Let’s hear it for hormones! These chemical messengers sometimes get a bad rap, copping the blame for everything from PMS misery to menopause hot flashes. But the fact is, a good reproductive hormone balance is a part of what helps humans stay healthy. Would you know if yours was off-kilter? Let’s go through the warning signs of hormone imbalance, and the steps you can take to get in control.
What are female hormones, anyway?
Technically, there’s no such thing as a “female hormone” or a “male hormone”. Men and women both share the same hormones: just in different amounts. But, when we talk about female hormones, we’re generally referring to the two big-name ones released by the ovaries over the menstrual cycle: estrogen and progesterone.
Estrogen is released in increasing amounts from the end of your period until ovulation. It helps ripen up the cycle’s follicle for ovulation, and develops the endometrium lining of the uterus in preparation for a possible pregnancy.
Progesterone, on the other hand, increases in amount after ovulation, and levels stay high until your next period. This hormone keeps the endometrium thick and ready for a fertilized egg to implant, and causes a slightly elevated body temperature to maintain a pregnancy.
Hormonal imbalance in women
In the context of women’s health, “hormone imbalance” is a blanket term for any situation where either estrogen or progesterone aren’t being released properly over the course of the menstrual cycle. This could be a matter of quantity, timing, or both.
If it’s a problem of quantity, your body may be producing more or less hormone than it needs. If it comes down to timing, your body could be releasing a hormone at a point in your cycle when it’s supposed to be lower, or your body could be missing its cue to release it at the right time. Either way, this can throw your fertility cycle out of whack.
Hormone imbalance symptoms
Hormone imbalances can cause a range of symptoms, but there are some tell-tale symptoms you should speak to a doctor about.
You may notice changes in your usual menstrual cycle. Your menstrual period could last longer or shorter than usual, or there may be more or less bleeding than you’re used to. These kinds of abnormal menstrual cycles can make it difficult to become pregnant, such as if they lead to anovulation (failing to release an egg).
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms
Experiencing PMS symptoms like irritability, depressed mood and back pain doesn’t necessarily mean you have a hormone imbalance, but a hormone imbalance can make it worse. If your PMS symptoms are causing you a lot of distress or interrupting your daily life, speak to a doctor. Severe distress from PMS isn’t “just part of being a woman”, and treatment is available.
You might notice symptoms of back pain and abdominal cramps during your period getting worse. Menstrual symptoms can vary from person to person and month to month, but they shouldn’t be so severe that they interfere with your daily life. Very painful periods (also called dysmenorrhea) can be a sign of underlying hormone imbalances.
Without enough progesterone to maintain the uterine lining, sections of the endometrium can begin to break down and exit the body. You might recognize this as irregular vaginal bleeding or spotting in between periods.
Hormone imbalance causes
Progesterone and estrogen are both released by the ovaries, which gets its orders from the hypothalamus in the brain. There are lots of factors that can disrupt that chain of command, leading to hormone imbalances.
When the hypothalamus is placed under stress, it has to put reproductive hormones like progesterone and estrogen on the backburner. If you’ve been under pressure at work, at home or in general, it could be showing up in your hormone levels.
Just like emotional stress, you could be inadvertently stressing your body out if your lifestyle is a bit out of balance. Factors like poor diet, sleep deprivation and drinking too much alcohol can all end up causing hormone imbalance.
The root cause of hormone imbalance can be physiological. Underlying ovarian dysfunction can disrupt normal hormone levels, so consider making an appointment with a gyno to work out what’s going on.
It’s no secret that that fertility declines with age. As you get older, your ovarian function declines. A steep decline usually occurs in the latter half of your 30s, but stress can cause this hormonal change to kick in even earlier.
Hormone imbalance treatment starts with lifestyle
Hormonal imbalances can leave you feeling pretty crummy, and make it harder to get pregnant when you’re trying to conceive. However, there are steps you can take to get back into a healthy hormone balance.
Early to bed, early to rise
Getting enough sleep at the right time is important for hormone balance. Estrogen levels are thought to increase when you take a good dose of bright light in the morning, so getting into the habit of an early bedtime and an active start to the day could be a great step.
Find stress relief
Stress can be a big factor in hormone levels, so it’s important to take time to care for your mental health. Make sure to take some time every day to unwind from stress at the office or at home by doing something you enjoy! Something as simple as a coffee date with friends or relaxing with your favorite TV show can be a great step towards getting your stress levels under control.
Diet and exercise
Eating either too much or too little can throw your body’s hormone balance all out of whack, as can unhealthy patterns of yo-yo dieting. Rather than jumping onto extreme weight loss plans, try to build a healthy lifestyle around a balanced diet based on nutritious foods. Moderate exercise at least twice a week can also help control weight and boost your physical and mental health.
Smoking damages almost every organ in your body, and your reproductive system is no exception. Smoking cigarettes has been linked to hormone imbalances, leading to menstrual disorder, infertility and earlier menopause. If you smoke, quitting is one of the best steps you can take for your hormone health.
Don’t ignore the signs of hormone imbalance
Hormone imbalances can lead to severe period pain, premenstrual misery and trouble conceiving. Some simple lifestyle adjustments can help you get in control of your cycle, and medical treatment is available for severe imbalances. Hormone imbalance isn’t something you have to live with, so see a doctor if you have any concerns about your hormone balance.