Whether it’s lower energy, weight gain, irritability, decreased sex drive or other symptoms, as many women approach 40 years of age or older, they report feeling ‘different.’ This feeling can come from a variety of sources such as lifestyle changes, diet, or stress. However, for many women this is often a sign of their declining hormones. Let’s take a look at the primary hormones at work in a woman’s body.
The How and Why of Women’s Hormones:
Of course, female sex hormones – estrogen and progesterone – have the most significant effect on a woman’s health, from menstruation to pregnancy to menopause and more. But, your body makes and utilizes a variety of other hormones that affect other aspects of your health – from your energy level, weight, mood and more.
Here’s a closer look at the main hormones within a woman’s body, how they work and what happens when you have either too little or too much of each.
According to the Hormone Health Network, estrogen is responsible for bringing about the physical changes that turn a girl into a woman during puberty, including enlarging of the breasts, growth of pubic and underarm hair and the start of menstrual cycles. Aside from estrogen’s obvious importance to childbearing, it helps to keep cholesterol in control, contributes to protecting bone health and affects your brain (including mood), heart, skin and other tissues throughout the body.
The primary source of estrogen in women is the ovaries, which produce a woman’s eggs. However, your adrenal glands, which are located at the top of each kidney, also make small amounts of estrogen, along with fatty tissues. Estrogen moves throughout your body in your bloodstream and acts everywhere throughout your body. Estrogen levels change throughout the month, and are highest in the middle of your menstrual cycle and lowest during your period. At menopause, estrogen levels drop.
Women with low estrogen, due to menopause or surgical removal of the ovaries may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Menstrual periods that are less frequent or stop altogether
- Hot flashes and/or night sweats
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Dryness and thinning of the vagina
- Decreased sexual desire
- Mood swings
- Dry skin
Women with too much estrogen may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Weight gain, particularly in the midsection (waist, hips and thighs)
- Menstrual problems, such as light or heavy bleeding
- Worsening of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Fibrocystic breasts (non-cancerous breast lumps)
- Uterine fibroids (non-cancerous tumors in the uterus)
- Loss of sex drive
- Feeling depressed or anxious
As a steroid hormone secreted by the corpus luteum, a temporary endocrine gland that women produce after ovulation, progesterone prepares the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) for the possibility of pregnancy after ovulation. Progesterone works to encourage the lining to accept a fertilized egg while prohibiting non-painful uterine muscle contractions that may cause the body to reject an egg. If a woman does not become pregnant, the corpus luteum breaks down and the progesterone levels decrease in the body, causing the woman to menstruate. In the event of pregnancy, progesterone continues to stimulate blood vessels in the endometrium that will nourish and support the growing baby.
Women who have low levels of progesterone often have abnormal menstrual cycles or struggle to conceive, because the lack of progesterone doesn’t provide the proper environment for a fertilized egg to grow. Women with low progesterone levels who do succeed in getting pregnant are at higher risk for miscarriage or preterm delivery, as progesterone helps maintain the pregnancy.
Women who suffer from low progesterone may experience abnormal uterine bleeding, irregular or missed periods, spotting and abdominal pain during pregnancy and frequent miscarriages. However, low progesterone levels can also create higher estrogen levels, which may contribute to the following symptoms:
- Decreased sex drive
- Additional weight gain
- Gallbladder problems
As the primary sex hormone found in men, testosterone plays an important role in a woman’s body, too. Relatively small amounts of testosterone are produced in the ovaries and adrenal glands and released into the bloodstream, where it contributes to a woman’s sex drive, bone density and muscle strength.
Women who produce too much testosterone may experience:
- Irregular or absent menstrual periods
- More body hair than the average woman
- Male-pattern or frontal balding
- Increased muscle mass
- Deeper voice
Women with high levels of testosterone may struggle with infertility and commonly suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine condition that is sometimes seen in women of childbearing age who have difficulty getting pregnant. Like their high-testosterone level counterparts, women with PCOS have similar symptoms, which include:
- An apple-shaped body
- Excessive or thinning hair
- Menstrual irregularity
- Insulin resistance
- Carbohydrate intolerance – a condition that makes you prone to gaining weight
- Low levels of “good” cholesterol, high levels of “bad” cholesterol
- Elevated triglycerides
- High blood pressure
When women go through menopause and the ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone, testosterone levels go down as well, though not as rapidly. For most women, the common side effect is a reduced libido, which can often be remedied through receiving supplemental testosterone.
The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that sits low in the front of your neck, secretes several hormones. If your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), you may have a condition called hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid.
According to the Mayo Clinic, women, especially those over the age of 60, are more likely to have hypothyroidism, which upsets the normal balance of chemical reactions in the body. While it seldom causes symptoms in the early stages, untreated hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.
You may have hypothyroidism if you experience:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin
- Weight gain
- Puffy face
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated blood cholesterol levels
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
- Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints
- Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- Impaired memory
The good news is that if you have deficiencies in any of these hormones, there are ways that we can supplement them to get them back to the levels where you feel good. Here at Health + Hormones, we use bioidentical hormones that are compounded to be exactly what your body needs to help you feel your best. Measuring your hormone levels with a blood test is important to get a picture of your health, but your body may need more hormones that someone else’s body, and we will treat you based on how you feel to get you back to feeling your best.
