Hormonal imbalances are the result of having too much or too little of a certain hormone in your bloodstream, which can have flow-on effects throughout your entire body. Symptoms will depend on whichever hormones are out of balance for you but may include weight fluctuations, low libido, acne, and changes to your reproductive function.
In basic terms, your hormones are produced by your body’s endocrine system. They’re transported around your body through your blood to pass messages to your tissues and organs, telling them what they need to do to maintain your body’s optimal function and health. Your hormones exist on a very finely balanced scale. Too much or too little of one or more hormones will throw the entire system off balance, impacting various systems in your body from your metabolism to your reproductive health.
Signs of a hormonal imbalance can vary, though they include unexplained weight changes, fatigue, muscle weakness or aches, pain or swelling in your joints, rapid or slowed heart rate, sweating, sensitivity to cold or heat, excessive thirst or hunger, low libido, changes in bowel movements, frequent urination, anxiety or depression, thinning hair, dry skin, and even infertility.
While some fluctuations are normal, particularly as you age or transition through various stages in the life cycle characterised by changing hormones, such as puberty or menopause, other imbalances are caused by disruptions to your endocrine system which, if unaddressed, can have serious repercussions for your entire body. If you’re struggling with a hormonal imbalance, there are various lifestyle factors which may be causing or contributing to this. It’s important to understand potential causes and how to address or mitigate the damage you’re causing to your hormone health, in order to support the recovery and rebalancing of your hormones and endocrine system.
Your diet and food choices play an important role in regulating and balancing your hormones, and facilitating their healthy production. Foods can have direct effects on the actions and secretion of appetite hormones like insulin, ghrelin and leptin, which are all involved in your hunger and satiety levels and blood sugar regulation. The quality and type of food you eat, as well as the texture, amount and timing of your eating patterns, can all affect your hormone production and balance.
The most important dietary consideration when it comes to your hormones is your fat intake – both the quality and quantity of fat you’re eating. Your stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, and all your reproductive hormones are supported by the same building blocks: cholesterol. While cholesterol has been given a bad rap over the years, you actually can’t naturally produce the right amounts of these hormones without it, so it’s critical for good health. You need to be getting enough dietary cholesterol from foods like egg yolks, fatty fish or full-fat dairy to produce enough “good” cholesterol to facilitate the production and secretion of these important hormones, and keep everything in balance.
However, that’s not to say the ketogenic diet (an extremely high-fat diet) is the way to go for happy and healthy hormones. The keto diet can actually worsen hormone imbalances despite its high fat and cholesterol content, as it creates stress on the body. It can cause nutrient deficiencies and depletion of key energy supplies like carbohydrates (or glucose), which can exacerbate imbalances in your hormone levels. So it’s important to include healthy fats in your diet, but not to go overboard and consume them at the expense of other key nutrients.
At the same time, the type of fats you’re choosing is critical. While omega-3 fatty acids, mono- and polyunsaturated fats (found in foods like oily fish, avocado, nuts and seeds and olive oil) are supportive of healthy hormone production and secretion, “bad” fats such as trans or saturated fats can cause inflammation in the body, and may interfere with optimal hormone function and balance. So avoid the highly processed, refined fatty foods, and instead aim to include plenty of healthy fats in your daily dietary patterns.
Poor quality dietary choices
Similarly, hormonal imbalances can be caused or negatively affected by low-quality dietary patterns. For example, people who eat lots of refined carbohydrates and sugars, trans fats or drink excessive alcohol are at greater risk of hormone imbalances, as these foods can create severe and chronic inflammation in the body when eaten regularly over time. They can interfere with regular hormone production and signalling, particularly with hormones such as cortisol, insulin and reproductive hormones, and leave your body lacking the precursors it needs to make healthy hormones.
Instead, prioritise a diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods, incorporating a variety of vegetables, legumes, fruits, lean proteins, healthy fats and fibre to support optimal health and hormones.
