Your hormones have a say in everything from ovulation to your appetite. Here is our complete guide to your most important hormones.
Estrogen is the hormone that makes you feel feminine (you can thank it for your curvy figure) and oversees your menstrual cycle. “Estrogen is our happy hormone — it is the chemical that makes us feel good. It is also the hormone that defines us as women,” says Christine Derzko, a doctor based at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and internal medicine (endocrinology) at the University of Toronto. While estrogen is associated mostly with your breasts and uterus, it is also connected to the brain (affecting mood) and heart (where it helps keep blood vessels healthy).
Source: Estrogen is produced in your ovaries, adrenal glands and fat tissue. And men have it too—just not as much.
Too much: Having high levels for too long can cause heavy periods and breast tenderness, and may even lead to breast cancer.
Too little: Estrogen levels wane as you approach menopause, and can take you for a roller-coaster ride as they fluctuate. During the perimenopausal phase (which usually starts in your 40s and lasts for two to eight years), some women experience mood swings, migraine headaches, memory problems and night sweats. Eventually, your ovaries stop making progesterone and estrogen, putting an end to your periods. (Break out the bubbly!) On the downside, you may have hot flashes, mood changes and a loss of bone density.
Balancing act: Signs of estrogen imbalance show up in your urine, blood and saliva. Hormone therapy (HT) may be the solution if you have too little, despite controversy around a study that concluded it increased many risks, including of some cancers. “Though post menopausal HT is out of fashion, the benefits still outweigh the risks for many women,” says Geoffrey Hammond, Canada Research Chair in the field of reproductive health. It’s best to weigh the pros and cons of HT with your family doctor.
The latest news: Some studies show women get more pleasure out of rewards, such as money, in the time before ovulation, when estrogen levels are on the rise.
Progesterone helps prepare your uterus for pregnancy, and after conception it helps maintain and support the pregnancy. In fact, some studies show treating high-risk pregnancies with supplemental progesterone may prevent preterm deliveries. But progesterone isn’t just about reproduction: Research shows it may also have anti-inflammatory qualities.
Source: In women, progesterone is made in the ovaries. Men have it too, but it’s produced in their adrenals.
Too much: Although uncommon, excess progesterone throws estrogen receptors out of whack, causing levels of mood-boosting serotonin to drop (a possible catalyst for depression).
Too little: A shortage can cause an imbalance of estrogen and other hormones, and you may find yourself sideswiped by irregular or heavy periods, sore breasts, insomnia and mood swings.
Balancing act: A blood test can determine your progesterone levels. A prescribed progesterone supplement (in patch or pill form) can solve a shortage, while boosting your estrogen levels can help with an overabundance.
Latest news: A 2007 study found micronized progesterone (available by prescription) may be a good alternative to estrogen to remedy the hot flashes and night sweats postmenopausal women often have.
Testosterone isn’t just for guys. “The amount women have is tiny — one-tenth to one-fifteenth of what men have,” says Barbara Sherwin, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal. “But testosterone still plays a huge role in women’s sexual interest and desire.”
Source: Testosterone is created in your ovaries, adrenal glands and fat cells.
Too much: If you’re constantly battling breakouts or have to zap hair on your chin and upper lip, excess testosterone may be at fault. High levels are also a symptom of polycystic-ovary syndrome, a common hormonal disorder characterized by irregular or absent periods, infertility or blood-sugar disorders.
Too little: “Not tonight, honey . . . ” Making excuses might not be your fault: A shortfall in testosterone can be bad news for your libido. (It’s most likely to happen during perimenopause.)
Balancing act: Birth-control pills can keep testosterone levels in check with long-term use. But if you don’t have enough, boosting testosterone is tricky. A testosterone patch is available for women in Europe, but it has yet to get the green light in North America. And there isn’t much research about the long-term effects of testosterone therapy on women, which makes some doctors reluctant to use it. Although there aren’t any approved treatments in Canada, some testosterone drugs are prescribed for off-label use.
Latest news: Testosterone therapy could improve the health of elderly women with chronic heart failure, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Sherwin has seen other positive benefits of testosterone in women who become post-menopausal due to hysterectomies, such as greater energy levels and improved sex drive.
The two T’s
This pair of thyroid hormones (officially T3, or tri-iodothyronine, and T4, thyroxine — but don’t worry, there’s no pop quiz!) are the team behind your metabolism. They control how you burn fat and carbs, regulate your body heat and even affect your heart rate.
Source: Both hormones are produced by your thyroid gland, which is located just below your Adam’s apple and wrapped around your windpipe.
