Updated: Nov 21, 2019
Hormones affect our ability to handle stress, inflammation, blood sugar regulation, metabolism, and more. As health professional, I am seeing younger and younger women suffering with fatigue, poor sleep, weight gain, blood sugar imbalance and hormone imbalances. What is the reason? Increased, chronic stress. Responsibilities from work, family, social life, personal expectations, increased exposure to toxins, poor diet, etc. are piling up and leading to what is now being termed HPA Axis Dysfunction.
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Hormones include our well-known sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone; but they also include insulin, cortisol and others. The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing cortisol, also known as our stress hormone because it is released in high amounts in times of increased stress. The problem today is that we are under chronic stress from work, life, and social expectations. Our adrenals are releasing cortisol on a frequent basis, leading to an imbalance of other hormones.
As a health professional I am used to seeing women entering menopause have complications with these hormone producing glands because our bodies switch primary hormone production from the ovaries to the adrenal glands. If the signaling between glands is not functioning at optimal levels, the body is unable to make this adjustment properly. Not only do symptoms develop, but if the glands are not able to keep up with the body's needs our fat cells step in to help out with hormone production. This causes fat cells to increase in size, leading to unintentional and stubborn weight gain.
So what does HPA Axis stand for?
H - Hypothalamic (Hypothalamus)
P - Pituitary
A - Adrenal
The hypothalamus is a region of the brain that connects the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system with the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus maintains homeostasis (balance) in the body – through regulating sleep, emotions, body temperature, hunger, thirst, and more.
The pituitary gland is a small gland at the base of the brain. It is considered the master gland because it is responsible for regulating other endocrine glands.
The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and produce important hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Together these three parts work to regulate your stress response, mood, motivation, metabolism, energy levels, and immune system.
One of the most troubling things about HPA axis dysfunction is the trend in younger individuals. With increasing toxin and stress load on our bodies, we are causing a dysfunction in our system and response earlier in life. If not treated it can lead to chronic, inflammatory disease and even autoimmune disease.
Symptoms may include the following:
Feeling tired despite adequate sleep
Difficulty getting up in the morning
Craving for salty foods (a.k.a. the “I just ate a whole bag of chips syndrome”)
Increased effort required for everyday activities
Low blood pressure
Feeling faint when getting up quickly
Low blood sugar
Decreased sex drive
Decreased ability to handle stress
Longer healing time
Less enjoyment in life
Feeling worse after skipping meals
Reduced ability to make decisions
Common Conditions Associated with Hormone Imbalance
Feeling Extra Irritable?
Feelings of irritability and of being overwhelmed are two of the most well-known signs of hormone imbalance. A healthy HPA axis should be able to adapt and balance hormones, even during your menstrual cycle and entering menopause. I am not talking about mild symptoms, such as a change in bowel movements for 2-3 days during menstruation or a headache/cramping just before getting your period. Think of these mild symptoms as your body talking to you. But if these symptoms worsen or last longer than 2-3 days you could likely be suffering from a hormone imbalance.
Unstable Body Temperature?
Unstable body temperatures, especially in the morning could indicate gland dysfunction. The thyroid gland is the most well-known connection with symptom of cold hands and feet, so it is important to have thyroid levels checked annually or more frequent if history of abnormal levels. Regular and consistent low body temperature could be indicative of hypothyroidism.
Feeling Faint Upon Standing?
If you feel faint or dizzy upon standing up you could be suffering from poor signaling in the body. Feeling faint or dizzy when you stand is often a drop in your body's blood pressure. This drop in blood pressure can occur if signaling in the body is not efficient. The body is unable to adapt to the new position.
What can you do?
Working with a health professional and having comprehensive testing done will provide the most accurate information and results. It is important to include not only nutrition interventions, but also lifestyle and emotional care.
There are many options for testing for hormone levels, stress response and inflammation. One of the most comprehensive methods for looking at hormones, especially cortisol, is DUTCH testing. You can find more information and even order your own kit here.
You should always follow up with your doctor to let them know what you are doing and receive their recommendations.
Learn more about hormone testing HERE.
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In health and happiness - Liz Riesen, RD