What might be impacting my hormones?
Having balanced hormones is essential for a well-functioning body. They are responsible for many physiological processes and when out of balance can cause adverse side effects. We often associate hormonal imbalances with illness or age, and that is true in many cases. However, lifestyle habits may also be a contributing factor. Here are some areas to consider:
1. Nutrition and Diet
Your diet can have a big effect on the processes within your body. What you put into the body to fuel it will have an impact on how it functions.
A healthy diet is important to maintaining good gut health, which is a lot more necessary for overall health than you might think. Poor gut health is linked to inflammation, which is the root of many health issues including hormonal imbalances. By making your immune system work overtime, an unhealthy gut can affect your hormone levels.
To avoid a diet-related hormonal imbalance here are some tips:
- Balance the macronutrients you eat. Macronutrients are carbs, fats, and proteins.
- Reduce the amount of inflammatory foods you consume. The foods that cause inflammation differ from person to person. So if your diet is causing health issues like hormonal imbalance, your doctor may test you for food sensitivities or put you on an elimination diet to determine what might be causing you problems. Common inflammatory foods include refined grain products like white flour, trans fats, hydrogenated oils, added sugar, and sometimes dairy.
- Increase your probiotic intake with the following types of foods:
- Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, and kimchi. A lot of people also tout kombucha as a good source of probiotics because it is fermented, but some recent research suggests the amount may be negligible.
- Prebiotics like oats, bananas, onions, and chicory root, garlic, leeks, savoy cabbage and water.
- High-fiber fruits, legumes, and whole grains (provided you do not have a gluten sensitivity).
- When getting the fiber mentioned above, keep in mind that you should aim to consume 25-30 mg per day. Other sources of dietary fiber include avocados, raspberries, and psyllium husk.
- Consume healthy fats in healthy quantities. Some sources of healthy fats include:
- Fish like wild-caught salmon
- Nuts and seeds
- Dairy (organic and grass-fed is recommended to avoid additional hormones)
- Grass-fed meat
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Drink enough water to hydrate properly. Adequate water supply is critical for proper bodily function. The conventional wisdom suggests 64 oz a day, or eight servings of 8 oz.
Related to diet, the amount of alcohol and caffeine you consume can have an effect on your hormones. When too much caffeine is consumed it increases the amount of stress hormones the adrenal glands produce. This can lead to sleep loss, appetite changes, digestive issues, and ultimately energy levels, which is the opposite of the reason you likely consume caffeine in the first place.
Limiting caffeine intake to one to two servings per day is helpful in avoiding these problems. Some people also have caffeine sensitivities that mean it should be avoided altogether.
3. Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol consumption can also contribute to hormonal imbalance. Often this takes the form of estrogen dominance and can lead to an increase in risk of serious problems like abnormal pancreatic function, insulin resistance, liver disease, anxiety and malnutrition. This can also lower testosterone and interfere with your sex drive.
The recommended healthy alcohol intake is one drink per day for women (so seven or fewer weekly) and two per day for men (fourteen or fewer weekly). But in general, the less alcohol you consume, the better your internal balance will be.
It’s no secret that smoking is detrimental to one’s health. Not only is it associated with an increased risk for lung cancer, but it can affect the body in places beyond the respiratory system. Smoking affects reproductive hormones like estrogen and testosterone. It has been linked to decreased fertility in women, shortening her reproductive period by up to 10 years.
When you are stressed, your body reacts physically via the production of stress hormones. The US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine has many published studies on the relationship between stress and hormones.
As mentioned before, stress hormones are at the top of your body’s priority list. Therefore, when you are going through a stressful time period, you might experience hormone fluctuation and imbalance.
The increase in the stress hormone cortisol can lead to the following:
- Decreased immunity
- Weight gain (and high-calorie intake)
- Decreased focus, memory and concentration. This can lead to poor work or academic performance.
6. Inadequate Sleep
Inadequate sleep essentially has the same effect on the body and hormone levels as stress. Your body needs the right amount of rest to function properly and when it does not get enough, the stress reaction is triggered. In addition to a feeling of exhaustion, lack of sleep will cause the same problems as stress.
7. Exposure to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)
Like their name suggests, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are chemicals that affect the function of your endocrine system. EDCs can increase and decrease levels of hormones because they can change how they are made, broken down and stored in our bodies. Other ways EDCs interfere with hormonal balance are changing our hormonal sensitivities and mimicking real hormones.
Lifestyle habits like diet and the products we use at home and work can lead to exposure to EDCs. Cleaning products, pesticides, personal care products, certain antibacterial products, food storage and wrappers, old cookware, and textiles can all have EDCs in them. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a helpful resource for more information about choosing safer products.
If you have tried making many of these changes and are still feeling many of these symptoms of hormone imbalance, it may be time to do a consult with our provider. A free consultation can help to answer many of your questions and to determine if now is the time to start supplementing your hormones with bioidenticals. The process is simple and can be done from the comfort of your home. Click the link below if you think that now is the time to look into doing more for your health.