About Hormone Imbalance

by Dr. Talia Marcheggiani

Dr. Talia Marcheggiani
Dr. Talia Marcheggiani is a naturopathic doctor practicing in Toronto. She has a special focus in mental health and hormones and uses an individualized mind-body approach to uncover and treat the root cause of disease. She is registered with the College of Naturopaths of Ontario and is a member of the Ontario and Canadian Associations of Naturopathic Medicine.

In order to make sense of the world, people create stories. It is our greatest gift and most fragile weakness.

Boy meets girl, they fall in love, they encounter difficulties that they eventually overcome. It brings them closer. They live happily ever after—the classic love story.

Stress has a classic story too: cortisol, the “stress” hormone, is released during stress. It wreaks havoc on the body. Lowering stress helps lower cortisol.

However, when it comes to human hormones, telling stories in a linear narrative is impossible.

Hormones are signaling molecules in the body. They are produced by endocrine organs, such as the adrenal glands, the brain, and the ovaries. They travel through the bloodstream to impact the expression of genes on distant tissues, which impacts how our bodies function.

Production of norepinephrine in the adrenal glands as a response to stress can make your heart race, your pupils dilate, your hands to shake, and your senses become hypervigilant—when a perceived threat or danger activates the release of this hormone, your entire body pulsates under its influence.

Hormonal stories are hard to fit the human desire for narratives. Their relationships with our genes, bodily systems, receptor binding sites, and each other make their actions too complicated to be described linearly. Instead, they act like webs, or tangled networks of intricate connections.

When hormone levels rise in the body, beyond our delicate homeostatic balance, a phenomenon, called “resistance”, can occur. With resistance, cells reduce their responses to the hormones that interact with them.

When telemarketers keep interrupting your dinner at 6 pm, eventually you stop answering the phone.

When certain hormones continue to call at the surface of cells, stressing the body’s capacity to respond, our cells simply stop answering.

Many of us ask, “what happens when I pull this thread here?” when learning about one hormone that we’ve blamed all our woes on. We tug the thread, without considering the entire web of connections, and our actions affect the entire system.

Our hormones exist in an ecosystem where everything hums and flows together, as a unit. It’s impossible to lay out explanations for their actions in a linear fashion.

Hormone stories flow like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel—a hallway with many doors that snake down long corridors and meet again and interconnect.

Go through the door marked “estrogens”, and you encounter serotonin, cortisol, progesterone, insulin, thyroid hormones, leptin, BDNF, dopamine, norepinephrine, and many others.

Hormones are the conductors of your body’s personal orchestra, composed of thousands of musicians, a complex musical score, highly-trained arms, fingers, and mouths manipulating instruments: a million moving parts working together in harmony.

The best we can do to understand the entire interplay is to slow down the action, take a snapshot of it, and to try to understand why these symptoms are occurring in this individual.

Symptoms of Hormone Imbalances

Because hormones affect absolutely every system of our body, I am always attuned to the possibility of hormonal imbalances in my patients.

It helps to look at hormones in terms of their symptom patterns rather than how any individual hormone affects us in particular.

Common signs of hormonal imbalance are:

  • Fatigue, low libido, restless sleep, depression and anxiety, waking at 2 to 4 am, a high-stress lifestyle, and brain fog might indicate cortisol imbalance.
  • PMS - and the more severe related condition, PMDD - infertility, fatigue and low libido, missed and irregular periods may be related to fluctuations in the hormones estrogen and progesterone, or low estrogen and progesterone levels. Many of these symptoms could also be related to estrogen dominance, in which estrogen is either high or normal, and progesterone is low.
  • Endometriosis, a family or personal history of female cancers, anxiety and panic attacks, heavy and painful periods, frequent miscarriages, infertility, fibroids, fibrocystic breasts and weight gain around the hips and thighs can indicate estrogen dominance.
  • High levels of male sex hormones like testosterone, irregular periods, weight gain, acne, and hair loss may indicate a female hormone condition called PCOS.
  • Fatigue, brain fog, difficulty losing weight, puffiness, constipation, dry skin and hair, and low body temperature can be signs of hypothyroidism.
  • Symptoms of reactive hypoglycemia, such as feeling dizzy, anxious and shaky between meals, sugar cravings, weight gain around the abdomen, difficulty losing weight, and low morning appetite, night-time carbohydrate cravings, and binge eating can all be related to insulin resistance and poor blood sugar control.

