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Is Hormonal Imbalance Making You Crazy, Moody or Overweight?

Stress can cause hormonal imbalances in women.

 public common domain
Source: Wikimedia: public common domain

Many women are affected negatively by hormonal imbalances. To begin explaining why that is, let's first settle on a location. Which organ is the culprit?

Your first guess might be the ovaries. That's a really good, educated guess, but it's not entirely correct. In fact, we start the story of the potentially nasty effects of hormonal imbalances in women in the brain—not down in the ovaries.

A brain structure called the hypothalamus controls hormonal secretions from the ovaries and all other glands in the body. It does this through intimate connections with the pituitary gland (the master gland), which is also located in the brain. The pituitary then sends chemical messages, broadcast in the bloodstream, to various glands around the body—including the ovaries, the thyroid, and the adrenal gland, which helps regulate stress.

The focus of this post will be on the ovarian hormones estrogen and progesterone. Even though they are typically called "sex hormones," the brain often interprets them in consequential ways that have nothing to do with sexuality.

For example, the brain has many receptors that interpret and understand the chemical language of estrogen, which is why there are a lot of cognitive changes (memory) and emotional ones (mood) that occurs during menopause, when estrogen plummets. In fact, the body of a man in his 70s makes more than twice as much estrogen as that of a woman the same age. This is because small amounts of testosterone, which the testes produce throughout life, are converted to estrogen.

This fact likely wasn't yet known by those who came up with the names "estrogen" and "progesterone." Progesterone means "to bear" or "give birth"; the word gestation comes from the same root. Estrogen means "gadfly" or "frenzy," though some also trace it to the Greek root "oistros," which denotes sexual passion and desire. Based on those definitions, it seems that whoever came up with the names thought women were either giving birth, in a state of agitation and hysteria, or experiencing intense sexual desire. This is why, in my view, we should come up with our own scientific names when appropriate—and also why I prefer to refer to these hormones as "ovarian hormones" rather than "sex hormones," in order to not restrict the vastness of their influences.

It is important to note that all of this brain-hormone communication happens seamlessly and outside of our awareness. This includes the multiple steps of synthesis, the metabolism of these hormones, and even their secretions and presence in our blood.

We have no idea which hormone is being released at any given moment. They are invisible and work in silence. Unfortunately, we often don’t appreciate their diligence to maintain things in homeostasis—and when hormones feel under-appreciated, they can become less silent and demand to be visible. In other words, they scream for attention, and move from the unknown to the known. A diabetic, who may have spent her entire life unaware of what her pancreas was doing and of the hormone insulin, may be shocked to find that upon diagnosis, she'll have to make sure that her insulin levels are visible to her at all times. Otherwise, she might go into a coma and could even die.

It's a similar story with ovarian hormones, too. Let's consider a practical life example: Stress! Do you ever feel stressed out? From too many responsibilities, for example? From trying to be Superwoman? Here's how stress messes with your hormones:

When you're too stressed out, the adrenal gland borrows raw material from progesterone to make cortisol, the notorious stress hormone. This leads to lower levels of progesterone—thus, stress can interfere with getting pregnant and sometimes leads to infertility in women. Furthermore, lower levels of progesterone are associated with more severe PMS symptoms and mood instability. In addition, the levels of estrogen and progesterone are thrown out of balance, which can cause gynecological problems. Such factors may lead to long menstrual cycles, which some research has found to be associated with breast cancer.

Finding out about such imbalances can be scary. By the time we catch on to the fact that something is off, our hormones—as commanded by the brain—may have already made us feel vulnerable, weak, anxious, or sad. They may have also dulled our memories, debilitated our thinking process, truncated our life, and dissolved our relationships. Sound familiar?

Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalance

Even if you have been told that your hormone levels are within a normal range, the following signs may be indicative of a potential hormonal war:

  • fatigue
  • mood instability
  • weight gain
  • "foggy brain" or memory loss
  • adult acne
  • hair loss or excessive facial hair growth
  • lower sex drive
  • extreme PMS

These symptoms do not just reduce quality of life—they can also increase one's chances of stroke, heart disease, cancer, and gynecological problems, including endometriosis, fibroids, tumors, and cysts.

There are solutions, however, and you don't have to acquiesce to a lower quality of life. If you suspect that you might suffer from a hormonal imbalance, the first step is to consult with a medical professional.

It is possible that your lab results will be within the normal range, even if you have many of the above symptoms; unfortunately, certain tests are not sensitive enough to pick up on all indications of imbalance. This may mean you should begin exploring alternative treatments; the journey to find those that work for you will likely be a long one, but very much worth it.