Have you ever stopped to appreciate how incredible your body is?
The work it’s constantly engaged in to keep you alive and well? It’s a non-stop process.
The only given is that, as they say, from the cradle to the grave, your biology is ever-changing. Adapting. Readying you for the current and following chapters of your life. Your hormones — chemical messengers produced by the endocrine glands in the body — steer this process.
Hormones are life. But sometimes, these messengers can go haywire. They can become stagnant or up- or down-regulate, causing signs and symptoms, and problems.
In this 6-part article series, we explore your hormones: what they are, what they do, signs of imbalance, and ways to bring them back into equilibrium.
First, let’s look at the basics: What are hormones, and what do we mean when discussing hormonal balance in women?
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers that are made by the endocrine glands. The glands include your pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, pancreas, ovaries (and more).
Hormones are gland-specific; a specific gland produces them. After release, they hit the bloodstream. From there, they carry signals to various tissues and organs. Their purpose is to regulate and coordinate physiological processes: to maintain balance within the body.
What does hormone balance mean?
When we think of balance, we sometimes imagine a pair of scales, where everything needs to be perfectly even for the scale to remain stable. This isn’t exactly what we mean when we talk about hormones.
When using this analogy for hormones, balance — or equilibrium — means achieving optimal, harmonious function. See, your hormones are dynamic. They’re constantly responding to your environment — your inner and outer worlds.
They fluctuate naturally throughout the day, as they’re designed to do, in response to various factors such as stress, diet, and life stages.
When talking about “hormone balance,” we mean that hormones function within their appropriate ranges to support the body’s needs rather than aiming for precise symmetry.
For example, a healthy menstrual cycle involves the rise and fall of various hormones through a (roughly) monthly time frame.
But, when our hormones are out of balance, the body doesn’t function as it should. Things go awry. Looking at each hormone below, we can envisage the negative impact of being “out of balance” by imagining the opposite of what each hormone does in health.
The importance of hormonal balance in women’s health
Depending on the body’s needs, hormonal balance fluctuates on momentary, daily, monthly, and longer cycles.
We tend to speak about two types of hormones in women’s health: reproductive (sex) and other. Though the two are strongly linked.
Reproductive hormones are in constant flux for healthy women in their childbearing years. There is a ceaseless ebb and flow.
So, when we speak about women’s reproductive hormonal health, we include the female-predominant hormones and those involved in the menstrual cycle. Hormones like estrogen and progesterone.
The “other” type of hormone is the non-sex type. This type of hormone spans humanity: it’s not women-centric.
For example, acute stress triggers brief hormone changes, followed by a return to baseline. The hunger and sleep-wake cycles involve hormonal changes that stimulate and regress with the behavior — namely, eating and sleep.
Now that we’ve covered the basics let’s look at several essential hormones you should know about. Then, throughout this series, we expand on the following:
— what can go wrong
— how to identify potential signs and symptoms of an imbalance
— the impact hormones play on your mood and emotional well-being
— premenstrual syndrome (PMS), in particular
— how you can support your hormonal health, naturally
Let’s start with three sex hormones…
Estrogen is often thought of as a single hormone. In truth, it’s the name given to a group of hormones: estradiol, estrone, and estriol.
While present in males in small amounts, estrogen is primarily considered a “female hormone.” This fantastic hormone plays a crucial role in the development and modulation — adjustment — of the female reproductive system and secondary sexual characteristics. Characteristics like breast development, body fat distribution, and the growth of pubic and armpit hair.
Primarily produced in the ovaries, healthy estrogen level fluctuates in a menstrual cycle, contributing to the growth and thickening of the uterine lining and to ovulation.
Estrogen is essential for healthy skeletal, cardiovascular, urinary, and vaginal health, radiant skin, a switched-on brain, and a happy mood. That’s one reason menopause — when estrogen level drops — can have such profound and wide-ranging impacts.
Progesterone is a vital hormone in women’s health.
Produced by the ovaries and the adrenal glands, like estrogen, progesterone plays a vital role in the menstrual cycle. It is involved in preparing the uterine lining for potential pregnancy, supporting implantation, and shoring up pregnancy’s early stages; it’s often thought of as a pregnancy hormone.
You might not have expected this hormone to be in an article about women’s health. After all, it is considered a “male hormone.” But it is present in women in smaller amounts. It may be linked to healthy sexual function, libido, orgasm, and a positive self-image.
Importantly, if testosterone tips out-of-balance on the upside, it can wreak havoc. An irregular menstrual cycle, acne, excessive facial and body hair, anger, and a condition called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome can result. We talk more about this in part 2 of this series.
Then there are the “other” hormones. There are too many to mention in a single series of articles. Let’s look at three commonly problematic for women: thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), insulin, and cortisol.
Non-sex hormones: thyroid-stimulating hormone, insulin, and cortisol
Before diving in, it’s important to note that our hormones intertwine. Poor insulin function, for example, affects the operation of the sex hormones. Hormonal equilibrium isn’t simple.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) signals the thyroid gland to produce and release thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) into the bloodstream.
When T4 and T3 are low, the pituitary gland detects this. It releases TSH to stimulate the thyroid gland to produce more hormones. On the other hand, when T4 and T3 levels are high, the pituitary gland reduces the production of TSH, resulting in less stimulation of the thyroid gland.
Healthy thyroid hormone levels are essential for metabolism, energy, and ideal weight, supporting the heart, brain, muscles, and digestive system.
Thyroid problems, particularly hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), are common in women.
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It acts like a “key” that unlocks the doors of our cells to allow glucose (sugar) to enter. In doing so, it provides energy, regulates blood sugar levels, and stores excess energy for future needs. (That’s why its dysfunction is linked to increased body weight)
In women, insulin resistance is a causative factor in conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and diabetes.
Produced by the adrenal glands, cortisol – often dubbed the “stress hormone” – plays an important role in the stress response.
This hormone assists in maintaining blood pressure, regulating blood sugar levels, and supporting the immune system. During stress, cortisol level increases, providing a burst of energy and heightened awareness, so we can fight or take flight.
However, long-term stress and elevated cortisol levels negatively affect our health, impairing immune function, altering our sleep patterns, and increasing the risk of ill health.
The hormone balance takeaway
Hormonal balance is essential for a healthy life: a regular menstrual cycle, fertility, metabolism, optimal weight, a happy mood, strong muscles and bones, and more. But challenges can and do occur. Commonly, in fact. Hormonal dysfunction is prevalent, especially in women.
In the following article in this series, we explore, Recognising the Signs of Hormone Imbalance: Common Symptoms to Look Out For. It’s an essential read.