Written by: Dr. Amy Beckley, PhD, Founder and Inventor of the Proov test — the first and only FDA-cleared test to confirm successful ovulation at home.
Written on 1/27/21
What is a hormone imbalance?
Hormones are tiny molecules that travel throughout the body coordinating certain functions and carrying messages through your blood to your organs, muscles, skin, and tissues. Hormonal balance is extremely delicate and it influences everything from metabolism to growth, sleep, mood, emotions, stress, and sexual and reproductive functions.
In women specifically, an important hormone balance occurs between estrogen and progesterone. This means estrogen rises during the first half of your cycle and progesterone rises during the second half of your cycle. A hormone imbalance occurs when estrogen or progesterone are not at the optimal level during the different times of your cycle.
Hormone balance is extremely delicate and it influences everything from metabolism to growth, sleep, mood, emotion, stress, and sexual and reproductive functions.
What causes hormonal imbalance?
We all experience hormonal fluctuations at certain points in our lives. But hormonal imbalances occur when, for different reasons, our endocrine glands don’t function properly.
For women, these periods of hormonal imbalance occur naturally throughout their lifetime, especially during puberty, pregnancy, peri and pre-menopause, and menopause. There are several factors that may impact your hormonal balance, among them:
- Thyroid issues (hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism)
- Being overweight or underweight
- Birth control
- Pituitary tumors
- Cancers of endocrine glands
- Poor nutrition
- Phytoestrogens found in soy when eaten regularly
- Exposure to certain toxins and chemicals
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Ovarian cancer
- Primary ovarian failure (POF)
- Extreme stress and burnout
Can stress cause a hormone imbalance?
Stress has not only been proven to play a huge part in causing hormonal imbalances, but there is also scientific evidence that long-term exposure to stress may lead to endocrine conditions.
Stress can lead to changes in serum levels of hormones like cortisol, thyroid hormones, and prolactin, among others. Women with higher stress levels are more prone to experiencing menstrual cycle irregularities.
A healthy menstrual cycle is a sign of good health. We care about our hormone levels, successful ovulation, and a normal length luteal phase because they are a solid proof our health is in good shape. It also signifies that our brain, ovaries, thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal glands are all working properly.
When we are under a lot of stress and our cortisol levels are constantly high, they disrupt the correct functioning of other hormones (such as progesterone), which may disrupt our menstrual cycle. If your doctor diagnoses you with stress induced hormone imbalance, he or she will likely suggest trying to reduce your cortisol levels.
We know — easier said than done! Here are a few options you can try for reducing cortisol:
- Light exercise
- Healthy diet
Something to note is that not only emotional stress causes hormonal imbalances. Physical stress — like over exercising (especially cardio) or severe weight loss — may also disrupt cortisol levels.
How do I tell if I have a hormone imbalance?
The tricky part is that hormonal imbalance is more often than not a silent enemy, with mild symptoms that we may brush off or symptoms which mimic other conditions. Some common hormonal imbalance symptoms include:
- Losing or gaining weight
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Irritability, anxiety, or depression
- Irregular periods
- Lack of libido
- Brain fog
- Sore breasts
- Hair loss
You should talk to your doctor if you are experiencing one or several of the symptoms mentioned above. Separately they may not be a cause of concern, but together they may signal underlying issues.
The tricky part is that hormonal imbalance is more often than not a silent enemy, with mild symptoms that we may brush off or symptoms which mimic other conditions.
Is there a better way to tell if I have a hormone imbalance?
The only reliable way of diagnosing a hormonal imbalance is to have your hormone levels tested. For a woman, baseline tests are typically taken around day 3 of your menstrual cycle. These tests usually measure:
- Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH)
- Luteinizing hormone (LH)
- Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAs)
- Anti-mullerian hormone (AMH)
Your doctor may also want to check your thyroid levels, any time of the month. A thyroid panel consists of tests for TSH, T3 (free), and T4 (free and total). These are all tested via blood.
Once your cycle day 3 results are back, your doctor may want to follow up with a progesterone test to make sure you ovulated. Progesterone tests can also give insight into the health of your luteal phase, chances of pregnancy, and the risk of suffering an estrogen/progesterone imbalance, often in the form of estrogen dominance.
This test is to be performed 7 days post ovulation, when progesterone levels should be elevated. However, studies have shown that serum progesterone levels can fluctuate drastically, meaning a single blood sample may not be the most reliable way to test.
Instead, a PdG test may be a better option for continuous monitoring. PdG is the urine metabolite of progesterone and studies have shown that levels of PdG in urine correlate to serum progesterone levels.
Studies have shown that serum progesterone levels can fluctuate drastically, meaning a single blood sample may not be the most reliable way to test.
How do I treat a hormonal imbalance?
Once your doctor has all your test results and you have a diagnosis, you can decide on what course of action you need to take. For minor imbalances, like a shorter than usual luteal phase (low progesterone) or a slight estrogen dominance, you may opt for over-the-counter treatments. Sometimes, to get back on track you may just need to make sure you:
- Exercise regularly
- Have a healthy diet with less sugar and processed foods, and more protein and healthy fats
- Manage stress
- Improve your sleeping patterns
- Use seed cycling as a way to balance your cycle
- Work with a certified herbalist and/or acupuncturist
If your problems are more serious, and if you have been diagnosed with PCOS, anovulation, or thyroid issues, you will most likely need medical intervention under the supervision of a specialized doctor. Hormone therapy may help, if it is appropriate and safe for you. If you’re concerned about a more serious hormone imbalance, we recommend consulting your doctor.
If you suspect something is not right and your hormones might be imbalanced, we recommend talking to your doctor. The sooner you identify and treat the issue, the sooner you can get back to living your best life!