Most women will know that hormones can affect how they feel, but hormone problems go way deeper than just mood swings or period pain.
Women’s health expert Dr Aviva Romm says 80% of women have hormone problems at some point – struggling enough to seek medical help, take medication or possibly even have surgery.
“Hormone problems are so common, we’ve just come to assume they’re par for the course of being women,” says Romm, author of new book Hormone Intelligence. She says there’s a “hormone epidemic” – with women’s hormones causing problems because they’re out of balance. Many common symptoms women experience, she explains – from migraines to hair thinning, weight gain to brain fog – are related to hormone imbalances.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” says Romm. “Taking a holistic approach that includes a hormone-healthy diet, supporting our microbiome health, and getting enough sleep can allow us to feel comfortable and confident.”
Here are some common hormonal health problems women can experience, plus some lifestyle advice from Romm to help rebalance…
Menstrual cycle problems
If you go less than 26 days or more than 34 days between periods, if your period lasts more than seven days or less than three, or if you have excessively heavy or extremely light periods, Romm says you technically could have an irregular cycle.
If the changes can’t be explained by other factors, or continue for more than three consecutive months, she suggests they need investigating. Plus, she points out, if women have had an irregular cycle for a long time, “there’s a good chance you have an underlying hormone imbalance, or it’s quite possible that you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis.”
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Romm says more than 150 physical, behavioural, emotional and cognitive symptoms have been attributed to PMS, including mood swings, anxiety, depression, change in appetite, sleeping too much or too little, and bloating. Yet the exact physiological causes are still unknown, although it’s thought to be linked to hormone imbalance.
“What we do know,” she says, “is that many factors have been shown to increase a woman’s risk of having PMS, and nutritional, lifestyle and other approaches have been proven to reduce or stop it.”
Although up to 70% of women who have migraines experience the menstrual type as well, Romm explains that some only have the menstrual type, caused by dramatic drops in oestrogen.
“Compared with non-menstrual migraines, the menstrual type tends to be more severe, lasts longer and is less responsive to usual acute medication therapies,” she says.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
It’s thought PCOS may affect around 10% of women of childbearing age, although up to half may be undiagnosed, says Romm.
It occurs when insulin triggers the ovaries, while inhibiting the production of a protein which carries hormones including testosterone and oestrogen through the bloodstream. This leads to an increase of testosterone in the circulation, causing symptoms including weight gain, irregular periods, fertility problems, acne, hair loss and hair growth in unwanted places.
Women with PCOS are also at higher risk of developing conditions like diabetes, cholesterol abnormalities and heart disease.
Ways to help balance your hormones
If you are concerned about any of the conditions outlined above, or any other hormonal issues, consult your doctor for advice. Treating hormone-related health issues isn’t always one-size-fits all, however here are three things Dr Romm says can be useful.
Try the Hormone Intelligence Diet
“What you eat – or don’t – has a profound effect on your hormonal health,” explains Romm, who says women can help balance their hormones by eating one serving of protein (poultry, low-mercury fish, eggs, legumes), a healthy fat (like avocado/olive oil/ghee) and two servings of vegetables at every meal. She also recommends six to eight servings of vegetables a day, and up to two servings of fruit, one to two servings of slow carbs like grains, plus some nuts and seeds – and make sure you’re eating a wide variety of different coloured foods.
Reset your body clock
Aim for seven to nine hours of good-quality sleep each night, going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time, staying off electronic devices first thing in the morning and before bed, getting as much daylight as possible, eating healthily and at consistent times, and listening to your body clock, so when you feel you have less energy, rest.
Take steps to manage stress
Signs that stress is affecting your hormones include sleep problems and fatigue, brain fog, extra weight around your middle, and back, neck, shoulder and/or jaw pain.
“The latest research on stress shows powerful links to irregular periods, menstrual pain, PMS, endometriosis, fertility challenges, PCOS and more,” says Romm.
Romm suggests assessing your priorities, asking yourself how you feel, then trying to relax through mindfulness, having a bath, yoga, dancing or anything else that calms you down. “If you want to bring hormone health back into your life, reducing stress has got to be a commitment,” she says.