What is a hormonal imbalance?
Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. Produced in the endocrine glands, these powerful chemicals travel around your bloodstream telling tissues and organs what to do. They help control many of your body’s major processes, including metabolism and reproduction.
When you have a hormonal imbalance, you have too much or too little of a certain hormone. Even tiny changes can have serious effects throughout your whole body.
Think of hormones like a cake recipe. Too much or too little of any one ingredient affects the final product. While some hormone levels fluctuate throughout your lifetime and may just be the result of natural aging, other changes occur when your endocrine glands get the recipe wrong.
Read on to learn more about hormonal imbalances.
Symptoms of a hormonal imbalance
Your hormones play an integral role in your overall health. Because of that, there’s a broad range of symptoms that could signal a hormonal imbalance. Your symptoms will depend on which hormones or glands aren’t working properly.
Common hormonal conditions affecting both men and women could cause any of the following symptoms:
- weight gain
- increased sensitivity to cold or heat
- constipation or more frequent bowel movements
- dry skin
- puffy face
- unexplained weight loss (sometimes sudden)
- increased or decreased heart rate
- muscle weakness
- frequent urination
- increased thirst
- muscle aches, tenderness, and stiffness
- pain, stiffness, or swelling in your joints
- thinning hair or fine, brittle hair
- increased hunger
- decreased sex drive
- nervousness, anxiety, or irritability
- blurred vision
- a fatty hump between the shoulders
- rounded face
- purple or pink stretch marks
Symptoms in women
Symptoms of a hormonal imbalance specific to women include:
- heavy or irregular periods, including missed periods, stopped period, or frequent period
- hirsutism, or excessive hair on the face, chin, or other parts of the body
- acne on the face, chest, or upper back
- thinning hair or hair loss
- weight gain or trouble losing weight
- darkening of skin, especially along neck creases, in the groin, and underneath breasts
- skin tags
- vaginal dryness
- vaginal atrophy
- pain during sex
- night sweats
Symptoms in men
Testosterone plays an important role in male development. If you aren’t producing enough testosterone, it can cause a variety of symptoms.
In the adult male, symptoms include:
- development of breast tissue
- breast tenderness
- erectile dysfunction
- loss of muscle mass
- decreased sex drive
- decrease in beard and body hair growth
- osteoporosis, the loss of bone mass
- difficulty concentrating
- hot flashes
Symptoms in children
Puberty is the time when boys and girls start producing sex hormones. Many children with delayed puberty will go on to experience normal puberty, but some have a condition called hypogonadism. Symptoms of hypogonadism include:
- muscle mass doesn’t develop
- voice doesn’t deepen
- body hair grows sparsely
- penis and testicular growth is impaired
- excessive growth of the arms and legs in relation to the trunk of the body
- gynecomastia, the development of breast tissue
- period doesn’t begin
- breast tissue doesn’t develop
- growth rate doesn’t increase
Causes of a hormonal imbalance
There are many possible causes for a hormonal imbalance. Causes differ depending on which hormones or glands are affected. Common causes of hormonal imbalance include:
- hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid
- hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid
- Cushing syndrome
- hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules
- hormone therapy
- tumors (benign or cancerous)
- congenital adrenal hyperplasia
- eating disorders
- adrenal insufficiency
- pituitary tumor
- injury or trauma
- cancer treatments
Causes unique to women
Many causes of hormonal imbalance in women are related to reproductive hormones. Common causes include:
- premature menopause
- hormone drugs like birth control pills
- primary ovarian insufficiency
Tests and diagnosis
There’s no single test available for doctors to diagnose a hormonal imbalance. Begin by making an appointment with your doctor for a physical exam. Be prepared to describe your symptoms and the timeline along which they’ve occurred. Bring a list of all medications, vitamins, and supplements you’re currently taking.
Your doctor may ask you questions such as:
- How often are you experiencing symptoms?
- Does anything help relieve your symptoms?
- Have you lost or gained weight recently?
- Are you more stressed than usual?
- When was your last period?
- Are you planning to get pregnant?
- Do you have trouble getting or maintaining an erection?
- Do you have vaginal dryness or pain during sex?
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may suggest one or more diagnostic tests. You can also ask your doctor to perform these tests.
Your doctor will send a sample of your blood to a lab for testing. Most hormones can be detected in the blood. A doctor can use a blood test to check your thyroid, estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol levels.
If you’re female, your doctor may perform a pap smear to feel for any unusual lumps, cysts, or tumors.
If you’re male, your doctor may check your scrotum for any lumps or abnormalities.
An ultrasound machine uses sound waves to look inside your body. Doctors may use an ultrasound to get images of the uterus, ovaries, testicles, thyroid, or pituitary gland.
Sometimes more advanced tests are required. These can include:
Can you test your hormone levels at home?
If you’re experiencing symptoms of menopause, you may be tempted to try a home testing kit. Home testing kits measure follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) in your urine. FSH levels increase when you enter menopause, but levels also rise and fall during a normal menstrual cycle. This test can give you an indication of whether menopause has started, but it can’t tell you conclusively.
Treatment options for a hormonal imbalance
Treatment for a hormonal imbalance will depend on what’s causing it. Common treatment options include:
If you’re experiencing uncomfortable symptoms of menopause like hot flashes, your doctor may recommend a low dose of estrogen. Be sure to discuss the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy with your doctor.
