You probably know hormone imbalance impacts your mood, your weight, and your skin. But how does it affect these life-threatening conditions?
When we talk about serious illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and bone disease, it’s easy to think of them as issues with isolated causes. Diabetes? Problems with insulin. Heart disease? Problems with weight. Bone disease? Problems with calcium. Until you’ve experienced those conditions personally, they can remain abstractions, with vague-seeming causes.
But each of those illnesses can also have strong roots in hormone imbalance, and that’s because our hormonal system is not isolated. Affecting your blood, your brain circuitry, your digestion and more, hormones touch pretty much everything – and the way an imbalance can manifest is sometimes surprising.
Let’s start with diabetes, since the most commonly known culprit (insulin) actually is a hormone. What’s going on there, and how did insulin levels get out of whack?
DIABETES: MORE COMPLICATED THAN YOU THINK
First, let’s get clear on what insulin is, and it’s actual function. From Southwest Integrative Medicine, Dr. Christy Cline explains:
“It is produced by the pancreas and is a critical component in regulating your body’s metabolism, more specifically it regulates the way our bodies process glucose…But, as we mention over and over in our blogs, an imbalance in one area of the body has a noticeable effect on other parts. When a person has insulin-related hormone imbalance, other hormones can become out of balance as well, including testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, thyroid, and progesterone.”
So, we know insulin imbalances can throw everything else into chaos – but does it work in reverse? Can low levels of your other hormones also trigger an insulin imbalance? Let’s look at one potent hormone in particular for females: estrogen. Back to Dr. Cline:
“As doctors learn more about the relationship between the hormones, they have learned that healthy cortisol and estrogen levels in women help to protect them from insulin resistance. We can see this shows up in one of the most common symptoms of hormone imbalance: weight gain. As women produce less estrogen the cortisol seems to have a stronger effect and increase insulin resistance. As the body becomes more resistant to insulin, it begins storing glucose as fat.”
Also interesting? Women with PCOS are commonly shown to both have low levels of progesterone, and increased insulin-resistance. Which isn’t to say that one causes the other, but they are strongly correlated, and likely related to your body’s estrogen levels.
Which is all to say that Type 2 Diabetes is primarily a condition of insulin levels, yes. But when you’re looking for the root cause, it’s helpful to go deeper than your insulin levels, and investigate what threw them off in the first place. (Sometimes, it’s estrogen.)
HEART DISEASE: ESTROGEN LOVES YOUR HEART (AND YOUR HEART LOVES IT)
Societally, we’re finally moving to a place where we accept heart disease as more than a “man’s” disease – it affects women as well, and in significant ways. Here too, estrogen could be a key to understanding root causes of illness.
Research shows that estrogen affects almost every tissue or organ system, including the heart and blood vessels, so let’s turn to the Cleveland Clinic to examine its effects on the cardiovascular system. Estrogen:
- Increases HDL cholesterol (the good kind)
- Decreases LDL cholesterol (the bad kind)
- Promotes blood clot formation, and also causes some changes that have the opposite effect.
- Relaxes, smooths and dilates blood vessels so blood flow increases
- Soaks up free radicals, naturally occurring particles in the blood that can damage the arteries and other tissues.
Now, here’s why the above data points are interesting. Turns out, estrogen levels could tell us a lot about why heart disease is more deadly for women as they get older. Heart disease is actually the number one killer among women over age 65, though women develop heart disease 10 years later than men. However, by age 65, their risk is equal to that of men.
Why is that significant? Because as you can see from the bullets above, healthy estrogen levels play a huge role in cardiovascular functionality. Without enough estrogen, your heart loses those benefits, having to work harder to do the same job. This is one reason why aging women suddenly become more vulnerable to heart disease after their bodies stop producing as much of this critical hormone: their hearts are part of a larger system, and even if they eat right / exercise / follow a healthy lifestyle, that lacking estrogen hurts this all important organ.
BONE DISEASE: HOW YOUR BONES ARE IMPACTED BY ESTROGEN
Estrogen, again? Yes!
By now you can probably see a theme here…unhealthy estrogen levels = a body much more vulnerable to disease. But let’s really break this one down, since your bones’ relationship to estrogen is a bit mysterious.
“Until about age 30, a person normally builds more bone than he or she loses. After age 35, bone breakdown overtakes bone buildup, which causes a gradual loss of bone mass. Once this loss of bone reaches a certain point, a person has osteoporosis.
There is a direct relationship between the lack of estrogen after menopause and the development of osteoporosis. After menopause, bone resorption (breakdown) overtakes the building of new bone. Early menopause (before age 45) and any long phases in which the woman has low hormone levels and no or infrequent menstrual periods can cause loss of bone mass…
Estrogen, a hormone produced by the ovaries, helps protect against bone loss. [It] slows bone loss and improves the body’s absorption and retention of calcium.”
There’s the key: estrogen improves the body’s absorption and retention of calcium. So while calcium is one of the critical components to bone disease, you can understand why improving calcium levels shouldn’t be the only solution. Your body needs adequate estrogen to hang onto it.
By now, you may be thinking to yourself: “gosh, is healthy estrogen the answer to all of my problems?” It’s true that good estrogen levels are a foundational part of your overall health. But as with all of your other hormones, your estrogen is part of an interdependent hormonal system, where each level affects that of the others. Progesterone and estrogen are constantly doing a delicate dance with one another, and this dance can get disrupted by stress, age, and external endocrine disruptors. But the good news? This critical hormonal relationship – and your ensuing, overall hormone health, can be nourished with smart nutrition, targeted supplementation, and clearing your lifestyle of the worst endocrine disruptors.
So the main takeaway is: create a lifestyle strategy that enhances your whole hormonal system. Health will follow, and while you may not be completely invulnerable to disease, you’ll fortify your mind and body greatly if you take care of this system.
ADDITIONAL LINKS + RESOURCES:
 “3 Links Between Diabetes and Hormone Imbalance,” read more at: http://www.swintegrativemedicine.com/blog/bid/153125/3-Links-between-Diabetes-and-Hormone-Imbalance
 “Estrogen and Hormones,” read more at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/16979-estrogen–hormones
 “Menopause & Osteoporosis,” read more at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10091-menopause–osteoporosis