Everything to know about hormone testing

If you’ve been feeling out of whack for a while, your hormones might have the answers about what’s going on. We examine the tests you might want to consider to get a more detailed picture of what’s happening inside your body.

Heavy periods, prolonged acne and fatigue that you can’t shift, even after a full night’s sleep and a cup of coffee, aren’t things to be ignored. They could be little signals that something is out of balance, below the surface.

Hormones are central to how your body functions. The chemical messengers that are produced in your endocrine glands and travel around your bloodstream work as part of an intricate symphony to influence your behaviour, mood, metabolism, menstrual cycle, sexual function and much more.

So if they are even a tiny bit out of balance, the result can profoundly affect your well-being, with symptoms ranging from headaches and cravings to excess facial hair, lack of energy or bloating, intense pain or bleeding during your period. “You can see this clearly in the negative effects of prolonged adrenal stress, in some cases leading to hypothyroidism or difficulties getting pregnant,” Moody’s in-house registered nutritionist Lola Ross says.

Of course all hormones fluctuate, some rhythmically – such as melatonin – some in response to a moment in time – like adrenaline, then throughout the month (that’s why we get hormonal acne and bloating around menstruation time, as well as peaks and troughs in our energy levels) as well as when we age. But if you’re noticing more long-term problems, then it’s something to take note of and examine further, rather than just put up with.

“Our bodies carry out millions of complex functions each day and rely on hormones to support the many physiological actions that help to keep us healthy, functioning and alive,” Ross explains. “The interconnectedness of our endocrine system means that if one gland is under stress from either external or internal factors, such as poor diet or urban pollution, and not functioning optimally, it can have a negative influence on other hormone-producing glands.”

Often there are small tweaks we can do ourselves to help prevent, maintain or manage imbalances – for example through nutrition or correcting sleep patterns – once we understand the cause of the imbalance. “When the stressors are removed, hormones have the ability to get  back in balance and leave room for the body to heal,” Ross explains.


Here are the tests to consider talking to your doctor, nutritionist or naturopath about:

THE STRESS TEST

The symptoms: weight gain around the mid-section, acne, easily bruised skin, difficulty concentrating, out-of-sync sleep/wake cycle, fatigue and low energy.

The hormone: Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It works with insulin to balance blood sugar, energy levels and is strongly linked to thyroid health.

When it’s working well it operates as part of a natural daily (circadian) rhythm – rising as you wake, then falling and rising at key points throughout the day. When faced with stress it’s responsible for pulling the trigger on the body’s fight or flight response (which manifests itself through increased blood pressure among other signals). Prolonged stress can lead to interference with melatonin and the release of leptin – the hormone released from our thighs and buttocks which regulate fat burning. The best way to measure this is in saliva over 24 hours.

What will it tell you? Raised cortisol levels can have a negative knock-on effect on the rest of your hormones because they are so closely linked. Low cortisol could be a sign that your adrenal function is compromised.

THE FERTILITY ASSESSORS

The symptoms: You’re struggling to get pregnant and think your hormones might have the answers. Because female fertility is governed by a range of hormones, there are a few to consider.

The hormone: Luteinising Hormone (LH) is produced by the pituitary gland controlling the menstrual cycle and ovulation.

What will it tell you? LH is linked to fertility, menopause and PCOS and usually peaks before ovulation.

The hormone: Oestradiol is a form of oestrogen produced in the ovaries. It governs the female reproductive system and female characteristics including breast development.

What will it tell you? Low oestradiol suggests the ovaries aren’t producing eggs. Useful for fertility and menopause.

The hormone: Progesterone is produced in the ovaries and plays important roles in the menstrual cycle and in maintaining the early stages of pregnancy. Progesterone levels should be low at the beginning of every period and peak after ovulation.

What will it tell you? If you’re ovulating and/or having fertility issues.

THE PCOS TEST

The hormone: Testosterone is also produced in the ovaries and is essential, along with oestrogen, for the health of the reproductive system.

What will it tell you? High levels of testosterone may indicate polycystic ovaries, which can affect fertility.

Another one to consider: Glucose Tolerance testing.

What will it tell you? How quickly dietary sugars are cleared from the blood. Poor glucose clearance can be a symptom of PCOS, while insulin resistance can indicate pre-diabetes which, while historically affected older, overweight groups, can now be seen in younger, healthy weight-range individuals.

PERIOD PROBLEMS

The symptoms: Heavy or irregular periods; painful cramps; acne. None of these symptoms should be ignored as they could be signals of underlying hormonal problems that need to be addressed.

The hormone: Prolactin is produced by the pituitary gland and while it controls the production of breast milk, it has also been shown to help with more than 300 functions in the body.

What will it tell you? Raised levels in women who aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding are linked to fertility problems and irregular periods.

THE MENOPAUSE TESTS

The symptoms: Hot flushes, vaginal dryness, night sweats, sleep problems and mood changes are some of the signals that your body might be going through the menopause. As with fertility and periods, it is governed by different hormones.

The hormone: Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) is produced by the pituitary gland. It’s important for the maturation of eggs in the ovaries.

What will it tell you? Raised FSH can suggest reduced ovarian reserve and is also linked to menopause as egg production lowers.

The hormone: DHEA or Dehydroepiandrosterone. Like cortisol, DHEA is produced by the adrenal glands and is the precursor to both testosterone and oestrogen. It has strong links with thyroid health and declines with age.

What will it tell you? Disruption to DHEA levels is linked to menopause symptoms, menstrual irregularity and infertility.

THE SKIN HEALTH TESTS

The symptoms: Acne, along with constipation and a low libido, are all signs that you might be suffering from a hormonal imbalance that topical skin products just won’t touch.

The hormone: Oestradiol is a form of oestrogen produced in the ovaries.

What will it tell you? High oestradiol is linked to higher than normal levels of oestrogen, or oestrogen dominance, which upsets the normal balance of hormones and can lead to symptoms such as acne, constipation, low libido, depression, as well as an increased risk of oestrogen-driven womb and breast cancer.

VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY

The symptoms: Fatigue, muscle pain and depression can be signs that you’ve got a hormonal imbalance.

The hormone: Vitamin D (not a hormone, but a biomodulator vitamin). It acts as a cell regulator and exerts a wide-reaching effect throughout the body. It performs extensive functions in the body from regulating inflammation, insulin and mood as well as influencing the production and integrity of bones.

What will it tell you? Deficiency can be linked to poor bone health which becomes increasingly important around the menopause. Low levels may also be linked to imbalance in the female sex hormones.

A FULL THYROID INVESTIGATION

Why you might need it: The thyroid regulates metabolism, including body temperature, heart rate, growth, energy production, the musculoskeletal system and brain health: basically every cell in the body needs thyroid hormones to function. If you’re struggling to lose weight or have a low mood, it’s worth exploring the thyroid hormones.

What will it tell you? An imbalance of either high or low levels of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) are linked to hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid). If you get your thyroid tested by your GP, they usually just test some of the thyroid hormones (usually TSH and T4).

But it’s also worth looking at FT3 levels when FT4 is normal and hyperthyroid is suspected. FT3 levels are usually raised and are the first to show change. Low levels of T3 are linked to depression.

 

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