As women, our hormones affect everything in our lives from our ability to de-stress and sleep at night to creating feelings of fatigue and depression. They are such a big part of our lives that they are responsible for what makes us women, our periods and our fertility and ability to grow humans. They are like amazing little worker bees who are continuously performing their jobs to keep us in balance. But when our hormones get out of balance, which is all too easy in today’s world, they can put us on a rollercoaster ride from hell! That’s not how it’s supposed to be.
In Part 1 of this guide, we’ll look at some of the hormones that are most influential to our health, how they affect our lives. In Part 2, we’ll explore how we can begin to shift them into balance. Happy hormones, happy life!
Estrogen is actually a group of sex hormones that play a big role in our reproductive health. Estradiol (E2) is the predominant form of estrogen that affects women of reproductive age, all the way to menopause. E2 helps to release an egg from the ovaries each month for ovulation and benefits the heart, bone health, colon, and brain. The estrogen hormones are responsible for making us look feminine and triggering puberty.
Progesterone is known as the mothering hormone because it prepares the lining of the uterus for a potential pregnancy each month. If pregnancy does occur, progesterone levels continue to rise to help mum maintain the pregnancy and develop her baby. It also has a soothing and calming effect on the nervous system.
Cortisol is the stress hormone that initiates the fight or flight response. In caveman days, it was very important for helping humans outrun danger like a lion in the savannah. Even though these same stressors don’t exist for the majority of us today, cortisol is still triggered by our modern, hectic, caffeine-fueled, over-stimulated lifestyles.
Yep, women have this hormone, too. Just not as much as men. Testosterone is produced in small amounts in the ovaries for women and is used for the same things as it is for men. It increases our energy, boosts libido, increases our stamina, and helps us focus.
The thyroid gland is located in our neck and produces two main hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). The thyroid hormones help regulate our metabolism, digestion, brain development, and give us energy. They are such important hormones that every single cell in our bodies has a thyroid hormone receptor!
Each of these hormones are important on their own and all play together. They help us feel great and energized and have cycles. But they can also turn into our worst nightmare when we don’t take proper care of them. We can have too much or too little of every hormone I just mentioned, and maintaining the proper balance is crucial for so many aspects of our health.
HOW HORMONES AFFECT OUR HEALTH AND LIVES ON A DAILY BASIS
Estrogen and progesterone are essential for our monthly cycles. When estrogen is out of balance it can wreak havoc on our periods, and cause an imbalance in progesterone. Estrogen dominance is the most common form of estrogen imbalance that affects many, many women. Excess estrogen can be caused by too much actual estrogen, or it can simply be a matter of an improper ratio of estrogen to progesterone.
Estrogen dominance can create heavy periods, long periods, spotting between periods, breast tenderness or cysts, PMS, fibroids, endometriosis, menstrual migraines, moodiness, depression or weepiness, mid-cycle or ovulatory pain, and brain fog.
Too high estrogen can occur as a result from excessive alcohol use, obesity, xenoestrogens like BPA in our environment and products, and low progesterone (which, when low in relation to estrogen creates estrogen dominance).
We can also have too little of estrogen, which is often caused by excessive stress. Too little estrogen can lead to sporadic periods, amenorrhea (the absence of a period), low sex drive, vaginal dryness, hot flashes, joint pain, depression, and more.
STRESS AND OUR ABILITY TO HANDLE IT
Ladies, stress is a big deal and plays a big part in our hormones and overall health. I really enjoy watching and listening to this Tedx Talk by nutritional biochemist, Dr. Libby Weaver. The video is called “The Pace of Modern Life Versus Our Cavewoman Biochemistry.” Dr. Libby explains the pressure modern women feel today to do everything and be everything, and our biochemistry that is actually wired for a much different pace and lifestyle.
High cortisol is a type of hormonal imbalance that affects many women today. Whenever the body senses a stressful situation, whether from work or from rushing around getting errands done, the adrenal glands pump out cortisol to help us deal with it. However, modern women are under constant stress, and that means that we are constantly pumping out cortisol and suffering from the overproduction of it.
