While often associated with puberty, reproduction, or menopause, hormones influence how our body functions throughout the lifecycle. Produced by endocrine glands, hormones are chemical messengers involved in numerous bodily functions, such as growth and development, sexual function and reproduction, metabolism, and mood. (46)
Sometimes hormone levels can shift out of balance, resulting in noticeable signs and symptoms, such as fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, and sexual dysfunction. (22)(30)(47) Continue reading to learn about the signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalances and what you can do to support hormonal health.
What is a hormonal imbalance?
Hormones play a key role in our health; even small fluctuations in hormone levels can have noticeable effects. (46) A hormonal imbalance occurs when there is too little or too much of a specific hormone in the bloodstream. In some cases, a hormonal imbalance can result in serious health concerns and may indicate an underlying condition. Numerous factors can cause hormone fluctuations, including chronic stress, (39) certain medications (e.g., steroids), (18) and brain injuries. (19) Furthermore, a hormonal imbalance may be a symptom of another condition, such as Cushing’s syndrome, hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, polycystic ovary syndrome, and type 1 and type 2 diabetes. (25)(34)
Not all hormone fluctuations are cause for concern, however. In fact, it’s normal for hormone concentrations to vary on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Women of reproductive age experience normal hormone fluctuations throughout their menstrual cycle. For example, estrogen rises during the follicular phase of a woman’s cycle, progesterone peaks during the luteal phase, and both estrogen and progesterone dip to their lowest levels during menstruation. (45) Women also encounter significant hormonal changes and noticeable symptoms related to these hormonal shifts as they near menopause. (21)
Men’s hormonal shifts are not as cyclical as those experienced by women. In healthy men, testosterone typically rises in the morning and falls later in the day. As a normal part of aging, testosterone levels also decrease with age. (23)
Did you know? Testosterone fluctuations appear to be seasonal. One study noted that testosterone concentrations are their highest during the fall and lowest during summer months in both men and women. (43)
Symptoms and signs of hormonal imbalance
Hormonal imbalances often present in numerous ways. Hormonal imbalance symptoms in men and women may include:
- Diminished cognitive function
- Fertility issues
- Hair loss
- Loss of libido
- Sensitivity to cold or heat
- Weight loss or gain (22)(30)(47)
Additionally, some signs and symptoms are specific to men and women, such as erectile dysfunction in men (22) and amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) (33) or menorrhagia (heavy periods) in women. (41)
If your practitioner suspects that you have a hormonal imbalance or a condition affecting your hormones, they may order a blood or urine test to examine your reproductive, thyroid, adrenal, and pituitary hormones. (48)
How to balance hormones naturally
Making small adjustments to your lifestyle, such as eating a healthy diet, staying active, and maintaining your weight, are effective strategies for balancing hormones.
Manage stress levels
Stress is a normal response to daily life events and immediate threats; however, heightened stress levels can wreak havoc on hormone production. (39) When left unaddressed, chronic (long-term) stress can cause cortisol levels, your body’s primary stress hormone, to remain elevated. Elevated cortisol can lead to increased appetite, obesity, and a host of other health concerns. (15)(49) Chronic stress can also negatively affect the production of sex hormones, contributing to various health concerns such as erectile dysfunction, fertility issues, and low libido. (1)
Incorporate ways to effectively manage your stress levels, such as meditating, exercising, spending time outdoors, playing with a pet, chatting with a friend or loved one, or seeking professional help when needed.
