By Megan Bidmead, guest contributor for Anything Goes Lifestyle

Hormones are an incredibly important part of how our bodies function: when we’re healthy, and hormones work the way they should, they carry messages through your blood to your organs and muscles, helping everything to run smoothly.

However, hormone changes or imbalances can leave us feeling completely out of sorts. A surge of one hormone can leave us feeling exhausted, irritable, sad, or even cause physical symptoms.

It’s important that we understand how our bodies work as we age; a little wisdom about our physical bodies will help us to know ourselves better and may help us to know when to ask for help.

Here, we’ve taken a deep dive into hormone changes, including hormone changes at all stages of life, and how we can help when hormones go haywire.

How hormone changes can make us feel out of whack

Hormone changes can be triggered by anything from pregnancy, the postpartum period, menopause, and  even excessive stress.

There are some key hormones at play for women, and these hormone levels can fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle. These hormones include:

  • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone – this is the hormone that causes ovulation
  • Follicle-stimulating hormone – this is the hormone that stimulates your follicles, helping eggs to mature
  • Oestrogen – one of the most commonly recognised hormones, oestrogen makes you feel sensual, can lift your mood, and typically surges in the first half of your cycle
  • Luteinising hormone – this is another hormone responsible for ovulation
  • Testosterone – not just for men, testosterone gives you a boost in your libido
  • Progesterone – this hormone surges in the second half of your cycle and makes you feel quieter, calmer, and more introspective

There are other hormones at play, too: you can see a full list of hormones and how they work on the website You and Your Hormones. Each hormone has a role, but there’s a delicate balance between them. If one hormone dominates, it can throw you off, giving you symptoms ranging from mood swings to brain fog to headaches. If you’re feeling a little ‘off,’ hormones could well be the culprit.

Hormone imbalances

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If one hormone surges too much, it can cause a hormone imbalance. Because your hormones are vital for many bodily processes, an imbalance can manifest in several ways.

Mood swings

Too much oestrogen can be the culprit for mood swings. A surge of oestrogen can increase your happy hormones, making you feel joyful and bright; it can also cause low mood, especially during perimenopause/menopause.

Lower libido

Lower levels of oestrogen and testosterone can cause a lower libido. During the second half of your cycle, progesterone tends to dominate, while testosterone and oestrogen are less prominent: this means you will feel quieter and calmer, and it may also lower your sex drive.

This is particularly prominent during perimenopause/menopause.

Weight gain/weight loss

Weight gain and weight loss can be symptoms of a hormonal imbalance. For example, the hormone leptin, which is produced by fat cells, naturally reduces your appetite, and you may find yourself reluctant to eat.

However, the opposite can be true. Hormonal weight gain is incredibly frustrating. It can be caused by conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, menopause, or hypothyroidism.

If you have any unexpected weight gain or loss, you should always contact your doctor for advice.

Headaches

Hormonal headaches are (literally) a pain. Menstrual headaches are common, and some women suffer from pregnancy headaches thanks to the surge of hormones and a change in blood volume.

Skin problems

Surges of certain hormones, like progesterone, androgen, and oestrogen. This can fluctuate throughout your cycle: in the early days, while hormone levels are low, your skin may be drier than usual.

Later in the cycle, when oestrogen comes into play, your skin may glow, and spots may appear less obvious. Then, in the days before your period, you may find that spots start to emerge as progesterone takes over.

Fatigue

Fatigue is a common symptom of a hormone imbalance. Often caused by excessive progesterone, it can make you feel sleepy and overwhelmed. You may also experience tiredness if your body creates too little thyroid hormone.

Unusual bowel movements

Hormone fluctuations can cause both diarrhoea and constipation: if you’ve ever experienced this around the time of your period, you’re not alone!

Sometimes, the body can produce too many prostaglandins, a hormone-like lipid that causes your uterus to contract. Too much of this can impact your intestines, too, leading to unusual bowel movements.

Heavy periods

If your oestrogen and progesterone levels are slightly out of whack, this can cause your uterine lining to thicken up more than usual. This can lead to heavier bleeding on your period.

Hormones at different life stages

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Hormones can fluctuate wildly at different stages of our lives. As we age, hormones play a different role, and they’re important to keep our bodies working properly.

Puberty

As we go through puberty (which usually starts between the age of 8 and 13), hormones play an important role in preparing our bodies for physical changes to come. For girls, oestrogen plays a huge role. It causes breasts to grow, weight gain in certain areas like the hips, and mood swings.

Hormones are responsible for our first periods; this can be an important milestone for girls, and it’s important for them to be informed about the changes in their bodies. For mothers of preteen girls, it’s worth checking out the book ‘What’s Happening to Me?’ by Usborne Books, which will help you and your daughter understand the changes to come.

