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Overview of Hormonal Imbalance

Hormones are chemicals that send signals between cells in the body, regulating everything from a person's blood pressure to how well they sleep at night. They play roles in such diverse processes as growth, cell repair, appetite, metabolism, fertility, reproduction, and regulation of pain. These physiological messengers are produced throughout the body, and through their communication with our organs and one another, they help maintain a balance designed to keep a person happy and healthy.

Hormone signaling begins with release of the hormone from a gland, an organ that both synthesizes the signaling molecules and secretes them. Exocrine glands, such as sweat, salivary, and sebaceous glands, release hormones into ducts to deliver them to their destinations. Endocrine glands, including the sex glands (ovaries and testes), thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, and pituitary gland, instead release hormones directly into the bloodstream where they must then travel to the appropriate target organ. Each hormone recognizes where it is meant to be through recognition of a receptor protein on the cells of the destination organ. The hormone and its receptor fit together like a lock and key, guaranteeing that hormones will only affect the intended organs. When the targeted organ senses that there is a hormone bound to its receptor, it responds to the signal, changing the balance of the body's chemistry. Hormone release is regulated through feedback from the body, a clever strategy that allows the body to keep itself balanced.

Sometimes, however, the delicate balance of hormones is disrupted. Hormonal imbalances can occur in both men and women of any age, though it is most commonly seen in adults beyond middle age. There are naturally occurring changes in body chemistry as people age, such as menopause, which can affect hormonal release from glands, thus disturbing the balance. Diabetes is another fairly common hormonal imbalance that occurs when there is not enough insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas that affects metabolism. Thyroid over- and underactivity are also quite common and sometimes detected even in children. All these imbalances can manifest themselves in a wide variety of physical and emotional symptoms. Sustained hormonal imbalance can have severe and potentially fatal complications, so diagnosis and treatment is critical for general health and well-being.

Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalance

Because hormones affect so many different aspects of physiology, the outward symptoms tend to be varied and nonspecific. It may feel to the patient as though they are simply tired or upset after an unusually stressful or busy week. With a hormonal imbalance, a person may suffer from anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, and poor concentration. Irritability and mood swings are also quite common. Hormonal balance is critical for our emotional well-being, so radical changes in the way we feel about ourselves and interact with others may indicate a problem.

Some physical indicators of a possible hormonal imbalance include sudden weight gain, acne, hair loss, night sweats, and reduced libido. Women may experience intense premenstrual symptoms, vaginal dryness, yeast infections, and hot flashes. Some women also suffer from unusually heavy, irregular, or painful periods. Infertility may also be the result of a hormonal imbalance.

If a hormonal imbalance is suspected, your doctor can take blood, saliva, or urine samples for laboratory tests designed to detect hormone levels and determine whether they're within a normal range. Normally, these are simple immunoassays, in which antibodies for specific hormones are applied to the sample and then detected using secondary antibodies which will tell the doctor how much of the hormone was found by the primary antibody. Immunoassays have been streamlined such that many of them can be done very quickly and in a single step (home pregnancy tests are immunoassays, for example). Because the antibodies are designed to recognize specific hormones, these tests are also extremely accurate. Doctors can perform many of these antibody diagnostics on your sample to generate a hormone profile to help determine a course of therapy.

Risk factors of Hormonal Imbalance

Some of the risk factors associated with hormonal imbalance are emotional. Untreated hormonal imbalance can lead to intense anxiety, depression, and lethargy. The irritability, inability to concentrate, and mood swings may also take a significant emotional toll on both the patients and those around them.

There are also numerous physical risks associated with hormonal imbalance, the severity depending on which hormones are not at ideal levels and how long the imbalance is sustained. The dangers of insufficient insulin, for example, are well-documented in studies of diabetic patients. If insulin levels are not controlled, the blood sugar imbalance can lead to serious complications, including nerve damage, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and blindness.

The adrenal glands above the kidneys are divided into two structures that each produce different hormones, all involved in regulating essential body functions. The adrenal cortex synthesizes corticosteroid hormones, which help control metabolism, blood electrolyte levels, inflammation, stress response, and immune response. The other structure, the adrenal medulla, is the source of several hormones that communicate with the nervous system, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine. Adrenal hormone imbalance can result in depression, fatigue, dehydration, and susceptibility to infection.

In the case of hypothyroidism, where the thyroid is producing insufficient hormones, untreated patients may develop heart disease and high cholesterol. Pregnant women with hypothyroidism may have significant complications with their pregnancies, including premature labor, anemia, pre-eclampsia, and other conditions that may threaten the life of their baby.

As middle age approaches, women are at risk for hormonal imbalances associated with the onset of menopause. During this time, the ovaries cease to function, inducing an imbalance in estrogen and progesterone. Untreated, these imbalances put women at risk for osteoporosis, breast and uterine cancer, and heart disease.

Next Steps:

Poor health can significantly affect your life. Improve your life by changing to good health. Call our patient coordinator at 1-212-679-9667 or click on Request an Appointment to schedule an appointment with one of our doctors for evaluation and testing.

We are located at: Patients Medical PC, 800 Second Avenue, Suite 900 (Between 42nd & 43rd Street), Manhattan, NYC, New York, NY 10017.



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Article Last Updated: 08/26/2015