In my naturopathic practice, I see common patterns of symptoms that indicate certain hormonal imbalances.

These patterns often represent vicious cycles where our body is stressed beyond a capacity to balance these interconnected webs of chemical interactions, causing further imbalance.

Cortisol

Speaking of stories, here’s one I hear often.

You wake up in the morning, exhausted. Your brain is in a fog and you don’t feel alive until a cold shower or double espresso knock you out of your stupor.

Things get a bit better once you get moving, but you wonder why your energy never fully bounces back.

You used to play sports in university, you think to yourself. Now just thinking of sports makes you tired.

Is this what getting older feels like? You’re in your 30s.

The days at the office stretch on forever. Concentration and focus are difficult. You see a coworker whose name, you realize with horror, can’t be brought to mind.

You’ve known her for a year. Cynthia? Sylvia? Your brain hurts.

In the afternoon you think longingly of napping, but instead take your place in the long line for coffee and something carb-y like a cookie.

When it comes time for sleep you are either out like a light or find it hard to turn your mind off; you’re tired, as always, but also wired.

Sleep doesn’t feel restful, and you often wake up, sleepless, at 2-4am in the morning.

When your alarm rings a few hours later, the cycle begins again.

Cortisol, one of our stress hormones, has a circadian rhythm. Its levels are highest in the morning, about an hour after waking. Cortisol promotes energy, alertness and focus. It is also a potent anti-inflammatory hormone.

Cortisol is what makes us feel alive in the morning, bouncing out of bed like Shirley Temple and her curls.

Throughout the day our cortisol levels slowly dwindle (unless a major stressor causes them to spike abnormally). They are lowest in the evening, when melatonin, our sleep hormone begins to rise, inducing feelings of sleepiness, preparing us for a night of rest.

Our modern day society, however, calls on cortisol to perform more than its fair share of work. Cortisol is around when we’re hauling ourselves out of bed after an inadequate night of rest.

Cortisol fuels gym workouts, gets us to our meetings on time, allows us to meet deadlines, tolerates traffic jams, responds kindly to tyrannical bosses, and makes sure the kids get to all their after-school events.

Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands, two endocrine glands located on each kidney, in response to signals from the brain that perceive stress in our environments and bodies.

When stress hormones levels are too high we experience a “tired and wired” feeling. During this time we might feel we thrive better under stress: workouts boost our energy, we have a hard time quieting down and we rarely feel hungry.

We might still struggle with weight gain, however, especially the abdomen and face, where cortisol tends to encourage fat deposition.

We might feel tension—tight muscles and shoulders, and body pain, as muscles clench up, preparing to fight or flee.

Chronic stress is associated with high levels of cortisol. We work long hours, late into the night. We go, go, go. This may give us a “high” or it may feel exhausting and depleting.

Many of us can exist in this state for months and even years. Sometimes a compounded stressor such as a divorce, accident, or loss, can tip us over the edge into a depleted, burnt out state.

Burnout, often following a period of prolonged stress, can be associated with low cortisol signalling. Our bodies have simply stopped being able to produce the stress hormones necessary to meet the needs of our daily lives, or glucocorticoid receptors in the brain and body cells, have stopped responding to cortisol.

Just as cell can be become resistant to insulin, they can also become resistant to cortisol. Too much (or even too little) of a hormone can cause cells to start ignoring their signalling, resulting in symptoms of low levels of the hormone in some areas of the body and high levels of the hormone in others. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10593376_When_Not_Enough_Is_Too_Much_The_Role_of_Insufficient_Glucocorticoid_Signaling_in_the_Pathophysiology_of_Stress-Related_Disorders.

