Dr. Josh Axe, DC, DMN, CNS – Hormones — such as estrogen, testosterone, adrenaline and insulin — are extremely important chemical messengers that affect many aspects of your overall health.
Conventional treatments for hormonal imbalances typically include synthetic hormone replacement therapies, birth control pills, insulin injections, thyroid medications and more. Unfortunately, for the majority of people suffering from hormonal disorders, relying on these types of synthetic treatments often does three things:
- It makes people dependent on taking prescription drugs for the rest of their lives in order to keep symptoms under control.
- It simply masks the patient’s symptoms, but doesn’t solve them, which means that the patient can continue to develop abnormalities in other areas of the body while the disorder progresses.
- It potentially causes a higher risk for serious side effects, such as stroke, osteoporosis, anxiety, reproductive problems, cancer and more.
Is it possible to balance hormones naturally? The good news is: yes, in many cases it is. Below you’ll learn about some root causes of hormonal problems, as well as about treatment options to help you balance your hormones naturally.
What Is the Endocrine System?
The endocrine system is in charge of coordinating the relationship between different organs and hormones, which are chemicals that are released into your bloodstream from cells within your endocrine glands.
Hormones are secreted by various glands and organs, including your thyroid, adrenals, pituitary, ovaries, testicles and pancreas. The entire endocrine system works together to control the level of hormones circulating throughout your body, and if one or more is even slightly imbalanced, it can cause widespread health problems affecting growth, sexual development and function, sleep, metabolism and hunger.
Once your hormones are in circulation, they target specific tissues or cells by binding to receptors that are located inside the cell or on its surface. These hormones work as chemical messengers and play a key role in your body’s daily functions.
The endocrine system is made up of many glands, including the pituitary gland or “master gland” that’s responsible for sending information from your brain to other glands in your body. The pituitary gland also produces many hormones that travel throughout the body and have different important functions.
The pituitary gland is made up of two different tissue types: the anterior pituitary that synthesizes and releases classic hormones, and the posterior pituitary gland that secretes neurohormones that are made in the hypothalamus.
Two hormones that are secreted by the anterior pituitary gland are growth hormone, which is responsible for your proper growth and development, and prolactin, which is the hormone that stimulates milk production after childbirth.
Tropic hormones are also produced and secreted by the anterior pituitary gland, which is an endocrine gland, and they also target other endocrine glands. These hormones include:
- thyroid-stimulating hormone (also called thyrotropin)
- follicle-stimulating hormone
- luteinizing hormone
- adrenocorticotropic hormone
The posterior pituitary gland doesn’t produce hormones on its own, but stores and secretes two hormones made in the hypothalamic region, vasopressin and oxytocin, and then releases them into the bloodstream.
Other important glands of the endocrine system include the pineal gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, thymus gland and adrenal glands.
There are two major groups of hormones that circulate the human body — those that derive from amino acids (protein hormones, peptides and amines) and those that derive from lipids (steroids). Here’s a quick breakdown of these hormone subgroups:
- Amine hormones: Hormones that are synthesized from the amino acids tryptophan (such as melatonin) and tyrosine (such as thyroid hormones and dopamine).
- Peptide hormones: Hormones that consist of short chain amino acids and include antidiuretic hormone (called vasopressin) and oxytocin.
- Protein hormones: Hormones that consist of longer polypeptides and include growth hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone.
- Steroid hormones: Hormones that are derived from cholesterol and include testosterone, estrogens and cortisol.
When these hormones send messages, they are received by hormone receptors that process the message and signal specific event or cellular mechanisms that initiate the target cell’s response.
Signs and Symptoms
Before we talk about how to balance hormones naturally, it helps to know which signs and symptoms of hormone imbalances to look out for. These include:
- Infertility and irregular periods
- Weight gain or weight loss (that’s unexplained and not due to intentional changes in your diet)
- Depression and anxiety
- Low libido
- Changes in appetite
- Digestive issues
- Hair loss and hair thinning
Symptoms of hormonal imbalances can range dramatically depending on what type of disorder or illness they are caused by. For example, high estrogen can contribute to problems that include endometriosis and reproductive issues, while symptoms of diabetes often include weight gain, changes in appetite, nerve damage and problems with eyesight.
