Whoa, where did that mood swing that lasted three weeks come from? If your crankiness is at an all-time high or you’re facing things like repeated hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, loss of libido, cravings and weight gain, it may be time to check your levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. (That’s right, women have testosterone, too!) Here’s more about why your sex hormone levels are important, and how to get them under control.
What do sex hormones do exactly?
“Hormones are powerful chemical messengers secreted by the endocrine glands. Hormones affect the activity of every organ in the body, as well as growth patterns and sleep cycles,” says Dr. Mark Stengler, founder and medical director of the Stengler Center for Integrative Medicine in Encinitas, Calif.
Sex hormones, in particular are involved in the growth, maintenance and repair of reproductive tissues, as well as influencers of bone mass and body tissues. Stengler notes that many women in their 40s, 50s and beyond live in a state of hormonal imbalance brought on by birth control pills, menopause, poor diet, stress, illness or exposure to toxins. These imbalances can lead to the unwanted symptoms you’re experiencing. For example, high levels of estrogen are associated with being very overweight, while low levels may increase a woman’s risk for heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis. If testosterone levels are elevated, you may be subject to acne, increased body hair, infertility and more; if they are low, you may be experiencing a reduced libido.
What do I do if I’m feeling these symptoms?
The first step to getting your sex hormones in check is to see your doc. He or she can do a physical exam to assess your situation. From there, you might need to get tested. There are three types of tests available, according to Stengler:
- Saliva testing measures the free hormone levels of cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
- Urine testing can measure free levels of more than a dozen hormones, as well as metabolite levels that provide additional information about endocrine function.
- Blood testing measures free levels of testosterone and the three thyroid hormones.
Some hormonal deficiencies require medical care, while others may be addressed with lifestyle adjustments. The good news: Everything is treatable.
What are some treatments for out-of-whack sex hormones?
One diagnosis could be that it makes sense for you to go the hormone replacement therapy (HRT) route. Those treatments vary from daily capsules to topical creams and ointments to skin patches.
In Is It Me or My Hormones? The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about PMS, Perimenopause, and All the Crazy Things that Occur with Hormone Imbalance, author Marcelle Pick, co-founder of Women to Women, provides key lifestyle tactics to get a grip on your hormones. One of her top suggestions is to decrease stress. “High levels of the stress hormone cortisol cause immense hormonal disruption,” Pick notes. Pick your remedy: Regular exercise, meditation and massages are all great stress relievers.
Be sure to get plenty of sleep, too. Pick recommends more than seven hours of rest each night. “Less sleep has been shown to increase cortisol levels, which can disrupt the thyroid, increase hormonal havoc… and also contributes to weight gain,” she says. Plus, low levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone, are associated with depression. Having trouble sleeping? Ask your doctor about taking .5 mg of a melatonin supplement a couple hours before going to bed.
As for your diet, reduce sugar and cut out high-fructose corn syrup completely. The latter “can increase the chances of insulin resistance, which causes hormonal fluctuations,” Pick advises. Add flaxseed, 2,000 mg daily of fish oil in the form of EPA/DHA, and indol-3 carbinol, which all help with estrogen metabolism, says Pick. Additionally, if you have high estrogen levels, avoid foods that are high in phytoestrogens, such as soy products, which can mimic the hormone.