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Hormone imbalances in women: symptoms and solutions

Female performing bicep pose outdoors. Happy expression
Learn more with Holland & Barrett about hormonal imbalance symptoms in women, what can cause them and how they can be effectively managed.
Produced by your endocrine glands, hormones are natural chemicals that regulate a whole host of different processes in your body. This includes everything from your reproductive health to your appetite, metabolism, and mood.1

As its name suggests, a hormonal imbalance refers to when there is too little or too much of a certain hormone in your bloodstream.2

We’ll teach you all you need to know about the impact these hormonal imbalances can have. Whether it be painful periods, acne breakouts, weight gain, or insomnia, your body will likely give you clues when your hormone levels fall out of sync.1

What is hormonal imbalance in women?

The healthy functioning of our bodies (and minds) relies on our hormone levels being in the right balance. This is because every hormone has its own distinct purpose, delivering crucial messages to particular regions of the body.1,2

The pineal gland is a small part of your brain that releases a hormone called melatonin. This hormone travels around your brain and sends signals to your body, letting you know when it’s time to rest. Your melatonin levels may naturally increase during menstruation and pregnancy too.2

Depending on the hormone in question, even a small shift may cause you to notice the effects on your body and mind. But of course, a steady equilibrium isn’t always possible.2

Hormone levels naturally fluctuate, throughout the month, and throughout your life. While some of these changes are temporary and nothing to worry about, others that are more persistent or chronic, can lead to conditions that require treatment.1

When do most people experience hormonal imbalances? 

A certain level of hormonal fluctuation is entirely normal. Some of the most common times to experience natural fluctuations and signs of a hormonal imbalance include:
  • puberty: during puberty, girls go through years of hormonal and physical changes that lead to breast development, the development of pubic and axillary hair, rapid physical growth, and changes in facial structure3
  • menstruation: the start of your menstrual cycle predicts a lifetime of monthly hormonal fluctuations. During the menstrual phase, oestrogen, and progesterone levels are low. They rise during the follicular phase to a peak during the luteal phase, before declining again after ovulation. Then the cycle repeats4
  • premenstrual syndrome (PMS)PMS is the name given to the various physical and emotional symptoms you can experience in the time before your period starts. PMS occurs when your levels of progesterone are low and oestrogen levels are high. After you ovulate, your progesterone levels increase again and decline just before your period. Between 80% and 90% of people who menstruate experience PMS4,5,6,7,8
  • perimenopause or pre-menopause: oestrogen levels begin to gradually decline in the lead-up to menopause, causing many of the changes you experience during perimenopause, such as irregular periods5,9,10
  • menopause: during menopause, the ovaries start producing lower amounts of the hormone oestrogen6,9,10

What causes hormonal imbalance in women?

All of the occurrences listed above involve a predictable hormone imbalance.

But sometimes, your body will throw in some less common fluctuations too which may require further attention from your doctor. These include:

Polycystic ovary syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects about one in every ten people who menstruate in the UK.11,12

People with PCOS may have abnormally high levels of androgens (male sex hormones), which can cause symptoms such as irregular periods, unwanted hair on the body and face, and acne. The condition can also make it more difficult to conceive.11,12

Learn more about the different types of PCOS in our article.

Hysterectomy

While a hysterectomy can be done without removing the ovaries, if they are removed, this can lead to a sharp decline in oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels, and even trigger an early menopause.13

Early menopause

When your periods stop before the age of 45, this is referred to as early menopause.14

Menopause before the age of 40 is called premature menopause. This is sometimes called premature ovarian failure, or primary ovarian insufficiency (POI). Premature menopause means that the ovaries aren’t working properly, so they stop producing eggs much earlier than usual.14

Sometimes this is a side effect of a treatment, like a hysterectomy. But it’s also possible for your ovaries to stop making normal levels of certain hormones naturally, causing periods to either stop or become infrequent.14

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder

Like PMS, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) can occur a week or two before your period starts. Affecting approximately 5%–8% of women of reproductive age, the condition is also thought to be caused by increased sensitivity to hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle (especially progesterone).15,16

However, PMDD causes more severe symptoms than PMS, including severe depression, irritability, and tension. As such, you should consult your doctor if you think you might be suffering with PMDD.15,16

Hormonal imbalance symptoms in women

Knowing the signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalance can help you spot when your own hormones might be off-kilter.

Though of course, knowing there’s an issue doesn’t necessarily mean you know what that exact issue is. That’s why it’s always a good idea to seek the advice of a healthcare professional if you experience any of the following symptoms that may contribute to hormonal imbalance:1
  • heavy or painful periods
  • insomnia and trouble sleeping
  • skin problems
  • mood swings
  • fertility problems
  • vaginal dryness
  • weak bones
  • headaches
  • unexplained weight gain
  • low libido

Treatments to help with hormonal imbalance

If you’re experiencing symptoms that might indicate a hormonal imbalance due to a medical condition like PCOS, or a permanent hormonal shift due to menopause, speak to your GP for tailored medical advice.

