Hormone health is a big topic these days. When our hormones are out of balance, we can experience very uncomfortable symptoms that can interfere with our life. From mood swings and breast tenderness, to low libido and fatigue, signs of hormone issues affect many of us. And when we explore what hormones are and what they do, it makes perfect sense! These biochemical messengers are vital to the function of nearly every part of our bodies. The endocrine system is one of only two regulatory systems in the human body (the other being the nervous system), and is very sensitive to even small shifts in hormones.
For many people in today’s age, our endocrine systems are weakened and overburdened. There are several potential reasons for this.
If you feel like your hormones may be out of whack, here are a few things that commonly harm endocrine function:
- Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (common ones include plastics, flame retardants, pesticides, and phthalates)
- Eating animal products, particularly dairy
- Chronic stress or unhealed trauma
- Exposure to high levels of EMFs or other radiation sources
- Extreme fasting or caloric deprivation
- Use of artificial birth control hormones
The endocrine system is a vast network of glands and signaling molecules, that have power to regulate functions like reproduction, sleep, mood, growth/development, cognition, aging, and more. This system works through feedback loops, consistently adjusting the levels of hormones based on cellular receptor responses. While this seems like an efficient and reliable mechanism, the truth is that many external factors get in the way of our hormone function. Many dis-ease patterns arise when hormone levels are too high or too low, when cells aren’t able to utilize the hormones appropriately, or when cells become too sensitive or not sensitive enough. So, hormone health is not just about balancing hormone levels, but also making sure the cells can use them well.
The Endocrine Glands
There are only a handful of endocrine glands in the human body, responsible for regulating thousands of individual functions.
Here are the main hormone-producing glands to be aware of:
- Hypothalamus- one of the “master” glands, overseeing hunger, sleep, body temperature, sex drive, and regulating the behavior of other glands
- Pituitary- another “master” gland, communicating and coordinating other glands, responsible for growth patterns
- Parathyroid- responsible mainly for calcium utilization
- Thyroid- controls things like heart rate and metabolic rate
- Pineal- responsible for sensing light and dark, and regulating sleep cycles
- Adrenals- oversees kidney function, controls stress response and sex drive
- Ovaries- in women, responsible for reproductive hormones
- Testes- in men, responsible for reproductive hormones and sperm production
Because all of these glands, and their hormones, must work together for your optimal health, it’s incredibly important to invest in healing this system of the body. However, it’s not always easy or straightforward, because of the intricacy involved. Depending on your unique body, your genetic weaknesses, your symptom profile, your constitution, and other factors, certain remedies may be better suited to you than others. But the foundation remains the same- whole, fresh, unprocessed plant foods, herbs, and behavioral changes to support rest and rejuvenation.
Everyone’s a little bit different when it comes to their hormone balance, but there are a few signs that your hormones may be out of whack.
I’ve included some signs for both men and women here:
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Loss of libido
- Impotence or erectile dysfunction
- Breast tenderness
- Excessive bleeding or erratic periods
- Irritability or anxiety
- Excessive sweating, including night sweats and hot flashes
- Acne, especially related to menstrual cycle
- Changes in skin and hair texture and many more
Thankfully, there is a lot of overlap in endocrine-imbalance symptoms, and often treating just one or two areas can offer significant relief to most people. I typically focus on the adrenal glands and thyroid primarily, then branch out to include the pituitary or sex glands next, depending on the person. Mother Nature has provided some wonderful plants that we can use to bring harmony, nourishment, and balance to the endocrine system, and I’ll share some of my favorites here.
For many common symptoms of hormone imbalance, these herbal products get a thumbs up from me:
1. Licorice root
One of my all-time favorite herbs for adrenal weakness, licorice root can offer a boost to people struggling with fatigue, low blood pressure, lack of stamina, and similar symptoms. Licorice is a warming, moistening herb with a special affinity for depleted adrenal tissue. For me, adding in licorice root was a game-changer, helping me feel more awake and energetic, and just feeling more stable and strong in my body. It is also wonderful for soothing the GI tract, and acting as a natural anti-inflammatory (thanks to the natural corticosteroid action).
**Practioner disclaimer: Do not use licorice root if you have high blood pressure. Instead, consider trying a different option for the adrenal glands like ashwagandha (next on the list) or adrenal glandulars. Or look into the “deglycyrrhizinated” version of licorice, or DGL licorice, which won’t affect blood pressure levels.
This calming and stabilizing adaptogenic herb is particularly great for those who feel overly stressed, on edge, ultra sensitive, and have trouble winding down. All of these things, of course, link back to the adrenal glands! To help your adrenals handle the ups and downs of life, ashwagandha is a wonderful regulator of stress hormones. It has also been shown to improve stamina, libido, muscle mass and strength, lower inflammation, and assist with sleep. Ashwagandha is prized in Ayurvedic medicine for its use as a daily tonic to improve vitality and halt aging. It’s a dry, warming herb that is less stimulating than other adaptogens.
The thyroid gland, like many other endocrine glands, need exogenous (from outside the body) nutrients in order to function well, and the biggest one is iodine. Hypothyroid, or underactive thyroid, is one of the most common conditions in the U.S., with Synthroid medication being prescribed to nearly 150 million people. Whether you’ve ever taken synthetic thyroid hormones or not, additional dietary iodine can be beneficial. Instead of isolated iodine, I prefer naturally-occuring iodine, like that in seaweeds like kelp.
High in minerals, protein, and antioxidants, kelp can be a great “superfood” to add to your diet, especially if your thyroid function is a bit on the low side. It’s easy to take in capsule form, if you’re not a fan of the seaweedy taste.
For anyone looking to balance hormones, there is a lot of information out there and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused. Just remember that health doesn’t need to be complicated. The body wants to be in balance! Focus on lots of fresh, mostly raw plant foods, and add in some of these herbal allies, and you may be surprised at how fast things change.