What is a hormone imbalance in women?

A hormone imbalance can affect your mood, energy, and fertility. We explore common symptoms of hormone imbalances in women and how you can restore the balance.

Hormone imbalances can cause a range of symptoms in women — from disrupted sleep and weight gain to medical conditions such as infertility. 

So, what are the warning signs that your hormones are out of balance and what can you do to get them back in sync? 

In this article, we explore ten of the most common signs and symptoms of hormone imbalances in women, some possible causes, and ways you can manage an imbalance.

In this article, we cover:

What are hormones?

Hormones are chemical messengers that are transported around your body in your blood. They’re like your body’s text messages, constantly buzzing around and delivering important instructions to your organs, muscles, and other tissues, to keep everything running smoothly. 

We have over 50 hormones in our bodies, and they play a vital role in controlling and regulating many of the body’s functions. 

Bodily functions regulated by hormones include: 

  • Appetite
  • Body temperature
  • Menstrual cycles
  • Metabolism
  • Mood
  • Sexual function and reproduction
  • Sleep/wake cycles

Important hormones for women include:

  • Cortisol
  • Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)
  • Luteinising hormone (LH)
  • Oestrogen (oestradiol)
  • Progesterone
  • Prolactin
  • Testosterone
  • Thyroid hormones (TSH, T4, and T3)

What is a hormone imbalance?

A hormone imbalance happens when your levels of one or more hormones are too high or too low. As hormones work together in a complex network, if one of your hormone levels goes a little haywire, it can impact other hormones in your body. This loss of equilibrium can cause wide-ranging symptoms that may affect your physical, mental, and emotional health. 

What can cause a hormone imbalance in women?

Hormone levels naturally rise and fall throughout your life — even throughout the day. At specific times, these fluctuations and changes are more dramatic than usual, including: 

  • Puberty
  • Throughout the menstrual cycle
  • Pregnancy 
  • Menopause

Your hormone levels can also get out of balance at unexpected times. This may be due to stress or medications like steroids and the contraceptive pill. Lifestyle factors such as a poor diet, lack of sleep, and being underweight or overweight can also affect your hormone health.  

These imbalances are usually temporary and may be fixed by actions such as changing your medication or managing your stress levels. But sometimes an imbalance may be due to a hormone-related condition that requires treatment.  

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Four hormone-related conditions in women:

1. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) 

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition that’s thought to affect one in ten women in the UK [1]. It affects how the ovaries work and can make it difficult to get pregnant naturally. 

Symptoms of PCOS include:

  • Irregular or absent periods
  • Fertility problems
  • Excess facial and body hair and/or hair loss on the scalp (androgen-related alopecia)
  • Oily skin or acne
  • Difficulty losing weight or weight gain

Many of the symptoms of PCOS are caused by excess androgens (male hormones like testosterone), as well as insulin resistance. 

A test for PCOS involves measuring your hormone levels to explore the amount of testosterone that’s freely circulating in your blood. Our PCOS Blood Test also checks your LH/FSH ratio, as a ratio of 2:1 or more may indicate PCOS. 

2. Thyroid conditions 

There are two main types of thyroid conditions — an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) and an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). 

Hypothyroidism is where the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones — common symptoms include fatigue and weight gain. 

Conversely, hyperthyroidism is where too much thyroid hormone is produced, and this can result in weight loss and a fast heartbeat. Both conditions can affect your periods, and many symptoms of thyroid dysfunction are often mistaken for menopausal symptoms.

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3. Tumours, adenomas, and growths

Cancerous or benign (adenomas) tumours can sometimes form in glands or cells that make hormones and affect hormone production. Growths other than tumours and adenomas can also cause imbalances, including thyroid nodules that can affect thyroid hormone levels.

4. Adrenal gland disorders 

Adrenal gland disorders are caused by the overproduction or underproduction of hormones made by the adrenal glands. 

Addison’s disease, where the adrenal glands are damaged and don’t make enough cortisol (adrenal insufficiency), and Cushing’s syndrome, where the adrenal glands make too much cortisol, are two examples of adrenal gland disorders. 

