When people talk about hormones, it’s normally related to a specific event, like menopause, pregnancy, or a monthly menstrual cycle. Hormones play a big role in all of these, of course, but what people don’t talk about (and many don’t know) is that hormones play a huge role in every aspect of our body’s functioning every single day. That means that if your hormones are out of whack, there are consequences, including some particularly pesky ones like weight gain and hormonal belly fat. Read on to learn more about female hormonal imbalance, the causes of hormonal belly fat (including a deep dive on cortisol and belly fat), natural remedies for hormonal imbalance in females, the best supplements for hormonal imbalance, and more.
You can also listen to an audio version of this guide on The WellBe Podcast.
What Is Hormonal Imbalance?
Hormones are basically chemical messengers that tell the cells in your body what to do and support them in doing it. The human body secretes some 50 or so different hormones, each of which has a specific purpose in the body. Most of us know that hormones are responsible for most sex-related processes, but they also help control many more basic bodily processes, including metabolism.
Hormonal imbalance occurs when you have too much or too little of a certain hormone. Since your hormones all talk to each other constantly, an imbalance in one hormone has a domino effect, causing changes in the entire body and taking a toll on your health. One downside of the stunningly complex interplay between hormones is that it’s fairly easy for things to get thrown off balance.
Hormones are produced by the glands of the endocrine (aka hormonal) system. While any of the hormones produced by any of these glands could potentially get out of balance, certain types of hormones are usually involved when we talk about hormonal imbalance. The three major hormonal systems typically involved in hormonal imbalance are sex hormones (estrogen, testosterone, etc), adrenal hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, etc), and thyroid hormones (T3, T4, etc).
Because hormones and their functions are so diverse, the signs of hormonal imbalance are equally varied. However, some of the more common signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalance are:
- Irregular period or amenorrhea
- Mood swings or very intense PMS
- Change in sex drive
- Hair loss or thinning
- Muscle weakness
- Digestive issues
- Skin issues
- Weight loss or gain
Hormonal Imbalance and Weight Gain
So many factors are involved in a person’s weight, but one that’s often overlooked is their hormonal function. There are some specific hormonal conditions that are associated with weight gain — such as an underactive thyroid, PCOS, or menopause — but even for women without a diagnosed condition, female hormone imbalance can often be the culprit for weight gain. This is largely because one of the most important things your hormones do is to regulate metabolism, fullness, hunger, and energy.
Let’s look more specifically at how hormonal imbalance could potentially contribute to weight gain:
- Estrogen acts as a facilitator for leptin, the hormone that tells your brain that you’re full, and low levels of the estrogen have been associated with low levels of leptin. That means that you’ll feel hungry even when you’ve eaten enough, leading to weight gain.
- The opposite is true with testosterone: high testosterone can mean low leptin, so if your testosterone levels are too high, you’ll feel hungry all the time.
- Estrogen is involved in fat distribution throughout the body, and so low levels of estrogen can lead to hormonal belly fat, where your excess weight is concentrated in your stomach rather than hips, thighs, or butt.
- The hormone insulin is involved in metabolizing blood sugar. If your body becomes resistant to insulin, your cells can’t properly absorb sugar from the bloodstream, which leaves your cells starving for fuel. This, in turn, triggers your body to eat more, leading to weight gain. While insulin resistance is usually associated with diabetes, people without diabetes can be resistant to insulin. Only about half of the people who develop insulin resistance go on to develop diabetes.
These are some of the most common ways that a hormonal imbalance can lead to weight gain. The one biggie we left out is cortisol, which we’ll look at a bit more in-depth now.
The Link Between Cortisol and Belly Fat
Let’s face it: it’s a pretty stressful time to be alive. That means we should all be aware of how the hormone cortisol is impacting our lives and bodies. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” is produced by the adrenal glands. It puts your body into a fight-or-flight state, flooding your bloodstream with glucose and enhancing the brain’s ability to use it. It also stops or slows down any non-essential bodily functions, like digestion.
