“Forgive me, I’m just hormonal,” is a common phrase that women utter. They know that if they have a burst of sudden irritability that is not their normal nature, for example, it’s likely because they are experiencing pre-menstrual symptoms or are in the throes of peri-menopause.
Hormones that affect women’s wellness are more than estrogen and progesterone – hormones are plentiful, and each is unique. They are like a sports team, each has its own responsibility and main action, and those actions impact one another. No one hormone works alone.
According to Nicole Jardim, a certified women’s health coach and creator of Fix Your Period, the two initial hormones that may become off balance are cortisol (the stress hormone) and insulin (blood sugar). If you are young and healthy, the latter doesn’t automatically mean “diabetes.” Slightly elevated or spiking cortisol and insulin influence other hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, thyroid, melatonin and testosterone.
Signals that cortisol and insulin are out of balance include exacerbated PMS symptoms, difficulty sleeping and morning grogginess, irritability when hungry (or “hangry”), and the cravings to consume more caffeine and sugar.
There are eight key hormones that women of childbearing age should concentrate on to ensure overall health and well-being.
Estrogen, produced mainly in the ovaries (with a little assistance from adrenal glands and yes, fat cells), is the primary female sex hormone, which takes a leadership role int eh development of the reproductive system (i.e., menstruation cycle, pregnancy and menopause). Normal, healthy ranges of estrogen (determined via a blood test) are 15-350 pg/mL for pre-menopausal women, and less than 10 pg/mL for post-menopausal women – you can see the precipitous decline. Bonus fact: men have anywhere between 10-40 pg/mL of estrogen.
Estrogen’s BFF progesterone, is another sex hormone whose main job is to ensure reproductive health. PMS symptoms are typically caused by high progesterone levels.
Other sex hormones include luteinizing hormone, produced in the pituitary gland of males and females. In women, it supports normal menstrual cycles, along with follicle-stimulating hormone also produced by the pituitary gland. Both are known as gonadotropins. Follicle-stimulating hormone encourages the ovarian follicle to cause egg maturation, while luteinizing hormone stimulates the ovaries to release the egg (ovulation).
And, as men produce a low amount of estrogen, women also produce testosterone in the ovaries. In women, testosterone is necessary for regulating sex drive, muscle strength and fat distribution as well as bone mass and production of red blood cells. Low T in women can impact sexuality, energy, and cause enervation and loss of bone density. An excessive amount of testosterone in women will generate male characteristics such as acne, thinning hair on the head and more body and facial hair.
Human growth hormone (HGH) is touted as the fountain-of-youth hormone and you will see products aimed at restoring your body’s production of it. This is yet another hormone produced by the hard-working hormone creation factory, the pituitary gland, and it is responsible for normal fat breakdown, bone growth and lean body mass. You can nurture your endogenous HGH production via diet, exercise and good lifestyle habits. Too much, however, can cause insulin resistance and undesirable blood sugar levels.
Speaking of insulin, this too is a hormone, produced by the pancreas, to transform dietary sugar/glucose (i.e., carbohydrates)into energy. Insulin regulates blood sugar, preventing it from being too low (hypo-glycemia) or too high (hyper-glycemia).
“Hyper” is a word we associate with frenetic energy, and yes, there are hormones for that. Adrenaline, the primary product of the adrenal glands, is the fight-or-flight hormone, which engages the nervous system energy, encouraging extra blood to flow to the heart and muscles. It is also known to temporarily block pain. Excessive adrenaline (the adrenaline rush) causes high blood pressure, tachycardia (heart palpitations/rapid heartbeat) in the short term, and in the long-term, usually caused by extreme stress, can lead to weight loss, irritability and anxiety attacks.
Cortisol is adrenaline’s sibling from the parent adrenals. It also has its good and bad sides. It puts the body into survival mode when the body perceives danger, and it controls inflammatory response. But, its release is also triggered by mental/emotional/situational stress, resulting in high blood pressure, chronic inflammation and reduced immune function.
Another hormone that is often in the spotlight is serotonin, which regulates mood. When one is depressed, this signifies that serotonin production is low and there’s not enough to go around to fill receptors. Low levels of serotonin and resulting depressed mood can lead to weight gain, poor sleep and cognitive dysfunction. If you’re mood is somewhat low and you crave carbs “comfort foods” this is a sign your serotonin production needs a boost.
There are many other hormones that are minor players yet have specific important functions in homeostasis.
Steps to Balance Hormones
You can influence the normal production of hormones through mindful lifestyle habits and supplementation such as probiotics.
Exercise: Of course, working out or playing a sport helps boost health in numerous ways. It also promotes hormonal health, chiefly, reducing insulin sensitivity. In a study of obese women, six months of regular aerobic workouts showed greater insulin sensitivity as well as a rise in adiponectin, the hormone responsible for regulating metabolism (and early satiety) and reducing inflammation. Another study concluded that exercise improved production of HGH in healthy middle-aged women.
Mind your stress: Stressors are everywhere, ready to wreak physiological havoc. Stress-reduction activities such as yoga, meditation, light exercise (such as walking), and listening to relaxing music, can help reduce cortisol levels. Appropriate massage techniques have been shown to reduce serum cortisol by 31% while increasing serotonin by 28% in stressed out patients with medical conditions.
Ensure proper macronutrient consumption. Good fats like medium-chain triglycerides (such as that in coconut oil) help early satiety via stimulating release of several hormones such as cholecystokinin. Including protein in each meal likewise stimulates satiety hormones and represses ghrelin, the “feed me” hormone. And beyond the obvious reasons to limit sugary simple carbs, doing so may reduce insulin levels, especially in people who are obese and have metabolic syndrome.
Take probiotics. As you know, the microbiota’s residents may be tiny but are powerful in regulating health and well-being. They also help ensure hormonal homeostasis, especially in women. One study of post-menopausal women taking isoflavones (red clover extract) and probiotics for one year showed a potent attenuation of bone mineral density loss caused by estrogen deficiency and promoted a favorable estrogen metabolite profile.
Another team’s paper discussed the relationship dubbed the estrogen-gut microbiome axis. The researchers explained, “The gut microbiota regulates estrogens through secretion of beta-glucuronidase, an enzyme that deconjugates estrogens into their active forms. When this process is impaired through dysbiosis of gut microbiota, characterized by lower microbial diversity, the decrease in deconjugation results in a reduction of circulating estrogens.” The reduced estrogens create a risk of development of a wide range of conditions such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, endometriosis, and more.
Probiotics have also been shown to be useful for helping balance other hormones. For example, authors of one study examining exercise-induced stress and probiotic use in athletes write that their study was based on “preliminary experimental data obtained from studies using probiotics and prebiotics studies [that] show some interesting results, indicating that the microbiota acts like an endocrine organ (e.g. secreting serotonin, dopamine or other neurotransmitters) and may control the HPA axis in athletes.”
Hormonal dysfunction or imbalance can cause a host of symptoms that may appear unrelated. If you begin to experience noticeable fluctuations and symptoms that reduce quality of life (e.g., brain fog, enervation, hair loss), have your physician take a blood panel and possibly refer you to an endocrinologist (hormone specialist). Here, the typical routine of healthy lifestyle habits, including supplementation with probiotics, can help support desirable hormonal health.