I have so many women coming into my practice lately, complaining of symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, irritability, skin changes, hair loss, and irregular periods. They all have the same questions: Are these symptoms because of my hormones? Do I just have to live with them?
I’m so glad that more and more women are becoming aware of how important it is to have balanced hormone levels. Finally, people are talking about things like PMS and menopause without feeling like they are unmentionable issues. But I’m dismayed at the number of women who tell me they’ve tried to talk to their doctor, and continue to be told that hormone levels fluctuate naturally, and there’s nothing much to be done about it. Often, conventional practitioners don’t even test the full range of hormones — and when they do, the levels they consider “normal” are so broad that countless women are left feeling lousy with little hope for solutions.
That’s why hormone level testing is an essential piece of my information gathering process. When women come to see me, I want to know everything that’s going on behind the scenes, so I can get a complete picture of where those debilitating symptoms might be coming from.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the most important hormones in your body, what they do, and how your health is impacted when hormonal balance is off. Then I’ll talk about what kind of testing is available, and give you a few quick tips on maintaining hormonal balance – even through the important biological transitions in your life!
Understanding the Function of Essential Hormones
When women ask about hormones, they’re very often only thinking of the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone (and truthfully, many don’t even know that testosterone has an influence on women as well as men). But your body has so many other essential hormones – and all of these hormones can impact the symptoms you experience.
Hormones are your body’s messengers, traveling through your blood to let tissues and organs know what to do. Many major processes in your body, including metabolism and reproduction, are regulated by hormones. That means that when the levels of specific hormones are off, symptoms may arise.
The endocrine system is a complex set of hormone producing glands that work together to manage the hormone levels in your body. Not only are there ideal levels of individual hormones, but there are ideal ratios between some of these hormones. That’s why we need to test multiple hormones – we need to get the most complete information about what’s going on for you.
Let’s take a look at what some of these important hormones do, and how they are connected to each other.
As the main sex hormone for females, estrogen is the one most women have heard most about. Estrogen is responsible for puberty, regulating your menstrual cycle, and getting your body ready for pregnancy. In addition to the reproductive functions of estrogen, it also impacts other body systems including the brain, skin, bones, liver and heart. That’s a lot of important functions, which is why it’s so essential to be sure you have the right balance of estrogen being produced.
Progesterone has a similar role in reproduction, and the ratio between it and estrogen is vital to proper functioning. If the ratio is skewed – either by rising levels of estrogen or dropping levels of progesterone, your body will react with a range of symptoms.
Imbalances in estrogen and progesterone levels can also have a profound impact on mood. Estrogen helps produce serotonin, and progesterone impacts the GABA receptors in your brain which help you feel calm and get restful sleep.
Low testosterone levels can also impact women’s health in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it has a direct impact on sex drive, which is a common complaint I hear from women — they simply can’t get “in the mood,” and their relationships are suffering. But testosterone is also vital to bone strength, brain function, and muscle development.
Your thyroid gland produces both T3 and T4, which help regulate metabolism, play a role in breathing and heart rate, body temperature, weight, cholesterol levels, and so much more. That’s why it’s so important to address thyroid imbalances quickly. TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) is also critical, since it lets the thyroid gland know how much of each hormone it should be making.
I’ve talked a lot about the damage that chronically high levels of cortisol can do to your body. One of the primary functions of cortisol is to help your body respond to stress. But when stress is a constant in your life, you’ll keep on pumping out cortisol until your adrenal glands are operating on overload, and you start to feel the effects.
DHEA is another hormone made in your adrenal glands. DHEA is important because it helps your body with other hormone production, including estrogen and testosterone. DHEA has been found to have a significant impact on mood, and is often referred to as a “feel good hormone.” Although levels of DHEA drop naturally as you age, if it dips even slightly too low you can end up with that feeling that you “just aren’t yourself” anymore.
There are many more hormones that could have a large influence on how you are feeling. The best way to determine which levels to test is by having a comprehensive discussion with your health care provider, being completely honest about your symptoms.
Are Symptoms from Hormonal Fluctuation Something I Just Have to Live With?
So many conventional doctors are still telling women that hormones rise and fall constantly, and there’s not much to be done except managing symptoms with prescriptions of one kind or another. It’s true that there are times in a woman’s life where hormone levels will change – but it’s not true that you can’t find natural ways to maintain balance.
In order to understand why symptoms crop up, it’s important to know when those natural shifts in hormone levels might occur. If you are pregnant, perimenopausal or in menopause, your hormone levels will be changing drastically. Knowing what’s happening inside your body can help you make the best possible choices to even out those hormone levels. Likewise, if you notice specific symptoms at the same time every month, you are probably experiencing big shifts in your sex hormones during your menstrual cycle.
