The role hormones play in the human body spans well beyond a person's pubescent years. For better or worse, estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, thyroid hormone, insulin, leptin, ghrelin, cortisol, and so on all dictate how your body operates, from your emotional state to your physical well-being.
Similar to how a bad night's sleep can throw off your entire day, hormonal fluctuations can lead to a host of issues over time. And while "balancing hormones" is a lot more complicated than your TikTok feed would lead you to believe, there are actions you can take every day to support healthy hormone levels. Here's what to know.
What does "hormone imbalance" really mean?
The term "hormone imbalance" is thrown around a lot these days, but what does it actually mean? Per the Mayo Clinic, a hormonal imbalance occurs when you have too much or too little of one or more hormones. The term hormone imbalance is pretty broad, so let's break it down further.
The overarching purpose of hormones is to regulate the activity of cells and tissue in various organs of the body. When these hormones are imbalanced (either too high or too low) for extended periods of time, it can disrupt various body processes, including appetite, metabolism, and more.
In fact, mindbodygreen's Vice President of Scientific Affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN notes that "Even something as severe as type 1 diabetes is a clinical manifestation of hormonal imbalance." In this case, an autoimmune attack leads to an imbalance (a deficiency) of the hormone insulin, leading to a disruption in glucose homeostasis and the onset of diabetes.
This isn't the only example of clinically relevant hormone imbalances. Other cases include hirsutism—extra hair growth in women that often arises from high levels of androgen hormones—and amenorrhea—the failure to menstruate that can be caused by an abnormal amount of testosterone, thyroid, and cortisone hormones.
How can I tell if my hormones are imbalanced?
It is normal for levels of some hormones to fluctuate over time. Dips in estrogen are expected during the menopause transition2, for example, while pregnant women3 can expect an influx of the human chorionic gonadotropin hormone (hCG). The daily dips and peaks of the hormone melatonin are what drive our daily sleep-wake rhythms, and the amount of the hormone cortisol in our system can change by the minute.
However, there are times when hormonal fluxes can lead to problems in the body. For example, periods of high stress can cause the overproduction of the hormone cortisol. Over time, excess cortisol is known to contribute to weight gain4, diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis.
"Some common signs that you may have suboptimal levels of one or more hormones include changes in your mood and/or periods, suboptimal sex drive, concerns about your skin or sleep health, unexplained weight gain, or feelings of tiredness," licensed naturopathic physician and co-founder of Terrain Natural Medicine Kelcie Rosendahl, N.D., tells mindbodygreen.
There are more than 50 types of hormones 5in the human body, so diagnosing an imbalance can be difficult. Visiting a primary care doctor or endocrinologist for testing is the most accurate way to make sure your hormone levels are where they should be. You can also get a peek into your hormone health with an at-home test—just be sure you follow the directions carefully and take your test at the right time.
How to balance hormones naturally
While you'll want to work with a doctor to correct a diagnosed hormone imbalance, there are lifestyle habits that can help you support overall hormone health. Here are a few:
The age-old saying "you are what you eat" rings true with hormones. The types of food and beverages you consume directly correlate with your hormone levels and can have a positive or negative effect on how they move through the body.
This doesn't just mean reproductive hormones—there are other key hormones that impact overall health, such as hunger hormones (e.g., insulin, leptin, and ghrelin) that help regulate a person's appetite, fullness, and blood sugar levels.
"It's all connected," says Chicago-based registered dietitian Maggie Michalczyk, R.D. So when it's time for a meal or snack, you're not just filling your stomach; you're supporting (or hindering) your hormone functionality.
According to Michalczyk, the best meals and snacks for hormone balance are nutritionally balanced—i.e., they contain protein, healthy fat, and fiber-rich carbohydrates. Leafy greens, veggies, certain fruits (like berries), nuts, seeds, and fatty fish are all great options, Michalczyk says, as whole, unprocessed foods "can help maintain healthy levels of hormones like insulin (blood sugar hormones), cortisol (stress hormones), and others."
Of course, too much of a good thing can also be a bad thing, so even the healthiest of foods should be eaten in moderation. For example, certain plants and seeds (e.g., flax, soy, berries, etc.) are rich in estrogen-like compounds called phytoestrogens, which some studies suggest can influence hormone levels in females.
What's more, some food groups (like dairy and gluten) can contribute to unwanted hormonal fluctuations in certain individuals. That's why registered nurse, holistic nutritionist, and certified women's health coach Brooke Davis, R.N., recommends working with a nutritional professional "to identify any food sensitivities or intolerances to investigate [hormonal health concerns] further."
Of course, you shouldn't rely on supplements alone to meet your daily recommended nutritional standards, and here's why: When you eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables, you're receiving (and therefore benefiting from) the full entourage effect of their micronutrients, meaning "their effects are elevated because of the complementary compounds within the food," says integrative and functional nutrition practitioner Emily Brown, M.S.
Consuming a combination of nutrients at once (versus taking an isolated substance) also contributes to how your body will ultimately respond to them. And certain nutrients (like minerals) not only have a profound impact on hormonal health, but can yield unwanted results if taken in high doses.
For example, let's say you feel tired. After doing some research, you may discover that low iron levels can cause feelings of tiredness. So, you decide to take an iron supplement to help you feel more awake. But a lack of iron might not be the culprit—and adding more to your diet may end up causing additional health issues.
You see, copper is required in the conversion of dopamine (the hormone of reward and motivation) to epinephrine (aka adrenaline, the fight-or-flight response hormone). If you're low on copper, the conversion suffers, which, Brown says, can lead to low energy.
