Hormonal imbalances can lead to a diverse array of health problems that make it difficult to live a normal, healthy life. Here’s how to get to the root cause and restore balance.
Do your mood and energy fluctuate wildly? Do you crave sugar or salt? Are you depressed? Sleep poorly? Overweight and putting on more and more fat? Do you have dry skin and hair loss? Brain fog? Intolerance to cold? Constipation? If you’re a woman, do you suffer from irregular, painful, or heavy periods? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” it could be an indication that your hormones are out of balance, and you wouldn’t be alone. Half of women have reported experiencing the symptoms of hormone imbalance. One of every 10 people in the US have thyroid conditions. As with many other health conditions, the conventional medical paradigm treats the symptoms of hormonal imbalances without addressing the real cause of imbalance in the first place.
Part one of our coverage of this topic will deal with insulin resistance and thyroid conditions; part two will cover sex hormones and adrenal function.
The endocrine system is responsible for regulating bodily functions through the release of hormones, messenger molecules that travel through the bloodstream that tell various organs and tissue what to do and how to function. There are several hormone-secreting glands and organs that comprise the endocrine system, including the hypothalamus and the pineal gland in the brain, the pituitary gland, the thyroid and parathyroid, the pancreas, the adrenal gland, and the thymus.
The hormones of the endocrine system regulate many crucial bodily systems, including metabolism, growth and development, sexual function, heart rate, blood pressure, appetite, and sleeping and waking cycles, to name a few. When this delicate balance of hormones is dysregulated, many health problems can arise.
The most common hormone disorder is insulin resistance; 40 percent of adults ages 18-44 have insulin resistance; 96 million Americans have prediabetes, which is caused by insulin resistance. When you eat too much sugar, flour, or white rice, insulin levels spike. When this happens, your cells become resistant to insulin’s effects. This creates a vicious cycle: you pump out more and more insulin but become more and more resistant to its effects. Insulin resistance can cause energy and mood swings and can lead to chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, dementia, and more. It can also lead to prediabetes or diabetes—when the body doesn’t make enough insulin to manage blood glucose levels.
We’ve also reported on research demonstrating that exposure to environmental toxins can disrupt blood sugar control by impairing insulin sensitivity and decreasing insulin production. This research shows that exposure to environmental pollutants is the primary culprit behind the diabetes epidemic.
You can reverse insulin resistance with diet and lifestyle modifications. Essentially, reduce the amount of processed foods, baked goods, pasta, flour, sugar, sodas, etc. from your diet, replacing them with healthy fats (fish oil, olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocados), healthy protein (nuts, seeds, beans, fish, organic chicken, etc.) and healthy sources of carbs (vegetables, fruits, whole grains). Reducing exposure to environmental contaminants is also a must (see our earlier Health from the Ground Up articles on sources of toxins, how to avoid them, and support detoxification).
Thyroid conditions are also incredibly common. Almost 30 million Americans are estimated to have a thyroid condition, and about 5 million Americans just haven’t been diagnosed and are not aware they have a thyroid condition. One woman in eight will develop a thyroid condition during her lifetime. So will many men. One of the most common thyroid disorders is hypothyroidism, where the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone, causing symptoms such as extreme fatigue, depression, weight gain, and forgetfulness.
Hypothyroidism can be caused by many factors. The most common is autoimmunity, which accounts for 90 percent of hypothyroidism in adults. Hashimoto’s disease affects five out of every 100 people in the US, and 8 times more women than men. With this disease, the immune system identifies the thyroid as a foreign pathogen and produces antibodies to attack it, disrupting the thyroid’s ability to produce enough hormones. The hormones produced by the thyroid are involved in the regulation of your metabolism as well as your endocrine, cardiovascular, neurological, and immune function, so not having enough can have serious and wide-ranging effects.
Food intolerances can also be implicated in thyroid conditions, particularly gluten sensitivity. This is because the structure of gliadin, the protein in gluten, resembles the structure of the thyroid gland. If you are sensitive to gluten and you eat it, your immune system will attack the gliadin and your thyroid gland. Between 1-5 percent of Americans have Celiac disease, but it often goes undiagnosed because people do not have obvious symptoms.
Gut health is connected to nearly every major aspect of health, and thyroid function is no exception. Gut dysbiosis may negatively impact thyroid metabolism. Leaky gut, when the gut lining is damaged and allows undigested food molecules to enter the bloodstream, causes sustained inflammation because your immune system is reacting to the foreign substances in your blood. An overstressed immune system can lead to autoimmunity as your own cells get caught in the crossfire during these states of sustained inflammation. (See our previous overview of gut health for more information on supporting a healthy gut.)
Chronic stress also negatively impacts the thyroid; stress releases inflammatory cytokines that end up reducing thyroid function.
Addressing hypothyroidism often requires medicine—we went over this in our recent article describing the FDA’s recent attack on natural desiccated thyroid medicines, which are superior to FDA-approved synthetic thyroid medicines. The causes described above indicate diet and lifestyle modifications that can be made, including: going off of gluten, eating an anti-inflammatory diet, supplementing with selenium and zinc, managing stress, and practicing good sleep habits, to name a few. Supplementing with iodine is recommended by some doctors but is controversial. As always, please consult an integrative healthcare provider to determine the best treatment plan.
Less common is hyperthyroidism, when the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone. This causes energy metabolism to speed up, using energy more quickly. Hyperthyroidism can make your heart beat faster, cause you to lose weight without trying, and make you feel nervous. Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition, is a common cause of hyperthyroidism. Conventional treatments for hyperthyroidism include drugs like Propylthiouracil and Methamazole that come with a host of dangerous side effects, radioactive iodine to destroy thyroid gland cells that make you dependent on taking thyroid hormone medications for the rest of your life, or surgical removal of part of the thyroid gland.
As in many other disease conditions, these conventional treatments do not address the underlying causes of hyperthyroidism, which in many cases is autoimmunity. Gut health, leaky gut, as discussed above with hypothyroidism, are key contributors to the inflammation that leads to autoimmunity. Mercury and heavy metal exposure can also be a factor; these metals damage cells, causing the immune system to attack these cells and other organs. Studies have found that those with higher mercury exposure are at increased risk of autoimmune thyroid disease. Infections like herpes and Epstein-Barr can also trigger autoimmune diseases that impair thyroid function. An integrative approach to address hyperthyroidism is similar to hypothyroidism protocols: heal the gut, in many cases by removing gluten from the diet, test for heavy metals and other toxic exposures, test for infections like herpes and Epstein-Barr, and take immune-supporting supplements like vitamin D, fish oil, and glutathione.
Insulin resistance and thyroid problems do not have to confine you to a lifetime of medication; working with an integrative doctor can help you find and address the root causes of hormonal imbalances to help you regain your health. In part two of this article, we will look at sex and stress hormones.
Previous articles from ANH’s Health from the Ground Up series: