From the time we’re born, our hormones dictate our appetite, sleep patterns, how we respond to stress, our libido, whether we’re happy or anxious, and everything in between. Here’s what happens when they’re out of whack.

The term “hormone imbalance” is thrown around a lot by health professionals these days.

But what does it actually mean? It sounds so generic and all-encompassing that most women are overwhelmed by the prospect of even trying to understand this first piece of the puzzle.

How do we even know which hormones are imbalanced, much less what symptoms we should be looking for to figure out if our hormones are out of whack?

When most women under 40 hear the word “hormones,” it conjures up images of menopause, hot flashes, and mood swings.

The thing is, from the time we’re born (long before menopause), our hormones are dictating a plethora of bodily functions, like our appetite, sleep patterns, how we respond to stress, our libido, whether we’re happy or anxious, and everything in between.

This is why it’s so important for women of every age to have a basic grasp of how their hormones work. Otherwise, we’re simply feeling around in the dark for decades, trying to piece together an understanding of what the heck is going on in our bodies.

The hormones that usually become imbalanced first are cortisol and insulin — “stress” and “blood sugar” hormones, respectively.

I call these the “alpha hormones” because they have a downstream effect on our thyroid, ovarian, and sleep hormones. As in, they disrupt how thyroid hormones, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and melatonin work in the body.

OK, but what does this mean in terms of symptoms? Here are some of the first signs of a hormone imbalance to look out for:

  • You have trouble falling asleep or
    sleeping through the night.
  • You struggle to get out of bed,
    even after seven to nine hours of sleep.
  • You need caffeine just to get
    going in the morning.
  • You need more caffeine or sugar
    around 10 a.m. and then again in the midafternoon to keep you going.
  • You notice emotional PMS symptoms,
    like mood swings, angry outbursts, and energy crashes.
  • You get “hangry” more often than
    you care to admit!

If you experience one or more of these symptoms, you may have dysregulated cortisol, insulin, or both. So, what’s a hormonally imbalanced girl to do?

What you eat is just as important as when and how you eat.

In order to maintain what’s known as balanced blood sugar — which means you’re keeping your blood sugar in a rather straight line versus having big spikes and dips throughout the day — you should be eating every three to four hours.

Please don’t wait until you’re starving, have the shakes, feel like you’ll throw up, or faint. In addition, follow these rules at mealtime. Slooowww it down, girlfriend.

Sit down while eating (I know, I’m actually saying this), chew your food 20 to 30 times (I’m not kidding), and focus on something positive while eating. When you’re stressed out, your gut can’t easily absorb the nutrients you’re consuming, so it doesn’t matter how much broccoli you eat!

I’ve often been told I’m the bearer of bad news, but I promise that laying off the liquor will be a game changer.

A glass of alcohol is like consuming a handful of sugary cookies, just via another delivery method. It immediately hits your bloodstream, sending your blood sugar levels on a roller-coaster ride.

Alcohol also raises estrogen levels, because it creates a whole lot of extra work for your liver, so it can’t effectively detox estrogen, which is one of its main jobs. This estrogen excess can trigger heavier, longer periods, breast pain, headaches, and raging PMS.

See the connection between what we eat and drink and our period problems?

When I talk to most women about caffeine, I usually hear something like, “I’ll do anything you want me to, but don’t make me give up coffee.”

I get it. Life is nuts, and most of us need to mainline caffeine just to get by. As I said above, though, this could be really problematic, especially if you experience anxiety on the regular, feel like you can’t get out of bed in the morning, have energy crashes in the day, or have trouble falling asleep at night.

If you’re not ready to ditch the joe, then just observe how you feel 30, 60, and 120 minutes after you’ve had coffee. If you’re wanting to call it quits, ease into it with half decaf and half regular, replace a cup a day with decaf, or experiment with matcha.

Life is full-on for so many of us these days, which is why I hope that you have a clearer picture of what a hormone imbalance actually looks like and how to start to reverse it. Hormones exist in a hierarchy, so it’s important to take a “top down” approach to addressing problems that arise from a hormone imbalance.

Hormones are also talking to each other all day long, so once you work on one hormone, the rest will start to fall in line. That’s the beauty of hormones. They’re working together to support you, always.

Nicole Jardim is a certified women’s health coach and the creator of Fix Your Period, a series of programs that empower women to reclaim their hormone health using a method that combines simplicity and sass. Her incredible work has impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of women around the world in effectively addressing a wide variety of period problems, including PMS, irregular periods, PCOS, painful periods, amenorrhea, and many more. Nicole is also the co-host of “The Period Party,” a top-rated podcast on iTunes — be sure to tune in if you want to learn more about how to fix your period. She’s also the creator of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s hormone health continuing education course. Take Nicole’s Period Quiz to get a custom report based on your unique physiology and discover what’s up with your period!