Hormones are important messengers in our bodies that work as regulators, controllers and balancers when they are functioning appropriately. Many hormones are produced in the pituitary gland in the brain. Others are produced in the thyroid, adrenal glands, pancreas and ovaries/testes. Hormone function is negatively affected by inflammation in the body. Inflammation has many causes, with stress, sleep and diet all playing major roles.
SIGNS OF HORMONE IMBALANCE
Might you have an issue with your hormones? Consider hormone imbalances if you:
have trouble falling or staying asleep
have chronic fatigue / low energy
have too much /nervous energy,
have menstrual issues, including irregular, painful or heavy periods,
have brain fog or poor memory/concentration,
are experiencing hair loss,
are struggling to lose weight,
can't wind down at night or after stressful events.
What causes these imbalances? Major hormonal shifts happen for women after giving birth and again starting in their 40s and approaching menopause. Autoimmune conditions can have many triggers at any time in your life, including after an infection! And long term stress, inflammatory dietary habits and poor sleep can be a perfect storm for creating imbalances. Time to investigate!
The thyroid gland produces a key regulatory hormone, called thyroid hormone. Imbalances can cause high (hyperthyroid) or low (hypothyroid) thyroid hormone levels. It is common for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) to be measured first, since this hormone produced by the pituitary will theoretically raise and lower to attempt to regulate the production of thyroid hormone. However, people will typically have symptoms of thyroid dysfunction long before TSH levels are out of range. An assessment of thyroid function incorporates both symptoms and comprehensive lab testing, including autoimmune markers (frequently present in conditions such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis).
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands which sit on top of your kidneys. Cortisol, along with melatonin, helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. A healthy cortisol pattern should have cortisol reaching its peak at 30 minutes after waking, then dropping off gradually during the day, with the lowest point in the evening before bed. Melatonin works opposite to cortisol, being highest at bed time. Any type of stress will raise cortisol - in what is commonly called a "fight or flight" response. Biologically, this stress-response is a protective mechanism. This mechanism becomes dysfunctional when we are under chronic / constant stress, and when we can't calm ourselves back down after a stressful incident. Constantly producing cortisol is exhausting (not to mention likely to affect your sleep), and eventually your adrenal glands won't be able to keep up. When your adrenals are no longer able to produce enough cortisol when you need it in the morning, you wake feeling exhausted and have low energy all day. This is called "burnout".
INSULIN AND BLOOD SUGAR
The pancreas produces insulin in response to blood sugar levels, to help balance them. After you eat, your blood sugar rises and insulin works to store excess glucose. Diabetes is a disease of poor insulin regulation. Insulin's effects are far-reaching beyond the digestive system and diabetes. Insulin has a significant impact on the brain, with conditions such as Alzheimer's and schizophrenia having links to poor insulin regulation. Excess cortisol can also lead to poor insulin response (and thus elevated insulin levels). Managing stress and diet can both help to improve blood sugar balance for improved energy, memory/brain function and heart health.
BALANCING ESTROGEN & OTHER SEX HORMONES
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are influencing many people's hormones without their knowledge. Do you eat or drink out of plastic containers? What body products do you use? You may be at risk of estrogen dominance as a result of EDCs. Estrogen dominance is present in conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids. Low estrogen on the other hand is associated with perimenopause. In PCOS, a relative testosterone excess is responsible for symptoms (estrogen may also be elevated). Progesterone is the hormone that must be maintained through a healthy pregnancy. Progesterone deficiency can be the cause of infertility. The roles and interactions of these hormones are complicated, and comprehensive testing is the best way to get a picture of what your hormonal landscape looks like.