Some specific problems associated with some of the most common hormonal imbalances include:
- Estrogen dominance: changes in sleep patterns, changes in weight and appetite, higher perceived stress, slowed metabolism
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS): infertility, weight gain, higher risk for diabetes, acne, abnormal hair growth
- Low estrogen: low sex drive, reproductive problems, menstrual irregularity, changes in mood
- Hypothyroidism: slowed metabolism, weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, digestive issues, irregular periods
- Low testosterone: erectile dysfunction, muscle loss, weight gain, fatigue, mood-related problems
- Hyperthyroidism & Grave’s disease: anxiety, thinning hair, weight loss, IBS, trouble sleeping, irregular heartbeats
- Diabetes: weight gain, nerve damage (neuropathy), higher risk for vision loss, fatigue, trouble breathing, dry mouth, skin problems
- Adrenal fatigue: fatigue, muscle aches and pains, anxiety and depression, trouble sleeping, brain fog, reproductive problems
Risk Factors and Causes
Hormonal imbalances are multi-factorial disorders, meaning they are caused by a combination of factors — such as your diet, medical history, genetics, stress levels and exposure to toxins from your environment.
Some of the major contributors to hormonal imbalances include:
- Food allergies and gut issues: An expanding field of new research shows that your gut health plays a significant role in hormone regulation. If you have leaky gut syndrome or a lack of beneficial probiotic bacteria lining your intestinal wall, you’re more susceptible to hormonal problems, including diabetes and obesity. That’s because inflammation usually stems from your gut and then impacts nearly every aspect of your health.
- Being overweight or obese
- High levels of inflammation caused by a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle
- Genetic susceptibility
- Toxicity (which is related to exposure to chemicals like pesticides, or viruses, cigarettes, excessive alcohol and some medications)
- High amounts of stress, and a lack of enough sleep and rest
Adrenal dysfunction is the largest cause of the hormonal imbalance with the sex hormones — especially because of something called the “cortisol steal.”
This occurs when cholesterol, which usually helps to make the sex hormones, combines with too much stress and the enzyme 17/20 lyase blocks the conversion; the production of cortisol ensues. Cortisol then causes the imbalance of progesterone, estrogen and testosterone, which then decreases the sex drive.
How to Balance Hormones Naturally
1. Swap Carbs for Healthy Fats
Foods that balance hormones include a variety of fat-containing foods that provide short, medium and long-chain fatty acids. Your body needs various types of fats to create hormones, including saturated fat and cholesterol.
Not only are these essential fats fundamental building blocks for hormone production, but they keep inflammation levels low, boost your metabolism and promote weight loss.
Healthy fats have the opposite effect of refined carbohydrates, which lead to inflammation and can mess with the balance of your hormones.
My four favorite sources of anti-inflammatory, healthy fats include:
- coconut oil, avocados, grass-fed butter and wild-caught salmon.
- Coconut oil uses are plentiful — for example, coconut oil (or cream/milk) has natural anti-bacterial and fat-burning effects.
- Avocado benefits include improving heart health, lowering inflammation, controlling your appetite and contributing to your daily intake of fiber and nutrients such as potassium.
- Salmon nutrition is also impressive: it’s one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to lower inflammation and help with cognitive functions. Omega-3 fatty acids are a large component of brain-cell membranes and are important for cell-to-cell communication in the brain. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids help protect against hippocampal neuronal loss and reduce pro-inflammatory responses.
What food causes hormonal imbalance? It’s best to limit or avoid added sugar, processed carbs and refined vegetable/seed oils.
Here’s a rule of thumb: Steer clear from oils high in omega-6 fats (safflower oil, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, canola, soybean and peanut), and load up on rich sources of natural omega-3s instead (wild fish, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and grass-fed animal products).
