Hidden Signs Your Body Is Trying to Tell You About Your Hormone Imbalance—and What to Do About It

By Kristen Lepore

My hormones are so out of whack today. We've all said it but how often do we take the time to figure out the cause? Unexplained weight gain, acne and painful periods: These are all things we've learned to live with as women. They can also all be signs of a hormonal imbalance.

Teresa Flores is a 36-year-old artist based in Los Angeles. For her, it was a string of painful periods that indicated something was off with her body, and eventually that led to a diagnosis.

"In 2005, my periods became so painful that I would lay in bed shaking in pain for hours. I was under the impression that pain was part of being a woman, so I toughed it out for months until one day the pain took over my body while I was at work," she says.

Her co-workers urged her to go to the hospital. And that one visit was the beginning of a long journey with endometriosis.

"Since then, I've had four surgeries, survived three months of Lupron and every day is a conscious effort to avoid exposure to toxins and hormone disruptors that might flare up the excess of estrogen that my disease thrives from," she says.

Endometriosis is a condition in which the tissue usually found inside the uterus instead grows in other unwanted places like the ovaries, fallopian tubes or on tissue lining the pelvis. When women who have it get their period, the pain can be especially bad, because that displaced tissue has no way of leaving the body. Other symptoms to look out for include heavy periods extending to several days, infertility and painful sex.

One thing we can take away from Flores' experience is to not accept discomfort, pain, fatigue—or whatever we're experiencing—as normal. (This becomes evident when scrolling through her #endowarrior-inspired Instagram account.) So how can we take control of our bodies when something feels awry? How do we know what to look out for?

Dr. Sara Gottfried MD, author of the New York Times bestselling books The Hormone Cure, The Hormone Reset Diet and Younger, says we should all familiarize ourselves with the cortisol hormone, both its role in our bodies and also the ways in which we can keep it properly regulated.

If your cortisol is off, Gottfried says it can cause a slew of other hormones like estrogen, progesterone, thyroid, insulin and testosterone to go off balance as well.

"I find cortisol is off in 91 percent of my patients, and the main sign is feeling tired but wired," she says. "Whacked cortisol can undo all the good work you're doing with diet. All that healthy food may not matter if you have high perceived stress and aren't addressing."

Stress. We've all experienced it. But how do you know when it's a real problem? If you struggle calming down before bed, have disrupted sleep or frequently feel anxious, then something is likely wrong, she says. Even eczema can be an indicator. If you want to do something about it, for starters, Gottfried suggests a "cortisol unlock." In other words, nourish your adrenals. "Your adrenal glands are about the size of a pencil eraser, and sit on top of your kidneys like sentries, on guard and ready to release cortisol, the fight-flight-freeze hormone, when you’re stressed or under threat," she wrote in a blog post on her site.

One way to minimize cortisol is to find quiet time every day. "Adding 5-10 minutes of meditation does wonders for stress-buffering," says Gottfried. You might also consider evaluating your diet. Gottfried says caffeine, sugar and alcohol are major offenders. She believes in a “food first” philosophy based on nutrient-dense foods packed with antioxidants.

"Alcohol raises cortisol, robs you of deep sleep, and lowers metabolism by more than 70 percent for 24 hours. This goes hand-in-hand with changing the way you eat and drink for healthier living," she says. "Remove processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugars and sugar substitutes from your diet. Try to eat only organic for one week to detox your body."

It's not always easy to alter what you eat but it can increase your energy and help you avoid gastrointestinal discomfort, especially if you're dealing with a hormonal disorder like PCOS. Stefania Marghitu, a 30-year-old PhD candidate at the University of Southern California, was diagnosed with PCOS in 2016. She first saw a dermatologist because of her hormonal acne. And that visit led her to a gynecologist who confirmed she had cysts on her ovaries.

"If I don’t eat within my diet, I feel sluggish and bloated so much, and didn’t realize how much it was impacting my mood and the way I carried out my day-to-day life," she says.

Marghitu sticks to a low glycemic diet based on lean meats and vegetables. Even the sugar in fruit can cause a flare-up. Since women with PCOS are often insulin resistant, they have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

"When I spoke with my female family members about it, especially my grandmother, she guessed she had something similar but the medicine back then couldn’t diagnose it. Her diabetes has been very debilitating, and by being lucky enough to know I’m predisposed, it’s changed my whole outlook on health and wellness," Marghitu says.

The biggest takeaway from her road to recovery is this: If something in your body is changing and you don't feel like yourself, speak to a medical professional as soon as possible. 

"I am one of many women who chose to blame myself for things out of my control, and even if it was a sigh of relief, it was not my fault my body changed," she says. "Had I looked into it earlier instead of beating myself up, I’d have saved a lot of negative energy and time into getting things right."

And keep in mind: not everyone experiencing hormonal imbalances will be diagnosed with a condition or disorder. If you have symptoms like low libido, infertility or irregular periods, you can start by speaking with your doctor about testing your hormones in a standard blood test.

"...Specifically request a morning cortisol test in blood," says Gottfried. "You can also consider the Complete Hormones profile test from Genova Diagnostics or the DUTCH test from Precision Analytics. Either will tell you about your adrenals (both short- and long-term function), and your estrogen metabolism, which can tell you if you have too much wear and tear from cortisol."

These types of tests can also shed light on whether you have a modifiable tendency toward breast cancer or a risk of osteoporosis, she says. But whatever the outcome, it's never too late—or early—to get your body in check.