Hormones regulate a huge number of important functions in our body. However, it is possible for us to produce too much or too little of them, leading to unwanted health effects. In this article, we’ll look at how the endocrine system works, how it can become imbalanced (for example, during menopause), and how to balance hormones using lifestyle techniques.April 28, 2022 5:15 pm January 27, 2022 3:26 pm
What are hormones?
Our bodies are immensely complex systems, with cells, organs and limbs that perform different functions and need to communicate with one another to work properly.
When we want to move an arm or a leg, our brains send an electrical message through the nervous system telling our muscles to contract. It takes a mere fraction of a second, and is great for ‘short-term’ activity.
But what if different parts of our bodies need to communicate over the long term? Puberty is a great example of this, as at a certain point your brain needs to be able to instruct your pituitary gland to start sending out the chemicals you need to develop into an adult.
This long-term process, along with many others, is regulated by hormones. At the simplest level, hormones are chemical messengers which are released in one part of the body, travel to a different organ or system and cause changes there.(1)
A network of organs called the endocrine system controls the release of hormones throughout the body.
Examples of hormones and what they do in the body
If you were born female, the word “hormones” probably has a particular significance for you. Many of us have experienced the hormonal chaos that arises around ‘that time of the month’. Mood swings, skin issues, bloating – you name it, we’ve experienced it!
This is sometimes called ‘premenstrual syndrome’, or PMS.
The exact mechanism behind these symptoms isn’t fully understood. However it’s likely to be linked to the interplay of oestrogen and progesterone, two hormones involved in regulating our menstrual cycle.
Elsewhere in the body, another hormone called insulin is vital for regulating our blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar levels rise (for example, after a meal), the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream.
The insulin then travels around the body, instructing your cells to take up the glucose from your bloodstream and either use it as energy or store it as glycogen in areas like your liver. This keeps your blood sugar levels stable.(1)
What is ‘hormonal imbalance’?
Usually, your endocrine system is very good at releasing just the right amount of a particular hormone to manage your bodily processes.
However, if the system is disrupted, you may end up with more or less of that hormone circulating in your body than is needed.
To make things even more complicated, many functions in the body are regulated by more than one hormone.
For instance, hormone-secreting glands send out hormones to target areas of the body, but may also receive hormonal messages back. These can tell the original gland to stop producing the hormone when the target area has received enough.(1)
A complex relationship between different parts of the endocrine system and their target organs is often called an ‘axis’.
Based on this, it’s easy to imagine how the delicate balance might be disrupted if one element of that communication system is altered.
What happens when hormones become imbalanced?
Because hormones regulate so many different functions in the body, the results of a hormone imbalance can look very different.
Let’s take the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) as an example.
The HPA axis controls bodily functions like your metabolism and immune response. So, it makes sense that an imbalance here could have serious negative consequences.
For instance, if the adrenal cortex fails to produce enough hormones, it can cause Addison’s disease. This leads to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever, muscle weakness and a host of other unpleasant effects.(1)
On the other hand, if the pituitary gland produces too much of a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), the result is Cushing’s syndrome. Symptoms include muscle wasting and the redistribution of body fat.
This often means that patients show a rounded ‘moon’ face, prominent abdomen and thin legs.(1)
So, as you can see, keeping your hormones in balance is vital to allow normal bodily function – and avoid unpleasant health issues.
"Hormones are chemical messengers which are released in one part of the body, travel to a different organ or system and cause changes there."
Hormone imbalances caused by menopause
Dealing with hormonal imbalances can be particularly important if you are experiencing menopause.
During this time, the regular hormonal pattern set up during puberty starts to change. This brings your natural period of fertility to a close. Changes in your hormone levels are responsible for this transition, and unfortunately they can also bring along unwanted side effects.
Prior to menopause, oestrogen circulating in your bloodstream helps with several important functions. These include stimulating the growth of breast tissue, keeping your vagina lubricated and even contributing to bone health.
Yet, during menopause, your oestrogen levels fluctuate before eventually tailing off. This can result in symptoms such as bloating, breast tenderness, hot flashes, headaches and vaginal dryness.
Similarly, your body stops producing progesterone, which can lead to longer, heavier and irregular periods.
Regulating these hormones is key to avoiding these symptoms and being as comfortable as possible during menopause.