Both Addison’s disease and Cushing's syndrome are uncommon – each year in the UK, around 300 new cases of Addison’s [2] and between 60–120 cases of Cushing’s disease [3] are diagnosed.

What are the signs and symptoms of a hormone imbalance in females?

The symptoms of a hormone imbalance will depend on the cause of the imbalance and the hormones involved. As hormones influence almost every process in our bodies, an imbalance can have wide-ranging symptoms. 

Ten common symptoms of a hormone imbalance in women

1. Irregular periods or changes to your periods 

As several hormones are involved in the menstrual cycle, an issue may cause the gap between your periods to be shorter or longer than usual, or make your periods heavier or lighter than usual. A hormone imbalance may cause spotting between cycles. You may even skip a period or even stop having periods altogether. 

2. Mood changes 

As hormones can influence the way we think and feel, an imbalance can take you on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Mood swings are a common feature of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and they can be more extreme in a severe form of PMS known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) [4]. These mood swings are thought to be caused by plummeting oestrogen and progesterone levels after ovulation. 

3. Unexplained weight gain 

As hormones affect your metabolism and appetite, imbalances can cause weight gain. They can also change how your body stores fat and you may notice a change in your body shape. For example, during menopause, some women gain weight around the abdomen. Unexplained weight gain is a symptom of several hormone-related conditions including hypothyroidism and PCOS. 

4. Skin problems 

Hormone imbalances can wreak havoc on your skin. They can increase the amount of oil your skin produces, causing breakouts that make you feel like a teenager again. Conversely, they can cause dry skin, which is a common symptom of menopause and hypothyroidism, while itchy skin is common during pregnancy.

5. Hair problems 

Excess male hormones — primarily testosterone — can cause hair loss on the head, while there may be excess hair growth in other parts of the body — notably the face, chest, tummy, and back. 

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6. Poor-quality sleep 

You may have trouble getting to sleep (insomnia) or poor-quality sleep. This is common during perimenopause (the transition period before menopause) as oestrogen and progesterone levels decline. Other common menopausal symptoms such as night sweats and low mood can make it even harder to get a good night’s rest.

7. Fatigue and brain fog 

Hormone imbalances can make you feel like you need a nap 24/7 and chronic fatigue can make it difficult to get on with your daily life. Low levels of oestrogen and progesterone can cause brain fog, which is characterised by confusion, forgetfulness, and a lack of focus. 

8. Loss of interest in sex 

You may find that your sex drive is dwindling when your hormones are out of sync. This is a common problem around menopause due to falling oestrogen and testosterone levels. And other common menopausal symptoms like low mood and fatigue can make your libido dip even lower. 

9. Fertility issues 

Hormonal imbalances are the leading cause of female infertility. This can occur with PCOS, which can prevent ovulation, making it harder to get pregnant naturally.

10. Vaginal atrophy 

Vaginal atrophy is the thinning, drying, and inflammation of the vaginal walls. It’s a common problem during menopause, as oestrogen levels fall. This can be a distressing symptom and can lead to painful sex, frequent urination, and urinary tract infections (UTIs). 

Many of these common symptoms may also be a sign of other health issues. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, we recommend you speak to your doctor. 

What is the treatment for a hormone imbalance?

The treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the hormone imbalance. Although conditions such as POCS and thyroid dysfunction cannot be cured, there are lots of options available to keep them well-managed.

Treatments for hormone imbalance include:

Hormone replacement therapy 

Lower-than-normal hormone levels are often treated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Thyroid hormones are replaced as a treatment for hypothyroidism, and hormone replacement can also be an effective treatment for menopausal symptoms caused by declining oestrogen levels. 

Medication

Medication is often used to ease the symptoms of hyperthyroidism by preventing the thyroid from making too many hormones. In PCOS, medication such as clomifene may be recommended for women who are trying to get pregnant, and the contraceptive pill can help to induce regular periods. 

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy, balanced diet can help manage hormone imbalance symptoms. PCOS is associated with an increased risk of high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, so eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight can also help reduce the risk of long-term complications. 

