Hormone imbalance in women – signs, symptoms and treatment

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  • When we think of a hormone imbalance we may recall a bad bout of PMS or picture the symptoms of the menopause, but there's much more to it than mood swings and hot flushes.

    Hormones are an essential part of us; chemical envoys responsible for an incredible array of physical, sexual, mental and emotional functions and processes. When hormones are working well our bodies and minds flourish, but an imbalance can cause both chronic and acute health problems.

    The symptoms of a hormone imbalance are wide-ranging and can occur at any age, so if you’ve noticed changes to your blood pressure, menstrual cycle, sleep, weight, mood or general health, or if it feels like something is out of whack or you simply don’t feel right, it’s worth talking through your concerns with a doctor.

    If you suspect you have a hormone imbalance here are some of the signs to look out for, and what to expect from a diagnosis and treatment.

    What is a hormone imbalance?

    Hormones are produced by endocrine glands around the body. These glands include the pineal and pituitary (found in the brain), thyroid (in the neck), adrenals (located above the kidneys), pancreas (in the abdomen), and the ovaries. Hormones have an impact on multiple aspects of bodily function and play a part in – amongst others – growth, hunger, weight and reproduction, as well as moods and our ability to cope with stress.

    While women can expect hormonal fluctuations throughout their lives – periods, pregnancy and menopause are three prime examples – a hormone imbalance occurs when the endocrine glands stop working properly, or when there’s too little or too much of one or more hormones. The consequences can range from irritating, to distressing, to life-threatening.

    Dr. Nyjon Eccles, a leading Integrated Medicine Physician and expert in natural medicine, runs The Natural Doctor Clinic in London.

    He explains a hormone imbalance as ‘where one or more of the body’s hormones are not in balance with their hormonal pair. For example, in a woman, oestrogen may be too high for the level of progesterone [this is known as oestrogen dominance]. This may be seen commonly in women who are menopausal or perimenopausal but is often the case in many women who suffer from PMT.’

    Credit: Tara Moore/Getty Images

    What causes a hormone imbalance?

    There are a variety of factors that can cause a hormone imbalance, including illnesses such as thyroid or other endocrine gland conditions, diabetes, eating disorders, cancer treatment, hormone therapy, environmental toxins, a nutritionally poor diet that is rich in refined foods, and certain medications.

    For women, a hormone imbalance often occurs in relation to the female reproductive system – polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), birth control pills, pregnancy, breastfeeding, hysterectomy and menopause can all cause issues.

    ‘There may be a genetic tendency,’ says Dr. Eccles, ‘but most commonly an imbalance is related to lifestyle and less healthy lifestyles that are more often associated with hormone dysregulation [hormone imbalance].’

    What are the symptoms of a hormone imbalance in women?

    ‘These can vary greatly,’ explains Dr. Eccles, ‘but include the following: hot flushes, vaginal dryness, irregular bleeding, fibrocystic changes in the breasts, weight gain, fluid retention, dry skin and hair, hair loss, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, sleeplessness, headaches, breast tenderness, foggy thinking, joint pain, loss of libido and difficulty reaching orgasm.’

    Acne, depression, fatigue, hirsutism (excessive hair on the face or body), increased thirst, migraines, infertility, irregular periods, loss of periods (amenorrhoea), night sweats, pain during sex, poor memory and a puffy face can also be indicative of a hormone imbalance.

    How is a hormone imbalance found?

    To detect a hormone imbalance ‘the best way is by blood test or by urine test,’ says Dr. Eccles. ‘In some circumstances testing hormone levels in saliva can also be useful,’ adding that ‘if tests are in a pre-menopausal woman then the timing of the test is also important.’

    Your GP may also offer a pelvic exam, which can include a smear test, or refer you for an ultrasound to gather images of the pituitary or thyroid gland, the ovaries or uterus. Other detection techniques include biopsies, MRI scans and X-rays.

    There are home test kits available that measure hormones through saliva or blood samples. These can be expensive so it’s worth speaking to your GP first, who should be able to determine what specific tests you need and what tests can be conducted on the NHS.

    What is the best way to medically treat a hormone imbalance?

    How a hormone imbalance is treated depends on the condition and the practitioner. Options include medication, creams, pessaries, the pill and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

    Regular HRT medication contains synthetic hormones but there are natural options. As an expert in natural medicine, Dr. Eccles believes that ‘the best way is to use bio-identical hormones since these do not appear to have the long-term downsides and risks that we can see with synthetic hormones.’

    While many of us prefer natural methods and some of us swear by them, the jury is still out on their efficacy. The NHS currently doesn’t offer bio-identical hormone therapy, stating that ‘it’s not known how effective they are in reducing menopausal symptoms.’

    Credit: Dougal Waters/Getty Images

    Natural remedies and lifestyle changes that can help a hormone imbalance

    If you take the holistic route ‘bio-identical hormones are best and work quickest,’ says Dr. Eccles. Bio-identical hormones are described by Harvard Medical School as ‘hormones made from a plant chemical extracted from yams and soy [that are] identical in molecular structure to the hormones women make in their bodies’.

    Like HRT, bio-identical hormones come in the form of drugs, such as tablets, and creams and gels that a doctor will prescribe a combination of.  ‘This form of treatment should always be monitored by a skilled doctor to get the hormone levels right for each individual, as well as testing to monitor treatment levels,’ advises Dr. Eccles.

    If your symptoms aren’t too severe a simple change in diet can help – try eating less meat and dairy and more plant-based phyto-oestrogen foods such as almonds, flaxseeds, lentils, oats, sesame seeds, soy beans, tofu and walnuts. After being tested for hormone imbalance some women find that they have a mildly under-functioning thyroid – if this is the case, says Dr. Eccles, ‘certain nutrients in supplement form’ will be enough to support the thyroid.

    While many women have reported positive results from using natural products ‘natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean safe, and some over-the-counter complementary remedies such as St. John’s Wort can negatively interact with certain medicines. The NHS doesn’t offer or recommend bio-identical hormone therapy so it’s a personal choice. If you choose to go ahead with natural alternatives to HRT find an established practitioner who will be able to provide tailor-made doses.

    Other lifestyle changes that help balance hormones include following a balanced high-fibre, low-sugar diet that contains healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, salmon and avocados; drinking less alcohol and more green tea; losing weight; exercising and reducing your stress levels (yoga is particularly good); and giving up smoking.

    To treat particular symptoms such as vaginal dryness use a lubricant (these are available without prescription). If you suffer from hot flashes avoid trigger substances such as alcohol and spicy foods.