There are many factors to consider when optimizing health and wellbeing, yet one of the most important ones often goes unaddressed in conventional medical practice. As functional and integrative specialists know, hormone levels are a crucial parameter to assess as even the slightest shifts within the endocrine system can have significant effects on the entire body.
Although hormone levels fluctuate throughout the lifetime and many changes are a natural result of aging, specific symptoms and imbalances may indicate endocrine dysfunction. Hormonal imbalances caused by the over or under-production of a hormone can present an array of unwanted symptoms and lead to the development of long-term health repercussions if not managed appropriately.
What Are the Effects of Hormonal Imbalances on the Body?
Most hormone imbalances cause a cascade of tangible effects, including – but not limited to – one or more of the following symptoms: fatigue, low sex drive, decreased energy levels, disrupted sleep patterns, weight gain, and difficulty losing weight (particularly in women), hair loss and thinning hair, and mental health. Certain hormonal disruptions may even lead to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and an increased risk for cancer.
The most common disorder in women of reproductive age is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which affects between 5% and 10% of that demographic. This condition results from the overproduction of androgens and can cause anovulation, hirsutism, acne, and weight gain.
Insufficient production of testosterone is by far the most common type of hormonal imbalance for men. In an effort to compensate, the body will increase estrogen production, often in excess. The resulting estrogen excess can cause gynecomastia (male breast enlargement), reduced sperm count, and increased anxiety, irritability, depression, aggressiveness, or anger outbursts.
Fatigue and Sleep Disturbances
One of the primary symptoms of hormone disruption is chronic fatigue and disturbances in sleeping patterns. Progesterone is closely related to sleep, while low estrogen levels can trigger hot flashes and night sweating, leading to sleep impairment, primarily among women.
Additionally, the thyroid gland plays a key role in energy metabolism, and the dysfunction of its related hormones may increase fatigue and cause sleep disturbances. As thyroid issues are frequently accompanied by adrenal imbalances, patients may also report difficulties with sleep if their cortisol levels are misaligned. Insomnia and trouble falling asleep are both associated with adrenal problems, specifically Cushing’s syndrome.
Weight Management, Weight Gain, and Obesity
Along with the thyroid gland, many other hormones play an integral role in metabolic function and the body’s ability to utilize energy efficiently. Hypothyroidism, or the under-production of thyroid hormone, has been associated with weight gain and difficulties in weight management, while hyperthyroidism, or the over-production of thyroid hormones, can result in a high basal metabolic rate and weight loss.
Changes in estrogen and leptin levels are a common cause of increased hunger, leading to weight gain, particularly during menopause.
Androgens such as testosterone impact fat storage patterns causing women to store fat in specific areas of their bodies, including the lower abdomen, chest, upper arms, and the face.
Certain hormone disorders, like Cushing’s syndrome, can cause obesity; patients with this condition tend to have high cortisol levels in their blood, often resulting in increased appetite and fat storage.
Estrogen and progesterone imbalances contribute to menstrual irregularities, a common symptom of hormone dysfunction in women. Perimenopause may be the cause in females between 40 and 55 years of age; however, irregular cycles can also be symptomatic of polycystic ovary syndrome and other hormonal imbalances. PCOS interferes with regular ovulation and causes irregular or prolonged menstrual periods, called oligomenorrhea or amenorrhea. In addition to diminished fertility and miscarriage rates, PCOS can result in insulin resistance and an increased risk for diabetes mellitus.
The most visible sign of hormonal imbalances can be found on the skin. Whether it is acne, rashes, or dryness, endocrine fluctuations can affect the skin in many ways. Persistent acne may be a symptom of hormone disorders such as an excess of androgens which increase sebum production, or estrogen overproduction and its effects on free testosterone levels. Furthermore, chronic stress and increased cortisol levels have been found to cause and exacerbate adult acne, while thyroid dysregulation and menopause are often correlated with skin dehydration.
Mood Swings, Depression, and Mental Illness
A common misconception associates depression with chemical imbalances in neurotransmitters only. However, hormonal disorders can also lead to mood swings, depression, and other mental health conditions in some instances. A critical variable in mood regulation, estrogen, can increase serotonin, modify the production of endorphins, and possibly stimulate nerve growth. Estrogen impacts key neurotransmitters linked to mental health, including dopamine and norepinephrine, and functions complementarily with progesterone – another hormone that can impact mood and wellbeing.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalances can range from mild to severe and endocrine disruptions may manifest similarly to other common medical conditions, highlighting the importance of clinician awareness and education. With over 50 identified hormones coursing through the human body, diagnosing and treating specific hormone abnormalities requires comprehensive functional medicine training and advanced testing capabilities.
Knowledge of the latest innovations in hormone therapeutics and developments in endocrinology can help restore balance when it is lost. To learn more about available clinical solutions and how to effectively incorporate them into your practice, join us at the upcoming Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy Symposium in Nashville next weekend!