There is a type of omega-6 fat that you want to get in your diet called GLA. GLA (gamma-linoleic acid) can be taken in supplement form by using evening primrose oil or borage oil, and it’s also found in hemp seeds. Studies show supplementing with GLA can support healthy progesterone levels.
2. Supplement to Fill Nutritional Voids
While a healthy diet is key for all aspects of health, it’s sometimes necessary to supplement in order to fill nutritional voids that can be leading to a hormone imbalance.
Here are the top supplements to focus on in order to balance hormones:
- Evening primrose oil: Evening primrose oil contains omega-6 fatty acids, such as LA and GLA, that support overall hormonal function. Supplementing with evening primrose oil can help to relieve premenstrual and PCOS symptoms. It also helps to create a healthy environment for conception.
- Vitamin D: What is the best vitamins to take for hormonal imbalance? Vitamin D is definitely one of them, since it almost acts like a hormone inside the body and has important implications for keeping inflammation levels low. This is why people who live in dark areas often suffer from seasonal depression and other health problems unless they supplement with vitamin D. Sunshine is really the best way to optimize vitamin D levels because your bare skin actually makes vitamin D on its own when exposed to even small amounts of direct sunlight. Most people should supplement with around 2,000–5,000 IU daily of vitamin D3 if they live in dark areas, during the winter, and on days when they’re not in the sun.
- Bone broth: Bone broth soothes the digestive system and supplies the body with nutrients that can be easily absorbed. Consuming bone broth or protein powder made from bone broth is especially beneficial to your health because it contains healing compounds like collagen, proline, glycine and glutamine, which have the powder to boost your overall health.
- Probiotics: Probiotics are healthy bacteria that can actually improve your production and regulation of key hormones like insulin, ghrelin and leptin. They can also aid in repairing your gut lining, which in turn can balance your hormones. When undigested food particles, like gluten for example, leak through your gut into your bloodstream, it causes disease-causing inflammation that impacts the entire body — especially glands like the thyroid that is very susceptible to heightened inflammation. Most people with leaky gut have an a deficiency of probiotics in their guts. To consume more probiotics, you can both add fermented foods to your diet (such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, etc.) and take probiotic capsule supplements.
- Adaptogen Herbs: Adaptogen herbs are a unique class of healing plants that promote hormone balance and protect the body from a wide variety of diseases, including those caused by excess stress. In addition to boosting immune function and combating stress, research shows that various adapotogens — such as ashwagandha, medicinal mushrooms, rhodiola and holy basil — can:
Ashwagandha, in particular, can be extremely effective at balancing hormones. It benefits thyroid function because it promotes the scavenging of free radicals that cause cellular damage. Ashwagandha can be used to support a sluggish or overactive thyroid, and it can also help to overcome adrenal fatigue. Your adrenals can become overtaxed when you experience too much emotional, physical or mental stress, leading to the disruption of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and progesterone.
Holy basil, which is also known as tulsi, helps to regulate cortisol levels, thereby working as a natural remedy for anxiety and emotional stress. Studies show that holy basil can also protect your organs and tissuesagainst chemical stress from pollutants and heavy metals, which are other factors that can lead to hormone imbalance.
- Mushrooms: Functional mushrooms (including the species Turkey Tail, Reishi, Maitake, Shiitake, Lion’s Mane, Chaga, White Jelly and Cordyceps) supports the body’s ability to adapt to stress and promote immune system modulation. These mushrooms have been used for over 2,000 years in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and are chock full of beneficial compounds, including polysaccharides and polysaccharide peptides, beta glucans, glycoproteins and triterpenes that also support gut health, metabolic health and more.
- Herbal hormone supplement: Certain supplements intended to support women’s hormones combine functional mushrooms with adaptogens and other botanicals to help support overall hormone balance. Within these supplements you’ll typically find reishi mushroom, chaste tree berry, ashwagandha, black cohosh root, and schizandra berry, together which support female reproductive health, healthy energy levels, a positive mindset, mental clarity, restful sleep and the body’s ability to handle stress.