Balancing your hormones during menopause
If you’re experiencing menopausal symptoms, speak to your doctor. They can chat you through your options.
One of the most commonly available treatments is called hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
It works by ‘topping up’ hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone once your natural levels have started to decline.
This can help to ease symptoms caused their levels fluctuating during menopause.
There are lots of different ways of having HRT, so speak to your doctor about finding the one that works best for you. For example, you can take tablets or use gels, creams, pessaries or rings.(3)
However, it’s important to note that HRT can increase your risk of breast cancer.(3) For many women, the benefits outweigh the risks. Your doctor can offer more detailed advice.
Other options to balance hormones during menopause
Some women can’t, or choose not to, undergo HRT. In that case, there are other options available.(3)
Your doctor may offer you different medicines which don’t affect your hormone levels. Instead, these aim to treat the symptoms of hormonal imbalance rather than the imbalance itself.
You might be offered treatments such as antidepressants to tackle your symptoms.
Alternatively, your doctor might advise you to look at lifestyle changes to help you manage your hormones.
These may also be helpful if you suspect you have a hormonal imbalance but aren’t going through menopause.
Natural and lifestyle changes to balance hormones
Stress can wreak havoc on the normal balance of your hormones. Whether it’s exam pressure, worrying about work, or having a tough time in your personal relationships, stress can cause chaos in the endocrine system.
There are some fascinating examples of the extent to which stress affects our hormone systems. For example, studies have shown a higher risk of an endocrine disorder called Grave’s disease in survivors of major wars.
Stress changes the way we release all kinds of hormones, including cortisol, catecholamines and thyroid hormone.
It’s likely that this once helped us with our fight or flight response, helping us evade predators. However, nowadays, prolonged periods of stress can actually cause harm to our endocrine health.(4)
Help your body to keep everything in the right balance by avoiding stress as much as possible. You might also find stress-managing techniques useful. For instance, practicing yoga, mindfulness and breathing exercises might help you to feel less stressed.
2. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can also help you manage your stress levels. It can lower the levels of ‘stress hormones’ such as adrenaline and cortisol in your system.(5) This may help you to manage mood swings.
Furthermore, exercising releases other chemicals called endorphins, which make you feel good after exercising. They are responsible for ‘runner’s high’; the feeling of satisfaction and wellbeing following a workout.
In addition to these benefits, we all know that physical exercise is brilliant for your overall health. So, work a brisk walk, jog or a trip to the gym into your routine. You’ll soon see the benefits in both your physical and mental wellbeing.
3. Eat a healthy diet
Changes to your hormone levels – for example, during menopause – can lead you to gain weight. Following a healthy and balanced diet is a great way to manage this. It also looks after your overall wellbeing, making sure you get all the nutrients you need and caring for your gut health too.
In addition to this, there is some evidence that eating an unhealthy diet, filled with processed carbohydrates, can alter the release of hormones. These include cortisol, adrenaline and growth hormone. This, in turn, can make you more irritable, anxious – and hungry!(6)
So, while there isn’t any one food which can balance your hormones, it seems a healthy overall diet can help.
4. Cut down on booze
Research has revealed that drinking alcohol can change the way we release hormones. For instance, it can reduce the levels of growth hormone in our blood.
This is particularly relevant for adolescents, as growth hormone plays a role in puberty and growth.(1)
However, alcohol messes with other areas of the endocrine system as well. For example, it influences the release of hormones called oxytocin and prolactin. These regulate the production of milk in breastfeeding women, and the composition of the milk itself.(1)
It also inhibits the production of a hormone called AVP, which allows us to reabsorb water from our urine. This means we lose more water when we urinate.(1)
Beyond these few examples, it seems that alcohol can disrupt a wide range of endocrine functions. This includes the normal functioning of the HPA axis, mentioned above.
Curiously enough, there is some evidence that drinking a small amount of alcohol might actually increase circulating oestrogen. However, the results are inconclusive and further research is needed to see if alcohol could actually be useful in managing low oestrogen.(1)
How to balance hormones
As you may have guessed, different hormone systems in the body depend on lots of different and highly specific factors.
That means there isn’t really one overarching way to balance your hormones.
If you suspect that you are experiencing symptoms of a disease caused by a specific hormone imbalance, speak to your doctor as soon as you can. They will be able to tell you about the available treatments.
However, making overall healthy changes to your lifestyle may help you keep your endocrine system working healthily.
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