You’re exhausted, you can’t sleep, you’re losing your hair, your skin’s freaking out, your nails are splintering, you’ve gained weight, and um, when was the last time you pooped? Basically, you “look tired,” feel worse, and you’re only 45 — what gives?
If you’re dealing with these symptoms, the culprit may be your hormones, aka the chemical messengers in our bodies that control how our cells and organs function. Hormone imbalances are prevalent in both men and women, but they are more common in women. A 2019 survey of 2,000 American women found that nearly half had experienced symptoms of a hormone imbalance, yet 72% said they didn’t know their symptoms were hormone-related until later in life.
This is where conventional medicine often falls short. Even with a doctor-ordered blood test, your hormone levels may come back ‘normal.’ But just because they appear within “normal” ranges doesn’t mean that they’re optimally balanced.
A more nuanced blood panel (like the Lifeforce Diagnostic) might look at the same results and find that you, like many people in their 40s and 50s, are in the midst of a hormonal firestorm that’s making you feel and act out of sorts.
“Many hormones interplay with each other, and when one goes out of whack, it can cause a ripple effect,” says Dr. Vinita Tandon, Lifeforce’s Medical Director and board certified endocrinologist. “Imbalances cannot be ignored since they get worse, negatively impact health and quality of life, and then need to be aggressively addressed down the road.”
If you pinpoint which hormones are out of alignment early, there are simple science-backed lifestyle changes — including reducing stress, eating better, getting enough sleep, and moving more — that can help bring your hormones into alignment.
What Hormones Do and How to Tell If They’re Balanced
Hormones are chemicals produced by the glands in the endocrine system. They travel throughout the body in the bloodstream and bind with your cells’ protein receptors to tell them what specific job to do, such as controlling mood, energy, digestion, metabolism, libido, immunity, and sleep — practically every process in your body has a hormone behind it. So when such a complex and wide-reaching system becomes disrupted, it can produce all sorts of issues that affect your entire body.
When your hormones are balanced, you should sleep well, feel energetic, maintain a healthy weight, and feel unstressed, says Dr. Tandon. If you are experiencing the opposite, it would be worthwhile to figure out which hormones are unbalanced.
“Measuring hormone levels via a blood test is the best way to diagnose a hormonal imbalance,” says Dr. Tandon. “But what’s more important is having an experienced physician interpret the results to determine whether the level is optimal or not.” (Learn more about the Lifeforce Diagnostic and in-depth clinical report here.)
Here are some key hormonal imbalances that could be making you feel less than ideal and what to do about them.
You’re Not Old, It’s Your Thyroid
More than 12% percent of Americans will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime, according to the American Thyroid Association, and 60% won’t even know it. While it can affect anyone, women are five to eight times more likely to be diagnosed with a thyroid condition than men.
The thyroid gland at the base of the neck produces liothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These work together to maintain your sanity, energy, and metabolism. Stress, dietary changes, and menopause can upset their balance.
“Thyroid hormones affect almost every cell in the body, so if levels drop, you can experience a myriad of symptoms, some subtle and some not so subtle,” says Dr. Tandon. Many symptoms of thyroid imbalance can make you feel less than your vivacious and vibrant self, including:
What you can do: Stress modulation is vital for thyroid health. Studies show that T3 and T4 levels decrease with stress because it inhibits the secretion of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Zinc and selenium supplements also help with thyroid function. Dr. Tandon says it’s also important to stay on top of checking hormone levels as you get older since the thyroid gland becomes less effective with age and thyroid issues are one of the most underdiagnosed conditions. “People go years feeling symptomatic but don’t receive proper treatment,” she says.
You’re Not Crazy, It’s Your Cortisol
Adrenal glands produce stress hormones, including cortisol, which not only helps get you up and going in the morning but helps you survive the day’s stressors, whether that’s a mountain lion or a bad boss. It’s generally great, but in moderation. Poor diet, lack of sleep, and chronic stress can create a constant drip of cortisol that makes your body hang onto fat, feel harried, and eventually disrupts all other hormones, including thyroid, progesterone, and insulin. Your cortisol levels might be too high, too low, or too high or low at the wrong times (it’s supposed to be high in the morning and low at night). These symptoms might be your first clue:
Weight gain, especially around your midsection
What you can do: To rebalance your cortisol levels, you’ll need to manage your stress levels and cool it on the sweets, starches, carbs, and caffeinated beverages, which stress the gut and trigger excess cortisol and insulin (both cue fat storage). Chronic stress also forces your body to burn glucose, a faster-burning fuel, rather than fat for energy, so your body holds onto even more fat.