Puberty is an emotional time for many reasons, and hormones play a part here: you may remember how tired, stressed, and sad you sometimes felt during puberty. It’s a big adjustment for girls, and the more prepared they are, the better.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a monumental shift for our bodies. It can cause anything from blood volume to changes in digestion to weight gain. It’s a huge transition for our bodies to deal with, and again, hormones play a massive role in preparing your body to sustain a pregnancy.

Oestrogen kicks in early on; it helps to support the development of your baby’s organs, and it’s also responsible for nausea and the softening of ligaments. Progesterone, meanwhile, increases blood flow to your womb but also causes symptoms like heartburn and reflux.

A vital hormone is the human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) hormone. This is an important hormone to support pregnancy, and it’s the hormone that pregnancy tests are looking for.

HCG can have an impact on the way that we feel: it can cause those classic early pregnancy symptoms, like nausea and sickness, fatigue, breast tenderness, and generally feeling emotional. All good signs in early pregnancy, but still tricky to deal with!

Postpartum

The postpartum period is a wild wide! You may experience a rush of adrenaline at the beginning, and some women experience a feeling of elation at this stage (although some of this might be down to sheer relief).

However, around day two, sadness may kick in. Many women feel low at this point, and it’s so common it’s known as the ‘baby blues’. This can last for a few days up to a couple of weeks, and you may feel confused, overwhelmed, tired, and upset. This is caused by a sudden drop of oestrogen  and progesterone.

It’s important to keep an eye out for postnatal depression. If the ‘baby blues’ last longer than two weeks, seek help from your doctor or health visitor.

Perimenopause

Perimenopause is the start of menopause; it usually begins at around the age of 40, but some women can experience symptoms earlier.

During perimenopause, your hormones may go a little haywire. Oestrogen, particularly, can rise and fall in an uneven way, causing sudden drops or surges that can make you feel emotional and even impact the length of your cycle.

During perimenopause, you may experience cycles with no ovulation, which can cause further physical symptoms like hot flashes  and insomnia.

Menopause

Women will eventually stop menstruating when they reach menopause: this usually happens around age 50.

This can be a powerful time: with a lack of oestrogen, women may experience clarity and the ability to stick up for themselves. It can also cause sadness, exhaustion, and other symptoms like hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, vaginal dryness, and joint pain.

A common symptom of menopause is brain fog: this can be caused by a drop in progesterone and may leave you feeling like you can’t concentrate.

Hormone management: How can we feel more like ourselves?

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Hormone imbalances can feel overwhelming, but there are several ways that we can manage our hormones.

Prevention

We can help to mitigate some of the hormonal-related issues by taking care of our minds and bodies. Nourishing ourselves with good food, movement, and mindfulness can really help to balance out hormones and help our whole bodies to work the way they should.

Diet is a hugely important factor here: we’ve all heard this before, but a good balance of vegetables, protein, carbs, and healthy fats is vital. There are several ‘superfoods’ that can help to balance our hormones and include:

  • Blueberries
  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Broccoli
  • Flaxseed
  • Apples
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Salmon
  • Eggs
  • Green tea

It also helps to avoid highly processed foods, including trans fats. While these are nice as a treat, they are linked to raised levels of oestrogen.

Exercising regularly is also key. If you hated sports at school, you’re far from alone. However, it’s worth finding exercise that you truly love, as you’ll be more likely to stick with it. Whether that’s working out alone at the gym, running with friends, or dancing in front of your TV, exercise can help to balance out hormones.

It’s worth noting that as we age, it’s important to adapt to changes our bodies go through: you may gravitate towards more gentle exercise as you grow older.

Lastly, stress can cause hormone imbalances. Lifestyle changes, including adopting meditation and mindfulness techniques, can help to decrease stress and in turn level our hormones more.

Supplements

Sometimes, supplements help us to feel more like ourselves. Vitamin D deficiencies are very common in the UK. Technically a hormone, vitamin D is important for several reasons, and too little can leave you feeling exhausted, depressed, and weak, and can even cause you to get sick again and again.

Other supplements that may help to balance hormones include magnesium, omega-3, and ashwagandha. It’s always a good idea to check with a healthcare professional before taking any new supplements.

Synthetic hormones

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is the route suggested for women reaching the perimenopause stage. It can reduce some of the more disruptive symptoms of perimenopause, including hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, vaginal dryness, and a lower sex drive.

HRT doesn’t come without risks: it can increase the risk of breast cancer, and it can cause breast tenderness, headaches, and feeling sick (a little like early pregnancy symptoms).

Still, HRT can be incredibly beneficial for women dealing with hormone imbalances, and your GP can discuss the options with you.

Featured image by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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