What Is a Hormone Imbalance?
What are hormones?
Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers. They carry vital information to the cells through blood. Typically, hormones affect only certain cells, or target cells, through receptors. They are produced by the endocrine glands and travel through the bloodstream to various tissues and organs.
Each hormone has its own specific goal, carrying a key message to certain parts of the body. For example, the pineal gland produces and releases the melatonin hormone. This circulates through the bloodstream and cerebrospinal fluid around the brain where receptors will detect these hormones. Higher melatonin levels signal to the body that it’s time for rest.
The body’s hormones are essentially responsible for controlling and balancing nearly every major system. Hormones impact your growth and development, control your mood, determine how you’ll handle stress, and influence how the body breaks down food. Hormone testing is the best way to determine if your hormone levels are adversely affecting your health.
What are the different types of hormones?
Endocrine glands are located throughout the body. These glands include the:
- Hypothalamus: controls thirst, hunger, sleep, sex drive, moods, body temperature, and the release of other hormones
- Parathyroid: controls calcium
- Thymus: controls the adaptive immune system
- Pancreas: controls blood sugar levels
- Thyroid: controls heart rate and calorie burn
- Adrenal: controls stress and sex drive
- Pituitary: controls growth
- Pineal: controls sleep
- Ovaries, in women: controls female sex hormones
- Testes, in men: controls male sex hormones
There are several different types of hormones in the body. When you have a hormonal imbalance, you may have a problem in one or more of these glands. The specific hormone that’s imbalanced will determine the signs and symptoms that you experience as a result. Some of the major hormones found in the body include:
- Estrogen: controls sex drive in both men and women, and regulates the menstrual cycle in women
- Progesterone: influences the body’s changes through pregnancy
- Testosterone: controls sex drive in both men and women
- Cortisol: controls stress
- Melatonin: controls the body’s circadian rhythm and sleep cycles
- Serotonin: controls sleep cycles, appetite, and mood
- Growth hormone: controls the reproduction of cells and their subsequent growth
- Leptin: controls appetite, signaling when you’re full
- Ghrelin: controls appetite, signaling when you’re hungry
- Insulin: responds to sugar in the bloodstream
If your hormones are well-balanced, you will thrive. An imbalance, however, is something you cannot afford to ignore.
What is a hormonal imbalance?
A hormonal imbalance occurs when your hormones are not produced at the proper levels. You can have many different types of hormonal imbalances. Sometimes, the imbalance means a deficiency in the given hormone while in other times, there might be an overflow. The kind of hormone that is imbalanced will play a major role in determining how the sign and symptoms will manifest and what would be the associated risks involved.
Though there are a few common life transitions that can cause a hormonal imbalance, such as menopause or pregnancy, you can struggle with such a problem at any point in your life. Both men and women can experience hormonal imbalances. Children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly may also find their hormones out of balance.
Because hormones and their functionalities are so varied, there’s no one single way to detect a hormonal imbalance. A wide range of issues can indicate that something is amiss with your hormones. This is one of the reasons why your best bet is to get tested occasionally, especially when you start developing uncommon symptoms.
How Do You Test for a Hormonal Imbalance?
There are numerous types of tests for your doctor to choose from in order to detect a hormonal imbalance. Your symptoms will surely put him in the right direction. So, you do need to fully disclose to your doctor about your signs and symptoms for him to order the right hormones to be tested.
A blood test is one of the most common ways to test hormone levels. This test can detect testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, and thyroid levels. You should order a test that’s specific to your gender, as a women’s hormone test will look for different levels of sex hormones than a men’s test. A simple saliva test can detect several types of hormones as well. With a saliva test, you can look at your estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone levels.
If your doctor is concerned about a particular gland in your body, he or she might order an ultrasound. This can be the case of testing the pituitary gland, uterus, testicles, ovaries, and thyroid. An X-ray or MRI will offer further opportunities for imaging. Depending on the results of prior tests, additional types of testing might often be needed to have a better diagnosis. A biopsy of a problematic gland can help your healthcare provider find issues with that specific gland.
A sperm count may provide more information in case a man is worried about having certain symptoms surfacing. Women, on the other hand, might need a pap smear. Lumps, cysts, and other abnormalities in reproductive organs can help your doctor diagnose issues that are impacting your hormone balance, as well as posing a risk on your overall health status.
When you have doubts and worries about some symptoms that could be bothering you, your first step would be to test the hormone levels. According to the results, you might need further testing to clearly identify the underlying cause of such an imbalance to pursue the right treatment.
What are the Causes and Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalance?