They’ll be able to talk you through the conventional hormonal imbalance treatments that are best suited to your needs, including hormonal contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).13,14

However, if you’re wondering ‘How can I balance my hormones myself?’, there are several treatments that you can use alongside any of your doctor’s recommendations.

For example, these can include:
  • eat a balanced diet: some emerging studies have found a causal relationship between sex hormones and the gut microbiome.18 So, it may help to eat a balanced diet, rich in a wide variety of healthy plant foods, to give your gut a helping hand1,17,18,19,20
  • vitamins for hormonal imbalance: some research has indicated that vitamin D 21, magnesium22 and omega-3 fatty acids23 may help to balance hormone levels. Further research into this is needed here
  • engage in regular exercise: though more research is required, studies have found that physical activity may lead to a decrease in circulating sex hormone levels. So, if you struggle with levels that are too high, engaging in regular exercise may be beneficial23
More research needs to be done into the benefits of vitamins on hormonal imbalances and you must always speak with your doctor before starting any new vitamin or mineral supplement.

The final say

Since your hormones naturally fluctuate throughout the month, striving for complete hormonal balance isn’t entirely realistic.

However, there are plenty of healthy changes and additions you can make to your life to relieve symptoms when you find your hormones do fall out of sync.

If you find that your symptoms are particularly severe, speak to your GP. They’ll then be able to discuss which treatment options are available to you.

Sources

  1. Roop, J. Hormone Imbalance - A Cause For Concern. Research Journal of Life Sciences, Bioinformatics, Pharmaceutical and Chemical Sciences. 2018. Available from: https://doi.org/10.26479/2018.0402.18.
  2. Treasure, N-O., et al. The Perspective of Hormonal Imbalance in Humans: A Review. Acta Scientific Clinical Case Reports. 2020. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/369280663_Hormone_Imbalance_The_Serious_Health_Hazard_for_Woman.
  3. Peper, JS., et al. The Teenage Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2013;22(2):134–9. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721412473755.
  4. Reed, BG., et al. The Normal Menstrual Cycle and the Control of Ovulation. Endotext. 2018. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279054/.
  5. NHS. PMS (premenstrual syndrome). [Internet]. [Cited 2024 March 19]. 2019. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pre-menstrual-syndrome/
  6. Steiner, M., et al. Hormones and mood: from menarche to menopause and beyond. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2003;74(1):67–83. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0165-0327(02)00432-9.
  7. Gudipally PR, Sharma GK. Premenstrual Syndrome. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. 2021. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560698/
  8. Ford, O., Lethaby, A., Roberts, H., & J Mol, B. W. Progesterone for premenstrual syndrome. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD003415.pub4.
  9. Peacock K, Carlson K, Ketvertis KM. Menopause. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. 2024. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507826/ .
  10. NHS inform. Menopause. [Internet]. [Cited 2024 March 19]. Available from: https://www.nhsinform.scot/healthy-living/womens-health/later-years-around-50-years-and-over/menopause-and-post-menopause-health/menopause/.
  11. NHS. Polycystic ovary syndrome – Overview [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Feb 10]. 2019. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/.
  12. NHS. Polycystic ovary syndrome – Symptoms [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Feb 10]. 2019. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/symptoms/.
  13. NHS. Considerations - Hysterectomy [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Feb 10]. 2018. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hysterectomy.
  14. NHS inform. Early and premature menopause. [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Feb 10] Available from: https://www.nhsinform.scot/healthy-living/womens-health/later-years-around-50-years-and-over/menopause-and-post-menopause-health/early-and-premature-menopause/
  15. Mishra S, Elliott H, Marwaha R. Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls. 2018. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532307/.
  16. Hantsoo, L., et al. Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder: Epidemiology and Treatment. Current Psychiatry Reports. 2015;17(11). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4890701/.
  17. Neuman, H., Debelius, J. W., Knight, R., & Koren, O. Microbial endocrinology: The interplay between the microbiota and the endocrine system. 2015;39(4), 509-521. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1093/femsre/fuu010
  18. He, S., et al. The Gut Microbiome and Sex Hormone-Related Diseases. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2021;12. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2021.711137.
  19. Tomova, A., Bukovsky, I., Rembert, E., et al. The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2019;6. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00047
  20. Chu, C., et al. Relationship Between Vitamin D and Hormones Important for Human Fertility in Reproductive-Aged Women. Frontiers in Endocrinology. 2021;12:666687. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2021.666687.
  21. Kolanu, BR., et al. Activities of Serum Magnesium and Thyroid Hormones in Pre-, Peri-, and Post-menopausal Women. Cureus. 2020. Available from: https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.6554.
  22. Saldeen, P., et al. Women and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey. 2004;59(10):722–30. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1097/01.ogx.0000140038.70473.96.
  23. Ennour-Idrissi, K., et al. Effect of physical activity on sex hormones in women: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Breast Cancer Research. 2015;17(1). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13058-015-0647-3.
 
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