From puberty to menopause and everything in between, hormone imbalances can be frustrating, especially since hormones impact so many different body systems. And while hormone fluctuations are normal (especially for sex and stress hormones), that doesn’t mean we should be stuck with uncomfortable symptoms.
But prescription, hormone-altering medications like hormone replacement therapy can be expensive and equipped with their own set of side effects. Below, we’ll walk through common signs of hormone imbalance as well as herbal and nutritional support for gentle, natural relief.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical substances that help build your body’s structures and coordinate its functions. They’re secreted by endocrine glands and have roles in growth, sleep, metabolism, mood, reproduction, and sexual development and response.
There are many kinds of hormones, but we’ve called out some of the more common culprits of hormone imbalance below.
Thyroid hormones regulate metabolism, including your weight, energy levels, and body temperature.
Insulin regulates blood sugar levels and converts carbohydrates to sugar or fat.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands and performs and regulates a wide range of functions, from metabolism to immune and stress response.
Estrogen is responsible for regulating menstruation in women, and reproductive functions and structures in both women and men.
Progesterone stimulates and regulates conception, pregnancy, and menstruation in women, and serves as a precursor to testosterone in both women and men.
Testosterone is a sex hormone responsible for building muscle and bone. It also regulates sexual function and body hair growth in both men and women.
What is hormonal imbalance?
A hormonal imbalance means your endocrine glands are producing too much or too little of a given hormone. Having hormones released in more or less concentrated quantities can deeply impact the way our bodies grow and work.
Many medical conditions can cause hormone imbalances, especially ones that directly affect endocrine glands. Examples of these include thyroid disorders, diabetes, Addison’s disease, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
And sometimes one form of hormone imbalance can trigger others. For example, in some cases of PCOS the pancreas produces too much insulin, prompting the ovaries to make more testosterone, disrupting ovulation and leading to symptoms like irregular periods, ovarian cysts, and increased body and facial hair.
But not all hormone imbalance is due to disease or disorders. Stress can spike cortisol levels, which use up the raw materials that your body needs to create sex hormones. This leads to insufficient levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
Menopause, pregnancy, breastfeeding, age-related hormone declines, and hormonal birth control are also common causes of hormonal imbalance.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance in women
While every body is different, there are some common symptoms of hormone imbalance to keep an eye out for, especially when it comes to reproductive hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.
1) Unusual periods
If your once-predictable menstrual cycle now features unusually heavy, irregular or painful periods, fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone may be to blame — especially for women experiencing puberty or approaching menopause.
That said, consult your healthcare provider if you experience sudden changes in your cycle, since unusual periods can also be signs of conditions like endometriosis or uterine fibroids.
Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of an irregularity with hormone levels for both men and women. High levels of progesterone (which occur naturally during pregnancy), hypothyroidism, or decreasing testosterone levels with age, are all possible hormone triggers for fatigue.
3) Hot flashes and sweating
While most people associate hot flashes with the estrogen and progesterone fluctuations of menopause, they can also be a sign of high cortisol levels from stress. Estrogen and progesterone levels may also drop due to excessive exercise, thyroid disorders, sudden weight loss, low body weight, or issues concerning the pituitary gland (a supervisory endocrine gland in your brain).
4) Mood swings
Mood swings aren’t confined to women. Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels all play a part in mood swings, and men can also experience fluctuations in these hormones. When men experience drops in testosterone due to age, stress or medical conditions, they are likely to also experience a low mood. Additionally, cortisol spikes during stressful times can cause heightened anxiety and irritability in both men and women.
5) Skin problems
Acne, dry skin, dark circles, rashes, and wrinkles are just a few of the many ways that hormone imbalances impact your skin.
Raised estrogen or testosterone can stimulate your oil glands, causing acne. A drop in those same hormones prompts loss of collagen and elastin, reducing skin firmness and elasticity.
A spike in your cortisol levels may prevent you from getting restful sleep, which is necessary for optimal skin moisture and collagen production.
Hormone therapies for women
Some women choose to undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to control their hormone levels.
Hormone therapy can be systemic (delivered through a pill or skin patch) or local (vaginal rings, suppositories or creams to treat vaginal symptoms of menopause). Hormones can be synthesized from the urine of pregnant horses, or derived from plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) found in soy or yams that have identical molecular structures to human hormones.
These plant-based hormones are called bioidentical hormones. While we’re still learning about the benefits and risks of bioidentical hormones relative to synthetic hormones, some health care provider and researchers believe bioidentical hormones will prove to be the healthier choice.
If you’d like to avoid the HRT route altogether or support an ongoing protocol, plenty of foods and herbs can support healthy hormone levels, naturally.
Knowing what foods to add to or subtract from your diet is an important part of naturally regulating your hormones.
Dr. Sarah Bennett, a naturopathic physician at Natural Med Doc in Arizona, offers lifestyle advice in addition to hormone therapy recommendations:
“I also can’t emphasize enough how important it is to help your body every day with the right nutrients. This is vital to sustainability, and you can’t outrun poor diet and exercise, no matter what treatments you seek out.”
Some foods to consider adding to your diet include:
Sources of fiber like broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts to help your body better metabolize and regulate estrogen.
Plant-based protein like beans, seeds, quinoa, and nuts to avoid meat or dairy products with excessive hormones.
Green tea as a replacement for coffee to avoid overworking your estrogen and possibly even encouraging fibroid growth.
Low-carb and low-sugar foods and snacks optimize your hormone production by keeping insulin levels low (and maintain your overall health).
Healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil and MCT oil to reduce insulin resistance.
Fatty fish to boost your omega-3 levels to reduce the effects of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
Ultimately, a conversation with your health care provider can help narrow down the exact foods that you should eat or avoid given your unique circumstances.
Herbal and supplemental solutions
During your period, herbal blends geared specifically towards discomfort will be incredibly helpful. Herbs like cramp bark, Jamaican dogwood, and peony roots are good additions to help with the immediate discomfort caused by a period.
For menopausal discomfort, look for blends that use hormone-supporting herbs like wild yam, damiana, and sarsparilla, and adaptogenic herbs like licorice root.
Below are some additional supplements that can help with hormone imbalance:
Probiotics help overall body system regulation
Magnesium helps regulate cortisol
Omega-3 helps protect against inflammatory damage
Of course, also staying on top of regular exercise, healthy amounts of sleep, and stress management will go a long way in naturally regulating your hormones and keeping the symptoms at bay, no matter what your specific concerns may be.
Hormone imbalance is frustrating, and unless we’re in a position where hormone therapy is necessary it can be beneficial to try to regulate ourselves with natural solutions like diet and exercise.
Combatting everything from mood swings to skin problems can seem like a lot to stay on top of, but since our hormones all work together, simply knowing the right foods, supplements and lifestyle changes will go a long way.
Katherine (Tori) Lutz is a writer, editor, and marketer. She graduated from Florida State University and is currently a journalism student at Columbia University.