Cortisol is a complicated molecule. It both encourages the stress response, but also turns it off, when levels reach a certain point.

Often, cortisol levels that are too low result in an impaired stress response, preventing our fight or flight system from properly shutting off—cortisol resistance can lead to further stress hormone disruption.

The result of an imbalance in cortisol, otherwise termed Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis dysregulation is weight gain, fatigue and brain fog, inflammation and immune system activation, digestive issues, restlessness, impaired sleep, decreased cognitive function, and mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

When cortisol levels are low, the body makes adrenaline and noradrenaline to meet our needs, which often leads to anxiety and feeling shaky and nervous, contributing to symptoms of anxiety.

Cortisol also influences the function of our sex hormones, thyroid hormones, and our blood sugar. Imbalances in any of these other hormonal systems can be a result of an impaired HPA axis.

Cortisol Testing

The two main ways to assess the body’s levels of cortisol are through serum (blood tests) and saliva.

A study found both tests were equal when it came to diagnosing Cushing’s disease, a condition of highly elevated cortisol. https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/88/9/4153/2845712.

One of the advantages to salivary cortisol testing is the ability to obtain multiple samples in one day to be able to view a patient’s cortisol curve, in which cortisol peaks approximately one hour after waking and declines throughout the day.

The cortisol curve is measured by assessing 4 samples of salivary cortisol taken at 4 key points during the course of one day. It measures free cortisol, which may only represent about 5% of total cortisol in the body.

While salivary cortisol levels can be a good starting point for assessing the cortisol curve, it doesn’t tell us everything about the health of the glucocorticoid receptors or HPA system as a whole.

High cortisol levels may be seen in patients with low cortisol signalling, such as depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue. Errors in obtaining salivary cortisol samples (such as not taking samples at the right time) can lead to reportings of cortisol levels that are falsely low.

In my opinion, this makes symptoms and health history the most valuable tools for properly assessing HPA axis function.

Cortisol and Melatonin

Melatonin, our sleep hormone, also operates on a circadian rhythm. It is released by the pineal gland in the brain and induces sleep. Its release corresponds to a drop in cortisol levels at the end of the day.

That release is impeded by artificial light exposure at night, lack of daytime sun exposure, alcohol, stress, and HPA axis disruption, among other lifestyle and environmental factors.

Melatonin, like other hormones, can be tested for in blood, urine and saliva, but I find more value in assessing for sleep quality and quantity by taking a thorough health history while also restoring a patient’s sleep hygiene and HPA axis regulation.

Many patients with sleep issues can benefit from a trial of supplemental melatonin to see if that helps their sleep. Taking it 2 to 3 hours before bedtime to coincide with the body’s natural melatonin surge and taking a prolonged-release version to promote sleep maintenance are two strategies I use for helping patients sleep better.

Working on sleep and circadian rhythms is also beneficial for restoring HPA axis functioning.

“Female” Hormones - Estrogen and Progesterone

The most prevalent female sex hormones are estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones eb and flow in distinct ways throughout a woman’s monthly cycle.

Estrogen creates an “M” shape, rising at the beginning of the cycle to its first peak around ovulation, half-way through the cycle. At this time women typically experience their best mood, energy, and motivation, perhaps noticing a rise in libido.

After ovulation, estrogen dips a little bit and then rises, peaking again about a week before a woman’s menstrual cycle is due.

After this, estrogen takes a nosedive, reaching low levels around the time that menstruation begins: Day 1 of the menstrual cycle.

Progesterone, on the other hand is largely absent the first half of the cycle, before ovulation. Then, it begins a steady climb to peak with estrogen, about a week before the arrival of the next period.

After peaking, just like estrogen, progesterone then takes a dip, which stimulates the uterine lining to shed, resulting in menstruation, in which the entire cycle begins again.

PMS and PMDD

My practice is populated by women who experience various forms of grief at different stages of their monthly cycles.

Many of my patients experience PMS, and the more severe PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder)—which is characterized by intense mood swings, irritability, depression, or anxiety, panic attacks and psychosis in the most severe cases— up to two weeks before their periods.