This was all well and good when we were living in caves and being hunted by tigers: your body would be flooded by cortisol when it saw a threat, then once the threat passed, cortisol levels would drop and your body could get back to functioning normally. The issue today is that many of us go around with chronically elevated cortisol levels, which can also mean high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and impaired digestion. All of that is often bad news for your weight and waistline.
Plus, cortisol is specifically linked to extra abdominal fat, hence the dreaded hormonal belly fat. Like estrogen, cortisol impacts fat distribution, except with cortisol, high levels cause excess weight to be stored around the organs in your midsection (as opposed to estrogen, where low levels are the cause). Research shows that chronically stressed monkeys with increased cortisol levels also have increased abdominal obesity, and a 2018 review of multiple human-based studies confirms that having high cortisol levels over a long-term period is associated with extra abdominal fat. Another study of men in Sweden found that those with the most stress in their lives (and thus the highest cortisol levels) had the biggest beer bellies.
Besides the biological relationship between cortisol and belly fat, there are also behavioral factors at play. We can probably all relate to reaching for unhealthy food when we’re stressed out (or just eating too much of any food), and so high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain in this manner. Plus, stress can cause digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, and IBS, all of which can cause gas and belly bloating.
What’s more, there are actually increased health risks if your fat is stored mostly around your abdomen. This abdominal fat, also called visceral fat, is found around your liver, intestines, and other vital organs. According to research, carrying fat in this area (as opposed to, say, hips and thighs or your limbs) can increase your risk for various serious and deadly conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and asthma.
On top of all that, there’s yet another layer to the interplay between cortisol and belly fat. While cortisol increases belly fat, belly fat can also increase cortisol levels! This is especially true for women, where it creates a vicious cycle that’s difficult to stop, leading to increased hormonal imbalance and associated health issues.
What Causes Female Hormone Imbalance?
So it’s clear that hormonal imbalance is a big issue that we should all take steps to avoid. To do that, it’s important to pinpoint just how female hormone imbalance occurs. There are a number of ways this can occur, and sometimes it’s a combination of factors. Here are some of the primary causes:
- Stress: As we outlined above, excessive and long-term stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, putting your adrenal and other hormones out of balance.
- Poor gut health: The gut produces about 90% of your body’s serotonin, the “feel good hormone” that helps stabilize mood and increase feelings of well-being. So if your gut health is off, your serotonin levels can be seriously affected. In addition, intestinal permeability, aka “leaky gut,” can disrupt the bacteria known as estrobolome, which metabolize and affect your levels of estrogen. This, in turn, can impact your weight, libido and mood.
- Chronic inflammation: Inflammation is not actually a local response, it’s a hormone-controlled process. Hormones act as modulators of your reaction against trauma, infections, and other sources of inflammation such as unhealthy foods and alcohol, so if your body is in a chronic inflammatory state, your hormones will be impacted.
- Environmental factors: We live in a chemical-filled world today, and many of these chemicals are known disruptors of the endocrine system (the bodily system through which hormones communicate). While the list of environmental endocrine disruptors is long, some of the most common sources are pesticides, industrial chemicals in many plastics and other materials, and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are chemicals used in water-resistant materials and non-stick cookware, among other products.
- Medications: Certain medications — including birth control, opioid-based pain medications and anti-epileptic drugs — have an impact on hormone levels.
- A specific condition: In certain cases, the root cause of female hormone imbalance may be an underlying condition, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s disease (associated with elevated cortisol levels), diabetes, PCOS, menopause, pregnancy, and more. But remember, most of these conditions have a root cause behind them, so don’t settle for “you have PCOS” if a doctor tells you that. PCOS, for example, has many root causes.
6 Natural Remedies for Hormonal Imbalance in Females
Physicians may prescribe pharmaceuticals for balancing hormones, but we know that taking medications indefinitely can often do more harm than good. Thankfully, there are a variety of lifestyle-based natural remedies for hormonal imbalance in females. The exact method you choose will depend on what’s going on with your specific hormones, but trying out one or several of the below strategies should help you bring your hormones back into balance:
- Adjust your diet: Certain foods can have an effect on the levels of certain hormones. For instance, cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale) contain the compound diindolylmethane, which helps the body process estrogen. Fermented foods can also promote estrogen metabolism. On the other hand, highly processed foods can be disruptive to your hormones, both because of the preservatives and chemicals they contain and because these calorically-dense foods are more likely to cause weight gain, which has its own effect on hormones.
