In a survey of 2,000 women aged between 30 and 60, 47 percent of the respondents said they had experienced symptoms of hormonal imbalance. Experts speak about how these symptoms manifest physically and mentally
The survey, conducted by London-based online poll firm OnePoll and commissioned by Dr Anna Cabeca, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility expert, aimed at establishing women’s understanding of hormonal imbalance.
Of the 47 per cent, 72 per cent only discovered the cause of their tribulations at a later date.
Hormones: what are they? No one can be blamed for ascribing a dubious meaning. You don’t hear ‘hormone’ used in everyday conversations.
Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers. They control biological processes. They move in the bloodstream; telling tissues and organs what to do.
Hormones control digestion, excretion, conception, development, libido, heart beat: to cut the long story short, everything.
Hormonal imbalance, says Dr Eva Njenga, a physician endocrinologist, is a situation where the amount of a hormone is outside the normal range.
“The hormone may be too little or too much,” she says. “Both situations affect functions in the body.”
The body requires precise levels of hormones to function properly.
It therefore goes without saying that hormonal imbalance bear tangible effects to functionality.
First, Dr Njenga warns, how hormones influence biological processes in the body is a whole semester’s lesson in medical school.
“Don’t expect to understand it fully within two pages of a newspaper,” she says.
We therefore ask her to make it as layman-friendly as possible.
Menstruation is not influenced by just one hormone. Several are in action. Notably though, the thyroid hormones, says Dr Njenga, have been determined to be important in menstruation. Too much (or too little) of thyroid hormone can make periods light, heavy, or irregular. In some instances periods may stop for a period of time, a condition called amenorrhea.
2. Weight gain and obesity
Several endocrine systems can trigger weight gain (or loss). But since weight loss is all the rage right now let’s address it. There are women who do everything from dieting to regular exercise then lose a paltry 2Kg. Afterwards they gain 7Kg.
Hormonal imbalance, says Dr Njenga, may be one way of explaining their predicament. During menopause a woman’s oestrogen dips. This is likely to cause weight gain in the abdominal areas and the hips. Illnesses such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) may create similar conditions therefore leading to weight gain.
Other conditions that affect and influence weight gain are hypothyroidism, increased cortisol production as well as increased aldosterone production.
“When the hormones are not within normal range it does not matter how much you exercise: you will still keep growing fat,” Dr Njenga says.
3. Sex life
Prolactin is a hormone that promotes production of milk. It is produced in the pituitary glands. When produced in excess prolactin suppresses libido in both men and women.
Libido aside, oestrogen is a quintessential hormone in sexual intercourse. Very low levels of oestrogen, says Dr Njenga, would likely cause vaginal dryness: similar to women going through menopause. Surgical removal of the ovaries would also create an imbalance in oestrogen.
Vaginal dryness means that sex – without other forms of lubrication – would be painful, unenjoyable and off-putting.
4. Body hair
Hirsutism is a condition where a woman develops male-pattern hair growth – usually on the chin (beards) on the chest and the back. “This would mean that the lady has higher than normal amounts of testosterone,” says Dr Njenga.
Testosterone is produced by both men and women. But unlike men, women exhibit low levels of the hormone. Sometimes a woman’s testosterone levels will go beyond normal threshold thereby causing hirsutism.
The process of conception, implantation of the zygote and carrying pregnancy to term, is driven by hormones. Dr Wanjiru Ndegwa of Footsteps to Fertility defines fertility as the ability to conceive and carry pregnancy to term naturally – often within a year of unprotected sex.
Several hormones are at play when it comes to fertility. The follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) maintains fertility (menstrual) cycle regularity. The Luteinizing hormone (LH) controls release of an egg that is ready to be fertilised.
And progesterone helps maintain a pregnancy to term and prevent a miscarriage.
There are other hormones too that play a role into fertility but the above are the most important. Any imbalance in the hormones above directly affects a woman’s ability to conceive and maintain a pregnancy.
Dr Njenga says: “For successful conception and pregnancy all the hormones involved have to be within the normal range. Any fluctuations will yield undesired results.”
6. Mental health
Yes, hormonal imbalance may cost a woman her mental health.
According to Dr Lincoln Khasakhala, a clinical psychologist, women are more prone to mental health disturbances related to hormonal imbalance.
“This often happens around the time of menstruation,” he says.
Often these are mood illnesses. “Things like depression and feeling low,” Dr Khasakhala says.
A survey done in the United Kingdom by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 64 per cent of women who suffer from depression agree that their symptoms get worse in the period leading up to menstruation.
Typical symptoms would be low mood, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, crying spells and angry outbursts.
This, Dr Khasakhala explains, can be connected to female hormones since it has been proven before that women are more twice as prone to depression as men.
But then there is the hormone cortisol – also known as the stress hormone. In higher than normal amounts and for a lengthened period of time, Dr Khasakhala says, cortisol can also lead to depression.
7. Heart health
Have you ever found yourself in a fight or flight situation?
Two things happen: your heart beat jumps up and your breathing quickens. This is because of a famous hormone known as adrenaline.
The hormone adrenaline, when released, has the effect of increasing the heart rate.
If, by some sort of accident or illnesses the hormone is perpetually in high amounts, then the patient will be prone to elevated heart function. This may cause more damage to the organ.
Another hormone known to interfere with heart beat is cortisol.
8. Diabetes and illnesses of the reproductive system
There are diseases directly linked to hormones. Diabetes is one such disease: an illness caused by low than normal levels of insulin – the hormone that regulates blood sugar.
Other illnesses, such as endometriosis and development of fibroids, have been linked to high levels of the hormone oestrogen. The hormone, it is said, is responsible for the thickening of the endometrium.
In some situations a woman may be diagnosed with oestrogen dominance.
Like Dr Njenga said, hormones affect every biological process in our bodies. And the skin, being the largest organ, is prone to the effects of hormonal imbalance.
Hormonal imbalance may be the reason a woman suffers from acne just before periods. That being said, any major hormonal changes – with female reproductive hormones – may cause acne and skin eruptions.
High levels of androgens (testosterone) are associated with acne.
10. Growth and development issues
Hormones control growth and development. Cushing disease is a condition in which the pituitary gland releases too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) leading to a less than flattering shape – where the woman grows in the abdominal and thigh area; essentially looking like an apple on sticks.
Acromegaly is another condition where the pituitary glands produce excessive growth hormones causing body parts such as feet, hands, the heart and the forehead to continue growing and extend out.
Other diseases are like Addison’s disease and Cretinism.
11. All manner of problems
Dr Njenga said hormones and hormonal imbalance is a subject that cannot be tackled in one interview.
The above 10 aspects of hormonal imbalance are not the only ones that exist. This is because hormones affect every inch of the human body. “They act at cellular level,” Dr Njenga says.
The major types of hormones are the ones mentioned in the text above. There are many more – probably hundreds – of hormones, says Dr Njenga, and some may not even have been named.
Therefore, there are hundreds of types of hormonal imbalances. From the tip of top of the head to the tip of the toe hormonal imbalances affect every organ system in the body.