Have you experienced any of the following?
- Mood swings
- Tender breasts
- Joint or muscle pain
- Irregular periods
- Hot flashes
- Low libido
- Water retention
Although these symptoms are varied, they have a common theme: they’re all related to hormonal imbalance.
And they’re far from rare. In fact, it’s believed that up to 75% of women suffer from some form of hormonal imbalance .
What are hormones?
Hormones are substances secreted by glands all around your body. They act as chemical messengers, telling cells to carry out particular functions.
There are lots of hormones, and they all work in symphony. In fact, you can imagine hormonal function as an orchestra. If one musician plays too slowly or too quickly—or doesn’t play at all—it can affect the sound of the whole piece.
This is how your hormones work: when they’re all in sync, function appears effortless. If they’re just a little out of whack, everything can seem a little discordant.
What’s more, women’s hormonal function is much more complex than men’s. If any of the key players—cortisol, insulin, thyroid hormone, oestrogen, testosterone or progesterone—are out of balance, it tends to show up in a woman’s most delicate hormonal dance: her reproductive cycle.
In this way, a woman’s reproductive health has been called ‘the canary in the coalmine’ . If something is awry, it may be an indication that there’s imbalance elsewhere in the body.
What are symptoms of hormonal imbalance?
As well as the symptoms listed above, hormonal imbalance in women can develop into diagnosable conditions. These include:
These conditions involve oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, collectively known as the sex hormones. However, as mentioned, all hormones work together. The function of cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone), insulin (the ‘storage’ hormone) and thyroid (the ‘metabolism’ hormone) influences the function of the sex hormones too.
A conventional approach typically involves measuring the hormones, working out which ones are low, and supplementing with synthetic or bio-identical hormones as required. Although this can lead to symptom improvement, it doesn’t address why the hormones were out of balance in the first place.
What causes hormonal imbalance?
An easy way to think about hormones is to see them as a reflection of lifestyle. If something in a person’s life in unbalanced in some way, it’s likely their hormones will be too.
Some of these destabilising factors include:
Too much weight. Too much visceral adipose tissue (otherwise known as belly fat) can create high levels of oestrogen in the body . It also increases inflammation, which has a knock-on effect on several other hormones.
Too much alcohol. This puts a strain on a person’s detoxification function, which affects their ability to get rid of old hormones appropriately .
Too much sugar. Over time, too much sugar—and refined carbohydrates in general—can contribute to insulin resistance. This, in turn, can lead to raised levels of testosterone in a woman’s body. A high level of testosterone is often seen in PCOS .
Too much stress. Cortisol is one of the master hormones, meaning its function governs all others. If a woman has too much stress in her life, it has a ripple effect that can show up in her menstrual cycle. Sources of stress can be emotional (such as trauma, relationship problems or work stress) but also physical (including injury, inflammation and over-exercising).
Too many chemicals. Many of the synthetic materials in our environment—such as plastics, pesticides and cosmetics ingredients—are what’s known as endocrine disruptors . They can mimic the effects of hormones in our bodies, leading to imbalanced levels.
Too many (or too few) bacteria. Our gut plays a huge role in our hormonal health. If we’re constipated, for example, we can’t get rid of old hormones properly. If we have dysbiosis, we may end up reusing oestrogen when we shouldn’t . For hormonal balance, it’s important our gut bugs are in balance too.
Too little sleep. Our circadian rhythm governs all our hormones. A lack of sleep can contribute to both high cortisol and insulin resistance , which, as you’ve learnt, can both affect the reproductive cycle.
Of course, all these factors are connected too. Our exposure to chemicals can also affect our gut bacteria; our sugar intake can also influence our stress levels (and vice versa).
However, this inter-connected-ness can also be viewed as an advantage. This is because the same healthy habits can positively affect several hormones simultaneously.
How to treat hormonal imbalance naturally
As in cases of low testosterone in men, when it comes to balancing hormones in women, we need to consider the whole person.
What this means is that rather than focusing on individual hormones, it’s more helpful to balance the person’s lifestyle—and often their hormones will follow suit. Here’s where to start:
Enjoy a hormone-supporting diet. This includes:
- Eating whole, minimally processed food, including lots of fibre-rich plant foods.
- Enjoying two servings of cruciferous vegetables daily. These contain compounds that support hormone detoxification . Broccoli, cabbage and kale are all good choices.
- Incorporating fermented foods daily, as these have been found to positively influence the gut microbiome . Try sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha or kimchi.
- Including healthy fats, especially the omega-3 fats found in oily fish, flaxseed and walnuts. These have been found the make cell membranes more flexible, which has a knock-on effect on hormonal function .
- Minimising your intake of sugar and white flour. Swap sugary drinks for sparkling water infused with fresh fruit. Instead of a sandwich for lunch, why not go for a soup with a hearty salad?
- Being mindful of your alcohol intake. If you currently drink every night, try having at least three nights a week off. If you drink most weekends, experiment with saving booze for special occasions.
Exercise appropriately. Both too little and too much exercise can negatively affect a woman’s hormonal function . As well as finding a form of exercise you enjoy (such as strength training, yoga or even dancing), make movement a natural part of your day. Walk wherever you can, take the stairs, and find an excuse to get up from your desk every hour.
Manage stress. As mentioned, too much cortisol (which typically occurs when a person is under stress) can lead to hormonal chaos . Find a way to truly relax for at least 15 minutes every day.
Prioritise sleep. A huge part of good sleep is making your bedroom a soothing space. Invest in a good mattress, de-clutter your room, open a window to get some fresh air, and use dim lighting as you’re winding down. Many people benefit from reading something relaxing before bed too.
Look after you gut. If you suspect your gut health may have a role in your hormonal issues, it’s worth addressing this first. You may wish to investigate potential food sensitivities, or test to see if there’s dysbiosis. At the very least, it’s essential that you’re passing stools (pooping) every day.
All the above will set a strong foundation for hormonal health. Of course, everyone is different, and some people may benefit from a more targeted approach, including specific foods, habits and supplements. A Functional Medicine Practitioner can help identify the best approach for you.
For personalised recommendations, please feel free to get in touch.