Looking back at my teenage years isn’t always easy. Like many of us, I experienced terrible acne, as well as awkward growth spurts and a two-year phase of what can only be described as pretty excessive sweating.
While we often assume hormones only come into play during milestones like puberty, pregnancy and menopause, they’re actually a fundamental part of our bodies natural processes throughout our entire lives, albeit a slightly less obvious (and less sweaty) part.
“Hormones are utterly fundamental to all systems of the body,” explains Dr Sohere Roked, specialist doctor in hormone and integrative medicine. “Despite misconceptions that hormonal imbalances are mostly prevalent only at the various life stages, it is vital to understand the more subtle hormone imbalances that take place throughout our lives.”
Hormonal deficiencies and imbalances can be the cause of a number of everyday ailments and concerns, from poor sleep, to a low sex drive, to excessive hunger – and they can occur at any age. “There are subtle hormone imbalances that begin as early as our late twenties when certain hormones can begin to wane,” explains Dr Roked. “Many women as early as their thirties show signs of hormonal imbalance affecting their period cycle, sex drive, energy, moods and weight.”
Understanding hormones a little better helps to shed light on what might be happening beneath the surface as well as start to address ways of improving our quality of life and overall wellness.
Here, we take a deep dive into the hormones you need to know about and the signs to look our for that there might be an imbalance…
Hormones that affect sleep
Melatonin is the primary hormone responsible for a good night’s sleep. It’s produced in the brain and is stimulated by lack of light, which is why we feel sleepy in the evenings and awake in the day time. However, too much exposure to artificial light late at night can mess up this hormone response and mean we experience poor quality sleep or insomnia. As well as avoiding screen-time before bed, you can also take melatonin supplements, which contain a man-made version of the natural hormone, however, it should not be used as a long-term treatment.
The other hormone that affects sleep is serotonin, which helps to regulate sleep as well as mood. It’s a chemical precursor to melatonin, so it’s important to try and boost your serotonin if you think you might be lacking. 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, so make sure you’re taking some effective probiotics and prebiotics, as well as a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fibre. It’s also possible to be prescribed Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which are a type of antidepressant that can help boost serotonin levels in the blood. While these can improve sleep, they are predominantly prescribed to treat mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
Hormones that affect weight
As well as lifestyle factors like diet and exercise, hormones can play a huge part in determining our weight. While there are always many different hormones at play in various ways, there are a few in particular that have strong links to body weight.
Insulin is one hormone that plays a pivotal role in weight. It controls the body’s ability to absorb glucose from the food we eat, and a resistance to insulin could mean your cells aren’t able to absorb the energy they need and the glucose remains in the blood stream. Insulin deficiency can be a precursor as well as a direct symptom of diabetes, so if you think you might be at risk, it’s important to see your doctor. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to determine whether you have insulin resistance from the way you feel – you’ll need to go for a blood test – but there are some warning signs to look out for. One is weight gain around the middle, and some others are feeling lethargic and hungry.
Another hormone that affects weight is leptin, which inhibits feelings of hunger. When we eat and begin to feel full, leptin production decreases. However, obesity can cause a decreased sensitivity to leptin, meaning it might be harder to feel full, which in turn becomes a bit of a viscous cycle. Although there is still uncertainty on whether resistance can be reversed, exercise and a diet high in fibre have proved to be promising.
The other main hormones that affects weight are thyroid hormones, which are produced in the thyroid glands and control our metabolism to determine how fast our bodies can burn calories. If the thyroid isn’t producing enough of these hormones, known as an under-active thyroid or hypothyroidism, it can cause a slow metabolism and weight gain. Other symptoms of an under-active thyroid include tiredness, heavy periods and sensitivity to the cold.
If the thyroid is producing too much of the thyroid hormones, also known as an over-active thyroid or hyperthyroidism, it can cause weight loss, sensitivity to heat, anxiety and a rapid heart rate. Luckily, both are easily tested for at your GP and treated with medication.
Hormones that affect concentration
The hormone dopamine is thought to play a big part in how hard we concentrate. High levels of dopamine make us feel happy, which then motivates us to continue doing what we were doing and increases our focus. The best way of getting a dopamine hit is through exercise as well as eating foods that are high in tyrosine, which include almonds, chicken and bananas.
Supplements that contain adaptogens also claim to boost dopamine. Adaptogens are plants that contain high levels of L-Tyrosine, which the body needs to produce dopamine.
Hormones that affect skin
There are a multitude of hormones that can affect the skin, each causing a variety of different symptoms, but there are two in particular that are common causes of skin issues. First up, the hormone oestrogen is responsible for collagen production and helps to keep the skin hydrated, so low levels are associated with dryness. Testosterone is the hormone that is often responsible for acne (it binds to the oil glands in the skin and causes an increase in oil production). The main treatment for skin problems caused by these two hormones are hormone therapy drugs including the contraceptive pill.
Hormones that affect sex drive
High levels of oestrogen are responsible for a high sex drive, which is why we often feel horny around the time of ovulation when there is a surge in oestrogen production. Different medications, including treatments to treat high blood pressure and depression, can cause a reduction in oestrogen and production decreases naturally over time. There are a number of treatments for low oestrogen, including hormone therapy and switching to different medications, but treatment depends heavily on the cause so it’s important to chat through with a medical professional.