How can I balance my hormones naturally?

There are many ways you can help balance your hormones naturally, including diet and lifestyle changes that could help improve symptoms. 

The relationship between diet and hormones is well-researched, and there are extensive guidelines on what foods can affect hormone balance [5]. 

Five ways to improve your diet for healthy hormones:

1. Eat protein at every meal

Protein is very important for hormone balance as it influences the release of leptin and ghrelin — the hormones that control your appetite. Eggs, poultry, nuts, and seeds are great sources of protein. They can help you feel fuller longer, helping you maintain a healthy weight. 

2. Avoid ultra-processed foods

Eating too many ultra-processed foods, such as cakes and sweets can be harmful to your health, including your hormone levels. When you eat high-sugar, processed foods, it can cause inflammation in the body [6]. So, although they can be hard to resist, cutting down your intake of processed foods can reduce gut inflammation, which may improve hormone regulation [7]. 

3. Eat enough friendly fats 

Fats are essential for many bodily functions, including hormone production [8]. But it’s important to go for good (unsaturated) fats and avoid bad (saturated and trans) fats. 

Friendly (unsaturated) fats can be found in foods such as: 

  • Olive oil (omega-6 fats) 
  • Avocados 
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Oily fish (omega-3 fats) 

Also, increasing your omega-3 fats but decreasing your omega-6 fats has been shown to aid the production of male and female hormones [9]. 

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4. Increase your daily fibre intake

Fibre helps to maintain blood sugar and cholesterol, as well as improve gut health — all of which are important in keeping your hormones regulated. The daily recommended fibre intake is approximately 25–30g and it can be found in a variety of foods.  

Good sources of fibre include: 

  • Wholemeal bread  
  • Brown rice  
  • Vegetables  
  • Beans  

Moderate alcohol and caffeine

Alcohol has a high-calorie concentration with low nutritional value, and it’s also a toxin. 

High alcohol consumption has been linked with: 

  • Low levels of oestrogen and testosterone in females [10] 
  • Increased levels of cortisol 

High cortisol levels have also been linked to high caffeine consumption. To combat the effects of caffeine and alcohol on your endocrine system (the system that controls your hormones), it’s best to limit yourself to:  

  • 14 units of alcohol a week  
  • Two cups of coffee a day 

Other tips for balancing your hormones naturally include:  

Adopt healthy sleep habits

Aim to get 7–9 hours of sleep per night. Staying away from screens and smartphones and avoiding caffeinated drinks before bed can help you get a better night’s rest. 

Get active 

Aim to build 30 minutes of vigorous exercise into your daily routine. But don’t overdo it — overexercising and not giving your body enough time to recover can harm your hormone health.

Manage stress

Chronic stress can cause havoc with your hormones. Try meditation, mindfulness, or a relaxing yoga session to keep your stress levels in check.

What should I do if I have symptoms of a hormone imbalance?

Don’t ignore symptoms of a hormone imbalance as many of the causes can be easily treated or managed. If your hormones are imbalanced for a long time, it can lead to more serious medical issues such as high cholesterol, osteoporosis, diabetes, and obesity.

How can I check my hormones?

You can check your hormone levels with our Advanced Female Hormone Blood Test. This comprehensive blood test checks whether your hormones are in the normal range for your age and if any symptoms you’re experiencing are likely due to conditions including thyroid dysfunction or PCOS.

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As hormone levels can fluctuate daily, or even hourly, you may need to take regular tests over a few months to get an accurate picture. 

If you’re concerned about your fertility, our Ovulation Progesterone Blood Test is a good first step in investigating fertility issues. For help finding the right fertility test for you, read our Fertility Blood Test Buying Guide.

You may find it useful to use a period and ovulation tracker app such as Clue or Flo. You can use these apps to monitor and track your periods, symptoms, and activity levels, which can give you valuable insights into your hormone health.

As with all health concerns, it’s better to get support sooner rather than later. If you’re experiencing symptoms, talking to your doctor or investigating your hormones can be helpful first steps. 


References 

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