5 Common Causes That May Explain Your Hormonal Imbalance
As a naturopathic doctor, my favorite question to ask is “Why?”. Why are you experiencing acne, weight gain, painful or irregular periods? These symptoms are important, but they are not the problem. To receive appropriate treatment, we must understand the reason behind them. A symptom is your body’s cry for help. It is telling you something is not “just right”. If we quiet these symptoms, with things like the pill, we lose very valuable information about the state of your hormonal health.
The “control center” for our hormones is located in the brain, made up of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. This control center receives signals from the body about our stress levels, nutrient status, the amount of fat available in tissues, how much toxic exposure or inflammation we have, how much sleep we get, and the list goes on. This control system is very sensitive and female hormones can easily become dysregulated.
Here are 5 common causes of hormonal imbalance:
Our bodies react to stress by increasing cortisol, one of our steroid hormones. Although cortisol gets a bad rap, it is an essential survival hormone. Our stress system is there to help us run from a saber tooth tiger or protect our bodies in the face of famine, things that aren’t too common in North America. The issue is that our body can’t differentiate between the immediate danger of a threatening animal and our unanswered emails. Thus, stress is at an all-time high, putting us into a state of chronic overdrive. One reason why high stress causes hormonal imbalance is that cortisol and our sex hormones are all made from the same precursor – cholesterol. In order for our bodies to meet the demand of cortisol, we must preferentially use cholesterol to make cortisol instead of important sex hormones, like progesterone. Because women’s bodies are more sensitive to the changing levels of hormones, the stress response has a greater effect on a woman’s ability to maintain hormonal balance than men. This can lead to weight gain, PMS symptoms, and moodiness. Furthermore, when we are highly stressed, our brain increases the production of a hormone called prolactin. This is the hormone that is elevated when breastfeeding. When prolactin is high, it shuts down our reproductive hormones. This is why women lose their cycle when breastfeeding, to protect them from becoming pregnant too soon after. Clearly, this is something that is undesired for those actually trying to become pregnant, and stress can have a huge impact on fertility. Our bodies are very intelligent, and reproduction gets put on the back burner during times of stress.
Blood Sugar Dysregulation:
When we eat a meal high in sugar or processed carbs, we get a spike in insulin and a corresponding decrease in sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG). SHBG is responsible for binding excess hormones in the blood, so as it decreases we see more free hormones available, primarily testosterone. Increased testosterone is seen in a condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS. If you rely on processed carbs or sugary foods to boost energy throughout the day, it is likely that you have dysregulated blood sugar. Low blood sugar can also be detrimental, as our body may think it is entering starvation mode, which leads to the activation of the stress response, and thus the release of cortisol.
Irregular sleep habits:
The release of certain hormones fluctuates throughout the day. Most of our bodily functions are synced with our sleep-wake-cycle, and hormones are no exception. Some hormones that are under clear circadian control include melatonin, cortisol, most of our sex hormones, thyroid hormones, and epinephrine. When our sleep becomes irregular, meaning we are not getting enough sleep or we have an inconsistent sleep schedule, our hormonal control becomes dysregulated. Studies done on frequent travelers and night shift workers show significant impairments in reproductive function like altered hormonal secretion patterns, decreased conception rates, increased miscarriage and increased risk of breast cancer. As life gets busier and we have more and more on our to-do list, sleep is usually the first thing I see patients put on the backburner. This is not only damaging to our hormonal regulation, but it impairs almost every physiological process in the body. Sleep needs to be put on a pedestal. If you are not sleeping soundly and getting at least 7 hours, sleep needs to be your first priority on your journey towards balanced hormones.
This is not the swelling and bruising that you are thinking of, this is low-level inflammation that takes place in the body when there is injury, toxins or stress. Its purpose is to initiate healing and protect the body, however, when we see this response becoming chronic, much like our stress response, it causes damage to our physiology. There are many culprits at the root of inflammation, like food sensitivities, chronic stress, alcohol, toxic exposure, obesity, and more. The area in the brain that regulates our hormones has receptors that respond to these inflammatory states and in response, our brain signals the adrenal glands to pump out more hormones, like cortisol, as it is a potent anti-inflammatory. But, to reiterate, our body is very delicate to the level of hormones released, and when we get a flooding of one hormone, we usually see other hormones suffering in response.
Many environmental chemicals have been found to have endocrine disrupting properties. Many are identified as xenoestrogens, which means they have the ability to modulate estrogen’s activity in the body. Although long-term exposure to these chemicals is not fully understood, hundreds have been found in human breast tissue and have been hypothesized to increase the chances of breast cancer. These chemicals can be found in your makeup, personal care products and other products that touch our food and skin. Some of the known culprits that can impact your hormonal balance are parabens, BPA, phthalates, and triclosan. It is hard to completely avoid these toxins, however, read labels, ditch the plastic for glass, and choose clean products for your body and home.
It can be challenging to avoid these common causes of hormonal imbalance, but it is not impossible! Your first step should be to identify the extent of the impact that these offenders have on your individual health. I know it can be overwhelming to navigate the world of hormonal imbalance and so, I always recommend working with a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine practitioner.
If you can’t wait to start working towards healthy hormones, and want to start today, grab a FREE copy of my 5-Day Hormone Balancing Meal Plan here!
As always, if you are looking for a Naturopathic Doctor in Toronto, I would love to help you get your hormones back on track, you can book in here!