If you could write a love letter to your hormones, what would you say? We’d tell these little chemical messengers how thankful we are for all the hard work they do and their contribution to helping us live our best lives, when they’re in loving synergistic balance, that is. When these tiny building blocks to our body are out of balance, they can cause several health issues and symptoms, and even significantly impact our skin. Because our skin continually changes in reflection to our current state of health, hormonal imbalances can show themselves in many skin conditions. (see our article about the art of Face Mapping) Our skin is made up of millions upon millions of sebaceous (oil) glands with unique receptors that are designed to be influenced by hormones. For instance, have you ever noticed a breakout before your monthly period? Or a rash as a result from stress? These are all examples of how our skin can reflect what's happening with our hormones.
Before we dive into how hormones affect our skin and ways to help them stay in balance, let's take it back to high school biology 101 and review the most common hormones and how they work. This information will help us understand our hormones, so we can be equipped to listen and give them what they need in order for them to be happy, and for our bodies and skin to thrive.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are messengers that are secreted directly into the bloodstream, where they travel to various organ systems to coordinate specific functions. There are numerous hormones in the body, all designed to do multiple actions, including:
- Body growth and development
- Reproductive system
- Mood and cognitive function
- Body temperature
- and the list flows on
It all begins with a hormone called pregnenolone, the parent hormone (aka the mother of all hormones), which can become any other steroid hormone-like DHEA, cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone. She's made in the adrenals (the tiny gland on top of our kidney) thanks to cholesterol. Pregnenolone then becomes DHEA, a precursor hormone to testosterone, DHT, some estrogen, and cortisol. Depending on gender, pregnenolone can travel to the ovaries to convert to testosterone, progesterone, and estradiol or travel to the testes and combine with DHEA to become testosterone.
Note: As we get older, pregnenolone production decreases, thereby decreasing the production of its counterpart hormones, which is why we associate some symptoms with getting older, like a memory not as sharp as it was in our youth, for instance.
Understanding Hormone Types at-a-glance:
Estrogen: Probably the most well-known "female" hormone, which is actually needed by both males and females. While it’s one of the primary sex hormones for females, estrogen does so much more, including maintaining cognitive brain function and keeping our bones and cardiovascular system healthy. Estrogen can be broken down into three major types:
- Estrone (E1): the estrogen used after menopause.
- Estradiol (E2): the most circulating form of estrogen in women of childbearing age and the typical estrogen type in males.
- Estriol (E3): the primary estrogen during pregnancy
Estrogen has a significant impact on skin-health since it causes increased collagen production, affects skin-thickness, skin hydration, wound healing, enhanced barrier function of the skin, and is anti-inflammatory.
Testosterone: The most common "male" hormone, but like estrogen, it’s found in both males and females and has many uses beyond a sex hormone. Testosterone is responsible for facial hair, androgenic male features, muscle mass, how fat is stored, and red blood cell production. Testosterone production begins to diminish around age 30, and if testosterone gets out of balance, you could develop an androgenic ratio imbalance, which is when the estrogen: testosterone ratio is off, resulting in too much testosterone or causing estrogen dominance.
Thyroid hormones: The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits in the lower part of your neck below your Adam's apple. This unsung hero impacts so much in the body, and it's very easy for something to go amiss in the thyroid, causing a catalyst of changes throughout the body.
The pituitary gland produces a hormone called TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone). The thyroid receives this TSH and, with iodine from the foods we eat, triggers the thyroid to produce two essential hormones; T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine). The thyroid produces mostly T4, which converts into the active form of T3.
T3 is the hormone responsible for muscle control, digestion, heart function, metabolism, bone health, and more. When thyroid hormones get out of whack, it can cause thyroid disease as well as other issues. Too much T3 causes hyperthyroidism (Grave's disease), an overworking thyroid, and too little T3 causes hypothyroidism (Hashimoto's disease) resulting in an under-working thyroid.
Note: On average, 1 in 3 women have some form of thyroid-related issues and don't even know it! That's why it's important to have labs run to make sure your thyroid is in top shape.
Cortisol: Aka "the stress hormone," is far more than the hormone released when we're stressed. Produced in the adrenals, cortisol makes up the HPA-Axis, including the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenals. All of these have to work in synchronicity for the body to function correctly. Think of cortisol as the heart of our "fight or flight" response. Cortisol is anti-inflammatory, hence why we put cortisone on a rash to remove the inflammation. When cortisol is out of balance, it can cause several inflammatory conditions. This hormone impacts metabolism, blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, and more. When our body can't return to normal cortisol levels it can cause a condition called HPA-Axis dysfunction (formerly referred to as adrenal fatigue syndrome).
