It's no secret that the human body is complex, and sometimes, it can be hard for us to grasp just how much hormone imbalances can impact us, especially when it comes to estrogen. And since estrogen is so important to reproductive health and overall wellbeing, we might not consider all the possible things that happen when your estrogen levels aren't balanced.
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, estrogen is a sex hormone that plays a role in the reproductive development of people with ovaries. One of estrogen's primary functions is to regulate the menstrual cycle, but it also impacts the urinary tract, the heart, and the blood vessels.
There are several different illnesses that can impact your hormones, including polycystic ovary syndrome. Mayo Clinic says that symptoms of PCOS can not only cause irregular periods, but lead to elevated levels of androgens, or hormones that can contribute to excessive hair growth, and acne. PCOS can also cause cysts to develop on the ovaries. If you are experiencing any of these issues, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor to see if a hormonal imbalance is to blame.
Here are eight fascinating things that can happen when your estrogen levels aren't balanced, according to experts.
1. Breast Swelling And Tenderness
John Hopkins Medicine notes that since estrogen and progesterone are both involved in breast changes — like tissue development or milk production — an imbalance in these hormones can lead to pain or swelling. However, if progesterone levels are balanced, it may offset some of the pain, Dr. Jennifer Landa, chief medical officer of BodyLogicMD Orlando, tells Bustle. According to Dr. Landa, if the swelling and tenderness is "mild and transient," right before menstruation, you probably don't need to see your doctor. "However, if it is severe and frequent then it may be a sign of a hormonal imbalance that one may seek a hormone specialist to deal with," Dr. Landa says.
2. Leaky Gut
According to naturopathic doctor Serena Goldstein, elevated estrogen levels erode the lining of our gut, which in turn can lead to indigestion, food sensitivities, gas, bloating, and other digestive concerns. "In fact, gut bacteria that's out of balance can actually unbind estrogen from it's binding protein, allowing it to recirculate in the system instead of getting excreted as waste through out body," Dr. Goldstein says.
3. Mood Swings
Hormonal imbalances can have a way of impacting your mood. Narwa Azab, Ph.D. writes in Psychology Today that changes in levels of estrogen are immediately understood by the brain. That's why when estrogen significantly decreases in people experiencing menopause, they tend to experience memory issues and mood swings as well. Azab also says that when people are under stress, progesterone and estrogen can be thrown out of balance, which can lead to changes in mood.
According to Jessica Bauer, MD, of Conceptions Florida, sleep disturbances, including insomnia, are a common symptom of your body not making enough estrogen. Estrogen exerts its effects throughout the body including in your brain. "The area of the brain that controls the sleep and wake cycle is no exception," Dr. Bauer says. In other words, an estrogen imbalance may significantly alter a woman's sleep and wake cycles.
5. Changes In Vaginal pH
The loss of estrogen also contributes to changes in the vaginal pH, Dr. Landa says. "This change can increase the risk of vaginal infections such as yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis leading to symptoms such as excess vaginal discharge," Dr. Landa says. If you notice abnormal discharge (thin, foul-smelling, thin, thick, etc.), make sure to see your doctor.
6. Foggy Thinking
According to registered nurse and founder of Remedies For Me, Rebecca Lee, low levels of estrogen can lead to difficulty concentrating and remembering. "This can occur during your period, in the time leading up to menopause (perimenopause), and in menopause itself," Lee says.
7. Irregular Bleeding
"Female periodic cycles are governed by two to three hormones and the way they go up and down in a repetitive and rhythmic fashion each month," Dr. Richard Honaker, Chief Medical Officer of Your Doctors Online, tells Bustle. However, when that rhythm is disturbed, the lining of the womb "sloughs off irregularly" which either leads to spotting, an unexpected period, or a missed period, Dr. Honaker says. If you notice this happening frequently, talk to your doctor about it ASAP.
8. Hair Loss / Gain
Estrogen plays a significant role when it comes to our hair. According to Dr. Bauer, high estrogen levels give us thick, full hair. "But, when our levels plummet such as after giving birth or during menopause, you lose more than you gain. Lower estrogen levels push the growth cycle of hair toward the resting or shedding phase," Dr. Bauer says.
All in all, human bodies are complicated, and hormonal imbalances can present itself in a variety of physical ways. If you feel like you have any of the above symptoms, you may want to confer with your doctor and come up with a treatment and game plan option.
Editor's Note: This piece was updated from its original version on July 3, 2019 to meet Bustle's editorial standards.