While you can’t stop those hormonal changes from happening, a little awareness can help you take steps to minimize the impact. You might pay extra close attention to what you are eating, for instance, or give yourself some extra nutritional support through supplements. The most important thing to know is that if you aren’t feeling like yourself, there are solutions! And if your imbalances are a result of natural fluctuations due to pregnancy, PMS, or menopause, the symptoms will pass, so don’t give up! Take extra good care of yourself and you can get yourself back into balance quickly.
What Can I Do About Long Term Symptoms?
Often, women come to me after they’ve dealt with symptoms for weeks, months – sometimes even years! When that happens, there’s more at play than those natural fluctuations. Something has gone haywire, and it is past time to figure out what! No one should have to deal with fatigue, irritability, anxiety, hair and skin issues, or other frustrating symptoms indefinitely.
When I see these women, I often recommend a complete hormone panel. Testing all hormone levels allows me to dig deep into what’s going on behind the scenes. With a complete overview of a woman’s hormonal health, I can ask the right questions to help determine why things have gone so out of balance. And once I have a better idea of what’s really going on, I can help women find the best ways to level things out. Every woman is a unique individual, with different lifestyle habits, genetic traits, and emotional baggage. And all of those things are connected to finding balance.
There’s no one size fits all protocol I use for hormone testing. I listen to exactly what’s going on for my patients, and make suggestions tailored to their unique needs.
How Are Hormone Levels Tested?
Often practitioners rely on blood tests alone to provide information about hormone levels. But I’ve found that sometimes, a blood test won’t give me the full story. Not only that, but the range considered “normal” in many blood tests is so wide it doesn’t pick up on slight imbalances that can make a huge difference. That’s why so many women are told their levels are in the normal range, but still feel lousy.
Saliva tests have been shown to be more accurate for measuring cortisol, DHEA, and for some, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels. Saliva testing provides more specific information and measures the amount of hormone bioavailable at the cellular level, rather than simply how much is circulating in the bloodstream.
Your provider should discuss all the options with you so that together you can decide which form of testing makes the most sense. It’s also important to note that to get the best information, hormone levels should be monitored over time. One moment in time doesn’t provide enough information to understand your normal.
Some women ask about the testing kits that are being sold for home use now. I always think it’s best to have testing done through your health care practitioner, who can help you interpret results and guide you in treatment.
How Can I Consistently Support Hormonal Balance?
Your body goes through so many changes in your lifetime. Some are universal; puberty, a menstrual cycle, perimenopause and menopause will happen for all women at some point. Other changes happen due to individual circumstances, genetics, and lifestyle choices. Conventional practitioners are right when they say that fluctuations in hormone levels are inevitable. But uncomfortable symptoms don’t have to be! Here are a few quick tips to keep those shifts to a minimum, and keep you feeling great!
- Consistently eat as well as you can. A lot of hormonal changes are directly affected by what you choose to put in your body. When you eat mostly unprocessed food, organic whenever possible, you’re giving your body the best shot at avoiding harmful chemicals and getting all the nutrients you need.
- Keep moving. You don’t have to exercise constantly, but a completely sedentary lifestyle won’t do you any favors. Regular physical activity boosts hormone levels – particularly if you do a combination of strength and cardiovascular training.
- Get quality sleep. Sleep has a huge impact on hormonal balance since that’s when many hormones are released into your bloodstream. Sleep loss has also been found to raise cortisol levels. And when hormone levels are out of whack, sleep is often more difficult to get. It’s a vicious cycle! Set a relaxing night time routine, and strive to get at least 7 hours of restful sleep every night.
- De-stress. Finding ways to keep your body relaxed and release stress is essential to keeping cortisol – and other hormones – balanced. There is no wrong way to de-stress — the key is to find something that works for you, whether that’s yoga, meditation, spending time with friends, listening to music, dancing or reading a great book. The possibilities are endless, as long as the activity leaves you feeling joyful and peaceful.
- Try phytotherapy or targeted supplements. Sometimes, no matter how healthy your habits are, you just need a little help. But that doesn’t have to mean a prescription! I have products specifically designed to help you level out all of your hormones and feel great again.
Maintain Vitality Throughout Your Life – Naturally!
I know a lot of these tips probably sound familiar; that’s because they truly are the best way to maintain good health! And being aware of your hormone levels through regular testing can be an essential way to monitor if what you are doing is working – or if you need to make some changes. There’s simply no good reason for women to resign themselves to years of discomfort. You can become the woman you once were again – I promise!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD