Hormones play a major role in how well your body functions and how you feel from day to day. If your hormones are in balance, you likely sleep well and have lots of energy, a strong sex drive, and well-functioning immune and digestive systems.
“The healthy body is equipped to produce all the hormones a woman needs throughout her life,” said Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of The Wisdom of Menopause. But those hormones can easily become pushed off kilter — even with too much stress or an unhealthy diet — leaving room for a wide array of hormonal disorders to surface.
|As many as one in 10 women may suffer from the most common hormonal disorder among women, PCOS.|
Hormones are proteins or steroids that are secreted directly into your bloodstream. They are responsible for the body’s metabolism of minerals, regulation of fluids, reproduction, sexual function, and responses to stress.
The endocrine system, which includes glands such as the pituitary, hypothalamus, thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, adrenal cortex and medulla, and ovaries, produce hormones in women.
Common Hormone Disorders: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
The most common hormonal disorder among women is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which affects an estimated 7 percent of women. However, many cases may go undiagnosed, so as many as one in 10 women may be affected.
“This is a syndrome, which means it is a collection of features,” said Dr. Ricardo Azziz, chair of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s department of obstetrics and gynecology.
Two-thirds of women with PCOS are overweight and most are insulin resistant. Symptoms include:
- Irregular or absent periods
- Unusual body hair growth
- Unusually severe acne
- Darkened skin patches
- Rapid weight gain
Although the cause of PCOS remains unknown, researchers are looking into its connection to obesity, genetics and insulin production.
Lifestyle changes, including eating a healthy diet and exercising, are often “prescribed” for patients with PCOS. This is because weight loss has been found to cause an improvement, or even a remission, of symptoms. Sometimes medications, including birth control pills and fertility drugs, are prescribed to help with symptoms.
Over 20 percent of menopausal women in the United States are diagnosed with thyroid dysfunction, according to Marcy Holmes, NP, Certified Menopause Clinician, and Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN N.P. However, studies suggest that millions more may be suffering from subclinical problems, but remain undiagnosed.
Most women are affected by hypothyroidism, a sluggish or “underactive” thyroid. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Weight gain
- High cholesterol
Other women may be affected by the opposite, hyperthyroidism, which is an overactive thyroid. A person with hyperthyroidism may:
- Have trouble sleeping
- Feel anxious
- Be irritable
- Feel overheated
- Experience weight loss (with an increased appetite)
Hormonal imbalances, which could be caused by stress and nutritional deficiencies, trigger thyroid disease. Hypothydroidism may also occur at other times your body may be more prone to hormonal imbalance, such as during perimenopause, menopause and pregnancy.
Your adrenal glands (located on top of each kidney) act as control centers for many hormones. One of their most important tasks is to get your body ready for the “fight or flight” stress response, which means increasing adrenaline and other hormones.
This response increases your heart rate and blood pressure, slows your digestion and basically gets your body ready to face a potential threat or challenge.
While this response is good when it’s needed, many of us are constantly faced with stressors (work, environmental toxins, not enough sleep, worry, etc.) and are in this “fight or flight” mode for far too long — much longer than was ever intended from an evolutionary standpoint.
The result? The adrenals become overworked and fatigued. Symptoms of adrenal dysfunction are varied, but include:
|Fatigue is a common symptom of a hormonal imbalance.|
- Fatigue and weakness
- A suppressed immune system
- Muscle and bone loss
- Hormonal imbalance
- Skin problems
- Autoimmune disorders
You can support healthy adrenal function by:
- Resting more
- Reducing stress in your life
- Eating a nutrient-dense diet
There are many other hormonal disorders among women as well, including menstrual and fertility problems. A lot is still being discovered, such as why some women appear to be more vulnerable to hormone problems than others. If you suspect you may have a hormone disorder, you should seek help from a health care practitioner. Holistic practitioners, in particular, may be able to help you get relief from your symptoms using herbal supplements and lifestyle modifications, rather than prescription drugs.
Women to Women: Hypothyroidism and Hormonal Imbalance