Why Your Hormone Imbalance is Just a Symptom of Something Greater
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
You’re gaining weight around the middle, having hot flashes, low libido and just feel super drained. You’ve “Googled” article after article telling you that your symptoms are likely due to a hormone imbalance, but now what? You think to yourself, “what does this even mean and how do I fix it?” Well today, I’m here to tell you that your sex hormone imbalance is just a symptom of something greater and why digging deeper to uncover the root cause, is the answer to helping bring those hormones of yours back into harmony.
What is a Hormone and What do Hormones Do?
Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. They get secreted into the bloodstream to be carried to the organs and tissues that need them in the body, and act as a sort of internal “communication system.” In turn, they exert their functions. There are many types of hormones that act on different bodily functions such as
Development and Growth – like growth hormone (GH) and all the thyroid hormones (T3, T4, TSH)
Metabolism – like leptin, insulin, thyroid (T3, T4, TSH) and cortisol
Sexual Function – like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone
Cognitive Function – like memory boosting hormone IGF2 and melatonin
Maintenance of Body Temperature – like thyroid hormones (T3, T4, TSH)
Although, not the only type of hormones in our body (as indicated above), we are going to focus specifically on sex hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, which are often the main cause of concern for the general population, and we will dig deeper into what a sex hormone imbalance means in your body.
What are the Main Sex Hormones?
Estradiol – a type of estrogen more prominent in females. It is one of the three estrogens in the body (estradiol, estrone, estriol), but it is the strongest of the three. It is an important hormone in the female reproductive system and is made primarily in the ovaries through signals from the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. In men, estradiol is produced from testosterone, using an enzyme called aromatase.
Estriol – also a type of estrogen. It is the most abundant but is the weakest out of the three estrogens. Estriol is essential during pregnancy as it is produced in the placenta to prepare a woman’s body to give birth.
Progesterone – plays a crucial role in the female menstrual cycle. Progesterone goes hand-in-hand with ovulation because progesterone levels rise to prepare the uterus for the implantation of the embryo. It triggers the lining of the uterus to thicken, in order to accept the egg. Women who have low levels of progesterone will have abnormal menstrual cycles and may struggle to conceive because there is not enough progesterone to trigger the proper environment for a fertilized egg to grow.
Testosterone – this hormone is an “anabolic” (building) androgen hormone made from cholesterol in the testes in males and in the ovaries and adrenals in females. Testosterone affects any tissue with testosterone receptors and is the androgen responsible for “male characteristics” such as muscle building, libido, hair loss and bone strength to name a few.
DHEA – is a hormone produced in the adrenals and is the precursor for many sex hormones including estradiol and testosterone. It serves as an “anabolic” (building), counter-regulatory hormone to the “catabolic” (breaking down) effects of cortisol. It protects the central nervous system from the effects of cortisol ad promotes the growth and repair of protein and muscle tissue.
How are Sex Hormones Made and Why is This Important?
Hormones are produced by endocrine glands such as the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, or adrenals. Sex hormones specifically, start in the hypothalamus but are then controlled by sexual organs like the ovaries in females or testes in males. The process in which these hormones are created is fascinating so for anyone interested in the “science” of it, I detail it below.
The hypothalamus excretes gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which causes the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) into general circulation. The pituitary gland begins to increase production of FSH during menstruation. This then triggers the growth of follicles in the ovaries which contain female eggs, and at this point, one dominant follicle emerges. FSH begins to decrease, and the dominant follicle begins to produce estrogen to prepare for ovulation. During ovulation, LH surges and stimulates the follicle to release the egg. The ruptured follicle forms a corpus luteum which produces increasing quantities of progesterone to prepare the uterus for the embryo to be implanted. Estrogen levels are also high during this phase to stimulate the endometrium to thicken. If the egg is not fertilized the corpus luteum degenerates and the levels of progesterone and estrogen decrease, starting the cycle all over again.
