One of the most common conversations I have with women in their middle-age years is around the various hormonal issues and concerns they have experienced, or are still experiencing in their lives starting as early as their teenage years.
Throughout these conversations, women often lead the discussion with, “I wish I would have known; I just thought that this was normal for me.” Today, more than 80% of women experience various “health issues” associated with their hormones. These women are often diagnosed with hormonal imbalances after experiencing a wide range of bothersome symptoms that may have worsened throughout their lives.
Symptoms include PMS, moodiness, heavy periods, hormonal acne, weight gain, migraines, thyroid conditions, constipation, skin conditions, low libido, hair loss, brain fogginess, low iron, sleep problems, infertility and early-onset peri-menopausal symptoms. Many women don’t realize that a majority, if not all, of these symptoms can signify that their hormones are an underlying issue and often spend years just “living with them”.
It is not uncommon to also hear that women who experience these symptoms are being prescribed the hormonal BCP (birth control pill) and/or HRT (hormone replacement therapy) to help relieve the symptoms of hormonal imbalances in the body, without getting to the root of them.
Hormonal imbalances can start at any age and show through signs like heavy or irregular periods, cystic acne and migraines that begin to appear after the first two years of our menstrual cycle. Some of the most common conditions associated with hormonal imbalances in girls in their late teens to early twenties are endometriosis and PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome)—two very common hormonal imbalances that are greatly affected by the hormones estrogen and testosterone, and insulin sensitivity.
As women navigate through their child-bearing years, other symptoms of imbalances such as heavy periods, weight gain (hip and thigh area), early peri-menopause symptoms, fibrocystic breast disease, and fibroids are also very common. Often these imbalances are linked to excessive estrogen levels within the body and declining progesterone levels, which can also be a factor in infertility issues alongside high levels of stress and rising cortisol levels.
However, not all hormonal imbalances are associated with our sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. Other common hormonal imbalances that women (and men) can face are related to our thyroid and adrenal glands. These two glands are responsible for the production, excretion and communication of other hormones in our endocrine system.
Hypothyroidism is one of the leading hormonal imbalances women face in their mid-40s, affecting over 12% of Canadian women yearly. Women have a 16% higher chance of experiencing a thyroid condition than men.
Symptoms associated with thyroid conditions can range from extreme fatigue, hair loss, dry and flaky skin, cracked heels, constipation, weight gain, slow metabolism, brain fogginess, depression, low levels of iron, irritability, auto-immune disorders, celiac disease, racing heart rate, low blood pressure, dizziness, vertigo, extreme cold, and more.
Many women today aren’t diagnosed with thyroid conditions until their mid-40s. They often struggle with undiagnosed thyroid conditions because their serum blood levels do not meet the requirement to investigate further certain thyroid hormones, such as T3, FT4 and TSH levels. Genetics can also play a role in thyroid conditions such as hypo/hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s.
Health conditions such as Addison’s disease can be linked to adrenal insufficiencies and more severe health concerns due to the health of our adrenal glands, which are responsible for producing and excreting certain hormones such as cortisol (our stress hormone), aldosterone (a hormone that is responsible for our sodium/potassium levels), DHEA and even our estrogen as we hit our menopausal years. When our body is under high amounts of stress, our adrenal glands can become affected and fatigued, causing too much cortisol production or too little.
Our endocrine system comprises various essential hormones, like a delicate ecosystem. These hormones play a vital role in communication and function with all the other hormones in our body. When one of these crucial hormones is off, it can affect our other hormones throughout our body, causing imbalances and even health issues.
When it comes to understanding how hormones work within our body, it’s essential to realize the essence of their job. They act as tiny chemical messengers throughout our body, controlling our cells’ function, growth and development, metabolism, sleep, immunity and even our moods.
Various glands secrete hormones within our endocrine system, and this is where we see a majority of hormone imbalances and health issues for both women and men today.
Being proactive in the health of your hormones at any age is a great way to be preventative when it comes to hormonal imbalances. Managing your stress levels, reducing your caffeine intake, eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense vegetables such as cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale), getting enough lean protein at every meal and ensuring you eat enough essential fatty acids help with hormone production within the body.
Another beneficial factor in having healthy hormones is looking at the products you use in your daily lives, such as your cleaning products, cosmetics, perfumes and the plastics in your home.
These can all contain things known as “endocrine disrupters” which act as blocks in our endocrine system, causing imbalances of essential hormones and the rise of certain hormones such as estrogen. More importantly, look at your daily washroom habits and note if you are not “regular.” Our digestive tract and our liver both play a vital role in the health of our hormones, as they are the main detoxing organs that excrete unwanted or excessive hormones in our bodies.
There are links to thyroid conditions and estrogen dominance due to having a sluggish digestive tract.
Lastly, support the health of your hormones through specific vitamins and nutrients in both the foods you eat and supplements you take. For healthy hormones, women need to ensure they get enough specific B vitamins such as vitamin B6, vitamin B12, essential fatty acids (evening primrose oil), magnesium glycinate, selenium, vitamin C, and calcium. Supplements that support the balance of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone contain herbs such as vitex (chaste tree), DIM, dong quai and sage. These herbs have been shown to support healthy levels of hormones in the body. On the market today, you can find a variety of hormonal support supplements in the vitamin section containing these herbs, vitamins and minerals.
No one “magic” pill solves hormonal imbalances. It is fundamental to understand what your body is ultimately trying to show you through the symptoms you experience. It is a combination of our daily habits, such as our lifestyle, sleep habits, the foods we eat, exercising and moving our body, and the nutrients and supplements we take. If you feel that you are experiencing or have experienced some hormonal imbalances throughout your life, I encourage you to ask questions. There are answers and solutions to support your health, especially your hormones, and I hope that all women will feel empowered to redefine their health and be proactive in the health of their hormones at any age.
Chelan Wilkins, rhn is a Vancouver-based Registered Holistic Nutritionist and women’s health educator who is passionate about empowering women to redefine their health. She shares her expertise in women’s health, hormones, digestive health and skin health as a brand educator for the natural health and wellness industry. As a proud women’s health advocate and disruptor, Chelan is also creator of a women’s health and lifestyle forum and host of the podcast A Hot Mess.