Exercise is a fantastic stress reliever with multiple benefits for your adrenals, but meditation is the ultimate treatment. A recent study found that cortisol levels significantly decreased in participants after just three days of mindful meditation. Mind-body exercises, such as yoga and tai chi, help reduce stress hormones, too. Even simple breathing exercises can help you relax.
You’re Not a Jerk, It’s Your Sex Hormones
A common hormonal imbalance in women is between estrogen and progesterone, two primary female hormones.
“Levels of both can fluctuate throughout life,” says Dr. Tandon. “But there’s an abrupt and sudden drop during perimenopause and menopause, which can really wreak havoc for women.” Chronic or acute stress can also impact these hormones and cause a clinical imbalance.
Estrogen’s role in the female body is to lay down the lining of the uterus and prepare for pregnancy, which includes padding up the hips and thighs, so high estrogen levels can cause you to gain weight whether you’re pregnant or not. Weight gain is also common when estrogen drops in peri- and post-menopause.
Meanwhile, progesterone is the chill-out hormone that helps you relax. It tends to drop when estrogen and cortisol rise. Both men and women also need testosterone for sex drive, confidence, and strong bones and muscles. Too much or too little of these sex hormones can result in:
PMS or perimenopause issues
What you can do: Resistance training has been shown to boost testosterone in men. Also, limit your consumption of sugar, simple carbohydrates, and alcohol, which lower testosterone. Getting more sleep, taking magnesium supplements, and maintaining a healthy weight have also been shown to help men naturally improve their testosterone levels. A balanced, low-fat diet (with enough magnesium and vitamins B6 and C) and regular exercise help maintain progesterone.
Check your hormone levels with the Lifeforce Diagnostic here.
You’re Not Gluttonous, It’s Your Insulin
Insulin, a fat-storage hormone, is released in response to raised blood glucose levels. Insulin’s job is to move the glucose from the blood into your cells where it can be used for energy or stored. Eating too many carbohydrates, processed foods, and refined sugars can elevate blood glucose levels rapidly. High cortisol levels do that, too. And because insulin does its job so well, we gain weight.
Another hormone called leptin is supposed to kick in when your energy stores are full and tell your brain to turn off the desire to eat. But insulin interferes with leptin’s signal, so your brain never gets that memo to put down the Doritos.
“Maintaining normal levels of blood sugar and insulin are extremely important for body composition, but also because high levels can change the internal environment of your body and disrupt all kinds of hormonal production,” says Dr. Tandon.
What you can do: Resistance training has been shown to make your muscles more insulin sensitive, which signals your pancreas to make less insulin. Movement after meals will also help. A study from New Zealand’s University of Otago found taking a 10-minute walk immediately after eating had a more beneficial effect on insulin levels than a longer walk at a different time of day.
You’re Not Over the Hill, It’s Your Growth Hormone
“Even after we stop growing in childhood, we still need some growth hormone to function optimally as adults,” says Dr. Tandon. “When we don’t make enough growth hormone, we may notice a higher level of body fat, especially around the waist, more fatigue, a reduction in lean muscle mass, reduced stamina, and an overall reduced sense of well-being.” The Lifeforce Diagnostic measures insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) levels, which manages the effects of growth hormone in our bodies. “Anecdotally, people tend to feel best when their IGF-1 levels are in the upper quartile of the reference range,” Dr. Tandon says.
What you can do: “Sermorelin, an exciting addition at Lifeforce, is a peptide that promotes the synthesis and release of growth hormone (GH) from the pituitary gland, improving the serum concentrations of GH and subsequently insulin-like growth factor 1,” says Dr. Tandon. That can translate to improved energy levels, body composition, and mood. What’s more, “sermorelin doesn’t have the same potential side effects as growth hormone therapy, and the dosing can be very customized to each individual’s needs,” Dr. Tandon notes.
What to Eat for Healthy Hormones
For all your hormones to function well, you need to eat a healthy, varied diet that ensures you get all the essential vitamins and minerals for the proper synthesis of your hormones. That means getting enough:
Vegetables: Get five to nine servings a day (14 to 25 ounces total) of berries and vegetables. In general, opt for more leafy greens and non-starchy veggies.
Lean protein: Have it with every meal. Depending on your age and activity level, aim for 42 to 60 ounces total per day.
Water: Drink 90 to 120 fluid ounces per day, depending on your weight and activity level.
Supplements: Take vitamins A, D, E, K, and B, calcium, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids daily.
For hormone balance, it’s also important to quit crash diets or severely restrictive diets — both contribute to hormonal imbalances. One study found that a three-week-long crash diet caused cortisol levels to spike in women. Research also shows that crash dieting lowers levels of the satiety hormone leptin and increases the hunger hormone ghrelin, so you crave food more.
Ready to measure your hormone levels and empower your health? Sign up for your Lifeforce Diagnostic today.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism
Kerri Masutto, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner