by Morgan A. McLaughlin McFarland
You feel run-down and tired, no matter how much you rest. You feel anxious or depressed. Your weight fluctuates, your libido disappears and your skin, hair and nails don't look the same. Something doesn't feel right, but you can't quite put your finger on what. Like millions of others, you may be experiencing hormonal imbalance.
Hormonal imbalances affect women and men, and while they tend to increase with age, even young people may exhibit symptoms. Women may experience hormonal fluctuations due to PMS, perimenopause and menopause, but men also notice age- and lifestyle-related changes to their hormone levels. These imbalances dramatically impact quality of life, affecting everything from weight to mental health to reproductive health. Treatment, and a better life, may be just a test away.
HIGHS AND LOWS
Hormones play important roles in regulating body chemistry, so problems with one area can cause a domino effect for others. "All hormones are interconnected, so one being imbalanced can throw off all of your other hormones," says Christina Connors, Certified Nurse Practitioner with CentreSpringMD.
Estrogen, progesterone, androgens (such as testosterone), thyroid hormones and cortisol are all hormones that must work in harmony for optimal health. Each of these hormones, even those related to reproduction and secondary sex characteristics, are produced by both men and women in differing levels throughout their lives. They each have distinctive functions within the body:
Hormone imbalances can have a number of causes, and these may vary from person to person. Some are a result of a chronic, but treatable, disorder, while others stem from environmental and lifestyle factors. Diet, daily routines and, particularly, stress can also play a role. As a matter of fact, one of the major causes of hormonal imbalances includes long-term or constant states of stress. Other common triggers that can cause irregularities include pregnancy, genetics, medications, illnesses, autoimmune diseases, increases in weight and a sedentary lifestyle.
Dr. Rhett Bergeron of Real Health Medical, an Atlanta-based integrated medical treatment center, attributes many hormonal imbalances to "chronic stress, poor diet, nutritional deficiencies and increased exposure to environmental toxins." Dr. Eva Arkin, an OB-GYN with Premier Care for Women, says, "Hormonal imbalances can come from many causes, most of which are common life occurrences, while others are medical issues, such as thyroid disease. Any changes in one's pattern of eating, exercising or sleeping can contribute to changes in hormonal production. Medical issues, many originating with the endocrine system, can be a cause as well."
Connors agrees and further explains how the system gets out of whack. "Hormones are constantly changing in our bodies in order to help you react to different situations. They can vary based on your stress level, amount of sleep and any physical demands you are putting on your body. When you are under physical or emotional stress, your body increases production of cortisol and decreases or limits the production of thyroid hormones and progesterone. This is commonly known as the "fight-or-flight" reaction.
Most hormonal imbalances can be easily diagnosed through lab tests administered by your care provider. The majority of problems are correctable with hormone replacement therapy (HRT)—taking supplemental hormones through one or more delivery methods. Effective HRT may come from synthetic hormones, which are manufactured in a lab to replicate naturally occurring hormones, or bioidentical hormones, which are produced using plant-derived hormones.
"Your healthcare professional may need to place you on medication that will help to either increase or decrease hormonal production," says Dr. Fonda Martin, an OB-GYN with Northwest Women's Care. "There is evidence that suggests that being placed on a bioidentical hormone, which is derived from plants but has similar structures to the hormones produced by your body, may help to keep those hormones in check. However, not all patients are candidates for bioidentical hormones, so please make sure that you ask your provider before initiating these medications."
Dr. Bergeron prefers using bioidentical hormones in his practice for several reasons, both because he feels they typically contain fewer additives and because they can be offered in a wider range of delivery methods. "The bioidentical approach [is available in] more forms—such as a lozenge, cream, vaginal suppository or even a pellet that goes under the skin," says Dr. Bergeron. He stresses the importance of evaluating each individual's needs, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment.
Certain hormonal imbalances may result from chronic conditions that require additional treatment. Graves' disease, for example, is an immune-system disorder that results from an overproduction of thyroid hormone. Cushing's Syndrome is an overproduction of cortisol and may result from a pituitary tumor. These conditions, and some others that affect the reproductive systems, may require surgery or other treatment for a return to optimal health.
No matter what your concerns, discuss all your treatment options—including the pros and cons of HRT—with your care provider. Also, consider any lifestyle changes you can make to improve your overall health.
Eva Arkin, MD, Premier Care for Women — www.premiercareforwomen.com
Rhett Bergeron, MD, Real Health Medical — www.realhealthmedical.com
Christina Connors, MSN, FNP-C, CentreSpringMD— www.centrespringmd.com
Fonda Martin, MD, WellStar Medical Group, Northwest Women's Care — www.wellstar.org