Hormones are natural chemicals within the cells of the body that travel through the bloodstream to organs and tissues. Hormones are essential for a variety of functions, including regulating a woman's metabolism, growth, immunity function and sexual reproduction. Hormone production tends to decrease naturally over time. As the production of certain hormones decreases, there may be an overproduction of other hormones within the body, which often results in hormonal imbalances that affect the health in different ways.
Hormonal imbalance generally occurs as a reaction to elevated levels of the hormone estrogen, and lower levels of the hormone progesterone. Estrogen helps regulate the menstrual cycle; progesterone is essential for healthy pregnancy. The most common hormonal imbalance among women of all ages is progesterone deficiency; common among menopausal women is estrogen deficiency. There are different treatment options available for hormone imbalances.
Causes of Hormone Imbalance
Most cases of hormone imbalance occur in women older than 35, although an imbalance may develop at other ages. Hormone imbalance may be caused by a number of contributing factors, which include the following:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Certain medications
- Thyroid issues
- Autoimmune disease
Some research indicates that there may be link between certain behaviors and hormone levels and a poor diet and lack of exercise may contribute to a hormonal imbalance.
Symptoms of Hormone Imbalance
Although symptoms of hormone imbalance vary depending on what is causing the imbalance, common symptoms usually include the following:
- Hot flashes
- Bouts of sweating
- Rapid weight gain
- Weight loss
- Hair loss
- Adult acne
Women suffering from hormonal imbalances may experience headaches, depression, mood swings, irritability and memory lapses.
Diagnosis of Hormone Imbalance
Hormone levels are tested through several different methods, although some cases of hormone imbalance are diagnosed simply by evaluating patients' symptoms.
One test commonly used to diagnose hormonal imbalance is saliva testing, which is a laboratory analysis of a sample of the patient's saliva. It provides information about the levels of hormones circulating through the body, not just those present within specific tissue.
Serum (blood) testing involves drawing blood, and using a small portion of the sample to measure hormone levels. This test involves measuring the levels of hormones that can easily enter cells, as well as the levels of hormones that become attached to substances that allow hormones to be carried through the bloodstream.
Follicle-stimulating-hormone testing (FSH) is frequently used to determine the hormonal status of women who are experiencing signs or symptoms of menopause. FSH testing measures the level of follicle-stimulating hormone in the blood. When a woman's estrogen levels begin to decrease, the pituitary gland in the brain will cause FSH to be released, stimulating estrogen production by the ovaries. If a woman's levels of FSH are rising, menopause is often the most likely cause.
Treatment of Hormone Imbalance
Treatment for a hormone imbalance depends on the cause and specific needs of the patient. One treatment is hormone-replacement therapy (HRT), in which medication containing estrogen or progesterone is prescribed to replace the hormones that are deficient within the ovaries. These synthetic forms of hormones are delivered through pills, patches or creams. However, there are risks associated with HRT, including heart disease, stroke and breast cancer. Risks may vary depending on a woman's health history and lifestyle. Before deciding if HRT is appropriate, a woman should discuss its risks and benefits with her doctor.
Women suffering from depression or mood changes due to a hormone imbalance may also benefit from taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. In addition to medical treatment, some patients are able to alleviate the symptoms of hormone imbalance by maintaining a healthy diet and active lifestyle.