Given the enormously important role that the endocrine system and hormones play in our overall health and wellbeing, it’s not surprising that an imbalance can cause debilitating symptoms.
The impact of our hormones goes well beyond just the menstrual cycle. If our hormones are out of balance, it will likely impact not only our menstrual cycle, but our weight, hair (growth/loss), sleep/fatigue, sexual function, digestion, skin, mood, and many other possibilities. So many elements of your health depend on maintaining a healthy hormonal balance.
Another issue is that hormones are incredibly complicated, and can sometimes take a while to rebalance naturally. Therefore, it’s always important to seek the advice of your healthcare practitioner to identify you are on the right track with the healing of any hormonal imbalance.
How does stress impact hormones?
Stress prepares the body to respond to a potential threat. During a stressful time, we experience an elevated heart rate, faster breathing, tense muscles and more, and all of these signs are triggered by the release of hormones which is controlled by the hypothalamus, connecting the endocrine and nervous systems. The hypothalamus sends a message to the adrenal glands to release two main stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
The immediate reactions felt when you encounter stress, such as elevated heart rate, tense muscles, fast breathing and sweating are all thanks to adrenaline. Adrenaline also provides a rush of energy which is necessary for ‘fight or flight’.
In the case of prolonged stress, the adrenal glands receive the signal to release cortisol. The stress effects of cortisol can take longer to kick in than adrenaline. Cortisol ensures there is enough glucose in the blood for energy production, and helps to suppress bodily functions that are not immediately required for fight or flight, such as digestion. If cortisol levels are elevated for prolonged periods, it will throw other hormones off balance and may cause significant health problems.
Progesterone is largely responsible for fertility. Much like oestrogen, progesterone levels fluctuate in line with the menstrual cycle, and are at their highest 5-7 days after ovulation. Low progesterone levels can cause heartache for some as it can make conception more difficult. Low progesterone levels are linked to lower fertility outcomes, as well as complications such as miscarriage and early labour.
Testosterone is present in both men and women. In women, testosterone is produced in small amounts in the ovaries and adrenal glands. The production of this hormone is involved the growth and maintenance of bone, muscle mass, female reproductive tissue, and signals the body to produce new blood cells.
There are three types of oestrogen in women; all of them are present throughout a woman’s life, but one will dominate depending on life stage: oestradiol during childbearing years, oestriol during pregnancy and oestrone after menopause. Oestrogen levels fluctuate in line with the menstrual cycle, being at their highest during the middle of the cycle (ovulation), and lowest during menstruation. Oestrogen also plays an important role in bone strength and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
Melatonin is our sleep hormone and works together with your circadian rhythm to aid sleep onset. It is produced in the pineal gland, and is responsible for signalling to our body that it’s time to go to sleep. This hormone induces physiological changes that promote sleep such as reduced body temperature and respiration rate. When we’re exposed to darkness, melatonin levels typically rise, while light suppresses the production of this hormone, so during the day, melatonin levels will decrease. Too much light (particularly blue light) before bed, or a lack of sunshine during the day can cause lower levels of melatonin.
Signs of imbalanced hormones
Feeling constantly tired or requiring an excessive amount of sleep to function properly can really impact your quality of life. Energy is a complicated area, but low energy could indicate that there is a hormone imbalance at play. If you feel like you are constantly fighting fatigue, there are some hormone tests that your practitioner can arrange to determine your imbalance.
Other signs that hormones may be requiring some attention are hair loss, dry skin, weight gain, weight loss, sleeping issues (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep), digestive issues (bloating, IBS), skin problems (acne), mood swings, night sweats, irregular periods, brain fog, and more.
While there are many lifestyle factors that determine hormone regulation, there are some key nutrients and herbs that can support healthy hormones, such as Vitex agnus-cactus, B5, B6, magnesium, and zinc.
It’s always a good idea to see your practitioner for hormonal imbalance as the interplay between hormones is complex. Your practitioner may need to run tests to determine your hormone levels. Any change to your diet or supplementation can potentially cause further imbalance or exasperate your symptoms if you don’t know the underlying cause or where the imbalance stems from.
Yvette is a qualified Melbourne-based Naturopath and Nutritionist, MINDD Practitioner, member of the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia, and Complementary Medicine Association. Yvette specialises in the treatment of conditions commonly affecting women and children, with a key interest in children’s digestive and neurological conditions, as well as women’s hormonal concerns, digestive issues, fatigue, anxiety, and skin concerns. Yvette consults in South Yarra, Melbourne, as well as Australia-wide via skype/zoom/phone.
The Naturopathic Co. Melbourne Naturopath 2020