I usually pride myself on being a healthy person. I consistently eat the right foods, stay hydrated, and work out four times a week. It wasn't until this year that I realized I may not be as healthy as I thought. I was devastated and I still am. For me, the key symptom was my inability to lose weight. This went on for eight months and continues to go on.
No matter how much I kept a clean diet, burned calories, and tracked my macros, the weight would not move. It seemed so simple – eat right, do cardio, and lift weights. At least, that's what we're told. It's what we read and see on our social media feeds. My personal trainer was patient yet frustrated. And I was even more frustrated and had no patience. Nothing he did, or I did was working.
For months there was no progress or results. I could not understand it. I thought to myself, You can’t tell me I’m going to be stuck weighing 180 pounds for the rest of my life, it makes no sense. Something is wrong with my body.
In February 2022, my primary care physician referred me to an endocrinologist. It was then I learned about the role of hormones in our bodies. Of course, I know about reproductive hormones at a basic level. At my big age of 37, you would think I would understand that other hormones regulate our entire body. But I didn't know until I did.
After extensive blood work, the results showed I was insulin resistant and diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. Now, what does this mean? It means that the cells in my muscles, fat, and liver don't respond well to insulin and can't use the glucose from my blood as energy. Therefore, I store fat instead of burning fat. As a result, my body overproduces the insulin hormone.
What I understood was that I'm metabolically messed up. I now have what is known as a hormonal imbalance.
Since I learned of my diagnosis, I started doing all the things to begin to heal myself. When I learned I had uterine fibroids, I changed my diet. I reduced the intensity of my workouts. But because I have fibroids coupled with a hormonal imbalance - this still wasn’t enough. My body was completely unresponsive. I desperately scrolled the 'gram trying to learn more about hormones and what I could do to balance my hormones.
I started following every single hormone coach and functional doctor I came across. A friend of mine slid into my DMs and sent me the profile of Dr. Jolene Brighten. Dr. Brighten is a board-certified naturopathic endocrinologist, clinical sexologist, and leader in women's medicine. She is known for educating women on hormones through a variety of resources and uncovering the root causes of hormonal imbalances in women.
Let’s take a closer look at what a hormonal imbalance is, the symptoms, the types of hormonal imbalances, and how to balance your hormones through natural practices.
What Is a Hormonal Imbalance?
Did you know our body produces over 50 different hormones that contribute to how our body functions? I did not. A hormonal imbalance occurs when the body has too much or too little of one or more hormones. When this happens, it can lead to different medical conditions.
According to Dr. Brighten, "Many women experience hormonal imbalances that manifest in menstrual cycle issues. Irregular periods, for example, can be due to elevated testosterone, which is common among women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Hypothyroidism, when there is too little thyroid hormone, can result in heavy periods, long cycles, irregular periods, and failure to ovulate. PMS, heavy periods, and breast tenderness can be due to lower levels of progesterone, which creates a state in which the tissues can be stimulated by estrogen."
Symptoms of hormonal imbalances vary. An article by the Cleveland Clinic states that if a hormonal imbalance affects your metabolism, you might experience fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, depression, anxiety, dry skin and hair, high cholesterol levels, unexplained weight gain or weight loss, skin tags, and extreme thirst.
Sex hormone imbalance symptoms include acne, hair loss, heavy periods, excess body hair, hot flashes, infertility, irregular periods, loss of interest in sex, and vaginal dryness.
How to Diagnose a Hormonal Imbalance
Hormonal imbalances are discovered by testing specific hormones and other markers through a series of blood tests. I lost count of how many times I drew blood from my veins this year. For me getting a proper diagnosis seemed like the most discouraging thing. My doctors were not listening to me. I was told, "Your lab results are perfect. You are healthy," except I wasn't. And I knew it. I mean if I was, my body would not be fighting my efforts to lose weight."
In addition to unexplained weight loss or weight gain, symptoms of a hormonal imbalance can include tachycardia (or a slow or rapid heartbeat), constipation, fatigue, anxiety, depression, high levels of blood cholesterol, and even diarrhea. If you are experiencing these symptoms, Dr. Brighten advises seeing a "primary care physician, gynecologist, or naturopathic physician who can help you in troubleshooting hormonal symptoms. If they are significant, that may warrant a referral to an endocrinologist."