The same initial process happens where the hypothalamus excretes GnRH causing the pituitary gland to release LH and FSH into general circulation. However, in men, FSH triggers sperm production, while LH triggers free testosterone in the testes. As blood levels of testosterone increase, it feeds back to suppress the GnRH, which then in turn suppresses LH, causing levels of testosterone to fall (negative feedback loop). When levels fall enough, the hypothalamus resumes the process all over again to start increasing levels of testosterone, effectively creating a balancing mechanism.
It is important to know how hormones are made because the intricacies of it all are complex, but when you look at it from a “bird’s eye view” we see how interconnected the body is. For example, when the endocrine (hormone) systems are not functioning properly, there are implications to musculo-skeletal health, which in turn affects fat and protein metabolism etc (see Figure 1). This is why as a Functional Practitioner; I look at more than just your hormones because hormone imbalance is often just a symptom of other dysfunction in the body. This is something I’ll go into in a second!
Figure 1: The Physiological Aspects of Metabolic Chaos
What Happens if Your Hormones are Imbalanced?
Hormone imbalances are to blame for a wide range of unwanted symptoms. In women approaching menopause, estrogen and progesterone begin to decrease, resulting in poor sleep, hot flashes, night sweats and weight gain. However, for women who are not menopausal and have these types of symptoms, it is a sign that something is out of whack!
In general, a hormone imbalance occurs when there is too little or too much of a hormone and even the slightest imbalance will have a noticeable affect on your health and well-being.
One common form of imbalance is called Estrogen Dominance. Estrogen dominance occurs when the ratio of estrogen to progesterone is elevated. Women with estrogen dominance often have symptoms that mimic menopause or PMS symptoms and has been linked to allergies, auto-immune disorders, breast cancer, ovarian cysts and accelerated aging.
Symptoms In Females
Mood swings/Brain Fog – estrogen has an effect on neurotransmitters (see the connection in the web above!) including serotonin, so fluctuations can cause anxiety and depression and/or brain fog.
Heavy or painful periods – this could indicate fibroids or ovarian cysts which are non-cancerous but can be painful. There is some indication to think that these are stimulated by estrogen, although the exact cause is unknown.
Low Libido – often common through menopause due to falling estrogen and testosterone levels, however in younger women, low libido is usually directly related to testosterone levels.
Insomnia/Poor Sleep – estrogen and progesterone are hormones that promote sleep, so low levels can make it difficult to stay and fall asleep. Falling estrogen may contribute to night sweats and hot flashes which can also disrupt sleep.
Unexplained Weight Gain – there are many hormonal issues that may affect weight gain such as an underactive thyroid, however too much OR too little estrogen can do the same thing. Falling estrogen levels affect leptin which is the hormone that inhibits hunger. Too much estrogen and too little progesterone leads to estrogen dominance which can do the same thing.
Skin Issues – chronic acne in adulthood could be a result of low estrogen and progesterone and high levels of testosterone. Testosterone affects the skin cells that line hair follicles leading to excess oil and clogged pores. Hormonal imbalance can also cause skin rashes and dry skin.
Headaches – there are many things that can cause headaches, but declining estrogen levels can often be a culprit. If you notice that your headaches occur at the same time each month, estrogen levels could be the cause.
Weak Bones – estrogen protects our bones and the loss of estrogen as we age is also associated with thinning bones.
Vaginal Dryness – falling estrogen levels results in the vagina walls becoming thinner and this in turn results in them becoming more dry and more painful to have intercourse.
Fertility Problems – Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) occurs when androgen (testosterone) levels are too high. Women with PCOS often experience infertility.
Hot Flashes/Night Sweats – when the body receives too much or too little of a hormone, it can result in flushing or sweating. Normally this is related to estrogen levels but can also be associated with changes in serotonin.
Symptoms In Males
Low Libido – similar to females, a drop in testosterone (also known as andropause) can affect libido
Gynecomastia (Development of Breast Tissue) – this is the enlargement of breast tissue in males and is normally a sign of estrogen dominance (estrogen levels increase and testosterone levels decline). Gynecomastia occurs when breast tissue is disproportionately large compared to the rest of the body.
