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What is a hormonal imbalance?

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on August 11, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


If you’ve heard the phrase “hormonal imbalance” but aren’t quite sure how it’s related to the body’s overall health, this article is for you. Here, you’ll find an answer to the question “What is hormonal imbalance?” Plus, we’ll highlight various hormonal issues that can affect your health, a few causes of hormone imbalances, related health conditions, and more—so read on. (To check in on your own hormone levels from the comfort of home, try the Everlywell at-home Women’s Hormone Test.)

Hormonal imbalances explained

Hormones are chemical messengers secreted by various glands in the endocrine system. They help regulate many key body functions and processes—from sleep-wake cycles and metabolism to weight and menstrual cycles, to your body’s stress response and temperature.

A hormonal imbalance occurs when normal levels and production of hormones in your endocrine system are disrupted. When your hormone levels aren’t balanced, you may experience a number of unpleasant symptoms as a result. Fortunately, many hormone imbalances can be resolved with treatment strategies like hormone therapy.

Hormone imbalance symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue or feeling tired
  • Weight gain
  • Increased body fat
  • Irregular periods
  • Cold intolerance
  • Heat intolerance
  • Hot flashes
  • Night sweats
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Low sex drive
  • Mental fatigue
  • Lack of concentration
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Hair loss
  • Infertility
  • Skin issues
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain

Common hormones that affect your health

Though there are dozens of hormone types in the human body, here we’ll highlight just a few to help give a sense of the wide-ranging effects hormones have on human health.

Insulin

The hormone insulin tells your body how to use energy from the foods you eat by helping blood sugar move from the bloodstream into our cells. Some people, however, are insulin resistant—due to factors like physical activity levels or diet or family history. Insulin resistance means that the body’s cells can’t properly respond to insulin, leading to a buildup of sugar in the bloodstream. This can lead to weight gain and the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Regular physical activity and a diet rich in nutritious foods may help reduce insulin resistance.

Leptin and ghrelin (also known as the "hunger hormones”)

Leptin and ghrelin help with appetite control. An increase in leptin will decrease your appetite while an increase in ghrelin will increase your appetite. People experiencing obesity often develop a resistance to leptin, which can lead to overeating.

Thyroid hormones

Your thyroid hormones help control your metabolism, heart rate, body temperature, and many other bodily functions. If your thyroid hormone levels are too low you may have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), which can lead to weight gain, fatigue, and other symptoms. An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), on the other hand, can result in sudden weight loss, loss of bone and muscle mass, excessive sweating, and more.

Estrogen and progesterone

Estrogen and progesterone are female sex hormones that play key roles in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy—and thus affect fertility. As women approach menopause, levels of these hormones change significantly—which is often accompanied by hormonal imbalance symptoms like hot flashes, weight gain, and mood changes. In some cases, hormone replacement therapy may be recommended to help manage the symptoms of a hormonal imbalance in women.

What causes hormonal imbalances?

Many women experience a sex hormone imbalance or hormonal disorder at some point in life—but why is this the case? Fluctuations in hormones can happen naturally due to factors like perimenopause and menopause. They can also be brought on by stress, lack of sleep, dietary choices, certain behaviors (like smoking), and more. Here we’ll discuss the effect that diet, stress, and certain chemicals can have on hormones.

Diet

The food you eat can alter your hormone levels—in both desirable and undesirable ways. For example, a high intake of added and refined sugars can disrupt the body’s insulin balance because higher insulin levels may be needed for the sugar to be cleared from the bloodstream. A nutritionally-inadequate diet may also increase the severity of menopause symptoms (such as the frequency of hot flashes).

Stress

We’ve all felt stressed at some point or another, but long-term, chronic stress can significantly disrupt the body’s hormonal balance. Chronic stress leads to constantly elevated levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone” that’s released by our adrenal gland during stressful situations. When cortisol levels are continually high, the body’s sleep-wake cycle, metabolism, and other hormone-regulated processes can be thrown off balance—not only resulting in unpleasant symptoms (like fatigue) but also increasing one’s risk of serious health conditions like heart disease and diabetes.


Learn how your cortisol levels change over a 24-hour period with our at-home cortisol test.


Endocrine-disrupting chemicals

Certain chemicals—both synthetic and natural—known as endocrine disruptors can interfere with endocrine function and upset the body’s hormone balance. Endocrine disruptors do this by mimicking natural hormones in the body, which effectively “confuses” the body’s normal hormone signals and changes hormone production levels. Arsenic—a heavy metal that often contaminates groundwater—is one example of an endocrine disruptor: chronic exposure to it can interfere with metabolism, heightening the risk of diabetes and other conditions. Endocrine disruptors can be found in many everyday items, including some kinds of makeup and skin creams—as well as certain plastics and cleaning products.

Changes in hormone levels due to hormonal imbalances can lead to a number of different health conditions, including the following.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

A common cause of infertility in women of reproductive age.

Thyroid dysfunction

Estimates from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists suggest that close to 1 in 20 people in the United States have an undiagnosed thyroid dysfunction.

Adrenal stress and fatigue

This is related to the levels and production of cortisol, the “stress hormone.”

Diabetes

Diabetes is related to the hormone insulin.

Conclusion

Finding out what a hormonal imbalance is can be a great first step toward understanding how your hormones are connected to your overall health and well-being. Take it one step further by checking in on your own hormone levels from the comfort of home with one of our at-home hormone tests. If you’re wondering how to check for a hormone balance, the following tests may help:

  • Women’s Hormone Test - Lets you learn your levels for 10 key hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, and thyroid hormones.
  • Thyroid Test - Check the 3 main thyroid hormones (TSH, T3, T4), plus thyroid antibodies.
  • Women’s Fertility Test - Test your levels for 5 hormones that help support ovarian function and pregnancy.
  • Men’s Health Test - Check your cortisol, DHEA-S, estradiol, and testosterone.

Each of these hormone tests is easy to take at home—with clear instructions and simple sample collection—and you can conveniently view your easy-to-understand test results on our secure, online platform.


A brief guide to hormonal imbalances in women

21 possible symptoms of a hormonal imbalance

How to check if you have a hormonal imbalance


References

1. Endocrine Diseases. Medline Plus. URL. Accessed August 11, 2020.

2. Insulin Resistance and Diabetes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed August 11, 2020.

3. Klok MD, Jakobsdottir S, Drent ML. The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review. Obes Rev. 2007;8(1):21-34. doi:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2006.00270.x

4. Menopause. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed August 11, 2020.

5. Your Blood Sugar May Be the Key to Your Hormone Imbalance. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed August 11, 2020.

6. Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011;15(1):18-22. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.77573

7. Endocrine Disruptors. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. URL. Accessed August 11, 2020.

8. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed August 11, 2020.

9. Garber JR, Cobin RH, Gharib H, et al. Clinical practice guidelines for hypothyroidism in adults: cosponsored by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American Thyroid Association [published correction appears in Endocr Pract. 2013 Jan-Feb;19(1):175]. Endocr Pract. 2012;18(6):988-1028. doi:10.4158/EP12280.GL

10. Diabetes. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed August 11, 2020.