Too much: Overproduction of T4 can lead to hyperthyroidism, which increases your body’s metabolism, causing sudden weight loss, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, sweating and anxiety or irritability.
Too little: Hypothyroidism happens when your thyroid is slow to produce hormones. You may gain weight and feel constantly tired or unusually cold. Dry skin, constipation, heavy periods and depression are also symptoms of this imbalance, which most commonly affects women over 50.
Balancing act: A blood test can show the level of thyroid hormones in your body; then prescription meds can counteract any imbalance. Eating a healthy diet coupled with regular exercise (at least three times a week) and sufficient sleep can help reduce symptoms of an over- or underactive thyroid.
Latest news: Researchers have discovered some common environmental chemicals could be disrupting your thyroid. Lower levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone in pregnant women has been linked to exposure to high levels of flame retardants called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers). They’re found in TV and computer screens, as well as in the polyurethane foam used in carpets and furniture.
Insulin transports sugar (produced when carbs are converted into energy during digestion) to our cells so it can be used as fuel.
Source: Insulin is created by the pancreas, a large gland nestled behind your stomach.
Too much: Need a nap? High insulin levels can lead to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). After a doughnut for breakfast, for example, your body produces too much insulin, causing an energy crash two hours later. A better bet is eating a protein-rich meal with complex carbs, so glucose enters your bloodstream at a slower rate.
Too little: An insulin shortage is the cause of Type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition in which sugar builds up in the blood instead of being converted into energy. It’s usually diagnosed before age 30 and affects about 10 percent of diabetics. More common is Type 2 diabetes, in which the body doesn’t use insulin very well or doesn’t make enough of it. It’s usually diagnosed after age 40 and is closely linked to excess body weight.
Balancing act: Worried you have diabetes? An oral glucose-tolerance test can tell you for sure. Type 1 diabetes is controlled through insulin shots, while Type 2 can be managed with good eating habits, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. Medication or insulin therapy may also be options.
Latest news: There’s hope on the Type 1 diabetes front, now that researchers are moving ahead with clinical trials of an artificial pancreas that can regulate blood-sugar levels. American bio-engineers are also having some success with a sensor implanted under the skin in animal trials. If human trials go well, this may mean better monitoring of blood sugars.
The crisis hormone
Cortisol levels spike when your body is stressed. If you needed to get out of the way of a speeding car, for instance, your body would pump out extra cortisol to help you respond to the threat — fast! Once you’re safe on the sidewalk, cortisol levels drop and your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. This very important hormone also plays a role in energy levels and blood sugar, as well as helping your body respond to immune-system stressors like fever, illness and injury.
Source: Located on top of the kidneys, your adrenal glands are busily pumping out hormones, cortisol included.
Too much: There’s a long list of bad things that can happen when there’s too much cortisol in your body, including heart disease, obesity, depression, and sleep and digestive problems.
Too little: If your body isn’t making enough cortisol, you can end up with Addison’s disease. This disorder is caused by decreased immune response and can lead to autoimmune diseases like Graves’ disease, in which antibodies attack healthy cells, damaging the outer layers of the adrenal glands. Chronic fatigue, muscle weakness, dizziness (when going from a sitting to a standing position), salt cravings, loss of appetite and weight loss are just a few of the symptoms.
Balancing act: A blood test can tell you how your adrenal glands are functioning. Medical conditions (such as Cushing’s syndrome) can cause too much cortisol, but more often it’s linked to a go-go-go, high-stress lifestyle. You can’t make stress disappear entirely, so finding ways to better manage it (through exercise, yoga or meditation) is the best medicine.
Latest news: When you feel angry, science says, “Go ahead and show it.” Research has found that revealing your anger may decrease the amount of cortisol that’s released in your body. There’s also good news for chocoholics: Savouring one and a half ounces of dark chocolate a day can help reduce stress-hormone levels. Sweet!
Four factors that affect hormone levels:
1. Age: As you age, your hormone-producing organs slow down and work less effectively.
2. Illness: Some chronic kidney or liver diseases may hamper the clearing of hormones from the blood, causing imbalances.
3. Genetics: Normally, there are 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 in total). If you ended up with extra, or if any are absent, damaged or altered, this may affect your organs’ ability to produce hormones.
4. Environment: Environmental endocrine disruptors (EEDs) are one of the hottest topics in health. Exposure to chemicals may disrupt natural hormone levels. For example, BPA (bisphenol A), a common component in plastic, has been found to trigger the production of breast and ovarian-cancer cells.