The mood changes in PMS and PMDD are associated with fluctuations in the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can wreak havoc on our brain chemistry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4516641/

Estrogen has a beneficial effect on mood, increasing dopamine and serotonin action in the brain. Dopamine and serotonin are two antidepressant, feel-good neurotransmitters.

Estrogen also increases something called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) a chemical that stimulates the growth of brain cells. This can boost memory, concentration, and cognition, as well as positively influence mood. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4890701/

Progesterone breaks down into a chemical called allo-pregnenolone, which acts like GABA, a calming neurotransmitter, in the brain. Bioidentical progesterone therapy is often used as a treatment for anxiety and insomnia.

When estrogen and progesterone levels surge and drop suddenly, drastic fluctuations in mood can occur. Cravings for sweets, crying, lack of motivation, or severe anxiety can all occur when hormones drop right before a period is due.

However, elevated levels of estrogen can also be problematic. Estrogen stimulates dopamine, which typically makes us feel good, gives us energy, and helps to motivate us. In genetically vulnerable women, elevated levels of dopamine can cause excess irritability, low stress tolerance, and even mania or psychosis.

Estrogen also slows the recycling of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, which can lead to symptoms of acute stress and anxiety, when dysregulated.

This means that dramatic rises and falls in estrogen throughout a woman’s cycle can cause her to feel irritable and anxious one week and unmotivated and depressed the other.

Smoothing out hormonal ups and downs can be a key factor in regulating a woman’s menstrual cycles and soothing her mood and emotions throughout the month.

Perimenopause and Menopause

Perimenopause is characterized by a declining production of the ovarian hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Estrogen levels tend to rise and fall dramatically throughout a woman’s remaining cycles, while progesterone levels tend to stay low.

The result of these changes are symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, brain fog, fatigue, and depression when estrogen levels suddenly tank, and increased stress and anxiety when estrogen levels abruptly spike.

During this time, cycles may become irregular. Some of my patients comment that their periods are incredibly light one month and the heaviest of their lives another.

Some get periods every few months and some notice increased frequency, even spotting between cycles, or have a full-blown period every two weeks in more extreme cases.

Weight gain tends to drift from the thighs and buttocks to the abdomen. Once pear and hourglass-shaped figures begin to resemble apples.

Fatigue is a common symptom. Women may experience poor sleep due to night sweats from estrogen deficiency, and anxiety from insufficient progesterone.

What a joy, right?

Many of these perimenopausal symptoms are a relatively modern phenomenon, stemming from a dysregulated HPA axis.

After cessation of periods, it’s the job of the adrenal glands to take over sex hormone production. However, if the HPA system is preoccupied with organizing a stress response, this can affect the production of other hormones.

Impaired Estrogen Clearance

Many women struggle with symptoms that are related to relatively high levels of estrogen, often caused by impaired estrogen clearance.

These conditions include heavy and painful periods, fibrocystic breasts, or conditions like fibroids or endometriosis.

Chronically elevated estrogen levels also include a risk of certain hormone-associated cancers, such as breast cancer.

These women may experience irritability and anxiety through estrogen’s interaction with stress hormones, and also from a relative deficiency in progesterone.

A relatively high level of estrogens compared to progesterone is termed “Estrogen Dominance”.

Estrogen is normally cleared through the digestive system: the liver and intestines.

A sluggish and congested liver causing a slower rate of hormonal clearance (think of it like a clogged drain), an increase in environmental toxin exposure, or an overconsumption of alcohol, can slow the liver’s ability to regulate estrogen levels in the body.

Constipation and a dysbiotic gut can also impair estrogen clearance.

Symptoms of estrogen dominance include stubborn weight gain, typically around the hips and thighs, heavy and painful periods, tender and painful breasts, fibrocystic breasts, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, acne, cyclical mood swings, especially premenstrual anxiety and panic attacks, and irregular menstrual cycles.

Low Progesterone

Aside from impaired estrogen clearance, another pattern of estrogen dominance is low progesterone.

In this case, estrogen levels are normal or even low (as in the case of menopausal or perimenopausal women). However, an even lower progesterone level still results in a pattern of relative estrogen dominance.

This can cause some of the same symptoms as excess estrogen (anxiety, irritability, heavy and painful periods, weight gain, PMS, fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, etc.).

Low progesterone can also be a culprit in unexplained infertility or early term miscarriage, as progesterone maintains the uterine lining in pregnancy.

Progesterone is released from the ovaries after ovulation. Lack of ovulation, therefore, is a primary reason for low progesterone levels. Anovulatory cycles can occur in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome, women with high levels of physical and emotional stress, or women entering menopause.

Some progesterone, however, is also made in the adrenal glands, where it can be eventually turned into cortisol, aldosterone (a steroid hormone involved in salt-water balance in the body) and androstenedione (a male sex hormone), eventually making testosterone and estrogen.

Women with high cortisol demands due to chronic stress may shunt the progesterone made in their adrenal glands to producing other hormones that support the stress response.

Not only can stress alter ovulation and fertility through various other mechanisms, it can also rob the body of progesterone, directing any progesterone made towards cortisol production.

Testing Estrogen and Progesterone

Estrogen and progesterone can be tested reliably in saliva, blood and urine.

Month long salivary hormone testing of estrogen and progesterone can be an easy and effective way to track the eb and flow of these hormones throughout a women’s menstrual cycles.

In this test, women obtain a saliva sample every 3 to 5 days for the duration of the month to track how estrogen levels corresponds with progesterone and how both hormones rise and fall.

In my practice, however, I often start by running blood tests. I test hormones on day 21 (of a 28-day cycle) to coincide with progesterone’s peak. This can help us calculate the progesterone to estrogen ratio and establish whether the cause of estrogen dominance symptoms is high estrogen or low progesterone.

Blood tests offer the option of looking at estrone, which is a more problematic form of estrogen, as well as estradiol (the most common, metabolically active estrogen in the body). In blood we can also look at LH and FSH, two hormones produced in the brain and ovaries that orchestrate ovulation.

FSH tends to be high in women in menopause or perimenopause, while LH tends to be elevated in women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

Dried urinary metabolite testing, or DUTCH, is an effective way to understand how hormones are broken down and processed by the body. Looking at the entire hormone breakdown pathway provides a more in-depth look at the complexity of hormones in a woman’s cycle, and can guide treatment in specific, useful ways.

“Male” Hormones - Testosterone

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common causes of infertility (and the most common endocrine disorder) in women of reproductive age. It affects about 10% of menstruating women.

PCOS is a collection of various symptoms and complex hormonal causes. However, it is characterized by missed periods, anovulation, male-pattern facial hair growth, especially on the upper lip, chin, breasts and abdomen, and the presence of cysts on the ovaries.

Other common symptoms of PCOS are weight gain, estrogen dominance, male-pattern hair loss (on the crown of the head), insulin resistance, infertility, and acne, especially hormonal cystic acne on the jawline.

PCOS is characterized by elevated levels of testosterone, a male sex hormone, or “androgen”, on blood work.

Acne, weight gain, infertility, and hair loss are the main symptoms that bring women with PCOS into my office.

PCOS is a complex process that involves an overproduction of testosterone in the ovaries coupled with insulin resistance. Therefore, balancing blood sugar through diet and lifestyle can have a major impact on symptoms.

The conventional treatment for missed or absent periods is oral contraceptives, which of course doesn’t treat the underlying cause of anovulation. That’s why women with PCOS often seek naturopathic and functional medical solutions to treat the root cause.

Testing for PCOS

When I meet a new patient with PCOS, I often test her blood for estradiol and progesterone levels at Day 21 of her cycle. A very low progesterone level may indicate that she has not ovulated that cycle.

We also test LH and FSH. A high LH:FSH ratio can be indicative of PCOS even if cysts are not present on an ovarian ultrasound.

Other important tests that are often ordered are free testosterone and DHEA-S, another male hormone made in the adrenal glands.

Glucose control and insulin resistance can be assessed by looking at fasting blood glucose, fasting insulin and HbA1c (a marker that looks at long-term glucose control).

Prolactin, another hormone released by the pituitary gland, can sometimes be elevated in anovulatory women with PCOS.

A 4-point salivary cortisol test may be useful in women with PCOS who are also experiencing symptoms of cortisol dysregulation, which can contribute to insulin resistance and affect ovulation and hormone regulation, particularly progesterone production.

Prolactin

Prolactin is a hormone released by the pituitary gland to promote milk production after child birth.

However, some women will have elevated levels of prolactin in blood, despite not currently pregnant or breastfeeding.

Called hyperprolactinemia, elevated prolactin may be a cause of anovulation, mimicking some symptoms of PCOS and menopause, including hot flashes, absent or irregular periods, infertility and even milk discharge from the breasts. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/high-prolactin-levels-and-prolactinomas-beyond-the-basics

Hyperprolactinemia may be caused by low calorie diets, liver issues, hypothyroidism, and issues with the pituitary gland itself.

Prolactin can be tested in blood. If levels are elevated, an MRI must be conducted to rule out a physical issue with the pituitary gland, such as a tumour.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain and secreted by the pituitary. It aids in childbirth. Also termed the “love hormone,” it’s associated with feelings of intimacy and connection.

While high and low levels of blood oxytocin can be possible in men and women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding, the clinical applications of it are not fully known. https://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/oxytocin

Thyroid Hormones

The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland on our neck, is the master thermostat of the body, controlling heat and metabolism. It pumps out thyroid hormones T4 and T3, which tell cells to burn fuel, creating energy and heat.

Because our thyroid hormones interact with the cells in every body system, symptoms of hypothyroidism, or low thyroid function, can be incredibly diverse.

Common symptoms of hypothyroidism are weight gain or inability to lose weight, fatigue and sluggishness, brain fog, hair loss, low body temperature, constipation, dry skin and hair, puffiness, infertility, and altered menstrual cycles, such as missed periods or heavy periods.

Aside from autoimmunity, other causes of low thyroid function can be HPA axis dysregulation and chronic stress, a very low calorie or very low carbohydrate diet, sudden weight loss, a deficiency in nutrients needed for thyroid function such as iron, zinc, iodine and selenium, and a body burden of environmental toxins such as heavy metals.

Testing Thyroid

To assess thyroid function, conventional doctors will test a hormone called Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, or TSH. TSH is not a thyroid hormone, but a hormone made in the brain that urges the thyroid to pump out the thyroid hormones T3 and T4. It gives doctors an indirect measure of thyroid regulation.

When TSH levels are high, this suggests that thyroid function is sluggish; the brain needs to send a louder signal to get an unresponsive thyroid to work.

However, TSH is only a periphery marker of total thyroid function, not giving us the whole picture. Also, TSH ranges on conventional lab tests may fail to pick up some cases of subclinical hypothyroidism or impending cases of autoimmune thyroid conditions, otherwise termed Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.

To properly assess thyroid function in someone with symptoms of thyroid dysfunction, a slightly elevated TSH, or a family history of Hashimoto’s, I will order a thyroid panel: a blood test measuring TSH as well free thyroid hormone (T3 and T4) levels.

It’s also important to assess for autoimmune thyroid conditions by testing for anti-thyroglobulin and anti-thyroperoxidase antibodies. Both of these antibodies, when elevated, suggest the presence of an autoimmune thyroid condition.

Insulin

Some of the most common hormonal dysfunctions I see in my practice are insulin resistance and reactive hypoglycemia: blood sugar imbalance.

These issues often lie at the heart of other hormonal imbalance patterns, such as irregular menstrual cycles or HPA axis dysregulation.

When we eat, glucose enters our bloodstream, providing fuel for our cells. Insulin helps our cells access this hormone, spiking with each meal.

