Sometimes our bodies send undeniable signals that are too obvious to ignore. Coughing and sneezing with a fever? You're probably sick with a cold or flu. Red, itchy eyes after playing with a friend's dog? You might just be allergic to Fido's fur. But in other cases, the signals our bodies send are much more subtle, and if you don't know what you're looking for, you just might miss the very clear message that something needs attention, stat.
In all my years of personal and professional experience around female endocrine health, I've found that very few women know how to spot the signs of hormonal imbalance. After all, we're often taught that pain and suffering are just a normal part of the female experience. Why would we think to question killer cramps or massive mood swings? Because those things are, in fact, not normal, inevitable aspects of womanhood. They're just a few clear signs from your body alerting you to a hormonal imbalance.
The good news is, you can address many hormonal issues with the proper food and lifestyle tools and techniques. I built my career around hormonal health so no woman would have to guess why she's having a particular hormonal symptom ever again. Here's what to be on the lookout for, and how to fix it:
1. You have off-the-charts PMS.
Even though it's called "premenstrual syndrome," the symptoms of PMS can strike any time between ovulation and menstruation, during the second part of your monthly cycle, also known as your luteal phase. This is when many women feel everything from major bloating to uncontrollable crankiness. This cascade of unpleasant symptoms is usually caused by too much estrogen, low progesterone, and key micronutrient deficiencies.
Try: Eating leafy greens. Members of the brassica family like kale contain indole-3 carbinol, a powerful hormone balancer that promotes estrogen metabolism, which will help eliminate excess estrogen and prevent estrogen dominance.
2. You need the pill to have a "normal" period.
Birth control does not—I repeat, does not—fix your problematic period. The medication delivers a little bit of estrogen and progesterone, tricking the brain to think it is ovulating and therefore prevents conception. However, this blocks your body's natural rhythms and covers up your natural hormonal imbalance.
Try: Weaning off the pill. The transition may not be easy, so it's extra important to build a strong foundation of healthy eating and lifestyle habits and find an alternative birth control method for contraception before you quit completely.
3. You're constantly exhausted.
Tired all the time? So are your adrenals. Those are the endocrine glands that sit above the kidneys and release the stress hormone known as cortisol. If your food and lifestyle habits throw off your adrenals' normal production of cortisol, you might start feeling the opposite of how you should (e.g., instead of feeling a natural jolt of energy in the morning from your body's surge of cortisol, you'll feel sleepy and lethargic, and instead of feeling calm and relaxed and bedtime, you'll feel wired).
Try: Adjusting your diet. Cut caffeine, which exacerbates symptoms and perpetuates the tired/wired cycle. If you can't cut it completely, at least reduce it to one cup or less per day. Start the day with a healthy, protein-packed breakfast to balance your blood sugar and improve your odds of staying satiated and energized.
4. You have heavy bleeding with clots during your period.
If you're changing your pad or tampon every hour, severely staining your bedsheets, or seeing dark purple clots during your cycle, something is up. Specifically, your estrogen levels. Too much estrogen is tied to this type of excessive bleeding, and it could be a symptom of something larger, especially if your periods are painful: endometriosis, fibroids, or ovarian cysts.
Try: Milk thistle. This herb has been shown to help detoxify the liver and even out estrogen.
5. You have zero interest in sex.
There are a lot of reasons your sex drive may have taken a nose-dive, but stress is a major factor that wreaks havoc on your hormones and in turn depletes your libido.
Try: Spicing it up. Research has linked spicy food to higher testosterone levels in men, and testosterone is just as important for a woman's sex drive.
6. Your skin is breaking out like a teenager's.
When I was in the throes of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), I battled severe cystic acne. It took me 30 minutes daily to camouflage the spots and bumps, and it significantly affected my confidence. Whether pimples crop up every time your period approaches or you're coping with the kind of severe acne I had, your hormones are the source of the issue.
Try: Magnesium. Your body's C-reactive proteins are responsible for causing inflammation. Taking a calcium-magnesium supplement can help lower the amount of C-reactive proteins1 in your body, and calcium is also part of our tissue matrix—bones, cells, and skin—and very important for skin cell renewal.
7. Your weight is out of control and the number on the scale keeps climbing.
If you're eating salad after salad and spending hours at the gym but you're still not seeing results, you might be ready to throw in the towel. But the problem isn't lack of effort or faulty scale—it's likely your liver, which is responsible for removing toxins by turning fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble toxins so they can be excreted through your large intestine, kidneys, and skin. When you have a hormonal problem, your liver's function is compromised and can't work as efficiently at removing these toxins, so your body holds on to fat-soluble toxins.
Try: Adding lemons and oranges to your water. Citrus fruits contain a compound called D-limonene, which is critical for healthy liver function.
8. Your periods are very light, short, or totally missing in action.
Some women would call this a blessing, but experiencing "barely there" bleeding or no bleeding at all isn't healthy. A short period (less than three days in length) and only light bleeding can indicate low estrogen levels. If you've been crash dieting or restricting your food for a long time, you may have depleted your body of important micronutrients that are necessary for estrogen production.
Try: Adding in more protein. Hormones are made from amino acids, and you can't get your estrogen up if you can't make enough of it from your food.
9. You have erratic cravings and crazy binges.
Everyone craves certain foods now and then, but if your cravings are out of control and you find yourself bingeing at various times of the month, your hormones are the likely culprits, and a diet heavy on sugar is the probable root cause. If you consume too much sugar, whether it's in the form of pasta, bagels, candy, or cola—your body has to churn out a hormone called insulin to break it down. Spikes in glucose and insulin can disrupt ovulation, shutting down your production of progesterone and setting you up for the troublesome effects of estrogen dominance.
Try: Limiting your sugar intake and eating lots of fiber-rich foods that will help detoxify your liver and create more of a specific hormone called FGF21 that has been found to prevent sugar cravings.
10. Your period is brown.
If you're seeing strange brown stuff at the start of your period, it's actually oxidized blood that didn't quite make it out of your uterus during your last cycle. The culprit? Low progesterone. As you already know, too little progesterone can put you at risk for an overabundance of estrogen and other conditions like PCOS.
Try: A chasteberry supplement. Research has shown it affects the production of various hormones in your body, especially progesterone.
If your period is problematic, it's important to learn what the root cause is. Knowing this will help you get healthy now and prevent disease in the future. Download the MyFLO app to track your symptoms and have a better period next month.
Alisa Vitti is a women's hormone and functional nutrition expert and pioneer in female biohacking. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Vitti has been featured on The Dr. Oz Show, Lifetime, and has been a regular contributor for Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, and Women’s Health. She is the founder of The FLO Living Hormone Center, the world's first menstrual healthcare platform that has helped hundreds of thousands of women around the world put their period issues like PCOS, Fibroids, Endometriosis, and PMS into remission naturally using her highly effective FLO Protocol and the FLO Balance Period Supplements, and the creator the MyFLO period app—the first and only functional medicine period tracker. She is also the author of the best-selling book WomenCode. She has presented at SXSW, TEDx, Talks@Google, Summit Series Outside, and SHE Summit and regularly trains women in the workplace on how to use her Cycle Syncing Method for greater creativity, productivity, and wellbeing at work.