Hormones are secreted by our endocrine glands (pineal gland, pituitary gland, hypothalamus, pancreas, ovaries, testes, thyroid, adrenals) and function as chemical messengers to control most major bodily functions. The most basic of needs such as hunger and sleep are controlled by our hormones, as are reproduction and libido, mood, energy, metabolism, temperature, and digestion.
For various reasons, your organs and glands may become weak or damaged over time. When a specific organ and its related hormones are compromised, it causes your entire hormonal system to spiral out of balance.
This is why some people, regardless of their diet and exercise habits, feel lousy, while others do nothing at all and feel great. With your hormones, it’s all about balance, and we often only pay them any mind once they stop working well. Too high or too low, and they can cause numerous health issues. Understanding the major hormones and what they do can help you take control of your health.
Mainstream medicine typically checks for hormonal health by running a basic hormonal panel via the blood, but because these ranges can be very broad, most patients are advised that their hormones are normal. If you are like many of our patients, you are told that you are either “just getting older”, “need to lose weight or exercise more”, or that maybe “you are depressed” and offered a drug to help you with your moods. If your labs happen to come back as “abnormal,” you may be given a prescription for a synthetic hormone cream or pill. This is intended to replace the hormones that are “low” but does nothing to address the underlying cause of “why” they are low. On top of that, these could also come with unwanted side effects.
From a functional medicine perspective, our aim is to find out the root cause of “why” our patients have hormonal symptoms and support the body’s inherent ability to achieve natural, healthy hormonal balance.
Aside from testing the blood, we also test the various fluids in the body where just as much, if not more, of our hormones can be found. This offers a much more comprehensive view of the inter-workings of the body rather than simply looking at the blood alone.
Below are some of the most common hormonal imbalances that we see in our clinic and that many of you reading this may also be experiencing.
The adrenal glands are two tiny walnut shaped glands that sit on top of our kidneys. The adrenals secrete several hormones, one of which is cortisol. In the proactive state, cortisol regulates our sleep/wake cycles and food intake. When cortisol is released it facilitates our ability to cope with, adapt to, and recover from stress. Normally our cortisol levels should be highest shortly after waking in the morning, slowly declining over the course of the day, until they drop off shortly before sleep. Adrenal dysfunction happens when there is an imbalance in this cortisol rhythm: cortisol is high when it should be low or low when it should be high. Cortisol can also be too high or too low throughout the day as well. Adrenal fatigue (aka adrenal dysfunction) can result when the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system is continually activated by what is perceived as stress – be it physical, biological (food sensitivities, toxins, infections, nutritional deficiencies, etc) or emotional. Discovering what hidden biological stressors you may have and correcting those, along with minimizing physical and emotional stressors, is a great way to address adrenal fatigue.
What You Might Experience:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning even after a long sleep
- Inability to handle stress
- Cravings for salty or sugary foods
- Low libido
- Tired during the day but get a “second wind” in the evening
- Fatigue after exercise
- Can’t stay asleep
- Dizziness when standing up quickly
- Afternoon headaches
- Blood sugar issues
- Flushing when stressed
- Difficulty losing weight
- Asthma, allergies, getting sick frequently
Possible Testing: 24 hour Adrenal Stress Index, a salivary or urinary test that tracks cortisol throughout the day, and cortisol metabolites, to check how well you are eliminating cortisol.
The thyroid is a butterfly shaped organ that sits at the front of the neck and produces thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), collectively known as thyroid hormones. T4 is converted to the active hormone T3 by the liver and kidneys and every cell in our bodies requires thyroid hormones to function properly. Our metabolism, heart rate, digestion, muscle control, brain development, and bone maintenance all rely on having adequate levels of thyroid hormones. The newest research has shown that the lab ranges for “normal” thyroid are too large, and the actual amount of thyroid hormones in the tissues can still be too low. Unfortunately, many doctors are still unaware of this research, and they are still prescribing thyroid hormones based on the standard broad lab ranges.
What You Might Experience:
- Feeling tired
- Feeling cold in your hands, feet, or all over
- Requiring excessive amounts of sleep
- Weight gain, even with a low-calorie diet
- Difficult, infrequent bowel movements
- Depression or lack of motivation
- Morning headaches that wear off as the day progresses
- Thinning at the outer third of eyebrows
- Thinning of hair on scalp or coarse hair
- Excessive hair falling out/Brittle nails
- Dry, puffy skin
- Mental sluggishness and poor concentration
- Unexplained infertility
Possible Testing: Conventional medicine typically assesses thyroid function by measuring TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) and sometimes T4 (the inactive form of thyroid hormone). Unfortunately, there are many types of thyroid dysfunction that do not show up on a standard thyroid panel. These can include an Autoimmune thyroid disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, poor thyroid hormone conversion, and thyroid resistance. A functional medicine thyroid panel is very comprehensive and tests for other labs such as free T3 (active thyroid hormone), T3 uptake, reverse T3, SHBG and thyroid antibodies to rule out autoimmune thyroid problems, which can manifest far before the TSH becomes abnormal.
For a more in-depth understanding of the thyroid, including four signs you may have a thyroid problem, click here.
Estrogen refers to a group of chemically similar hormones: Estrone (E1), Estradiol (E2) and Estriol (E3). Estrogen binds to receptors on cells in target tissues and affects not only the breast and uterus, but also the brain, bone, liver, heart and other tissues. Estrone and Estradiol are the stronger forms of estrogen and they have been linked to hormonally-dependent cancers and heart disease. Estradiol, on the other hand, has a protective effect.
Symptoms of Low Estrogen in Women:
- Vaginal dryness
- Poor concentration
- Night sweats
- Painful sex
- Brain fog
- Recurrent bladder infections
- Hot flashes
Symptoms of High Estrogen in Women:
- Feeling puffy and bloated
- Rapid weight gain
- Breast tenderness
- Mood swings
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Fibroids and Cysts
- Feeling anxious and/or depressed
- Migraine headaches
- Abnormal PAP smears or cervical dysplasia
- Weepy and emotional
Symptoms of High Estrogen in Men:
Men don’t produce estrogen like women but produce it through a p