Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on August 03, 2021
Your Hormones, Your Health
Feeling bloated, irritable, or just not your best? Shifts in your hormones could be to blame. Hormones are chemical “messengers” that impact the way your cells and organs function. It’s normal for your levels of them to shift at different times of your life, such as before and during your period or a pregnancy, or during menopause. But some medications and health issues can cause your levels to go up or down, too.
Appetite and Weight Gain
You may gain weight during hormonal shifts, such as menopause. But hormone changes don’t directly affect your weight. Instead, it likely happens because of other factors, like aging or lifestyle. For example, when you’re feeling blue or irritated, as you can be when your estrogen levels drop, you may want to eat more. It can also impact your body’s levels of leptin, a hunger-revving hormone.
Sudden Weight Loss
Your thyroid gland helps control how fast your body turns food into fuel, as well as your heart rate and temperature. When it makes too many hormones -- or doesn’t make enough -- your weight can drop. If you’ve lost 10 pounds or more but haven’t been working out more or eating differently, let your doctor know.
Most women’s periods come every 21 to 35 days. If yours doesn’t arrive around the same time every month, or you skip some months, it might mean that certain hormones (estrogen and progesterone) are too high or too low. The reason for that can be perimenopause -- the time before menopause -- if you’re in your 40s or early 50s. But irregular periods can also be a symptom of health problems like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Talk to your doctor.
If you aren’t getting enough shut-eye, or if the sleep you get isn’t good, your hormones could be at play. Progesterone, a hormone released by your ovaries, helps you catch ZZZs. When levels fall during your menstrual cycle, for example, you may have a hard time falling asleep. Low levels of estrogen can trigger hot flashes and night sweats, both of which can make it tough to get the rest you need.
A breakout before or during your period is normal. But acne that won’t clear up can be a symptom of hormone problems. An excess of androgens (“male” hormones that both men and women have) can cause your oil glands to overwork. Androgens also affect the skin cells in and around your hair follicles. Both of those things can clog your pores and cause acne.
A shift in hormones can leave your skin parched. This can happen during menopause, when your skin naturally starts to thin and can’t hold onto as much moisture as it used to. A thyroid issue could also be to blame. A dermatologist can help improve the look of your skin, but if you have other symptoms, you may also want to see your primary care provider.
Experts aren’t sure exactly how hormones impact your brain. What they do know is that changes in estrogen and progesterone can make your head feel “foggy” and make it harder for you to remember things. Some experts think estrogen might impact brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Attention and memory problems are especially common during perimenopause and menopause. But they can also be a symptom of other hormone-related conditions, like thyroid disease. So, let your doctor know if you're having trouble thinking clearly.
Your gut is lined with tiny cells called receptors that respond to estrogen and progesterone. When these hormones are higher or lower than usual, you might notice changes in how you're digesting food. That’s why diarrhea, stomach pain, bloating, and nausea can crop up or get worse before and during your period. If you’re having digestive woes as well as issues like acne and fatigue, your hormone levels might be off.
Are you tired all the time? Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of a hormone imbalance. Excess progesterone can make you sleepy. And if your thyroid -- the butterfly-shaped gland in your neck -- makes too little thyroid hormone, it can sap your energy. A simple blood test called a thyroid panel can tell you if your levels are too low. If they are, you can get treated for that.
If you wake up drenched, low estrogen could be the cause. Many women have night sweats around the start of menopause. Other hormone issues can cause them, too.
Mood Swings and Depression
Researchers think drops in hormones or fast changes in their levels can cause moodiness and the blues. Estrogen affects key brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. But other hormones, that travel the same paths as neurotransmitters, also play a part in how you feel.
Hair Loss and Thinning Hair
When hormones like estrogen drop, others in your body, like testosterone, start to have a bigger impact. The result is thinning hair or hair loss. You could notice this during pregnancy, menopause, or after you start birth control pills.
Lots of things can trigger these. But for some women, drops in estrogen bring them on. That’s why it’s common for headaches to strike right before or during your period, when estrogen is on the decline. Regular headaches or ones that often surface around the same time each month can be a clue that your levels of this hormone might be shifting.
It's normal to have this occasionally. But if you often notice that you're dry or irritated down there, low estrogen levels may be the reason. The hormone helps vaginal tissue stay moist and comfortable. If your estrogen levels drop because of an imbalance, it can reduce vaginal fluids and cause tightness.
Loss of Libido
Most people think of testosterone as a male hormone, but women’s bodies make it, too. If your testosterone levels are lower than usual, you might have less of an interest in sex than you usually do.
A drop in estrogen can make your breast tissue less dense. And an increase in the hormone can thicken this tissue, even causing new lumps or cysts. Talk to your doctor if you notice breast changes, even if you don’t have any other symptoms that concern you.
Both estrogen and progesterone can affect the amount of water in your body. When their levels change -- like they do before or at the start of your period -- you can find yourself more thirsty than usual. Thirst can also be a sign that your body isn’t making enough anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), which helps you retain a healthy amount of water. This can cause a condition called diabetes insipidus.
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