Hormones can be tough. We know we need them for our bodies to operate; they work nonstop to control all aspects of our physical and sexual health; but these chemical messengers also shake up our bodies from puberty, through menopause, and beyond. Although we have hormones to thank for making men men and women women, we also recognize that they can swing our moods, give us pimples, and make our hair go haywire. And that's just the beginning.
"Most of us know about how hormones affect moods, digestion, cravings, sleep and sex drive but in fact that complicated dance that occurs between the brains signaling molecules, like FSH and LH, the ovaries and the adrenal glands in fact can impact every single cell in our body"” says Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, MD board certified in OB-GYN and Integrative and holistic medicine.
1. Clear skin, thinking (and then some)
Ever have one of those days where you mean to put dry shampoo in your hair and instead put cooking oil? Your brain just isn't in its right place! Gilberg-Lenz says cognitive function is closely related to our hormones.
"We are more verbally expressive in the first half of our cycle due to increasing estrogen and it can also affect appearance!” Gilberg-Lenz says the healthy glow of pregnancy is a great example.
"Progesterone rises in order to maintain a pregnancy but progesterone also is the dominant female hormone in the second half of our cycle, from ovulation on, called the luteal phase," she says. There is also evidence that at mid cycle—when we are most fertile—our skin is more beautiful and we feel better in in our bodies, causing us to feel and act sexier. Nature (much like our moms) wants us to mate and make babies!
Hormones play a big factor in whether you develop acne, says Dr. David E. Bank, a dermatologist, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, author of Beautiful Skin: Every Woman's Guide to Looking Her Best at Any Age and Founder & Director of The Center For Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in Mt. Kisco, NY. As a general rule, the hormone estrogen diminishes acne, while progesterone stimulates acne.
Hormones cause oil glands to enlarge and to produce more oil during puberty and throughout the teen years. Hormonal fluctuations are strongly correlated with acne breakouts, concurs Joshua Zeichner, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. As hormones surge, for example in the middle of your menstrual period, oils glands in the skin react. The hormones cause the glands to go into overdrive, revving up oil production. This translates into more food for acne-causing bacteria and can clog pores.
Hormonal therapies, like birth control pills and spironolactone, prevent hormones from affecting the skin and can control breakouts.
3. Weight gain
Weight gain is a complex situation, controlled not only by lifestyle factors and emotions, but also by a few different hormones in the body. Thyroid hormones, cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin are just a few of the players, says dermatologist Jessica J. Krant, MD, MPH, founder of Art of Dermatology LLC in New York. "Low thyroid function, or hypothyroidism, can contribute to weight gain because the thyroid gland runs the basic metabolic rate of the body, so a slowdown means less efficiency in processing energy and more weight storage. Cortisol, the body's stress hormone, tells the body to prepare for times of strife, and since our bodies interpret this as possible starvation, it also triggers holding onto extra pounds," Krant explains.
Finally, leptin and ghrelin work as an opposite pair. Leptin tells our bodies we feel satiated, and ghrelin tells us we are hungry. "Studies show that after a poor night of sleep, ghrelin levels are elevated for the entire 24-hour period following," says Krant. So stop reading this and get to bed!
4. Dry skin
Dry skin is largely environmental and age driven, but thyroid hormones can also play a part here. Hypothyroidism untreated eventually can lead to excessively dry skin beyond the normal range, says Krant. Dry skin can also be extra itchy, and scratching can lead to rashes and other problems as well. As estrogen levels lower in menopause, the skin can also become thinner, more brittle, and drier.
5. Hair loss/texture
Hair thinning, patchy hair loss, or loss of shine and bounce quality can sometimes be attributed to hypothyroidism as well, says Krant. Of course healthy hair requires a complex of many vitamins and minerals, so it's not just hormones running the show.
Chronic stress can also cause hair loss and hair thinning, through lack of vitamins but also increased body cortisol levels. Estrogen and testosterone also play a role, especially in androgenetic, or male/female "pattern" hair loss, says Krant.