Hormones 101: How They Work & 7 Ways To Balance Them Naturally
Prepubescent teenagers, "hysterical" pregnant women, aggressive men…what do they all have in common? Their behaviors are often blamed on hormones.
While the word "hormonal" has become a watered-down stereotype used when someone can't wrap their head around the emotions of another, hormones are actually part of a system that's crucial to the health and effective function of the human body. Here, consider this your crash course on hormones, how they affect the body, and how to keep your levels in check.
First, what are hormones?
Hormones seem to come up most frequently as the pesky little chemicals that cause mood swings. But they're actually part of an extensive and important system that's responsible for a wide range of bodily functions including metabolism, sleep cycles, skin health, and beyond. Called the endocrine system, this series of glands creates and distributes hormones, which serve as chemical messengers throughout the body.
Needless to say, the system is complex and vast! But don't you worry. Whether you think you're experiencing an imbalance, someone insensitive has been telling you that you're being "hormonal," or you're just curious what hormones are all about, we've got you covered. As hormone expert and functional naturopathic medicine doctor Jolene Brighten, NMD, would say, "Your hormones were made to give you superpowers."
So, read on to learn more about your body's secret weapon: hormones.
The different types of endocrine (hormone-secreting) glands.
First things first. While there are many different types of hormones, there are also different types of glands that secrete them. This body map from the Society for Endocrinology will help you identify where within the body these glands exist. Endocrine glands include:
- Thyroid: The hormones produced by the thyroid gland are connected with calorie burning, heart rate, digestion, and beyond.
- Adrenal: The adrenal gland produces the hormones that affect libido—aka sex drive—and the stress hormone cortisol.
- Ovaries: The ovaries produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, the female sex hormones.
- Testes: The testes produce sperm and the male sex hormone testosterone.
- Pancreas: The pancreas produces insulin, which controls blood sugar and is key in conditions like diabetes.
- Hypothalamus: This gland affects the release of hormones from other glands in the body, in addition to being connected to body temperature, hunger, thirst, and sleep.
- Thalamus: The thalamus produces the hormone melatonin, which is connected to sleep.
- Parathyroid: Calcium levels in the body are connected to this gland.
- Thymus: The hormones that the thymus produces are directly connected to the immune system
- Pituitary: The pituitary gland can be thought of as the "master gland" as it actually controls all other glands and produces the hormones that trigger growth.
Important hormones for you to know.
Each type of gland in the endocrine system produces a different hormone, and each hormone contributes to a different bodily function. Understanding the range of hormones and how they affect your body will help you maintain your health.
- Melatonin: This hormone controls your internal body clock and is directly related to sleep patterns and sleep cycles. A disruption of this hormone can result in trouble sleeping and insomnia.
- Cortisol: Cortisol is considered the stress hormone and is in charge of our "fight or flight" response.
- Testosterone: This is both a male and female sex hormone. It influences sex drive but also motivation in general. It's key to the growth and development of sex organs.
- Estrogen: This sex hormone contributes to sex drive in both men and women. Estrogen levels must remain consistent to regulate menstruation and the female reproductive system.
- Progesterone: This sex hormone is important to maintaining a healthy pregnancy.
- Growth hormone: This is the hormone that you'd likely see bodybuilders at the gym taking. It encourages growth and cell reproduction.
- Leptin: Leptin controls your appetite and sends signals when you're "full" and should stop eating.
- Ghrelin: Another appetite-regulating hormone, ghrelin is released when the stomach is empty and stimulates feelings of hunger.
- Insulin: You may be familiar with this hormone as a result of its relationship to diabetes. Insulin helps to regulate blood sugar. When blood sugar is too high or too low, a range of health issues can arise.
- Adrenaline: Similar to cortisol, adrenaline is considered a stress hormone and relates to the "fight or flight" response. It increases blood flow, heart rate, pupil dilation, and blood sugar levels.
What happens when hormones are imbalanced?
Hormone imbalances occur when you have too little or too much of any of the above hormones, and it can be caused for a number of different reasons, including stress, hormonal birth control and other medications, eating disorders, cancer treatments, injury or trauma, and more. Even the smallest imbalance can result in big changes, positive and negative, in the body. And because hormones affect so many different parts of the human body, the symptoms of an imbalance can range drastically and be difficult to pinpoint. A hormone imbalance can manifest in many ways in the body, and they often present differently in men and women.
In women, hormone imbalances can sometimes result in:
- weight gain or weight loss
- irregular periods (heavy, missing, frequent)
- vaginal dryness
- hair loss
- night sweats and hot flashes
- breast tenderness
- increased hair growth on the face, back, or chest
- skin tags
- skin darkening
- painful sex
In men, hormone imbalances can sometimes result in:
- low libido
- weight gain
- erectile dysfunction
- hair loss
- muscle mass loss
- memory loss
Conditions that can result from hormonal imbalance.
The list of conditions and health problems caused by hormone imbalances is extensive, which demonstrates just how complex the endocrine system is and how important these little chemical messengers are. Here, we go into the details on some of the more common conditions affected by imbalanced hormones:
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): This hormonal syndrome is fairly common in women (around 8-10% of reproductive aged women) and is caused by an excess of insulin and androgen hormones. Side effects and symptoms often include absent or irregular ovulation, elevated androgens resulting in acne and excessive hair growth, and ovaries with very high egg counts. The long-term complications of PCOS can include gestational diabetes, pregnancy loss, sleep apnea, depression, endometrial cancer, and more.