The causes of hormonal imbalances vary according to the specific hormone involved. However, in general, they are due to changes or dysfunctions of a hormone-producing gland. For instance, a thyroid gland that isn’t functioning correctly may produce too much thyroid hormone, accelerating your body’s metabolism; or could produce too little.
Thyroid dysfunction can be caused by autoimmune diseases, thyroid nodules, medications; or, rarely, thyroid cancer, among other potential causes. Imbalances in male or female sex hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, can be caused by age-related changes, such as menopause and andropause, as well as genetic disorders, stress, nutritional issues, or medications. Excessive stress, poor diet, aging and certain medications can contribute to imbalances in cortisol and other adrenal hormones.
There are many different underlying causes that can result in a hormonal imbalance. Each cause relates to different glands and hormones; and, does impact your body differently. Many diseases and other conditions can result in a hormonal imbalance.
What are the symptoms of hormonal imbalance?
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance depend on what’s out of balance. That being said, here are general symptoms that may be experienced:
- Fatigue – Frequent in all common types of hormonal imbalance.
- Irritability – Common in those affected by imbalances in female, male, and stress hormones.
- Mood swings – common in sex hormone imbalances.
- Weight changes – High levels of thyroid hormones can cause weight loss, while low thyroid levels and imbalances in female hormones, male hormones or stress hormones typically cause weight gain.
- Muscle loss – Most common with male and female sex hormone imbalances.
- Reduced bone density – Thyroid and sex hormone imbalances can cause bone loss.
- Increased sensitivity to heat or cold – Abnormally high levels of thyroid hormones can cause heat intolerance, while low levels can make a person over-sensitive to cold.
- Hot flashes and/or night sweats – Very common with female hormone imbalances as well as low testosterone.
- Sexual disinterest or dysfunction – Most common with male and female sex hormone imbalances.
- Infertility – Can occur with sex hormone disturbances.
- Skin changes – The skin can be affected by all common hormone imbalances. Changes can include severe skin dryness, skin thinning, oily skin and acne outbreaks.
- Hair loss – Often seen with thyroid problems or low testosterone.
- Anxiety/depression – Can occur with all common imbalances.
- Heart rate changes or palpitations – Thyroid dysfunction, sex hormone imbalance and stress hormone imbalance can all cause these symptoms.
- Rising cholesterol levels – Low thyroid hormone levels, low testosterone and estrogen/progesterone imbalances can cause cholesterol levels to rise.
- Memory problems – Can occur in all common hormone imbalances.
- Poor focus/concentration – Common symptom of any hormone imbalance.
How and why do men and women experience hormonal imbalances differently?
Hormones impact men and women differently, particularly when you’re dealing with those specific to the reproductive system. Men and women also go through different developmental stages.
Women will experience hormonal changes with their menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause, which men do not experience. Women may experience hormonal imbalances that present through:
- Vaginal dryness or discomfort
- Pain during sex
- Skin tags
- Changes to the menstrual cycle
- Acne, particularly on the face, upper back, or chest
- Hair loss
- Night sweats
- Skin darkening, particularly around the groin, neck, and breasts
Hormonal symptoms unique to men are typically related to an imbalance in testosterone. Testosterone is responsible for controlling male development. If this hormone level is unbalanced, men may experience:
- Tenderness in the breast area
- Increase in tissue around the breast area
- Decreased sex drive
- Trouble concentrating
- Loss of bone mass
- Decreased hair growth
- Loss of muscle mass
- Erectile dysfunction
Does hormonal imbalance in children exist?
Yes. Hormonal imbalances in children typically occur around puberty. This is when the sex hormones are first produced, signaling future growth in the body. Children whose bodies produce few or no sex hormones often have a condition known as hypogonadism.
In boys, hypogonadism stops the body from producing the muscle mass, body hair, and voice changes that are associated with puberty. The sex organs don’t develop as they should, and the arms and legs will experience an excessive amount of growth compared to the trunk. Boys may also develop breast tissue. When girls have hypogonadism, they don’t develop breast tissue, start their menstrual cycle, or experience the growth spurt that’s typical of puberty.
Hypogonadism can occur either because the gonads are not producing the right hormone levels; or, because the pituitary gland and hypothalamus aren’t signaling to the gonads to produce hormones at all. Though hypogonadism is a common cause of developmental and growth problems, there are other causes that may be causative. Always speak with your healthcare provider to get the proper diagnosis of any abnormal development in children.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that is made by your adrenal glands, which are located on top of your kidneys. It is released into the bloodstream by those glands, in response to stress. Testing cortisol levels can help detect problems with that process by evaluating levels of the hormone in the body. Here, we’ll look at how to test cortisol levels and why it can be important to have these tests done.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is the primary hormone involved in the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress. Here is how that response happens when this system is functioning in a normal, healthy manner:
- When a person feels stressed or endangered, a chemical called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is released into the brain by the pituitary gland, which triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol into the bloodstream.