Erectile Dysfunction – hormonal imbalances can interfere with sexual performance with difficultly having or maintaining an erection.
Loss of Muscle Mass – while lifestyle changes may have a huge bearing on this, low testosterone levels can impact muscle mass and result in muscle atrophy and weight gain
Difficulty Concentrating – low levels of testosterone can lead to decreased motivation, mood swings, irritability, anxiety and depression.
Why Imbalanced Hormones Don’t Tell the Full Picture
Our bodies are interconnected in so many ways, which is why a functional approach to health is so necessary. When hormone imbalances are uncovered, it is necessary to NOT just treat low or high hormone levels in isolation. YOU MUST understand WHY the hormones are imbalanced and there are SO many underlying reasons. This is why I never provide recommendations to my clients before I assess them holistically using a series of functional lab screenings, because otherwise I am just guessing. Some common connections to imbalanced hormones include…
1) The Gut - There is a link between the gut and imbalanced hormones because the gut is the “gatekeeper” of our immune systems and our immune system is the “gatekeeper” of our overall health. An imbalanced microbiome has been linked to poor estrogen regulation, lack of serotonin production and an underactive thyroid. The gut also influences healthy cholesterol levels which is the precursor to hormone production. Food Sensitivities will also cause inflammation, impacting the gut’s microbiome level. You could be eating the healthiest foods, but they may not be necessarily healthy for you. It can work the other way around too! Cells that line the GI track also have receptors for both estrogen and progesterone so when hormones are imbalanced, the Gut experiences distress. What impacts gut health? Diet is a huge one, including food sensitivities. Parasites and pathogens are another major root cause.
2) Insulin and Poor Blood Sugar Management – High insulin levels can stimulate production of androgens like testosterone, and this may be associated with insulin resistance. Insulin resistance means your cells are not able to absorb the glucose your body generates from the food we eat, resulting in our livers converting the glucose to fat. Insulin resistance in turn causes hormonal imbalances due to the increased adipose tissue in our bodies which creates estrogen and the stimulation of testosterone. What causes insulin resistance? Most of the time, this is a result of a poor diet.
3) Cortisol and HPA Axis Dysfunction – when cortisol is chronically high due to chronic stress it can affect neurotransmitters that make us happy, like serotonin. It can also affect our ability to get a good night’s sleep and increases fat storage in our body. Adipose tissue creates more estrogen, thus increasing total estrogen in the body. So, in essence…elevated estrogen could be a result of high cortisol levels. How does your cortisol become imbalanced? This is usually a result of a dysregulated HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) Axis which becomes burnt out over time due to chronic stress and over exercise
4) Problems with the “Master” Gland – the pituitary gland is the “mother” of all glands because it releases several hormones that affect bodily functions to produce our sex hormones. When the pituitary gland is not working properly, it will disrupt the creation of hormones. The most common cause of pituitary gland dysfunction is a pituitary gland tumor. These are usually non-cancerous but can result in more or less hormones being made and in some cases can grow large enough to affect the overall functioning
5) Liver Detoxification Issues – The liver is our primary detoxification organ and is responsible for converting toxins into waste products. When hormones like estrogen fulfill their function and are used in the body, they become waste products and are meant to be excreted by urine and the stool via the liver. When the liver is sluggish and not able to keep up with the excretion requirements of these hormones, the “bad” form gets re-circulated in the body, resulting in excess levels in the body and thus hormone imbalances.
It’s all interconnected and that is why “testing” instead of “guessing” is necessary to dig into the deeper issues surrounding hormone imbalance.
The Best Way to Test Your Hormones and Dig Deeper into the Root Cause?
To fully understand the root cause of your hormone imbalance, functional lab screenings are necessary. In my practice, I work with three foundational screenings to uncover hidden stressors resulting in hormone imbalance and identify healing opportunities to help get hormones back to normal and improve your overall metabolic health.