If you’re experiencing vaginal dryness or pain during sex, you may want to try applying an estrogen cream, tablet, or ring. This local therapy treatment avoids many of the risks associated with systemic estrogen, or estrogen that travels throughout the bloodstream to the appropriate organ.
Hormonal birth control
If you’re trying to get pregnant, hormonal birth control can help regulate menstrual cycles. Types of hormonal birth control include:
It may also help improve acne and reduce extra hair on the face and body.
Androgens are male sex hormones that are present in both women and men. Women with high androgen levels may choose to take medication that blocks the effect of androgens, such as:
- hair loss
- facial hair growth
Metformin is a type 2 diabetes medication that may help some women with PCOS symptoms. It isn’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat PCOS, but it might help lower androgen levels and encourage ovulation.
Testosterone supplements can reduce the symptoms of low testosterone in men. In adolescents with delayed puberty, it stimulates the start of puberty. It comes as an injectable, patch, and gel.
Thyroid hormone therapy
In people with hypothyroidism, the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine (Levothroid, Levoxyl, Synthroid, Unithroid) can bring hormone levels back into balance.
This is the only FDA-approved medication for the treatment of low sexual desire in premenopausal women. It has some serious side effects. Talk to your doctor to see if this medication could be right for you.
This is a prescription cream designed specifically for excessive facial hair in women. Applied topically to the skin, it helps slow new hair growth, but doesn’t get rid of existing hair.
Natural remedies and supplements
There are many nutritional supplements on the market that claim to treat menopause and hormone imbalance. However, few of them are backed up by scientific evidence.
Many of these supplements contain plant-derived hormones. These are sometimes called “bioidentical” hormones because they chemically resemble the body’s natural hormones. There is no evidence to suggest that they work better than regular hormone therapy, though.
Some people find that yoga helps treat symptoms of hormonal imbalance. Yoga is excellent for your strength, flexibility, and balance. It may also help you lose weight, which can help regulate your hormones.
You can also make the following lifestyle changes:
- Lose weight. A 10 percent reduction in body weight in women can make your periods more regular and increase your chances of getting pregnant. In men, weight loss may help improve erectile function.
- Eat well. A balanced diet is an important part of overall health.
- Remove unwanted hair. If you have excess facial or body hair, you can use hair removal creams, laser hair removal, or electrolysis.
- Decrease vaginal discomfort. Use lubes or moisturizers free of parabens, glycerin, and petroleum.
- Avoid hot flashes. Try to identify things that commonly trigger hot flashes, like warm temperatures, spicy foods, or hot beverages.
Hormonal imbalance and acne
The primary cause of acne is excess oil production, which leads to clogged pores. Acne is most common in areas with many oil glands, including the:
- upper back
Acne is often associated with pubescent hormonal changes, but there’s actually a lifelong relationship between acne and hormones.
Acne and menstruation
The menstrual cycle is one of the most common acne triggers. For many women, acne develops the week before you get your period and then clears up. Dermatologists advise hormonal testing for women who have acne in combination with other symptoms, like irregular periods and excess facial or body hair.
Acne and androgens
Androgens are male hormones present in both men and women. They contribute to acne by overstimulating the oil glands.
Both girls and boys have high levels of androgens during puberty, which is why acne is so common at that time. Androgen levels typically settle down in the early 20s.
Hormonal imbalance and weight gain
People with hypothyroidism have low levels of thyroid hormones. This means that their metabolism doesn’t work as well as it should. Even when dieting, people with hypothyroidism can still gain weight.
People with Cushing syndrome have high levels of cortisol in their blood. This leads to an increase in appetite and an increased fat storage.
During menopause, many women gain weight because the metabolism slows down. You may find that even though you’re eating and exercising like normal, you still gain weight.
The only way to treat weight gain from a hormone disorder is to treat the underlying condition.
Hormonal imbalance and pregnancy
During a normal, healthy pregnancy, your body goes through major hormonal changes. This is different than a hormonal imbalance.
Pregnancy is still possible in women with PCOS. Losing weight can make a big difference in your fertility. There are also prescription medications available that can stimulate ovulation and increase your chances of becoming pregnant.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is also an option if medication doesn’t work. As a last resort, surgery can temporarily restore ovulation.
PCOS can cause problems during pregnancy, for both you and your baby. There are higher rates of:
- gestational diabetes
- cesarean section
- high birth weight
- admission to and time spent in the NICU
Babies born to women with untreated hypothyroidism have a higher risk of birth defects. This includes serious intellectual and developmental problems.
Hormonal imbalance and hair loss
Hormonal changes and imbalances can sometimes cause temporary hair loss. In women, this is often related to pregnancy, childbirth, or the onset of menopause. An over- or underproduction of thyroid hormones can also cause hair loss.
Most hair loss, like male pattern baldness, is hereditary and unrelated to hormonal changes.
Hormone imbalances are associated with many chronic, or long-term, health conditions. Without proper treatment, you could be at risk of several serious medical conditions, including:
Hormones are responsible for many of your body’s major processes. When hormones get out of balance, the symptoms can be extremely varied. Hormonal imbalance can cause a variety of serious complications, so it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible.