What to know about hormonal imbalances
Hormones are chemicals that are produced by glands in the endocrine system. Hormones travel through the bloodstream to the tissues and organs, delivering messages that tell the organs what to do and when to do it.
Hormones are important for regulating most major bodily processes, so a hormonal imbalance can affect a wide range of bodily functions. Hormones help to regulate:
- metabolism and appetite
- heart rate
- sleep cycles
- reproductive cycles and sexual function
- general growth and development
- mood and stress levels
- body temperature
Men and women alike can be affected by imbalances in insulin, steroids, growth hormones, and adrenaline.
Women may also experience imbalances in estrogen and progesterone levels, while men are more likely to experience imbalances in testosterone levels.
What Are Hormones, And What Do They Do?
Hormones are special chemical messengers in the body that are created in the endocrine glands. These messengers control most major bodily functions, from simple basic needs like hunger to complex systems like reproduction, and even the emotions and mood. Understanding the major hormones and what they do will help patients take control of their health.
The Endocrine System
The best way to answer the question “what are hormones?” is to take a look at some of the major hormonal systems in the body. Hormones are created by glands, which are part of the endocrine system. The main hormone-producing glands are:
- Hypothalamus: The hypothalamus is responsible for body temperature, hunger, moods and the release of hormones from other glands; and also controls thirst, sleep and sex drive.
- Parathyroid: This gland controls the amount of calcium in the body.
- Thymus: This gland plays a role in the function of the adaptive immune system and the maturity of the thymus, and produces T-cells.
- Pancreas: This gland produces the insulin that helps control blood sugar levels.
- Thyroid: The thyroid produces hormones associated with calorie burning and heart rate.
- Adrenal: Adrenal glands produce the hormones that control sex drive and cortisol, the stress hormone.
- Pituitary: Considered the “master control gland,” the pituitary gland controls other glands and makes the hormones that trigger growth.
- Pineal: Also called the thalamus, this gland produces serotonin derivatives of melatonin, which affects sleep.
- Ovaries: Only in women, the ovaries secrete estrogen, testosterone and progesterone, the female sex hormones.
- Testes: Only in men, the testes produce the male sex hormone, testosterone, and produce sperm.
These glands work together to create and manage the body’s major hormones.
Major Types of Hormones
What do hormones do, exactly? The body has many different hormones, but certain types have a bigger role to play in the body’s health and well-being. Understanding these roles is important for those looking to protect and manage their health.
For women, estrogen (or estradiol) is the main sex hormone. It causes puberty, prepares the body and uterus for pregnancy, and regulates the menstrual cycle. During menopause, estrogen level changes cause many of the uncomfortable symptoms women experience.
Progesterone is similar to estrogen but is not considered the main sex hormone. Like estrogen, it assists with the menstrual cycle and plays a role in pregnancy.
Cortisol has been called the “stress hormone” because of the way it assists the body in responding to stress. This is just one of several functions of this important hormone.
Melatonin levels change throughout the day, increasing after dark to trigger the responses that cause sleep.
Testosterone is the main sex hormone in men. It causes puberty, increases bone density, triggers facial hair growth, and causes muscle mass growth and strength.
When they are in proper balance, hormones help the body thrive, but small problems with hormones can cause serious and life-altering symptoms. If you have concerns about any of your hormones, talk to a qualified endocrinologist. To find an endocrinologist near year, visit our online directory today.
The symptoms of a hormonal imbalance depend on which glands and hormones are affected.
Symptoms associated with the more common causes of hormonal imbalances include:
- unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- unexplained or excessive sweating
- difficulty sleeping
- changes in appetite
- reduced sex drive
- thinning, brittle hair
- puffy face
- brittle or weak bones
- changes in blood sugar concentration
- irritability and anxiety
- unexplained and long-term fatigue
- blurred vision
- a bulge in the neck
- breast tenderness
- deepening of the voice in females
- changes in sensitivity to cold and heat
- very dry skin or skin rashes
- changes in blood pressure
- changes in heart rate
- increased thirst
- needing to go to the bathroom more or less than usual
Everyone will experience natural periods of hormonal imbalance or fluctuations at particular points in their life.
But hormonal imbalances can also occur when the endocrine glands are not functioning properly.
Endocrine glands are specialized cells that produce, store, and release hormones into the blood. There are several endocrine glands located throughout the body that control different organs, including the:
- adrenal glands
- gonads (testis and ovaries)
- pineal gland
- pituitary gland
- hypothalamus gland
- thyroid and parathyroid glands
- pancreatic islets
Several medical conditions are known to impact some, or several, of the endocrine glands. Certain lifestyle habits and environmental factors may also play a role in hormonal imbalances.
Causes of hormonal imbalances include:
- chronic or extreme stress
- type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- hyperglycemia (overproduction of glucagon)
- hypoglycemia (more insulin produced than there is glucose in the blood)
- underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
- over- or underproduction of the parathyroid hormone
- poor diet and nutrition
- being overweight
- hormonal replacement or birth control medications
- abuse of anabolic steroid medications
- solitary thyroid nodules
- pituitary tumors
- Cushing’s syndrome (high levels of the hormone cortisol)
- Addison’s disease (low levels of cortisol and aldosterone)
- benign tumors and cysts (fluid-filled sacks) that affect the endocrine glands
- congenital adrenal hyperplasia (low levels of cortisol)
- endocrine gland injury
- severe allergic reactions or infections
- cancers that involve endocrine glands
- chemotherapy and radiation therapy
- iodine deficiency (goiters)
- hereditary pancreatitis
- Turner syndrome (females with only one functioning X chromosome)
- Prader-Willi syndrome
- phytoestrogens, naturally-occurring plant estrogens found in soy products
- exposure to toxins, pollutants, and endocrine disrupting chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides
Women experience several periods of hormonal change in their lifetime, primarily during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and menopause.
Women naturally experience several periods of hormonal imbalance throughout their lifetime, including during:
- pregnancy, childbirth, and breast-feeding
- perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause
Women are also at risk of developing different types of hormonal imbalance disorders than men because they have different endocrine organs and cycles.
Medical conditions causing irregular hormonal imbalances in women include:
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- hormone replacement or birth control medications
- early menopause
- primary ovarian insufficiency (POI)
- ovarian cancer
Symptoms of hormonal imbalances in women include:
- heavy, irregular, or painful periods
- osteoporosis (weak, brittle bones)
- hot flashes and night sweats
- vaginal dryness
- breast tenderness
- constipation and diarrhea
- acne during or just before menstruation
- uterine bleeding not associated with menstruation
- increased hair growth on the face, neck, chest, or back
- weight gain
- thinning hair or hair loss
- skin tags or abnormal growths
- deepening of the voice
- clitoral enlargement
Hormonal imbalances in men
Men also experience natural periods of hormonal imbalance during their lifetime.
Natural causes of hormonal imbalances in men include:
Men are also at risk of developing different hormonal imbalances than women because they have different endocrine organs and cycles.
Medical conditions causing hormonal imbalances in men include:
- prostate cancer
- hypogonadism (low testosterone)
Symptoms of hormonal imbalances in men include:
- reduced sex drive
- erectile dysfunction (ED)
- low sperm count
- reduced muscle mass
- reduced body hair growth
- overdevelopment of breast tissue
- breast tenderness
Treatment for hormonal imbalances may vary depending on the cause. Every person may require different types of treatment for hormonal imbalances.
Treatment options for women with hormone imbalances include:
- Hormone control or birth control. For those who are not trying to get pregnant, medications containing forms of estrogen and progesterone can help regulate irregular menstrual cycles and symptoms. People can take birth control medications as a pill, ring, patch, shot, or an intrauterine device (IUD).
- Vaginal estrogen. People experiencing vaginal dryness associated with changes in estrogen levels can apply creams containing estrogen directly to vaginal tissues to reduce symptoms. They can also use estrogen tablets and rings to reduce vaginal dryness.
- Hormone replacement medications. Medications are available to temporarily reduce severe symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flashes or night sweats.
- Eflornithine (Vaniqa). This prescription cream may slow excessive facial hair growth in women.
- Anti-androgen medications. Medications that block the predominately male-sex hormone androgen can help limit severe acne and excessive hair growth or loss.
- Clomiphene (Clomid) and letrozole (Femara). These medications help stimulate ovulation in people with PCOS who are trying to become pregnant. Those with PCOS and infertility may also be given injections of gonadotropins to help increase the chances of pregnancy.
- Assisted reproductive technology. In vitro fertilization (IVF) may be used to help those with PCOS complications get pregnant.
Treatment options for anyone with hormonal imbalances include:
- Metformin. A medication for type 2 diabetes, metformin can help manage or lower blood sugar levels.
- Levothyroxine. Medications containing levothyroxine, such as Synthroid and Levothroid, can help improve symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Treatment options for men with hormonal imbalances include:
- Testosterone medications. Gels and patches containing testosterone can help reduce symptoms of hypogonadism and other conditions that cause low levels of testosterone, such as delayed or stunted puberty.
However, there are no natural remedies that have been consistently proven in clinical studies to treat hormonal imbalances and their causes, aside from lifestyle changes.
Natural supplements commonly used for the reduction of symptoms associated with hormonal imbalances include:
- black cohosh, dong quai, red clover, and evening primrose oil for hot flashes caused by menopause
- ginseng for irritability, anxiousness, and sleep disturbances caused by menopause
- ginseng, and maca for ED
Lifestyle changes that may help reduce the likelihood and symptoms of hormonal imbalances include:
- maintaining a healthy body weight
- eating a nutritious and balanced diet
- exercising regularly
- practicing good personal hygiene, focusing on washing areas with a lot of natural oils, such as the face, neck, back, and chest
- using over-the-counter acne washes, rinses, and medicated creams or gels for minor to moderate acne
- avoiding triggers that cause hot flashes, such as warm weather and spicy, rich, or hot foods and drinks
- reducing and managing stress
- practicing yoga, meditation, or guided visualization
- limiting sugary foods and refined carbohydrates
- avoiding packaged foods
- replacing older non-stick pans with ceramic pans
- using glass containers to store and heat foods and drinks
- restricting the use of cleaning products that contain toxic chemicals, such as bleach
- buying fruits and vegetables that have not been sprayed with pesticides or ripening chemicals
- not microwaving foods and drinks in plastics
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