Months after a tumultuous, capital-B breakup, I still couldn't sleep more than four hours at a time. I nearly jumped out of bed with every night noise. And, most perplexingly, I craved any kind of crunchy snack—the saltier, the better. I chalked it up to a broken heart, but my chiropractor helped me address the root physical cause: A longtime overdose of stress had depleted my adrenal glands' ability to produce stress-management hormones.
Although we often think hormones relate only to PMS, pregnancy, or menopause, these powerful little chemicals have a much more far-reaching effect. "Hormones work in minute amounts to control everything from how our body functions to our emotions," explains Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, author of Natural Choices for Women's Health (Three Rivers, 2005), so when they get off kilter, it can be difficult to diagnose—symptoms can range from dry skin to depression. But it's not all bad news. "Using natural remedies to coax your hormones back into balance can make a dramatic improvement in your quality of life," Steelsmith says. Read on to learn about the most common imbalances and natural remedies that correct them.
Do you have low thyroid?
Overwhelming fatigue; whole-body weight gain that is difficult to lose; constipation; constantly feeling cold; dry skin; swollen neck, face, hands, or feet; low blood pressure; thinning of the outer edges of the eyebrow; insomnia; headaches; and irregular periods.
Thyroid imbalance can be triggered by prolonged stress. "It's as if someone took their foot off the gas pedal of your body," says Mary Shomon, low-thyroid sufferer, patient advocate, and bestselling author of The Thyroid Diet (HarperCollins, 2004). "When the body is under extreme stress, a lot of the hormones will shift to producing stress hormones, so metabolic [thyroid] and reproductive hormones get out of whack," she says. Thyroid imbalance, which can be hereditary, is also frequently tied to autoimmune disorders.
Do you have adrenal fatigue?
A short fuse ("You did what?!"); a tendency to catch every virus that crosses your path; light-headedness when going from sitting to standing; a tendency to avoid stressful situations; depression; a need to eat frequently to ward off feelings of shakiness and spaciness; chronic allergies. "People with adrenal fatigue just can't get going in the morning. They're ready to go at night—your typical night owl," says Steelsmith.
Acute stress can cause your adrenals to produce an excess of stress hormones. If the stress persists long enough, the adrenals can become fatigued to a point at which they don't produce enough stress hormones, like a car running out of gas.
Do you have insulin resistance?
Significant weight gain around the abdomen; high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides; skin tags (small, benign polyps of excess skin); and infertility.
Insulin resistance occurs when cells throughout the body refuse to accept glucose from insulin, forcing the sugar to be stored in fat cells instead. It's triggered by a combination of stress, a diet high in refined carbohydrates, and a lack of exercise. "It's the end result of a string of bad choices that make you a more likely candidate for heart disease and type 2 diabetes," Steelsmith says. "But with lifestyle changes and a little help from supplementation, people can come out of it."
Do you have estrogen dominance?
Intense PMS with painful, swollen breasts and bloating; heavy periods; lumpy breasts; PMS-associated depression and headaches; grouchiness; anxiety; and fuzzy thinking.
There are a range of reasons why your estrogen levels might be too high. Your thyroid-hormone levels could be low; your liver could be struggling to process and eliminate excess estrogen effectively; you could have too little progesterone (which balances estrogen); you may have been exposed to chemicals that mimic estrogen production (such as those commonly found in pesticides); or chronic constipation could be causing your body to reabsorb estrogen from your stool that would otherwise be excreted.
How to proceed
Although assessing your symptoms can shine a light on a likely hormone imbalance, the best way to know exactly what you're dealing with is to get your hormone levels tested. Saliva tests are accurate indicators and are less expensive and more convenient than blood tests. Your doctor can order saliva tests that assess your levels of thyroid, sex, and stress hormones from any of these labs: Aeron Life Cycles, www.aeron.com; BioHealth, www.biohealth info.com; Diagnos-Techs Lab, www.diagnostechs.com; Genova Diagnostics, www.gdx.net; ZRT Labs, www.salivatest.com.
Find an expert
If you don't have a provider who is open-minded about diagnosing and treating hormone imbalance, your lab can often supply you with a list of nearby practitioners.
Resolving hormonal imbalance takes time, and changes are often gradual. "Try one remedy at a time and see how it affects your whole system for a couple of weeks before you add something else," Shames advises.
Brooklyn-based writer Kate Hanley teaches yoga and is the founder of www.msmindbody.com.