or skin, thinning hair, or brittle nails. Hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and parathyroid disorder can also cause hair loss.
7. PMS and low sex drive
Low testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone are all associated with a decreased sex drive in both men and women. This is especially common after age 50 when estrogen and testosterone production declines. Since estrogen is one of the main hormones regulating a woman’s menstrual cycle a decrease in production can also lead to irregular periods that are too long, too short, unpredictable, heavy, or painful, infertility, hot flashes, mood swings, or painful intercourse.
8. Muscle weakness and joint pain
If you feel like it takes extra effort to move your body, or your joints are stiff and uncomfortable, this may be a symptom of hormonal imbalance. There are several different hormones that contribute to the strength of your muscles—think estrogen, testosterone, even your thyroid hormone—and could be behind your muscle weakness. Declines in both estrogen and testosterone have been associated with loss of strength, and muscle weakness and stiffness are often signs of a thyroid disorder, due the thyroid’s role in breaking glycogen into glucose, a main source of energy for your muscles.
9. Changes in blood pressure
Your hormones play a major role in heart health, primarily due to one of your body’s largest hormone-producing glands, the pancreas. The pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, which regulates the amount of glucose in the blood. Without proper regulation of this hormone, your body could end up with too much glucose in the blood, leading to cardiovascular problems like high cholesterol or high blood pressure. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, has also been linked to thyroid dysfunction, testosterone deficiency, growth hormone excess or deficiency, and more.
10. Puffy, swollen, or rounded face
Though this symptom of hormonal imbalance isn’t talked about much, for those who experience it, it can be a major concern. And while this symptom is relatively painless, besides possible tenderness due to the swelling, it may be negatively impacting your quality of life. Sometimes referred to as “moon face,” this gradual rounding or swelling of the face is a common sign of high cortisol characterized by Cushing’s syndrome. If your adrenal glands release too much cortisol, they’re unable to properly regulate your blood pressure and inflammatory response. As a result, your body has a hard time keeping your blood vessels functioning appropriately, leading to swelling and a puffy appearance around your face or shoulders.
5 ways to balance your hormones naturally
If you think you might have a hormonal imbalance, start by talking to a healthcare professional about your symptoms and potential underlying causes. At Parsley Health, we work with our members who have hormone imbalances to naturally bring their hormones back into balance. Typically, this starts with advanced hormone testing to help you and your doctor determine where your hormone levels are at. Working closely with your practitioner and health coach, you can resolve the underlying cause of hormonal imbalance with a personalized plan, including changes to your nutrition, lifestyle, and stress management practices.
If you are experiencing any symptoms of hormonal imbalance, there are some general steps we recommend to start feeling some relief. Here are some of our tried and true strategies.
1. Incorporate healthy fats into your diet.
Adding healthy polyunsaturated fats to your diet, such as omega-3 and omega-6 may help reduce your appetite and decrease your risk of obesity. Fatty acids signal the production of leptin, a hormone that reduces appetite by suppressing the area of the brain that controls our appetite and signals to us it’s time to eat. Without adequate healthy fats in your diet, you’re more likely to have low leptin levels, which can induce overeating and an inability to feel satiated. That may be one reason women have been experimenting with seed cycling for hormone balance.
2. Try adaptogenic herbs.
Next time you grab a coffee or matcha try adding in some adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens have been shown to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone secreted from our glands when we experience stress. Certain adaptogens can help regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis which controls cortisol levels. Lowering your cortisol levels can help hormonal imbalance symptoms, such as fatigue or sleep issues. Consistently high levels of cortisol not only impact bodily functions associated with hormones, but can feed the beginnings of hyperglycemia and suppress immune and inflammatory responses.
In a study looking at the impact of adaptogens on the central nervous system, Adapt 232/Chisan (a combination of Rhodiola rosea, Schisandra chinensis and Eleutherococcus senticosus extracts) was found to decrease cortisol levels and activate the body’s self defense mechanism in response to stress. Adaptogens that aid adrenal function include ashwagandha, ginseng, jiaogulan, Chinese licorice, reishi, and Rhodiola rosea.
3. Take a high-quality probiotic and incorporate fermented foods.
Taking a probiotic can help balance your gut microbiome and the amount of “good” versus “bad” bacteria that lives in your system. The greater the “good” bacteria, the easier it is on your digestive system to process food. Research has shown that estrogen-related imbalances might be able to be reversed with probiotic supplementation by restoring the set of bacteria known as estrobolome, which is responsible for metabolizing estrogen. Probiotics can also lessen the impact chronic stressors may have on the hypothalamic pituitary axis (our stress response system), which is why probiotics are starting to be considered a form of treatment for those dealing with depression and anxiety. Fermented foods, which also contain live bacteria, can also aid in the regulation of gut bacteria.
4. Supplement with Vitamin D.
A Vitamin D deficiency is more common than you may think, with over a billion people worldwide suffering from either a deficient or insufficient supply of this critical vitamin. Vitamin D plays an extremely important role in a number of bodily functions, such as immune function, cell differentiation, and inflammatory response. Low levels of Vitamin D have been associated with an increased risk in colon, prostate, and breast cancer, as well as tuberculosis, influenza, and heart disease. A relationship has also been found between hypothyroidism and a vitamin D deficiency.
Ideally, we would get our daily dose of Vitamin D from 10 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted sun exposure, but this is unrealistic for most. That’s why it’s important to take a Vitamin D3 supplement and eat foods rich in Vitamin D, such as pastured eggs and wild salmon. It’s also important to note that as we age, our production of Vitamin D decreases, so make sure you’re monitoring your levels and getting them checked by your primary care provider.
5. Biohack your way to better sleep.
When life is busy, often the first thing we sacrifice is sleep. Sleep or rather inadequate sleep quickly throws our body off balance. This is why it’s one of the first things our doctors ask about when patients come in for their initial visit. In a small study testing the impact of prolonged sleep restriction, participants that slept only 4 hours versus 10 or 12 hours experienced an increase in ghrelin, a hormone responsible for appetite regulation, alongside a decrease in leptin, a hormone responsible for communicating satiation. For many of us, 10 or 12 hours might be hard to achieve. That’s why here at Parsley we recommend getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night. The benefits of adequate sleep will not only increase your glucose metabolism and leptin concentrations but increase your body’s secretion of growth hormones responsible for cell reproduction and regeneration, which all take place during periods of rest.
Final thoughts on hormonal imbalances.
- Some of the most common symptoms of hormone imbalances include unexplained weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, and changes in hair, skin, and nails.
- Root causes of hormonal imbalances include compromised gut health, elevated inflammation, and high stress levels.
- Natural ways to balance your hormones include eating anti-inflammatory polyunsaturated fats, reducing your exposure to endocrine disruptors, getting adequate sleep, and using supplements to fill in any nutritional gaps related to gut health and vitamin D levels.