Timing of food
While intermittent fasting is regularly touted as the “next greatest thing” in the health and nutrition space, it can actually wreak havoc on your hormones – particularly for women. Most of the existing studies supporting intermittent fasting have been conducted on mice or on males alone, so they’ve overlooked the damage this time-restricted eating pattern can have on women’s hormone health.
The absence of any kind of food for long periods of time, with 16-hour daily fasts being the most popular form of fasting, can act as a huge stressor on the body, tricking it into thinking it can’t rely on a regular supply of food coming in to provide the energy it requires to function. As a result, your production of stress hormones like cortisol soars, sending your body into “fight or flight” mode, which further interferes with healthy hormone balance. This tells your body to conserve energy by reducing its production of important hormones like oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, throwing your entire hormone system off balance.
So the timing of food is also crucial for hormone health and balance. Aim to eat satiating, nourishing meals at least three times per day, and if needed enjoy nourishing snacks (consisting of protein and fibre or protein and healthy fat) roughly every 3 hours to prevent your blood glucose and insulin levels from dropping too low and to keep your hormones balanced.
When the body experiences any kind of stress – perceived or real, mental or physical – it will redirect hormone production and secretion away from your reproductive hormones, and towards your stress hormones such as cortisol. This is in order to prepare your body to respond to whatever stress it’s facing. To preserve energy, your body will reduce digestive and reproductive function amongst other things (and their associated hormone production) to keep you ready to “fight or flee” in the face of the perceived threat it’s up against.
While acute or short-term stressors are natural and largely unavoidable, these only create short-term spikes in the production of your stress hormone, cortisol. These minor stresses, including things like moderate exercise, are unlikely to cause severe hormone imbalances.
However, when cortisol production is chronically elevated for a long period of time, your hormones are often thrown into disarray. Your secretion of adrenaline and cortisol take over the production of other critical hormones like oestrogen and testosterone, as the body’s priority shifts towards survival mode, rather than protecting your reproductive health and other body functions.
This can lead to disruptions in a female’s menstrual cycle, and even impaired reproductive function in the long-term if it’s left unaddressed. Other consequences of being exposed to constant stressors, and experiencing these hormonal imbalances and increased cortisol production include anxiety, depression, digestive problems, sleep complications, weight changes and cognitive impairment. For your body to function optimally and normally, it needs to feel safe enough to do so – at least for the majority of the time. So if it’s stuck in this loop of “fight or flight” mode due to mental or physical stress in your life, it begins to “switch off” other hormones and body systems, leaving you with hormone imbalances.
It’s very important to address any long-term stresses that arise in your lifestyle – whether they’re physical stressors, or mental/emotional. Reducing stress where possible and implementing practices or ways to mitigate the stress response, such as meditation, slow, deep belly breathing, journaling or spending time in nature, are essential for supporting the health of your hormones, and preventing imbalances.
Inflammation is strongly linked to your stress response and cortisol production. Elevated cortisol secretion and imbalanced hormones can lead to significant inflammation throughout the body.
And the opposite can also be true: inflammation existing in your body can interfere with hormones such as thyroid hormones, blood glucose regulating hormones and reproductive hormones, and create heightened production of cortisol. Cortisol is released in response to inflammation to help mitigate the inflammatory response, interfering with blood sugar control and the production of other systemic hormones in the process.
When inflammation is present, the body is again encouraged to divert its energy and function away from some hormones and body systems, and towards the immune system, in order to fight against the inflammation and its cause. This can lead to health problems like insulin resistance, bone breakdown, and downregulation of thyroid hormones TSH, T4 and T3, impacting metabolic function and health too. As a consequence of an imbalanced hormonal response triggered by inflammation, your production of thyroid hormones can be too low, resulting in fatigue, weight gain, feeling cold all the time, and hair loss, or too high, resulting in anxiety, weight loss and also always feeling cold.
