You're Tired All the Time
"If you're logging eight hours in the sack and still waking up groggy, low progesterone levels could be stealing your sleep," says Sara Gottfried, MD, the author of The Hormone Cure. Progesterone naturally plummets with menopause, but it can begin dropping as early as your thirties, when your ovaries start releasing fewer eggs. Because the hormone regulates your internal thermostat, a low level of it may cause your body temperature to yo-yo at night, resulting in night sweats that prevent deep, restorative sleep.
Treat it. Dial the thermostat down to 64 degrees before bed to keep night sweats at bay, Dr. Gottfried suggests. Also, eat lots of vitamin C-rich foods (red bell peppers, oranges, kiwis, broccoli, strawberries, and brussels sprouts). Getting 750 milligrams of C a day may raise progesterone in women with a deficiency, a study in Fertility and Sterility found. If you have period problems, see your ob-gyn to rule out more serious conditions related to low progesterone levels, like endometriosis or endometrial cancer.
You Get Sneezy or Wheezy Before Your Period
Moodiness, headaches, and bloat are annoyances you expect with PMS. But allergies or an asthma attack? Not so much. Turns out, allergy symptoms worsen in some women right before their period. And premenstrual hormonal fluctuations can make it harder for those with asthma to breathe. Again, progesterone may be the culprit: Rising levels in the days before your period coincide with airway inflammation that can set the stage for an asthma flare-up, a study from McMaster University in Canada found. On the flip side, as estrogen levels go up during the first half of your menstrual cycle, airway inflammation goes down. "It's not a simple relationship in which progesterone is bad and estrogen is good; it's more about your individual sensitivity to both hormones," says study author Piush Mandhane, MD, PhD.
Treat it. Keep a journal for a few months recording where you are in your cycle (the first day of your period is day one) and any asthma or allergy symptoms you experience. Then share that info with your doctor. If there's a relationship between the two, your doc may suggest using an asthma inhaler or taking OTC allergy meds preemptively. The pill may also help: Birth control makes your hormones fluctuate less.
You're Feeling Down
Add depression to the list of problems caused by chronic stress. "About half of depressed people have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol," Dr. Gottfried says. Consistently high levels may lower your body's production of mood-stabilizing brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. You know that exercise acts as a buffer against stress, but many women make the mistake of working out too hard. Exercising for 30 minutes at 80 percent of your maximum effort (that's a fast run or an intense Spinning class) can boost cortisol levels by 83 percent, a study in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation found.
Treat it. Vary the intensity of your sweat sessions, limiting hard-core workouts to two or three times a week, and opt for interval training, which doesn't raise cortisol as much, whenever possible, Dr. Gottfried suggests. On other days, do low-intensity activities like yoga or barre class, which have been shown to decrease cortisol production. And change your diet: Research finds that upping your omega-3 fatty acid intake may also rein in out-of-control cortisol. "Aim for 2,000 milligrams a day from a supplement containing both EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, along with foods that are rich in the nutrient, like walnuts, flaxseed, tofu, and grass-fed beef," Dr. Gottfried says. Swallow omega-3 supps in the a.m. (with food to avoid fishy burps) to help keep cortisol levels in check all day.
You've Got Flaky, Itchy Skin
Dry patches are one of the first signs that your thyroid hormone level is low. "These hormones help set your metabolic rate; when you don't have enough, all systems become sluggish," says John Randolph, MD, an ob-gyn and a reproductive endocrinologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The rate at which your skin cells turn over slows, resulting in dryness, redness, and rashes.
Treat it. See your doc if your skin is still desert dry after a month of slathering it with moisturizer, especially if you notice any other signs of an underactive thyroid, such as unexplained weight gain, brittle nails and hair, or if your periods become irregular or MIA, Dr. Isaacs says. He or she will give you a simple blood test to diagnose the disorder, which is usually treated with a synthetic hormone medication that you will need to take long-term. "Skin symptoms should clear up within two to three months," Dr. Isaacs says.
You've Put on Extra Pounds for No Apparent Reason
Lack of zzz's may be affecting your appetite hormones. A new study published in Sleep found that after snoozing for only four hours a night, levels of glucagon-like peptide 1, a hormone that controls satiety, decreased in women. "When you don't feel full, you tend to just keep eating," says study author Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD. In fact, another of her studies showed that women down an average of 329 more calories on days they don't get sufficient sleep.
Treat it. Log adequate pillow time — seven to nine hours a night. And start your day with protein-packed eats to keep hunger hormones in check. Overweight women who ate an egg-and-beef-sausage breakfast consumed 135 fewer calories from evening snacks than those who started their day with a bowl of cereal that had the same number of calories, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The reason: A high-protein breakfast boosts levels of another satiety hormone, peptide YY, all day.
Your Happy Hormones
When they're working right, your hormones are the unsung heroes of your health. Here are seven so-good things they do for you.
Oxytocin, the hormone of love and social connection, helps you bond and create meaningful relationships.
Testosterone gives you vitality and confidence and revs your sex drive. Rawr!
Progesterone acts as nature's Valium to keep you calm.
Thyroid hormone boosts your metabolism and keeps you svelte.
Cortisol triggers the fight-or-flight response to help you handle a life-threatening crisis.
Leptin tells you when to put down the fork or wineglass. Hello, self-control!
Estrogen strengthens your bones and gives you clear skin.
To keep your hormones humming along, eat right, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. And take time to relax and unwind. Women with a lot of job stress are 38 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease, in part because of chronically high cortisol levels, a study in the journal PLOS One found. Luckily, healthy lifestyle habits can offset the effect that stress has on your ticker, other new research revealed.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2013.