When hormones, like estrogen and progesterone are out of whack, you'll likely feel super out of whack, too.
Well, most of the time, your body does a good job of keeping your hormones consistent month-to-month. But "there are lifestyle factors and medical conditions can cause hormonal issues," says Cynthia A. Stuenkel, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.
And when hormones, like estrogen (which causes the lining of your uterus to thicken and works with other hormones in your body to trigger ovulation) and progesterone (a natural steroid that helps maintain pregnancy), are out of whack, you'll likely feel super out of whack, too.
Luckily, she says, many of these are things that you can control or get help for.
The first step is identifying which lifestyle factors may be to blame. Here are some possible culprits:
Poor resilience or handling of stress can “shut down or compromise your reproductive hormones,” explains Stunekel. Lower-than-normal estrogen levels may leave you with lighter periods—which feels like a perk—but estrogen is needed to build peak bone mass while you’re in your twenties and thirties.
Simmering stress over the long term can lead to low progesterone levels, which may make it harder to get pregnant or stay pregnant if that’s what you’re aiming for.
A poor diet and exercise plan can use up your body’s resources and tank estrogen levels, which play a role in ovulation. “Your body needs a certain amount of nutrient factors to do all of your basic functioning, including producing your sex hormones," she says.
If you are severely overweight or obese, you may also experience cycle irregularities and changes in your flow. “Women who are obese may not ovulate as regularly because fat tissue itself can contribute to excess estrogen levels and create an excessive build-up of the lining of the uterus, delivering a heavy period,” explains Stuenkel.
And for these stresses to skew your hormones, you don’t have to be a long-distance runner or an Olympic athlete. Even extreme pressure at work can trigger the problem, notes Stuenkel.
So how do you take control of your hormones? First off, unless your doctor suspects there’s a medical problem, there’s no need for every woman to go and get her hormones tested. Instead, pay attention to what’s normal for you, including the timing of your cycle. If you notice a change in your normal flow (light to heavy or heavy to light), if you start skipping cycles, or stop having them for three to four months, see a doctor for an evaluation to rule out medical causes, like a prolactinoma (a benign tumor on your pituitary gland that can affect hormonal balance), polycystic ovary syndrome, or even early menopause. Making lifestyle tweaks, like below, can help—and may be your answer—but self-diagnosis can mean that potential problems are missed.
If your lifestyle seems to be the culprit, “these are the simple, proven basics that merit repeating,” says Stuenkel. Take an honest look at how you respond to hectic situations. Moving your body in exercise that feels good to you (rather than is punishing) can keep stress hormones like cortisol at an even keel.
Mindfulness through yoga or meditation, asking for help when you need it, making sleep a priority, and trying cognitive behavioral therapy to help rewrite your mental stress responses may also make a difference, she says. And of course, a healthy diet that nourishes you is key. It’s all about living a well-balanced life. Your hormones are into that.