3. Address Emotional Imbalances
According to TCM, internal emotions have a direct impact on a person’s health and addressing emotional imbalances, external factors and lifestyle choices can help to prevent health conditions associated with hormonal imbalances.
TCM practitioners believe that the emotions of fear cause disease in your reproductive organs, kidneys and adrenals, affecting cortisol levels. This can lead to serious conditions like PCOS and infertility. The emotions of frustration, impatience and un-forgiveness cause disease in your liver, which can lead to an estrogen imbalance. And emotions of worry and anxiety can cause issues with your insulin levels, which can then affect several hormones.
A major component of balancing your hormones naturally is addressing any emotional imbalances that you are dealing with. You can do this by reducing stress levels, engaging in personal reflection and taking time for yourself. Practicing meditation or healing prayer can be extremely beneficial, and so can deep breathing exercises, spending time outdoors and exercising every day. Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies like acupuncture and massage can also help to improve hormonal balance, combat stress and improve blood flow.
4. Use Certain Essential Oils
To balance your hormones naturally, it’s important that you eliminate toxins in your body by avoiding conventional body care products that are made with potentially-harmful chemicals including DEA, parabens, propylene glycol and sodium lauryl sulfate. A better alternative is to use natural products made with ingredients like essential oils, coconut oil, shea butter and castor oil.
The Environmental Working Group evaluated over 72,000 products and ranked them in an easy-to-understand guide to make sure you have a resource to keep your family safe. Check out EWG’s “Skin Deep Cosmetic Database” today for recommendations for which products to use and avoid.
To replace toxic body care and cleaning products, use these hormone balancing essential oils:
- Clary sage: Clary sage helps to balance estrogen levels because it contains natural phytoestrogens. It can be used to regulate your menstrual cycle, relieve PMS symptoms, treat infertility and PCOS, and even reduce the chances of uterine and ovarian cancer. It also serves as a natural remedy for emotional imbalances, like depression and anxiety. Diffuse 3-5 drops of clary sage to help balance hormone levels and relieve stress. To ease cramps and pain, massage 5 drops of clary sage with 5 drops of coconut oil into your stomach and any other area of concern.
- Fennel: Problems with your gut health have been found to cause autoimmune reactions, including thyroid disorders. Use fennel essential oil to relax your body, improve your digestion and gut health, boost your metabolism and reduce inflammation. You can rub 2 drops of fennel into your stomach or add 1-2 drops to a class of warm water or tea to take it internally.
- Lavender: Lavender oil promotes emotional balance, as it can help to treat anxiety, depression, moodiness and stress. It can also be used to promote restful sleep, which will help to balance your hormone levels as well. Diffuse 5 drops of lavender oil at home, add 5 drops to a warm water bath or apply 3 drops topically to your temples, back or neck or wrists.
- Sandalwood: Sandalwood essential oil can be used to increase your libido, reduce stress, promote relaxation, boost mental clarity and even help you to relax. The powerful fragrance triggers peaceful feelings and results in the overall reduction of stress that can lead to hormone imbalances. Inhale sandalwood directly from the bottle, diffuse it at home or apply 2-3 drops to your wrists and bottoms of the feet.
- Thyme: Thyme oil improves progesterone production, which helps to treat or relieve health issues like infertility, PCOS, menopause, depression, fibroids, hair loss and insomnia. To help balance your hormones naturally, add 2 drops of thyme oil to a warm water bath or rub 2-3 drops with equal parts coconut oil into your abdomen.
5. Beware of Medications and Birth Control
Are you aware of your medication’s side effects? Some can disrupt your hormone balance, leading to side effects like fatigue, appetite changes, altered sleeping patterns, low libido, sadness and even depression.
Some medications that can mess with your hormone balance include corticosteroids, stimulants, statins, dopamine agonists, rexinoids and glucocorticoids. Beware of your medications, talk to your doctor about the side effects and research natural alternatives whenever possible.