Incorporating exercise into your daily routine can have a positive impact on your hormonal health. Exercising about five times per week, specifically aerobic exercise, can reduce cortisol levels in both men and women. (3) Exercise can also help balance blood glucose (sugar) levels and is beneficial for treating and preventing insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition in which the body’s cells become less sensitive to insulin, a hormone necessary for blood glucose regulation. (5)
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to improve total testosterone and sex hormone-binding globulin in sedentary older men. (16) Further research has noted that resistance strength training can stimulate growth hormone and testosterone release in men of all ages, promoting muscle growth. (10)
Compared to men, research indicates that exercise affects women’s hormonal health differently. One study noted that endurance and resistance exercise increases testosterone, estradiol, and growth hormone compared to a control group. (9) It’s important to note that when it comes to exercise for women, moderation is key—frequent or prolonged intense exercise can cause hormonal disruptions that may impact a woman’s menstrual cycle. (2)
Eat a balanced diet
Consuming a balanced diet rich in healthy fats and protein is particularly important for hormonal health. Protein is necessary for hormone production and also influences hormones that control appetite and hunger. (4)(17) Protein requirements vary depending on your sex, age, height, weight, and activity level; however, new research suggests that consuming between 20 g and 30 g of protein per meal is beneficial. (26)
Studies indicate that consuming healthy fats, such as avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, can help reduce insulin resistance and stimulate the production of appetite-controlling hormones. (12)(40) Consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, is associated with increased luteal-phase progesterone concentrations, the hormone that is necessary for ovulation. Additionally, docosapentaenoic acid, which is also found in fatty fish, may lower your risk of anovulation (absence of ovulation). (32)
A poor diet consisting of sugary, processed foods can have detrimental effects on your hormonal health. Eating too much sugar has been shown to promote insulin resistance and increase insulin levels. (13) Aim to consume less sugary foods and beverages and opt for healthy options, such as fresh fruit.
Manage your weight
Your weight can directly influence your hormonal health. For example, research has determined that overweight and obese men are more likely to have lower testosterone levels. In obese women, higher concentrations of free estradiol and free testosterone are common, which may contribute to an increased risk of certain conditions such as depression and post-menopausal breast cancer. (6)(8)(42)(51)
Your weight can also influence the hormones that send signals to your brain when you’re hungry or full. Ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone, has significant effects on satiety (feeling full) and plays a major role in fat storage. When you’ve gone several hours without eating, your empty stomach secretes ghrelin to send hunger signals to your brain. (37) Some individuals, particularly those who are overweight or obese, don’t necessarily have higher ghrelin levels; instead, they may be more sensitive to the hunger-inducing effects of ghrelin. (50)
Did you know? If you’re looking to lose weight, it’s best to avoid highly restrictive diets that lead to rapid weight loss as they don’t produce lasting results. Restrictive diets can also cause the fullness hormone leptin to decrease, which can encourage overeating. (11)
Note that some conditions that affect hormonal health, such as PCOS or hypothyroidism, may cause weight gain or make weight loss more difficult. (24)(35) Speak to your integrative healthcare practitioner for testing and specific recommendations.
Limit caffeine and alcohol intake
Consuming caffeine and alcohol can impact hormone secretion. (28)(38) After drinking caffeinated beverages, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) production by the anterior pituitary increases, thus triggering cortisol secretion. (28) According to one study, consuming caffeine while experiencing mental stress can enhance the body’s stress response by further increasing cortisol levels. (27)
Research indicates that alcohol can also impact the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, promoting the release of circulating ACTH and glucocorticoids (steroid hormones). (38) In one study, cortisol levels significantly increased following the consumption of alcohol in healthy individuals. (38) Heavy drinkers, in particular, are more likely to experience dysregulation of the HPA axis. (44) Alcohol abuse can also impact reproductive function in both men and women by deregulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, a signaling pathway for endocrine glands and hormones involved in reproductive health. (38)
Feeling stressed? Drinking a cup of coffee may increase cortisol levels. Instead, reach for herbal tea or your favorite decaffeinated beverage. (27)
Avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals
Certain naturally-occurring and man-made chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, exhibit similar effects to the hormones produced by your body. Endocrine disruptors, which are often found in everyday products such as household cleaners, personal care products, and food packaging, can prevent hormones from performing properly. (7) These chemicals can enter the body through dietary intake, inhalation, or skin contact. (20) According to some studies, chronic exposure to these chemicals, even in small doses, may have detrimental effects on reproductive and thyroid health. (20)(31)(36)
Limit your exposure to harmful chemicals by choosing organic produce when possible, drinking filtered water, opting for household and personal care products free of harmful chemicals, and storing food in glass containers rather than plastic. (14)
The bottom line
Small hormone fluctuations are normal; however, you may notice undesirable health effects when your body produces too little or too much of a specific hormone. Hormonal imbalances can result from or contribute to various conditions, including diabetes, Cushing’s syndrome, or PCOS. If you suspect you may have a hormonal imbalance, speak to your integrative healthcare practitioner for evaluation and a treatment plan tailored to your needs.
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