The higher the meal is on the glycemic index (i.e. the more sugar or refined carbohydrate it contains), the higher our post-meal blood sugar and insulin spikes will be.

Without insulin, we would slowly lose energy and die, unable to get precious glucose into our cells. Individuals with type I diabetes cannot make insulin. They must inject it daily to keep their cells fuelled and blood sugar stable.

For the rest of us who do make insulin, large blood sugar spikes after a meal can be problematic.

Insulin is a storage hormone. It helps energy get into cells, and it helps build muscle and brain cells, but it also blocks the breakdown of fat cells, blocking weight loss.

Insulin also drives down blood sugar levels. When blood sugar rises too quickly after a meal, a large insulin response can drop blood sugar levels too drastically, causing reactive hypoglycemia, or feeling “hangry” (hungry, angry, irritable, tired, light-headed, weak and dizzy) in between meals.

Individuals who experience hypoglycemia feel irritable, shaky, dizzy and anxious between meals. They often suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, and feel hungrier at night.

They may wake up in the middle of the night, as their bodies are unable to go 8 hours (the length of a decent night’s sleep) without food. This causes them to wake up, restless and perhaps anxious, in the early hours of the morning.

These individuals, paradoxically, rarely feel hungry at breakfast time.

I often see anxious patients wake from a restless sleep and toss back only a coffee in the morning, skipping breakfast due to slight morning nausea.

At 10 am, feeling ravenous and shaky, they might scarf down a high-glycemic bagel or croissant. Later on, they’ll enjoy a light lunch—maybe a sandwich—often feeling foggy and lightheaded after eating it.

At 2 to 4 pm, they may feel like an afternoon nap, instead indulging in a coffee and sweet treat to buy them some energy for the remaining hours of the work day.

Finally, after enjoying a larger dinner once they get home, they find themselves snacking all night long. Their bodies are finally urging them to ingest the nutrients they were lacking throughout the day.

They then fall into bed, feeling full, restless and wired, and the cycle begins again.

When our blood sugar falls, we not only feel hangry, weak, and crave processed carbs, our HPA axis also gets stimulated.

Cortisol, a glucocorticoid, can help our body control blood sugar, bringing it into the normal range after insulin sends it tanking too low.

This drop in blood sugar, therefore, needlessly triggers a stress response from the adrenal glands, which can further worsen anxiety, HPA axis dysregulation, and glucocorticoid resistance.

When blood sugar and insulin are spiked repeatedly for days, months, and years on end, cells stop responding attentively to insulin’s signal. Like our response to a pesky telemarketer, cells eventually stop picking up the phone when insulin calls.

However, cells still need insulin. More and more insulin must be released to trigger the same response from insulin resistant cells. This makes cells even more resistant, as they require even more insulin release the next time blood sugar rises to get glucose into the cell for fuel. And so the cycle becomes vicious.

Elevated insulin levels cause inflammation, fat gain, fatigue, depression, reactive hypoglycemia, and HPA axis dysregulation. The more resistant our cells become to insulin, the more cortisol must be called on to maintain blood sugar levels.

PCOS is also characterized by higher insulin levels. This prevents ovulation, causing infertility and female hormone imbalance.

When insulin resistance persists, type II diabetes, where the body is no longer able to keep blood sugar in a safe range, develops.

Type II diabetes is characterized by chronically high blood sugar—which poses a danger to small blood vessels, and is a potent inflammatory condition, increasing the risk of heart disease—and elevated insulin.

It affects almost 10% of the adult population and is the 7th leading underlying cause of death in North America, costing 350 billion dollars a year to manage in the United States alone. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/

Insulin-related weight gain can affect female hormones, as fat cells make estrogen in the body, leading to estrogen dominance.

Insulin also interacts with a hormone called leptin, which is created by fat cells in response to calorie intake. When body fat levels get too high, cells can become leptin resistant. The body no longer senses dietary calorie intake, leading to increased hunger. This exacerbates the problem of weight gain and insulin resistance.

