Hormones are your body's own chemical messengers. Produced by the endocrine system — which includes the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, adrenal glands and ovaries — hormones travel throughout your bloodstream and affect a range of physiological functions, such as metabolism, reproductivity and mood regulation, to name a few.
Even small changes in the ratios needed for optimal function — brought about by stress, infections, hormonal birth control, sleep deficits and more — can cause issues that reverberate throughout your body if you don’t address them, says Aimee Raupp, THE WELL Advisor for Traditional Chinese Medicine and author of Body Belief.
"Even small changes in the ratios needed for optimal function can cause issues that reverberate throughout your body."
For instance, the delicate balance of the reproductive hormones estrogen, testosterone and progesterone plays a crucial role in many fertility and sexual health issues. When they’re off balance, it can lead to infertility or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Two other common endocrine disorders — hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism — involving varying levels of the thyroid hormone, can lead to weight gain, fatigue, hair loss and anxiety.
While it’s not always easy to figure out exactly what’s going on inside your body, it is worth paying attention to some of the (often external) signs that something’s off-kilter with your hormones, including the five below.
1. Hair and Skin Issues
Skin, hair and nails are often impacted by changing levels of hormones, partly because hormones called androgens can stimulate oil glands and hair follicles in the skin. Changes in levels of thyroid hormone can also affect the hair and skin, making it thin or brittle.
Some common signs of off-balance hormones include acne or bad breakouts, dry skin and skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema and rosacea. Thinning hair or an increased amount of facial hair are also signs that something could be out of whack hormonally, says Raupp.
2. Disruptive PMS Symptoms
Although hormone levels naturally fluctuate throughout your cycle, major mental symptoms (feeling moody, sad, anxious or just outright miserable) or intense physical symptoms (as in, cramps so bad you have to miss work, breast pain that goes beyond a little bit of tenderness) could point to a bigger hormonal issue, Raupp notes.
Contrary to popular belief, terrible PMS symptoms between ovulation and the start of your period is not normal, says Alisa Vitti, founder of FloLiving and author of In The Flo: Unlock Your Hormonal Advantage and Revolutionize Your Life. Another sign to look out for, according to Vitti: a period that starts and ends in brown spotting. This could be a sign low progesterone levels are preventing your period from starting and stopping as bright red flow, she notes.
3. Night Sweats
Some people simply “run hot” — and waking up a bit sweaty in the middle of the night could just be a result of blanket that's too heavy or a thermostat that’s set a bit high. But Raupp notes that night sweats can also be a sign of hormonal imbalances. In fact, night sweats are a common complaint among postpartum women who experience a sharp decline in estrogen levels after giving birth, as well as menopausal women.
4. Weight Gain
5. Trouble with Sleep, Digestion or Focus
These types of symptoms could be a sign that you have higher-than-normal levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — running through your body. If you’ve been stressed out lately, you might have noticed stomach issues, difficulty sleeping or muscle weakness. It can also affect your ability to focus, as well as your mood and energy levels.
How to Re-Balance Your Hormones
If you’ve noticed any of the above symptoms, get in touch with a healthcare provider to share your concerns. They can run a blood test or do a full workup including a medical history, and take a look at all of your symptoms to identify what could be going on.
Seeing a functional medicine practitioner at THE WELL or another integrative health center can be a great idea, Raupp notes. Functional physicians will often order more extensive lab tests than regular primary care physicians, leading to more thorough discoveries of what could be going on with your hormones.
Raupp also recommends working with an herbalist, acupuncturist or Chinese medicine practitioner who can recommend strategies that can help to bring you back to whole-body balance.
General lifestyle changes can help as well. Using nontoxic bath and beauty products and household cleaners for a month, for example, will reduce your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, which could mess with hormone levels, Raupp explains.
"Consider mindfulness-based practices such as yoga, meditation or deep-breathing — all of which have been shown to lower stress levels in the body."
In terms of nutrition, Vitti suggests adding broccoli, flax seeds and pears to your diet for extra fiber. She also recommends adding certain nutrients to your diet, such as glutathione, B vitamins and vitamin C, which help your liver process excess estrogen. Notes Raupp: Cutting back on sugar and processed packaged foods can help too, which is also a good idea for your overarching health!
Finally, improving your gut health can help restore your hormonal balance. “Good gut bacteria — a.k.a. your microbiome — and certain bacterial genes called the estrobolome produce an essential enzyme that helps metabolize estrogen,” says Vitti. “Your microbiome is part of the elimination system that is vital in ushering hormones.”
To do that, add probiotic-rich foods (think: sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, kefir) as well as foods rich in prebiotics (fibers which provide food for your “good” gut bacteria found in foods such as Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, onion, garlic and beans) to your diet.