Inflammation can also cause androgens (“male” hormones including testosterone) to be increasingly converted to oestrogens in the affected or inflamed tissue. Not only does this throw your hormone balance out even further, but it can have other consequences including bone loss and a resistance to other hormones. Each hormonal disruption interferes with the fine balance required for body systems like the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, responsible for reproductive function), so inflammation can create real problems for your hormones if it’s present for a long period of time.
Blood glucose irregularities
Abnormal blood glucose levels can be another cause of imbalanced hormones. Various hormones are intricately involved in the regulation of your blood sugar including oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol and insulin. Any disruption to your blood glucose levels can interfere with one or more of these hormones.
Firstly, oestrogen and progesterone reduce and stabilise blood glucose, when produced in the right ratios and amounts.
If your blood glucose levels are elevated persistently, your body continues to produce more and more insulin in an effort to “mop up” the excess sugars in your bloodstream and return your body to baseline, or a healthy blood glucose level. Over time you can begin to develop a resistance to the production of insulin, as your body becomes more and more used to it, meaning insulin stops having the desired impact on your blood glucose. This means you’re less able to stabilise your blood sugar levels, and your hormones can become extremely imbalanced, contributing to a high risk of type 2 diabetes over time.
High insulin levels can also result in a woman’s ovaries increasing testosterone secretion, which can cause acne or unwanted hair growth as well as reduced production of sex hormone binding globulin (SHGB). This means oestrogen, instead of being bound, is dumped into your bloodstream, potentially causing an excess of oestrogen and leading to symptoms like fibroids, heavy periods and painful breasts.
As you can see, insulin is strongly linked to sex hormones like testosterone and oestrogen, so a change to any link in the “chain” of your hormones will likely have significant consequences for the remaining links too, resulting in imbalances in various different hormones.
Interruptions to thyroid function can again disrupt your hormone balance. The thyroid is a really important gland which makes up part of the endocrine system. It’s responsible for producing hormones which regulate your metabolism, your ability to convert food into energy, stabilise your heart rate and body temperature, and determine the speed at which you digest food. Essentially, your thyroid hormones impact every cell and organ in your body. Your thyroid hormones are called T3, T4, and TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone).
If, however, your thyroid isn’t functioning normally, this can create serious and problematic imbalances in hormone secretion.
For example, an underactive thyroid (known as hypothyroidism) means your thyroid is not producing enough of these hormones, which can cause fatigue, depression, weight gain, dry skin, menstrual cycle abnormalities and constantly feeling cold. This condition is often genetic, and more common in women than men, though it can also be caused by autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s, some medications, pituitary dysfunction or tumours, or inflammation.
Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, hyperthyroidism or an overactive thyroid occurs when you’re producing excessive amounts of these hormones, leading to weight loss, excessive appetite, heart palpitations, interrupted menstruation, tiredness, mood swings and hair loss. This may be triggered by health conditions like Graves’ disease, inflammation in the thyroid, or benign tumours.
If your thyroid function is impaired or affected in some way, this has downstream effects on so many different hormones, often leading to ongoing hormonal imbalances and their associated side effects.
Another way in which thyroid function can be compromised is by excessive stress. As you know, stress greatly interferes with hormone balance and secretion, and the thyroid is not immune to its effects either. Stress tends to decrease production of T3 and T4, and inhibits TSH secretion by acting on the central nervous system, meaning you’re more likely to experience hypothyroidism or similar symptoms, and the resulting hormonal changes.
Some medications can also wreak havoc on your hormones, though this is not necessarily a reason to suddenly stop taking them altogether!
Your endocrine system is intricately linked to your neural or brain pathways in order to regulate your body’s “balance”, including your reproductive function, metabolism and energy production. In order for your body to be in “homeostasis” (or balance), all of the parts of these systems need to function in tune with each other. For example, your liver, muscles, kidneys, thyroid, bones, adrenal glands, intestines and reproductive organs are tightly regulated by the secretion and actions of various hormones, so if one hormone or organ is affected by medications, this will have flow-on effects.
