You’ve probably heard a lot about hormones lately and how they impact nearly every facet of your life. More and more people, as well as medical professionals, are taking to social media to educate and encourage people to better understand how hormones work in the human body and how they might be responsible for a myriad of chronic symptoms many of us experience every day.
What are hormones?
Put simply, hormones are a group of chemical messengers in our body that are produced by certain glands, tissues, and organs that make up the endocrine system, explains Jenna Volpe, RDN, LD, CLT, functional registered dietitian. “Hormones get released into the blood and circulate throughout the body, traveling and signaling to other specific tissues, organs, and organ systems, dictating specific actions in the body—for example, the thyroid gland makes thyroid hormones which regulate energy metabolism and many other aspects of health,” she says.
Hormones impact pretty much every aspect of our health and wellbeing. Our blood sugar, for example, is regulated by the hormone insulin and our blood pressure is regulated by the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, Volpe explains. “The menstrual cycle, energy metabolism, fertility, skin, mood, stress level, digestion, and even heart muscle contraction, too involve hormones that play a big role in how we feel and function moment to moment!”
Why are hormones getting so much attention right now?
A rise in social media and accounts dedicated to educating followers about their own health has led to a surge in the understanding of hormones and how they affect our everyday lives. It’s also inspired people to take it upon themselves to test their hormones to better understand whether or not certain hormones in their body might be out of whack.
“The mainstream medical approach addresses chronic conditions by prescribing pills to manage or mask symptoms versus trying to figure out what’s going on at the root-cause level,” says Volpe. “People are waking up to the fact that only dealing with what’s going on from a surface-level perspective is like trying to weed a garden bed but only pulling out the part of the weed that is visible above-ground—until you dig deep and take a look at what’s going on below the ground level, problems will keep returning or getting worse over time.”
Hormone testing can provide a better perspective and a more full picture as to what might be going on in someone’s body beyond what is routinely checked at a typical doctor’s appointment. “The purpose is to rule out, assess, and address hormonal imbalance as a potential root cause of unwanted chronic health symptoms,” explains Volpe, who feels that hormone testing empowers citizens to learn, assess and understand their own health in a more clear and concise manner.
Who would benefit most from hormone testing?
While most functional and medical docs who specialize in hormones don’t recommend hormone testing to every single person, anyone having strange bodily symptoms that they can’t seem to understand certainly can get a better picture of what might be going on should they test their hormones. For example, anyone experiencing weight management issues, changes in their energy levels, menstrual cycle irregularities, as well as changes in skin, hair and body temperature may benefit from testing their thyroid hormone, explains naturopathic doctor Rachel Corradetti-Sargeant, N.D. “Those who are experiencing infertility can also benefit from hormone testing because it can help to determine what the root of the infertility might be,” she says. “Those who are experiencing changes with their menstrual cycles suggestive of perimenopause can also benefit from hormone testing in order to rule out other possible issues with their cycles.”
How (and where) to test your thyroid
The most research-supported approach for testing hormones is through blood testing, which can be done via a requisition from your healthcare provider. “Some hormones have to be tested at certain times of day, certain times of the month, and even while fasted,” explains Dr. Corradetti-Sargeant. “It’s important to listen to your healthcare provider’s instructions to be sure you are testing correctly.”
The most common blood hormone test is a complete thyroid panel. “In most clinical settings, only the ‘TSH’ (thyroid stimulating hormone) level is measured to assess thyroid function; however, looking directly at thyroid hormone levels as well as thyroid antibody levels (if thyroid hormones are out of balance) can help people to better understand the full picture of what’s going on,” explains Volpe. “Looking at the thyroid antibody levels in addition to TSH will allow people to determine whether they have an autoimmune thyroid condition or not.”
Newer sex hormone testing is being done through urinary metabolite testing. One such urine test is called the DUTCH test, which stands for “dried urine test for comprehensive hormones.” “There are different variations of the DUTCH test which offer certain levels of assessment in regard to sex hormones as well as a baseline stress response, cortisol awakening response, detailed hormonal fluctuations, and more,” says Volpe. “This type of hormone testing is unique and cutting-edge because unlike blood tests and saliva tests, dried urine tests are the only way to measure and quantify the presence of hormonal metabolites, which can be key indicators of more subclinical (versus acute) imbalances.” She recommends this type of test for people with PCOS or any type of monthly cycle irregularity.
There’s also serum fasting insulin, which differs from testing blood sugar. “Many people with metabolic syndrome or PCOS tend to have elevated fasting insulin hormone levels, despite having normal blood sugar,” explains Volpe. “Elevated fasting insulin (hyperinsulinemia) is a chronic condition that often flies under the radar.” High fasting insulin levels, she explains, are linked with increased risk of multiple cardiovascular conditions as well as PCOS and metabolic syndrome.
Should you test your hormones?
While hormone testing is not absolute, and is merely a snapshot in time—telling you how your body is working right now—it can be quite helpful in allowing you to better understand your health as well as the root of certain unwanted chronic health symptoms or conditions, explains Volpe. “ When it comes to hormone testing, working with a functional medicine team (such as a functional medicine doctor and functional dietitian) will go a long way to help people better understand their test results and take strategic, evidence-based action accordingly!” she adds.