Hormone imbalances are a problem for both men and women, but women are especially susceptible because of the major role hormones play in a woman’s emotional and physical health. Your mood, sex drive and even how well you sleep can be affected by an imbalance in hormone levels. Most women are aware of how much hormones affect them because they feel these changes during their monthly cycle. However, many women are surprised to find that hormone imbalances can cause many more symptoms than just the usual PMS.
The female hormones estrogen and progesterone are especially important to your health because they regulate your reproductive system and assist with other functions in the body. Hormones produced by the pituitary gland, called luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone, are also important hormones for your health. These hormones can affect reproduction and are often connected to infertility issues. However, an imbalance in the ratio between estrogen and progesterone is the most common kind of hormone imbalance in women. Estrogen is the dominating hormone during the first half of your monthly cycle, and then progesterone levels increase when your ovaries release an egg, also referred to as ovulation. Towards the end of your cycle, both hormone levels drop, resulting in menstruation. However, many different factors can upset this natural balance, resulting in a myriad of emotional and physical symptoms.
Signs of Hormone Imbalance
One of the first signs that a woman has a hormonal imbalance is missing a menstruation cycle. This is because estrogen and progesterone must work in harmony for ovulation and menstruation to occur. However, some women can have a menstrual cycle and still have a hormonal imbalance. The symptoms of hormone imbalance may be physical or emotional, and often interfere with daily life.Common Physical Symptoms
- Insomnia or other sleep problems
- Breast tenderness
- Low libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Adult acne
- Irregular periods or none at all
- Uterine fibroids and endometriosis
- Hot flashes and sweating
- Fluid retention
- Feeling depressed
- Mood swings
- Fuzzy thinking
Hormone imbalances in women are also believed to contribute to some health conditions, such as osteoporosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome and some female cancers. For example, an excess amount of estrogen has been associated with uterine cancer, especially when using estrogen-based products without progesterone for hormone replacement therapy. Excess estrogen causes a build-up of endometrial cells on the uterine wall, but progesterone helps balance this effect, verifying the importance of having balanced hormones.
Menopause is an important time in a woman’s life when hormone levels drop, resulting in less menstrual cycles until eventually, your ovaries quit releasing eggs for ovulation. This time in a woman’s life is often referred to as “the change” because of all the changes these hormone fluctuations bring. With menopause, your levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone all dip below normal levels, resulting in a multitude of symptoms, including:
- Night sweats
- Hot flashes
- Low libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Thinning hair
- Mood swings
- Lack of menstruation
Most of these symptoms are caused by a drop in estrogen because the ovaries quit producing estrogen during menopause. However, the adrenal glands and various fatty tissues continue to make estrogen but in a much smaller amount. Testosterone levels also drop during menopause, and can cause low libido, disinterest in sex and difficulty achieving orgasm. However, menopause is just one condition connected to hormonal imbalances.
Complications of Imbalance
When hormones are imbalanced for an extended period of time or the imbalance is severe, different medical conditions can occur as a result. Fibrocystic breast disease is a condition that causes sore, swollen and tender breasts due to hormonal fluctuations. In fact, the National Institutes of Health reports that more than half of women are affected by this condition, and women between the ages of 30 and 50 are especially at risk. Endometriosis and uterine fibroids are also conditions believed to be affected by hormonal imbalances. In both cases, an excess amount of estrogen is believed to be to blame. However, other factors may also contribute to the disorders. Some other conditions affected by hormone imbalances include unwanted hair growth, headaches and infertility issues.
Causes of Imbalance
Many different things can affect your hormone levels, resulting in an imbalance in your natural flow. Birth control is the most common reason young women experience hormone imbalances. In fact, many birth control products work by tricking your ovaries into thinking you’ve already ovulated, which changes the amount of hormones produced in the ovaries. In addition, high doses of hormones in birth control products can also disrupt a normal balance. This is one of the reasons that low-dose birth control products are now available, to help mimic a woman’s normal monthly cycle with less disruption in hormone levels. Lifestyle-related factors that affect hormone levels include smoking, extreme diets, eating disorders, recreational drugs and environmental chemicals.
Hormone Replacement Options
For many women, treatment involves identifying the reason for the hormone imbalance in the first place. For example, women as young as 40 years of age may experience signs of menopause due to fluctuating hormone levels. Blood tests show lower than normal levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone in most cases. Menopause is most often treated with hormone replacement therapy, a specific kind of treatment that replaces the hormones lost in the normal aging process. However, hormone therapy can increase your risk for heart attack, stroke and invasive breast cancer, so talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of hormone replacement therapy. Hormones can be administered as a pill, cream, transdermal patch or as a vaginal ring that you place inside the vagina.
Natural, plant-based hormone products are also available over the counter in many health food stores and pharmacies. However, these natural products contain estrogen-like compounds and therefore may increase your risk for stroke, heart attack and breast cancer much like traditional methods. Because hormone imbalances often cause emotional symptoms, relaxation practices like yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises are quite effective for relieving symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression related to hormone disorders. Exercise is another natural treatment for hormone imbalances because it boosts endorphins, the feel-good chemicals produced in the brain. Other factors that can affect hormone levels include diet, weight loss, weight gain and other hormone disorders.