It Starts With Your Diet
The saying "you are what you eat" is true. Foods play a vital role in our health. What we put into our bodies ultimately dictates how our body functions. I personally have eliminated the foods that cause inflammation and may make my symptoms worse. In Dr. Brighten's book, Is This Normal, she mentions that, "Women should include nutrient-dense foods that provide us protein, fat, and fiber at each meal. This trifecta helps stabilize blood sugar, while also keeping us full and our bowels regular. Because many women experience menstrual cramps, I often recommend focusing on increasing omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, while decreasing omega-6, the latter can make cramps worse."
Some foods that women with hormonal imbalances are encouraged to avoid are caffeine, sugar, alcohol, red meat, soy, dairy, processed foods, gluten, fried foods, and white carbs (potatoes, pastries, white rice, or white bread). These foods may cause inflammation and worsen current symptoms. When I removed these foods from my diet, there was such a big difference in my skin, energy, and my period. Not to mention, my fibroids have not grown any bigger either.
Prioritize Lifestyle Changes
When it comes to lifestyle changes, we automatically think of food and exercise alone. While nutrition and movement are daily essentials, we often neglect the role sleep, stress, mental health, and other environmental factors play in our health in general. It really is a holistic practice to heal the body, let alone hormones. Women must consider every aspect of their bodies and health. I had to and I do daily. I’m in bed by 9 p.m. and my phone is on do not disturb.
"Making quality sleep and stress management a priority is a must," Dr. Brighten emphasizes. "Both of these issues can create problems for our hormone and metabolic system that makes it very difficult to maintain optimal hormone levels."
Did you know certain household products or home goods can contribute to your hormonal imbalance? One example is candles – they contain phthalates (usually found in scented candles) which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or endocrine disruptors, mimic the body's hormones and can therefore interfere with the body's hormonal functions. While there has been some opposition to whether or not scented candles are truly harmful to you, Dr. Brighten says "removing endocrine-disrupting chemicals from your personal care products, cleaning supplies, and kitchen can have a tremendous impact on hormonal health."
For me, this meant switching to glass food containers, non-toxic cookware, clean beauty products, and a metal water bottle because plastics have synthetic estrogen in them.
Supplements Are Your Best Friend for Balancing Hormones
As a woman in her late 30s, I have learned vitamins are key. Vitamins help support the body and provide the nutrients I may not get enough of daily. I have a whole kitchen shelf dedicated to vitamins and supplements which I take daily. Multivitamins, vitamin C, fish oil, and biotin. Supplements to support your hormonal imbalance are dependent on the type of hormonal imbalance. Dr. Brighten believes "including supplements in a routine that is focused on nutrition and lifestyle changes can really move the needle with regards to your hormone goals."
She adds, "For estrogen issues, I often recommend DIM, sulforaphane, and Calcium D-Glucarate. When progesterone is the problem (which is common), I like to use Vitex and vitamin B6. Clinically, I've seen a lot of patients benefit from these, which is why we included them in our Balance Women’s Hormone Support formulation."
Healing a Hormonal Imbalance Naturally
Every woman and every hormonal imbalance is different. You have to be intentional and make a conscious effort to want to heal, which is what I am learning about myself. And while most struggle with making such a dramatic change to their life, for me it came with ease. I love a good time, but I value my health more. I jokingly tell my friends it all starts in your thirties. I swear. I don’t want to be on medication ever or have surgery for anything.
I had to learn acceptance. I had to accept my body was not functioning how it should, even though I looked healthy.
The lab results revealed the truth. And I know I’m one of many women that have a hormonal imbalance. It’s a common thing. But for me, it was a big deal and was a hard pill to swallow when you keep being told you’re healthy. I also had to accept that hormonal imbalances do not go away overnight. It takes time to get your hormones back at the right levels and stay there. Our hormone levels are constantly changing.
When asked how often women should test their hormones and how long it takes to correct a hormonal imbalance, Dr. Brighten states that "it really depends on what is going on. For example, with hypothyroidism that is treated with medication, we often retest 6-8 weeks following dosage changes. Once the thyroid levels are stabilized, we may only follow up every 6-12 months or if symptoms arise. My approach to testing is very individualized, as are most providers."
Maria Korneeva/Getty Images
If you think something in your body is off, don’t ignore the signs. It’s probably your hormones. The slightest symptom could be a sign of something more serious.
If you've been struggling with a hormonal imbalance, there is hope. Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before. Any healing journey begins with forgiveness of self. I had to do this very thing.
Hormonal health is trending. And in 2022, women are taking control of their health by being their own advocates with the help of doctors like Dr. Jolene Brighten.
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