A Balancing Act: Hormonal Imbalances in Women
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Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers that are essential to your health and well-being, but can be difficult to balance. Scientists have identified over 50 hormones in the human body that are produced by the endocrine system which travel through the bloodstream to the tissues, organs, muscles and skin communicating to every cell in the body what to do and when to do it. Hormones are responsible for regulating most essential bodily functions such as metabolism, homeostasis, general growth and development, reproduction, sexual function, sleep-wake cycle, and mood. Imbalances occur due to amount and variations of the different hormones in the blood. Hormones are powerful signals that can have major impacts on the body, even from a slight imbalance of a specific hormone. Some imbalances are only temporary and may negatively impact quality of life, but not harmful to one’s health while others are more long-term problems that require treatment in order to stay healthy.
“The female cycle lasts somewhere around 28 days and consists of four phases whereas a male’s cycle is over in the course of 24 hours.”
Due to differences in endocrine organs and cycles, it is important to understand the difference between male and female hormonal cycles. The female cycle lasts somewhere around 28 days and consists of four phases whereas a male’s cycle is over in the course of 24 hours and repeats itself every day. Women go through four phases throughout their month-long hormonal cycle: menstrual, follicular, ovulation and luteal. During these phases there are two main hormones, estrogen and progesterone, that peak at different points throughout the cycle causing different reactions and impacts on the female body. Effects may include changes in energy levels, sex drive, mood and appetite. In contrast to females who have a more extreme build and crash over a month’s time, males have smaller spikes and dips throughout the day that restarts every morning.
“Females naturally develop several hormonal fluctuations throughout their lifetime including during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, and post-menopause.”
Although cycle lengths vary, both males and females may experience imbalances in insulin, steroids, growth hormones and adrenaline levels. Females are likely to experience imbalances in progesterone and estrogen levels while males may experience an imbalance of testosterone. For women, common symptoms of hormonal imbalances include irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, mood swings, insomnia, low sex drive, unexplained weight gain or weight loss, decreased bone density, constipation or diarrhea, excessive hair growth, pain in the abdomen or back during menstruation and rashes on the skin. Common hormone-related conditions in women include PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), primary ovarian insufficiency (POI), and ovarian cancer. Females naturally develop several major hormonal fluctuations throughout their lifetime including during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, and post-menopause.
“Hormonal imbalances can also occur when the endocrine glands, which produce, store, and release hormones into the blood, are not functioning properly.”
Hormonal imbalances can also occur when the endocrine glands, which produce, store, and release hormones into the blood, are not functioning properly. Hormones produced and released by endocrine cells in the gut (so called enteroendocrine cells) and pancreas have received a lot of recent attention in connection with the epidemic of obesity, metabolic disorders and complications from these disturbances.
The most common hormone-related (endocrine) condition in the United States is diabetes, a condition where either the pancreas doesn’t make any or enough of the hormone insulin that the body needs to keep our blood glucose levels in normal range, a condition called type 1 diabetes. In contrast, in the most common form of diabetes, type 2 diabetes, the pancreas produces too much of the hormone insulin in an attempt to overcome the so-called insulin resistance of cells. In other words, sufficient insulin is released by the pancreas, but the insulin message is blocked from reaching the mechanisms involved in increasing the uptake of sugar, resulting in elevated blood levels of both insulin and sugar. Diabetes does require treatment in order to stay healthy and affects over 38 million people or 11.6% of the US population.
Since many hormones play a role in hunger/satiety signals and how the body uses energy, a hormonal imbalance can often result in weight gain from fat storage. The entero endocrine cells interspersed between the cells lining our gut, secrete hormones such as GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide) and GIP (glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide) which act both locally on cells in the gut, on vagal nerve endings and the pancreas in addition to reaching satiety centers in the brain (hypothalamus). These so-called incretins or satiety hormones play crucial roles in regulating metabolism, food intake and satiety and are the focus of a new class of medications for obesity and diabetes.
In addition to dysregulations in GLP-1 and GIP, excessive amount of cortisol and low thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) can lead to obesity. There are several other medical conditions that can impact the endocrine glands which affect hormone production such as hyper/hypothyroidism, hyper/hypoglycemia, Addison’s disease, anorexia and many more. Along with the multitude of medical conditions impacting endocrine glands, there are also several lifestyle habits and environmental factors that can play a role in hormonal imbalances. Some may include chronic stress, poor diet and nutrition, obesity, hormonal birth control medications, exposure to toxins, pollutants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
“Hormones are complex and powerful chemicals that can have major effects on your body.”
Although normal hormonal fluctuations are an important part of health, fluctuations are inevitable and there are several effective treatment options available. For those who are not trying to get pregnant, hormonal birth control is a commonly used contraceptive as well as a hormone treatment. For those who are trying to get pregnant, assisted reproductive technology, or in vitro fertilization (IVF) is an effective treatment for those with PCOS complications. Aside from medical treatment, doctors may recommend certain lifestyle changes to help manage a hormonal imbalance such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and managing stress levels. Hormones are complex and powerful molecules that can have major effects on your body. Although certain periods of hormonal imbalances are natural, it is still important to talk to your healthcare provider if you are experiencing new and persistent symptoms.