Feeling irritable, bloated, or just not yourself? If so, a hormonal imbalance may be to blame. Hormones are chemical messengers that are secreted into the blood to regulate a variety of important bodily functions and processes. If hormones become imbalanced, they can have a huge effect on our bodies and how we feel. Here, we explore why they’re so important and what happens when things go wrong.
Meet your hormones
What springs to mind when you hear the word ‘hormones’? The emotional roller-coaster of puberty? The competitive spirit of testosterone? Perhaps the night sweats of menopause? While fluctuating hormones can certainly be the cause of symptoms like mood swings and hot flushes, hormones also do us a lot of good.
Our bodies produce over 50 hormones, which are involved in the control of entire organs and systems. These hormones act like tiny messengers, transmitting signals that tell the cells in our body to take on specific actions. When hormones are working well, our bodies and minds flourish, but an imbalance can cause a spectrum of health problems.
So, what are ‘female’ hormones?
Interestingly, men and women have both ‘male’ and ‘female’ sex hormones, just in different amounts. These hormones play a profound role in male and female biology, kicking in during puberty and promoting gender-specific characteristics, such as breasts in women and facial hair in men. The female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, are well known for their impact on a woman’s reproductive health but also play a big part in how a woman thinks, feels and looks.1
Oestrogen is produced by a woman’s ovaries, fat cells, adrenal glands, and the placenta during pregnancy. It plays a more important role in women than in men because it is involved in the development and regulation of the female reproductive system, so oestrogen affects puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and menopause.2
Also referred to as the ‘pregnancy hormone’, progesterone is a steroid hormone produced by the ovaries after ovulation and by the placenta during pregnancy. It plays a crucial role in the menstrual cycle, preparing a woman’s body for pregnancy by causing the lining of the womb to thicken and suppressing oestrogen production after ovulation.2
It’s natural for these hormones to fluctuate
Fluctuations in your sex hormones – throughout the month and at different stages of life – are normal and expected, but these highs and lows can lead to changes in the way you look and feel. For example, it’s common for women to experience headaches right before their period when oestrogen and progesterone levels drop.3 On the other hand, hormonal changes during pregnancy, including significant increases in progesterone and oestrogen, can affect mood, create the much-talked about pregnancy “glow”, and change how your body responds to exercise (you get hotter and puffed a lot faster!).4 During perimenopause and menopause, hormone production in the ovaries begins to decrease, leading to a whole other range of symptoms including hot flushes, night sweats, reduced libido and irregular periods.
A hormone imbalance is not normal
A hormone imbalance is not a temporary fluctuation in hormone levels – it occurs when there’s consistently too little or too much of a certain hormone. The effects can range from irritating or distressing to even life-threatening. A hormonal imbalance is often the sign of an underlying medical condition like thyroid disease or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). However, our lifestyle and eating habits can also lead to hormone imbalances.
For example, carrying excess body weight is an increasingly common reason for women’s hormones to ‘play up’. This is because excess fat promotes the production of certain hormones. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can have a range of deleterious effects, including a rise in blood pressure, increased insulin resistance, inflammation, sexual dysfunction, and an increased risk of certain cancers.5
Excess fat can also lead to decreased levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), a substance involved in regulating the sex hormones. This can alter the level of a woman’s sex hormones causing irregular periods, which in turn, may affect her ability to fall pregnant. Indeed, research has shown that in overweight women, even a modest weight loss of 5% can improve fertility and the chance of conceiving.6
Not feeling quite right and think your hormones may be to blame?
If you are experiencing a range of vague or unsettling symptoms, including issues with menstruation and/or fertility, and suspect that a hormonal imbalance may be the cause, the first step is to speak to your GP or a women’s health specialist. You can make an appointment with me by calling (03) 9418 8299 or by booking online.
Tata JR. EMBO Rep. 2005; 6(6):490–496. ↩︎
DeMayo FJ et al. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2002; 59:396–406. ↩︎
Chai NC et al. Curr Opin Neurol. 2014; 27(3):315–324. ↩︎
Kumar P et al. Niger Med J. 2012; 53(4):179–183. ↩︎
Lovejoy JC et al. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008; 32(6):949–958. ↩︎
Clark AM et al. Human Reprod. 1995; 10(10):2705–2712. ↩︎