Drugs and medications can cause these abnormalities through different mechanisms. Some will directly change how much of certain hormones your body is producing, while others will affect the binding or signaling of hormones, or directly work on other parts of the system which keeps them in balance.
Medications can also interrupt your metabolism, thyroid function, and the homeostasis of certain minerals and substances in your body, which as you now know can each lead to hormonal imbalances of their own.
One example of this is hormonal contraceptives. Some contraceptives, like the birth control pill, work to suppress the function of a female’s hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian (HPO) axis. This axis is tightly controlled to allow for reproduction and the healthy production of steroid and sex hormones, to allow ovulation and implantation in females. The combined contraceptive pill, which contains both progestin and oestrogens, interferes with a natural reproductive cycle and therefore the cyclical hormones you’d expect a woman’s body to produce during its different stages.
While this can be a positive if you’re trying to avoid falling pregnant, it can have ongoing effects on your hormone balance as your normal hormone cycling is no longer operating, and the entire reproductive system is impacted as a result.
The synthetic progestin used in this pill also leads to decreased production of GnRH from your hypothalamus, and LH and FSH from your pituitary. These changes then cause interruptions in follicle development, ovulation, and your natural production of estradiol and progesterone.
As you can see, a change to even one or two hormones results in changes to many others responsible for different functions and systems in your body, leading to significant imbalances. When beginning a new medication or contraceptive, it’s important to be aware of the impact it may have on your hormone health.
Endocrine disruptors (EDCs) are chemicals which mimic or interfere with your endocrine system and hormones, so naturally these can result in imbalances too. They can impair reproductive, cognitive and immune system function, and even affect healthy development.
While some EDCs mimic hormones and trick your body into thinking it’s producing more of a certain hormone than it is, others block natural hormones from doing their job, or affect how they’re produced, broken down or stored in your body. They can also impact how sensitive your body is to certain hormones.
Endocrine disruptors are, unfortunately, difficult to avoid as they’re contained in so many products you likely use daily, including plastic bottles and containers, cans of food, cosmetics and perfumes, personal hygiene products, pesticides, toys and food.
One particular type of EDC are phytoestrogens, or naturally occurring substances contained in plants which have hormone-mimicking effects. These are found in soy products, like tofu and soy milk. While these foods are healthy in moderation, if they make up an excessively large portion of your diet, their oestrogen-mimicking impacts can cause hormone imbalances and disrupt production of other hormones as well as oestrogen.
As we’ve established, your hormones are extremely tightly regulated, and any small interference to the system will have significant consequences for many different hormones and body systems. Even small amounts of EDCs consumed in your foods or products can cause problems, such as developmental complications – particularly for young people undergoing puberty or in their reproductive years, as these life stages are particularly vulnerable to the effects of EDCs.
EDCs can have such profound impacts on your hormone health and balance, they’ve been linked to negative changes in sperm and egg quality and fertility, nervous system function, immune function, metabolic health, cardiovascular problems, endometriosis, and growth and neurological impairments.
At the moment, there’s no established “safe” level of consumption of EDCs, so it’s best to take steps to minimise your exposure as much as possible.
As you can see, your hormones are so tightly regulated by many different organs and systems in your body, and they even act to keep each other in check. Producing more of one hormone will result in the reduced production of others, and vice versa. It’s a finely balanced see-saw, so any disruptions to a system or hormone in your body can have profound and systemic effects. To prevent this from occurring, try to reduce your exposure to stress and stressors (physical and mental) and endocrine disruptors, consider your dietary quality and any medications you’re using, and speak to a health professional or dietitian if you’re concerned about your blood glucose levels, thyroid function or inflammation in your body. You can heal hormone imbalances, but to do so you need to address the root cause, and work on many systems in your body at once to restore the delicate balance your hormones rely on to be happy and healthy.
Book a consultation with me today if you’re concerned about your hormone production or potential imbalances, and we can work to restore your body and hormone health and return you to a balanced state.