1. Dried Urine Hormone Test – this test helps to identify not only the overall levels of your hormones but will dig deeper into the hormone metabolites to uncover if your body has an issue with the detoxification of these hormones. This test also tests your cortisol levels to uncover underlying issues related to stress.
2. GI Map Stool Test – this test will uncover any gut dysbiosis (if your microbiome is imbalanced) and provides insight into digestion, inflammation and whether or not you have any hidden parasites or pathogens.
3. Food Sensitivities Test – as an important root cause of inflammation and thus hormone imbalance, uncovering foods that your body reacts to is an important discovery into overall metabolic dysfunction and thus hormone imbalance.
What You Can do to Help Balance Your Hormones?
1. Improve Your Diet – the most impactful thing you can do with your diet is to eliminate sugar, alcohol and processed foods to help balance blood sugar. Incorporating more plants like cruciferous vegetables, which release indole-3 carbinol molecules to form DIM will help reduce estrogen levels. DIM is a well-studied molecule known to support estrogen metabolism in the liver. Eliminating food sensitivities to reduce inflammation is imperative and eating right for your Metabolic Type is another great way to balance blood sugar and feel satiated. Ensuring you get enough protein is another important factor in hormone balance, specifically for testosterone levels. When your body doesn’t get enough protein, it makes more substances that bind to testosterone, leaving you with less testosterone available to do what it needs to in your body.
2. Hormone Happy Exercise – movement is important for everyone, but for those with elevated cortisol (resulting in adrenal fatigue) and thyroid issues, excessive exercise can have a negative effect on your hormones. Instead, look to do more adaptive type exercises such as yoga, Pilates or barre and ensure that you are cross training with resistance training to improve muscle mass and reduce osteoporosis.
3. Reduce Stress – stress has a major impact on our cortisol levels, which in turn affects our sex hormone levels. Find ways to manage both mental and physical stress. Use meditation and breathing techniques for your mental stress, visit a Chiropractor, Physiotherapist or Registered Massage Therapist to help with physical stress and incorporate mobility work (I like RomWOD) to help with both!
4. Add Nutrients and Supplements to Your Routine – Unfortunately our food supply in present time lacks the nutrients we once saw in the past. As a result, it is often necessary to add in supportive supplements to your routine.
For Estrogen Support: DIM and/or Calcium D Glucarate aids the liver in metabolizing and detoxifying excess estrogen.
For Progesterone Support: Vitamin B6 supports progesterone production, aiding the estrogen-progesterone balance and Chasteberry (also known as Vitex) is an herb that promotes the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) which in turn increase progesterone levels.
For Testosterone Support: Fenugreek is a popular herb-based option that in a 2020 review was shown to enhance testosterone levels. Tribulus is an herb that has been used for centuries and has been found to enhance sexual function and libido. Chrysin is a natural aromatase inhibitor which will inhibit the body from turning testosterone into estrogen. Finally, Ashwagandha is an ayurvedic herb traditionally used to help balance cortisol levels but has also been shown to boost testosterone and improve sexual health.
For Gut Support: A good quality probiotic along with an Omega Oil containing EPA+DHA will help to balance the microbiome and decrease inflammation
5. Fix Your Environment – toxins are everywhere, but endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that interfere with the endocrine (hormonal) system, can inhibit the synthesis, secretion and elimination of our natural hormones. Hormone disruptors can be found in cleaning products, personal care products and packaging. Xenoestrogens like Bisphenol A (BPA) imitate estrogens and have an estrogenic effect on living organisms and are found in many of the plastic products we use today. Using more natural personal care and cleaning products, reducing plastics, and avoiding non-stick cookware are some ways to avoid endocrine disruptors. For more information, visit the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of hormone imbalance, you are not alone. Millions of people all over the world are suffering, but you don’t need to suffer any longer. By working with a Functional Practitioner who can help you to uncover the root cause of your hormone imbalance using functional lab screenings, you can quickly be on the road to recovery, so that you can live the successful life you desire and deserve free from disease.
Book a FREE 30 Min Discovery Call now to learn more