"Nutrients and nutrient deficiencies impact our entire body, including many hormone fluctuations," Brown tells mindbodygreen. "If the initial feelings of tiredness are from low copper to begin with, that 'blind spot treatment' of iron could further your feelings of low energy and initiate additional hormonal changes."
The goal is optimizing your micronutrient intake so that you're getting recommended doses of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients (think omega-3 fatty acids, choline, and dietary fiber) to ensure your endocrine system has everything it needs to support whole-body health and well-being.
RELATED READ: The 17 Best Multivitamins Of 2023, According To Experts
Through physical activity
In addition to tailored nutrition, one of the easiest ways to support hormone health is through physical activity.
Board-certified OB/GYN Stephanie Brownridge, M.D., says exercise has great influence over metabolism, the way the body responds to stressors, and even reproductive hormones. On the other hand, unwanted hormonal changes can lead to low energy levels, which can affect your motivation to exercise, continuing the problematic cycle.
Overall, however, a healthy workout routine can have a highly positive impact on your hormones. As far as which exercises are best for hormone regulation, Brownridge tells mindbodygreen it depends on the individual. Those who overexercise—especially those with a low body mass index (BMI), for example—can end up in a state of hormonal suppression (re: stunted generation) that influences the body's homeostasis.
"This can result in menstrual changes and nutritional deficiencies, which can even affect the bones. Less exercise, or more restorative exercise such as yoga, may be helpful in these circumstances," Brownridge says.
Brownridge warns it can be more challenging for women with certain hormonal health issues and a slightly higher BMI to manage weight through diet and exercise, but cardiovascular exercises and weight training can help. If a person does not have any specific hormonal health concerns but is aiming to optimize his/her health, however, "any exercise that is enjoyable is recommended in moderation," Brownridge says.
Through lifestyle changes
A surprising array of lifestyle choices can affect your hormones—many of which the average person is unaware of. According to Jenna Blake, MSN, FNP-C, a board-certified nurse practitioner, calls out that one of the most concerning daily environmental endocrine disrupters is cleaning products.
Yes, you read that right: From the types of sprays you use to clean your countertops to the detergent and softeners you use to wash your bedding and clothes, a majority of the most popular products on the market contain toxic chemicals that can have a negative impact on your hormones in high amounts.
One such chemical group is called phthalates, which are used in plastic bottles and personal care products. According to a 2022 Environment International study analyzing healthy pregnant women, phthalates may disrupt the placental corticotropin-releasing hormone (pCRH, the hormone that triggers the onset of labor), and other research suggests they can have negative effects on our neurological and developmental health8 as well.
The solution, Blake says, is to choose phthalate-free and fragrance-free options whenever possible.
Through stress management
What runs the world? Stress. Unfortunately, when you're juggling work maintaining a household, running around after little ones, and the many other everyday responsibilities an individual may have piled on their plate, there's an abundance of stress to go around. When it does, it comes down—hard—on your hormones.
According to Michalczyk, consistently dealing with stressors can lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol over time. From there, these elevated levels can result in various issues, such as changes in appetite, hair health, and sleep hygiene. External stressors can also impact your immune system and lead to suboptimal immune defenses. But how?
Brown breaks it down like this: Stress impacts pro-inflammatory pathways, which can cause confusion in the body, almost like a game of telephone: "We want the hormone that was sent to be received at the target cell so everything works well. But when inflammatory pathways are involved, these signals can get confused, and it impacts us down to the cellular and genetic level."
To help clients support healthy hormones naturally through stress management, Brown creates what she calls "mental health tool kits" to address areas of their holistic needs that need to be nurtured. These stress management tools can include breathwork, nutrition plans, expressions of gratitude, meditation, improved sleep hygiene, journaling, making realistic to-do lists, and drawing (to name a few).
How can I balance my hormones fast?
Some of the most common signs of hormone fluctuations are changes in mood or menstrual cycles, low sex drive, and unexplained weight gain, among others. Hormones also affect how well you sleep, so if you're experiencing changes in your sleep health or feeling tired during the day, hormonal fluctuations could be the culprit.
What are the signs of suboptimal hormone levels?
Absolutely. Per the Mayo Clinic, hormone imbalances occur when you have too much or too little of one or more hormones. While it's normal for hormone levels to fluctuate, long-term hormone imbalances can lead to a range of diseases, including type 1 diabetes.
Is hormone imbalance real?
You can't expect to correct hormone imbalances overnight. Optimizing your hormone levels could take months, years, or longer if you have a clinical imbalance. If you have a diagnosed hormone imbalance, it's best to work with an endocrinologist on a personalized plan.
Hormones directly affect virtually every part of the human body, which is why it is so crucial to avoid imbalances. Eating a nutritionally balanced diet, exercising often, and managing stress are a few ways to promote hormone health daily. However, achieving "hormone balance" isn't as cut and dried as you might think. If you have a diagnosed hormone imbalance or disease caused by too much or too little of a certain hormone, you'll want to work with a healthcare professional to find a treatment plan that's right for you.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 28, 2023 and has been updated over time. Since publication, we have updated this article to reflect that visiting a primary care doctor or endocrinologist for testing is the most accurate way to diagnose a hormone imbalance. We have also added a definition for hormone imbalance that is approved by the Mayo Clinic and clarified that it is normal for hormone levels to fluctuate over time, as well as provided more insights from medical doctors.
Julia Guerra is a health and wellness writer reporting for mindbodygreen, Elite Daily, and INSIDER. Formerly the beauty editor for BestProducts.com, she's contributed to Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, PopSugar, and more. A book worm and fitness enthusiast, her happiest moments are spent with her husband, family, sipping tea, and cuddling with her Tabby cat, Aria.