- The increased levels of cortisol produce a surge of energy, alertness and strength meant to aid the body in responding to the perceived threat. It does this by increasing the heart rate, elevating blood pressure and boosting the amount of glucose (sugars) in the bloodstream for the brain and body to use for energy.
- Higher cortisol levels also slow or suppress certain bodily functions to conserve energy for the stress response, altering immune response and suppressing the reproductive and digestive systems, as well as growth processes. High cortisol levels also affect areas of the brain that regulate mood and fear response.
- Once the threat or situation that prompted the stress response is resolved, cortisol levels fall back to normal levels. The heart rate and blood pressure drop, and bodily functions altered by the stress reaction, return to normal.
Why is cortisol testing important?
Cortisol testing is important because that system does not always function in the normal, healthy manner outlined above. Sometimes cortisone levels can stay too high for too long, which can have far-reaching effects on your health, such as:
- Digestive issues
- Sleep disturbances
- Cardiovascular disease
- Weight gain
- Problems with memory and/or concentration
Issues that can cause abnormally high cortisol levels include:
- Chronic stress: The body’s natural fight-or-flight stress response system is set up to manage short-term stress situations. Stress in today’s world is often a longer-term health issue. Rather than being stressed by a sudden encounter with a predator, a situation that can be resolved quickly by running away, we are more likely to face ongoing problems that cause stress, like job pressures, for instance, or financial ones. This can cause long-term activation of the stress response system, leading to chronically high levels of cortisol.
- Problems with the pituitary gland: Tumors on the pituitary gland or excess growth of the gland can cause it to release too much ACTH, increasing cortisol levels.
- Problems with adrenal glands: Tumors on the adrenal glands can cause overproduction of cortisol.
- Other tumors: Growths in other areas of the body can increase cortisol production.
- Medications: Overuse of corticosteroid medications or long-term use of them can lead to abnormally high cortisol levels.
What health problems are caused by low cortisol levels?
- Chronic fatigue
- Muscle weakness
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Low blood pressure
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Digestive disorders, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Menstrual cycle irregularities
- Excessive sweating
What are possible causes of low cortisol levels?
Also called primary adrenal insufficiency, this is a condition that occurs when the adrenal glands are damaged and become unable to produce enough cortisol and/or other stress hormones. This is most often caused by auto-immune activity, where the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues. Other potential causes include long-term use of steroid medications, certain blood thinners, tumors and infections.
Problems with the pituitary gland
Low cortisol levels can be caused by the pituitary gland failing to release enough ACTH. This latter is important to trigger adequate amounts of cortisol to be released from the adrenal glands. This is typically referred to as secondary adrenal insufficiency, or hypopituitarism; and, can be caused by trauma to the pituitary gland, brain tumors, pituitary gland tumors, stroke, autoimmune diseases and tuberculosis, among many other possible causes.
How do you test cortisol levels?
Cortisol levels are measured with lab tests. These may be blood tests, which measure levels of the hormone in the bloodstream, or saliva tests, which measure cortisol levels in a saliva sample. Cortisol testing is typically done early in the morning, when levels are normally highest.
Often, to produce the most accurate results, testing is repeated in the afternoon of the same day. Cortisol testing is often done in conjunction with ACTH level tests, since this pituitary gland hormone works to regulate cortisone levels. ACTH tests measure levels of the hormone in the bloodstream.
Getting tested can be done through your health care provider, who can order your tests for you, take your blood or saliva samples or send you to a lab to have them done. Then, your provider will let you know your results once they are delivered to his or her office.
You can also order these lab tests yourself online or over the phone from independent testing services, like Health Testing Centers. Ordering your own tests is generally less expensive, since you skip the cost of an office visit, and more efficient, since the results are delivered directly to you.
However, it is important to note that if your tests show that your cortisol and/or ACTH levels are abnormal – too high or too low – following up on those results with a visit to your healthcare provider is essential. Abnormal levels of these important hormones require further examination and testing.
While in most cases, abnormal levels stem from relatively minor causes that can be resolved with lifestyle changes or medication adjustments, as outlined above, many very serious health problems can potentially be at the root of abnormal cortisol levels. For this reason, it is very important to seek medical help to determine the underlying causes in your case.
Medical Facts & Myths Everyone Should Know,” by Dr. S. Chopra and Dr. A. Lovin, Thomas Dunne Books, 2010.
WomensHealth.gov: “Menstruation, Menopause, and Mental Health,” “Premenstrual Syndrome.”