Chances are you’ve complained about feeling ‘hormonal.’ But you might not know what that word actually means.
It usually refers to changes in sex hormones, but it’s natural for all hormone levels to fluctuate. Your levels can change seasonally, daily, or even hourly — especially when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Other major hormone shifts: during puberty (when many hormones surge) and menopause (when they slow down). And changes and imbalances can occur any time in between because of medications, stress, illness, or exposure to certain chemicals known as endocrine disruptors — like phthalates found in some plastics, cosmetics, and food packaging.
Tell me more.
The body has dozens of hormones, Aka chemical messengers, that travel to tissues and organs to tell them what to do. The mission: to keep your body in a perfect equilibrium or “homeostasis” (when your body temperature, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels are all stable). And quick reminder: hormones aren’t just created by your ovaries and thyroid. The pancreas, adrenal glands in your kidneys, and glands in your brain are all big hormone makers. To take you back to middle school biology: yes, we’re talking about the endocrine system.
Are there ways to adjust my hormones?
Yes. Transgender individuals can have gender-affirming hormone therapy to encourage either estrogen production for transgender women or testosterone production for transgender men. That then triggers physical changes to better match a person’s gender identity. And birth control pills that contain estrogen and progestin (a synthetic form of progesterone, more info below) can treat conditions like hormonal acne caused by extra hormones like testosterone. Diet and exercise can also have an impact on hormone levels.
Here’s theSkimm on some of the hormones that have to do with mood and reproduction. Note: Many people have all of these hormones, but this guide focuses on how hormones function in people with ovaries, specifically.
Estrogen & Progesterone are major players when it comes to reproductive and sexual health. They help power your period and can affect your mood. In general, estrogen levels rise and fall twice during your cycle. And that first big drop of estrogen — which typically happens right after ovulation — combined with a change in progesterone levels, can mean mood swings and irritability. Yes, we’re talking about PMS. Both hormones rise during pregnancy and drop ahead of menopause.
Testosterone is best known as an androgen, or male sex hormone, even though women also produce it. It helps regulate sex drive, muscle mass, and bone density. Thing to know: testosterone levels are part of the debate around whether athletes who identify as women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports. (More on that here.)
Prolactin’s major claim to fame is that it helps produce breast milk. If you want to know more about breastfeeding, we Skimm’d it.
Oxytocin is the one people call the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone.’ Because it’s connected with intimacy and orgasms. But it also can trigger labor and help release milk for breastfeeding. And studies suggest that it may prep the brain to care for a newborn.
Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH) are the hormones that work together during ovulation to grow and release an egg from your ovary. They’re also called gonadotropins, which are a type of hormone you might take if you need help getting pregnant.
Anti-Müllerian Hormone (AMH) is the one linked to fertility. This hormone can be one marker of the reproductive potential of your eggs, aka your ovarian reserve. You can test your AMH levels to estimate how many eggs you have. Key word: estimate. No test measures how easy it’ll be to get pregnant in the future. If only.
Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) is considered the ‘pregnancy hormone.’ It’s usually produced in your placenta pretty early on in pregnancy and is what gives your test a plus sign. HCG blood tests can also be used to screen for certain birth defects.
Melatonin is the ‘sleep hormone.’ It’s the one that naturally helps you get Zzz’s, based on when your brain detects darkness, and can be bought as a supplement. (More tips on getting better sleep here.)
Adrenaline (Aka Epinephrine) is the one connected to your ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When the adrenal glands above the kidneys tell your body to react fast to an exciting or threatening situation, you may feel an “adrenaline rush.” Helpful if you’re running from a bear, less so when you’re stressed about the day ahead and can’t get to sleep.
Triiodothyronine and Thyroxine (say those five times fast) are the primary thyroid hormones. They’re involved with everything from metabolism to energy to body temperature. Women are more likely than men to have too little or too much thyroid hormone, and are particularly likely to develop a thyroid disease during pregnancy and in middle age.
Dopamine and Serotonin are ‘happy hormones.’ They also may be linked to memory and sleep. (And dopamine might contribute to your body’s addictive reaction to social media.) If these hormones are off, it could lead to mental health issues.
About that...How do I know if my hormone levels are off?
There are a number of symptoms that might (but not always) indicate imbalanced hormones. For example: if you have a lot of unwanted hair growth or persistent acne, that could mean you have high levels of androgens, which could signal a condition like PCOS. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression like a lack of motivation, that could be a sign of low dopamine. Sudden weight gain or loss could be the side effect of a thyroid issue. And conditions including eating disorders and tumors can impact hormone levels, too. Same goes with stress. Irregular periods, headaches, low sex drive, vaginal dryness, and infertility could all also be symptoms of changes in your hormones or a hormone imbalance. Your doctor — particularly an endocrinologist or a fertility doctor — can conduct hormone tests to help determine what’s going on. Step one is scheduling an appointment.
Can I get a better balance?
You can do those things that you probably already know are key to a healthy lifestyle: exercise regularly, do a mindful activity like meditation or yoga, prioritize sleep, avoid endocrine disruptors by switching to glass containers (instead of plastics) to heat and store food, limit use of toxic chemicals for cleaning, try to manage stress, and eat a balanced diet. That’s one with fresh fruits and veggies (that aren’t wrapped in plastic), protein, healthy fats, fiber, and not too much sugar. But regardless of how good you are to your body, sometimes hormones can still get out of whack and menopause isn’t exactly something we can avoid.
Your hormones aren't something to shrug off. They can impact whether your body — including your mental, physical, and sexual health — is functioning as it should. If you’re consistently feeling ‘off,’ that might be your cue to reach out to a doc for answers.
theSkimm consulted with REI Dr. Temeka Zore for this guide.
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