Diabetes: Around 10 percent of the United States population has diabetes, and it is the seventh leading cause of death. It's caused when the body is unable to produce the hormone insulin. Insulin helps to regulate blood sugar, so when it's missing from your system, blood sugar levels can get dangerously high. Type 1 diabetes is considered to be genetic and is often diagnosed in youth. Type 2 diabetes is often diagnosed later in life and can be attributed to an unhealthy lifestyle in addition to genetics.
Cushing's syndrome: Cushing's syndrome occurs when your produce is producing excessively high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It can be caused by the use of oral corticosteroid medications, which are a common treatment option for asthma. The physical symptoms of Cushing's syndrome include weight gain around the midsection and back, pink or purple stretch marks, thin skin that bruises easily, acne, and more.
Hyperthyroidism: This occurs when your thyroid gland is considered "overactive" and is producing too many hormones. This can result in an increased heartbeat, weight loss, increased appetite, anxiety, and beyond. If it's not treated, hyperthyroidism can result in irregular heartbeat and bone-density loss.
Hypothyroidism: The opposite of hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland is considered underactive. The thyroid gland controls everything related to your metabolism. Not surprisingly, an underactive thyroid gland slows down your metabolism and can result in fast weight gain. Other symptoms include fatigue, puffy face, dry skin, digestive issues, and more.
Ovarian cancer: This type of cancer develops with an excess of a type of estrogen called estradiol. It begins in the ovaries and can often go undetected until it's spread to other organs. Symptoms can include abdominal swelling, weight loss, and constipation.
How to balance your hormones naturally.
By now, hopefully, you understand that hormones play an important, behind-the-scenes role in the human body. Everything from fertility to blood sugar levels to certain types of cancer can be traced back to hormones. So understandably, it's critical for hormone production and levels to remain constant and in healthy ranges.
When a hormone imbalance results in one of the above conditions, it's important to follow your doctor's orders. Sometimes treatment or medication is required to fix the imbalance and address associated symptoms. But in less severe cases, there's often a lot you can do with diet and lifestyle to help get your hormones back in check.
According to Dr. Brighten, "Reducing stress, maintaining blood sugar balance, enjoying time with your community, and eating foods that support your microbiome and hormone health are the secret to creating incredible hormones." And maintaining balance and hormone health can sometimes mean just following a generally healthful lifestyle. Exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, avoiding heavily processed foods, and sleeping enough all contribute to hormone balance. If any of these pieces of the puzzle are out of whack, you put yourself at risk.
Want more specifics on how to balance hormones? Here, mbg Collective members Amy Shah, M.D., and Frank Lipman, M.D., share their top ways to balance hormones:
- Eat more cruciferous veggies. At least three servings per day of these superfood veggies (think: broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower). These foods contain compounds that bind to excess estrogen in your gut and flush it out, says Dr. Shah. Raw is best, with lightly boiled or steamed as second place. Chop or chew them well for maximum benefit, and go organic to avoid hormone-disrupting pesticides.
- Eat more healthy fats. Too few good fats on your plate will impair your body's ability to produce the hormones that boost energy and feelings of satiety and suppress cravings, according to Dr. Lipman.
- Sleep seven to nine hours a night. This is the magic range to give the body time to release, rebalance, and replenish hormones. HGH (human growth hormone), often considered the "magic youth hormone," is released during stage-3 sleep, says Dr. Shah, along with a variety of other beneficial hormones necessary to repair, restore, and refresh cells and keep your brain youthful.
- Take time to relax. Cortisol and stress hormones wreak havoc on our other hormones when we are constantly stressed primarily using a process called pregnenolone steal syndrome, says Dr. Shah. Our body steals from our other hormones to make more cortisol, giving us the symptoms of hormonal imbalance mentioned above. So, taking time to squeeze in some deep breathing, meditation, yoga, jogging, reading—whatever helps you chill—is crucial.
- Cut back on stimulants. Too much caffeine in the form of coffee, energy drinks, sodas, and sometimes even tea or chocolate interfere with the hormones that promote restorative sleep, says Dr. Lipman.
- Switch to glass containers. Ditch the plastic, especially for containers that you're going to end up heating. BPA is a known estrogen-mimicker that can throw off hormones, says Dr. Shah, and now there's evidence that even non BPA plastics are dangerous.
- Prioritize natural beauty and skin care products. In particular, you want to avoid parabens. These are chemicals found in cosmetics, shampoos, and other personal care products. They are also known to be hormone disrupters. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database is a great resource for finding more natural beauty products.
Elsbeth Riley is a writer and editor living in Oakland, California. She is an ACE certified personal trainer, and holds a B.A. in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a content creator specifically in the health and wellness space, she enjoys living the values of the articles she puts together. She's a marathoner (running cures her writer's block) and a hiker (she summited Mount Kilimanjaro in December 2018). She's also on a life-long hunt to find the world's best hot tub.