Birth control is another dangerous medications that alters hormone levels. “The pill” is a type of hormone therapy that raises estrogen levels to such dangerous levels that it can cause many complications. I cannot urge you strongly enough to stop using the pill, especially considering that there are many other (safer) ways to prevent pregnancy. Studies show that the health risks of taking them, especially long-term, may include issues like:
- Breakthrough bleeding between cycles
- Increased risk of uterine bleeding, blood clotting, heart attack and stroke
- Increased blood pressure
- Weight gain
- Back pains
- Mood changes
- Benign liver tumors
- Breast tenderness
6. Get More Sleep
Unless you get 7–8 hours of sleep every night, you’re doing your body no favors. A lack of sleep or disturbing your natural circadian rhythm can be one of the worst habits contributing to a hormone imbalance.
How so? Because your hormones work on a schedule! Case in point: Cortisol, the primary “stress hormone,” is regulated at midnight. Therefore, people who go to bed late never truly get a break from their sympathetic flight/fight stress response.
A lack of sleep, long-term use of corticosteroids and chronic stress are three of the biggest contributors to high cortisol levels. A report published in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism stated that “Stress can lead to changes in the serum level of many hormones including glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone and prolactin.”
Sleep helps keep stress hormones balanced, builds energy and allows the body to recover properly. Excessive stress and poor sleep are linked with higher levels of morning cortisol, decreased immunity, trouble with work performance, and a higher susceptibility to anxiety, weight gain and depression. To maximize hormone function, ideally try to get to bed by 10 p.m. and stick with a regular sleep-wake-cycle as much as possible.
How to Test Your Hormone Health
If you are concerned about your hormone health, you can have your hormone levels tested in the following ways:
- Saliva testing: Saliva testing measures your body’s hormones levels at the cellular level. A saliva test can measure your estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol and DHEA levels. When you provide and test multiple samples over time, your healthcare provider can formulate charting changes in hormones with saliva testing.
- Blood testing: This type of hormone test requires that your blood is collected at a lab and then measured for hormone levels. A blood test can measure free (or active) and total hormone levels, which saliva and urine testing cannot do.
- Urine testing: A urine hormone test requires that you collect every drop of urine for a 24-hour period. Then your urine is tested to identify each hormone that is present and at what levels on that particular day. This is the most extensive hormone health test because it measures your hormone levels throughout the entire day, instead of the levels for a moment in time, which is the case for blood and saliva tests.
- Follicle-stimulating hormone testing: This type of test is commonly used to measure the hormonal status of premenopausal women who are beginning to experience symptoms of menopause.
In some cases, synthetic hormonal treatments (such as insulin or thyroid medication) will be necessary to treat a hormonal imbalance. For example, many young women rely on birth control to avoid pregnancy and using progesterone cream during days 7 to 21 of the pill can decrease hormonal problems.
Meanwhile, some women need thyroid support as not all the natural options correct the imbalance.
However, the majority of people can feel a lot better by making the lifestyle changes described above. For people with diagnosed hormonal disorders — including type 1 or type 2 diabetes, adrenal insufficiency, Addison’s disease, Graves’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome, for example — it’s always important to speak with your doctor before discontinuing medication use.
The natural treatments above can still help you overcome your illness and greatly reduce symptoms, but these recommendations shouldn’t take the place of medical supervision. Because hormone imbalances vary so widely in terms of severity of symptoms, always keep track of how you’re feeling, do your research and evaluate how you respond to different treatments.
- Hormonal imbalances affect many millions of people worldwide, in the forms of common disorders like diabetes, thyroid disorders, menstrual irregularities, infertility, low testosterone and estrogen dominance
- Symptoms include feeling anxious, tired, irritable, gaining or losing weight, not sleeping well and noticing changes in your sex drive, focus and appetite
- Causes for hormonal imbalances include poor gut health, inflammation, high amounts of stress, genetic susceptibility and toxicity
- Here’s how to balance hormones naturally: eat an anti-inflammatory diet; consume omega-3s, adaptogen herbal supplements, mushrooms, probiotics and other supplements like vitamin D; get good sleep; exercise and control stress.