Testing for Insulin Resistance

When I meet a patient who is presenting with stubborn weight gain, estrogen dominance and stress, I assess their blood for insulin resistance by looking at blood levels of fasting insulin and fasting glucose.

With these two values a calculation that measures insulin resistance, called the HOMA-IR, can be performed. This can give us a baseline measure of how well the body is compensating to control blood glucose. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/6/1487

I also run HbA1c, which looks at glucose levels over 3 months. I will often run a blood cholesterol panel, and inflammatory markers, such as CRP.

Insulin resistance often puts all of our hormones on a rollercoaster, which becomes very difficult to get off of unless we prioritize the diet and lifestyle interventions that address blood sugar control.

Assessing Hormones

When presented with a patient suffering from a complicated symptom pattern, I begin by taking a thorough health history in which we investigate:

  • Energy levels,
  • Sleep quantity and quality,
  • Mood and mental health history,
  • Period health history,
  • Family history,
  • Dietary intake and exercise,
  • Health risk factors like smoking, alcohol use, and past health history.

Depending on how clear the patient’s symptom picture presents, we may opt to make some changes before testing, to gauge their body’s response to an increase in nutrient intake.

Then, if necessary, I will order a comprehensive blood work.

Blood testing might include a thyroid hormone panel, and an in-depth look at female hormones, fasting insulin and fasting blood glucose, and other markers that help us assess health, such as cholesterol and inflammatory markers, or nutrient levels.

Patients requiring a more comprehensive view of their cycles may opt for month-long salivary testing. Others may opt for a dried urine test that looks at hormonal breakdown in the body.

Sample Case

Jenny (name changed for privacy) came to me feeling fatigued and anxious.

She had suffered from anxiety periodically as a teen, but now at age 46 she was experiencing bimonthly panic attacks that seemed to occur cyclically; the panic would come around ovulation and premenstrually.

It was hard to tell, however, because Jenny also claimed that her periods were “all over the place”. One month they were heavy and painful, causing her to take time off work, crouched on the bathroom floor in agony. Other months she barely noticed them, experiencing some light spotting, if anything at all.

Very troubling to her was her major mood volatility, which she described like a “switch” that would suddenly flip on or off, causing her to breakdown at work or pick fights with her family.

Then, almost as suddenly, the cloud would lift and she would be her cheerful, friendly, loving self again.

It was maddening, both to her and those living with her during these darks times, she said.

She also noticed disrupted sleep and weight gain around the abdomen, which seemed to ignore her intense workouts and strict dietary regime.

Jenny was highly accomplished at her high-pressure job and commented that she thrived on being busy and achievement oriented.

I tested Jenny’s blood estradiol, estrone, progesterone, LH, and FSH levels one week before her next expected period, had her fill out a weekly diet diary, and gave her some recommendations about sleep and supplement intake.

Jenny’s blood revealed elevated FSH, indicative of impending menopause (FSH encourages the ovaries to ovulate, as TSH encourages the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormone). She also had low estradiol, and low progesterone, but elevated levels of estrone, the more problematic of the estrogens.

According to her labs and history, Jenny was experiencing estrogen dominance and perimenopause. Many of her symptoms were stemming from elevated estrone, low progesterone and a disrupted HPA axis.

Together, we worked on her diet to provide her body with the nutrients needed to make hormones and to support her brain, mood and adrenal glands.

We used herbs and dietary nutrients to promote liver estrogen clearance and to support Jenny’s adrenal glands.

We addressed the stress in her life, encouraged relaxation, and made sure her body was supported in its ability to make and respond to cortisol.

After a few months, Jenny reported a reduction in hot flashes, better sleep and feeling calmer. She had a reduction in her waist line and better energy and mood.

Our hormones, when imbalanced, can cause vicious cycles in the body that trap us in a state of worsening imbalance.

Through correctly assessing these common hormonal patterns through a health history and appropriate testing, and then making diet, lifestyle and supplement suggestions addressed at stopping these cycles, naturopathic doctors can address underlying hormonal issues that might be causing these complex and troublesome patterns of hormone disruption.