- Keep your toxic burden low. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are everywhere — in food packaging, food, plastic containers, fabrics, toys, pesticides, cosmetics, and more — and being exposed to too many will almost certainly have an impact on your hormones. Choose only vetted, non-toxic products to bring into your home (or put in your mouth or on your body). The WellBe Spark Health Program is a great way to get any endocrine disruptors out of your home, since a big focus is on cleaning up and cleaning out any toxic chemicals you might have around.
- Try seed cycling: As we explored in-depth in our interview with Britt Martin, eating certain seeds at certain times of the month may help with female hormone imbalance. The seeds used are flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds, and by eating specific amounts at different stages of your menstrual cycle, you can support a healthy balance of female sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone.
- Reduce your stress: Cortisol is one of the power-player hormones, and in today’s high-stress world, it’s easy for your levels to get out of balance. Given that this can throw tons of other hormones off (not to mention the link between cortisol and belly fat), it’s important to keep cortisol levels low by reducing your stress. Try a daily meditation or mindfulness practice.
- Mix in HIIT workouts. If your hormone troubles involve leptin, the hormone that tells you you’re full, high intensity interval training can help. Research shows that HIIT workouts increase your leptin sensitivity, so that your body is better able to register when leptin is being produced and let your brain know that you’ve eaten enough.
- Get adequate rest. Sleep deprivation has a ton of repercussions for your health, and hormone imbalance is among them. When you don’t sleep enough, you have elevated levels of ghrelin, the hormone that makes you feel hungry. Prioritizing your sleep can help restore proper ghrelin levels.
All of these natural remedies for hormonal imbalance in females can help restore proper levels of hormones, which will have a huge positive impact on your overall health. Plus, most of these strategies are healthy lifestyle habits that we should all be adopting anyway!
If you think you’re dealing with hormonal imbalance and want to find a holistic doctor or practitioner who can help you get to the bottom of the issue, our Holistic Health Concierge Service can help you find a custom recommendation. Or, you can use the Concierge Service to evaluate whether the products you’re using are disrupting your hormones and find safe alternatives!
Supplements for Hormonal Imbalance
The lifestyle changes outlined above are powerful natural remedies for hormonal imbalance in females. However, if you want to give some extra oomph to your hormone-balancing journey, you can also add in some supplements for hormonal imbalance. Again, what works for you will depend on what kind of hormonal imbalance you’re dealing with, but we’ll give you the rundown on the major ones that research has shown can bring hormones back into balance. If you decide to take supplements for hormonal imbalance, be sure to consult with your doctor first.
The Best Supplements for Hormonal Imbalance / Supplements for Hormonal Belly Fat
- Omega-3: Research shows that omega-3 supplements can improve insulin sensitivity, so this is a good option if your hormonal imbalance is caused by insulin resistance. Additionally, fish oil (which contains omega-3’s) has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol as well as perceived stress, and since the link between excess cortisol and belly fat is so strong, that makes fish oil another one of the best supplements for hormonal belly fat.
- Glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1): This is a hormone produced in your gut when you eat, and is very important for stabilizing blood sugar levels and making you feel full. If your GLP-1 levels are low, you can take a GLP-1 supplement, or try probiotics, which research suggests may help increase GLP-1 levels.
- Vitamin D3: As we explained in our vitamin D guide, vitamin D isn’t actually a vitamin, but a “prohormone,” which is a substance that your body converts into a hormone. Because of this, vitamin D3 is important for keeping your hormone levels steady, and research has shown that D3 deficiencies are linked to obesity.
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA): This hormone plays a role in regulating the major male and female sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) which, as we explained above, can caus