Many women today are under a perpetual state of alarm and that can wreak havoc on our hormones. Besides unending psychological stress, other causes of high cortisol include extreme dieting, eating disorders, over-exercising, food allergies and sensitivities.
Common symptoms of high cortisol are the feeling of being ‘tired and wired,’ difficulty falling or staying asleep, increased belly fat, sugar cravings, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and decreased fertility.
Stress and cortisol production also affect the levels of available progesterone in the body. Progesterone is also made from the adrenal glands, and when the body is in a state of alarm, the last thing it wants to do is help us conceive a child. That’s because it senses that there’s a danger in our environment and it shuts down our reproduction. As we know, low progesterone leads to estrogen dominance and the cycle continues, leading to other hormonal imbalances.
As we mentioned, high cortisol affects our ability to wind down and relax. It can make us feel like we’re tired and over-worked, but when it comes time to actually fall asleep, you may find that your mind is racing and you can’t help but toss and turn in bed. Sleep is a very important part of overall health and a lack of sleep can actually lead to insulin resistance and blood sugar imbalance.
ABILITY TO LOSE WEIGHT AND MAINTAIN WEIGHT LOSS
Our good ol’ friend stress plays another role. When cortisol is high, other parts of the body are shut off like digestion and fat-burning to give us the energy we need to deal with the stress at hand. High cortisol can lead to our bodies holding onto fat and reducing our ability to burn fat and lose weight. It can lead to increased fat around the belly and the annoying muffin top. High estrogen can also lead to our bodies holding onto weight. Fat tissue holds onto and secretes estrogen, leading to more estrogen circulating in the body and making it harder to lose weight.
Low thyroid, hypothyroidism, is another cause of weight gain. Thyroid regulates the metabolism, and when thyroid is low, so is our internal thermometer responsible for burning fat and maintaining weight.
ABILITY TO GAIN WEIGHT
While this may not seem like a common problem for most women, it does exist, and it can be a real health concern. Losing weight without trying and not being able to maintain a healthy weight can lead to nutritional deficiencies and hormonal imbalances.
Hyperthyroid, the over-production of the thyroid hormones, increases metabolism and can make it difficult for women to reach a healthy weight and maintain that weight. A few symptoms of hyperthyroid are feeling ‘wired and tired,’ anxiety, irritability, increased heartbeat, difficulty sleeping, and an enlarged thyroid.
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease.
Progesterone is our main sex hormone for creating the right environment for conceiving and carrying a baby to term. When that hormone is low, whether from too much stress in our lives or from excessive estrogen, the risk of infertility and miscarriages increase. Thyroid hormones also play a role in a woman’s fertility. The thyroid regulates our metabolism and acts as our internal thermometer. When not enough thyroid is produced, our body may not be able to reach or maintain the right temperature for carrying a fetus. We are literally too cool to develop a baby. Lowering stress and boosting the thyroid hormone, if low, are a couple key steps to improving fertility.
SEX DRIVE AND ENERGY
Testosterone is the key player when it comes to delivering the libido we need for a healthy and fun sex life. It also gives us energy and stamina to achieve the things we may want to do in our day to day lives. When testosterone is low, we women often hear ourselves saying, “not tonight honey” or “I’m just too tired.” We can have too much testosterone, which can lead to issues like ovarian cysts or the condition PCOS, but having too little can make us not feel quite like ourselves, or not able show up in our lives the way we want to.
Being on the birth control pill can lower testosterone, by raising a protein called Sex Hormone Binding Globulin. This protein binds to testosterone and makes it inactive. Removal of the ovaries, low ovarian function, and ovarian failure can also cause low testosterone.
Read Part 2 of this guide, where we explore how we can begin to shift our hormones into balance. Happy hormones, happy life!
*The majority of this information comes from my experience and knowledge as a woman’s hormonal health coach and graduate of Nicole Jardim’s Women’s Hormonal Health Apprenticeship.