What Triggers Hormone Imbalances and their Impact on Skin Health:
While hormone imbalances can cause many health conditions, they can also significantly impact skin health.
Pregnancy: When a mama-to-be is pregnant, her hormones can fluctuate daily. The ever-changing hormonal changes during pregnancy are a journey to navigate, but one of the many anticipated stages of pregnancy is that signature pregnancy glow that’s present around week ten of pregnancy. Do you ever wonder why some women keep that glow all pregnancy long, while others face skin issues like acne? The answer is, you guessed it, hormones. While that glow may be defined as pregnancy magic, there are many underlying causes, including increased blood volume, moisture retention, and oxytocin levels. As our body increases its blood volume, we have more oxygen-rich blood delivering nutrients to our skin, giving that signature glow. In addition to increased blood volume, a hormone cocktail during pregnancy works wonders for skin, and an increase in moisture retention causes skin to dull out fine lines. Some experts say that an increase in oxytocin (the happy/love hormone) influences pregnancy glow too. When we're happy, we're glowing, right?
Tips to keep that pregnancy glow:
- Cleanse twice daily to remove excess oil and consider double cleansing at night. See our AM and PM skincare rituals here.
- Moisturize to aid in moisture retention.
- Stay hydrated for you and your baby (and ensure healthy amniotic fluid levels).
- Sleep. Get your beauty rest. Don't overdo it.
PCOS: Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome is a hormone imbalance that affects the ovaries, impacting women during childbearing years. It's characterized by an increase in androgen hormones, cysts on ovaries (though not always), and irregular or skipped periods. Untreated, PCOS can lead to other conditions down the road like heart disease and diabetes. Genes and insulin resistance are often causes of PCOS.
Due to increased androgenic hormones, acne is a common symptom, especially on the face, upper back, and chest. Dark patches can also develop in body creases in the skin, neck, groin, and under breasts.
Perimenopause: The phase leading up to menopause when hormones are changing in preparation for menopause. Periods can begin to become irregular, and the perimenopause stage can last anywhere from a few months to several years. Some women go straight into menopause and skip perimenopause all together. This stage of life's impact is often characterized by dry skin.
Menopause: This marks the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle and is diagnosed when a woman doesn't have a period for 12 consecutive months. Skin is impacted by acne, rashes, pigmentation, and wrinkles.
Thyroid Conditions: There are two common conditions associated with thyroid dysfunction, including Hashimoto's disease (hypothyroidism) and Grave's disease (hyperthyroidism). Due to the excess or insufficient thyroid hormones, these conditions can impact the skin by a condition called myxedema (for hypothyroid) and pretibial myxedema (for hyperthyroid), which can cause a swollen face, lips, and cheeks, and thickening of skin, especially around the legs.
HPA-Axis Dysfunction aka Adrenal Fatigue: This is when the adrenals produce too much or too little cortisol. Many people are often undiagnosed as suffering from HPA-Axis dysfunction and chalk their symptoms up to working too hard, excess stress, insufficient sleep, etc. The reality is, there's a deeper underlying root-cause such as sleep deprivation, following a high processed food diet, toxin overload, parasites, and blood sugar imbalances, among many other causes. Since HPA-Axis dysfunction is an inflammatory condition, it can result in inflammatory skin conditions (or exacerbate existing ones) such as psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, hives, and even fever blister flares.
Stressors: There are a variety of stressors that can affect the body. Some are good stressors that impact the body positively, known as eustress (like getting married or public speaking). Some stresses affect the body negatively, known as distress (like work stress or finances). There’s some truth to the old phrase "you're going to make my hair go grey," because negative stress can cause lipid peroxidation and result in hair loss or premature greying.
The body is designed to adapt and return to a state of homeostasis during bouts of acute (short-term) stress, but if stress becomes chronic (long-term), the body has a much harder time returning to homeostasis and can cascade into several hormonal imbalances such as cortisol and HPA-Axis dysfunction.
In addition to these external stressors, there are also hidden or internal stressors that can impact hormone health. These stressors can include gut-parasites, bacterial overgrowths, or gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of good and harmful bacteria in the GI tract, blood sugar dysregulation, and insulin resistance. Even following a Standard American Diet (SAD), which is often high in processed food and carbs, can trigger internal stressors. As mentioned above, once the body faces internal stressors for an extended period of time, it’s more challenging to return to homeostasis, and similar to the effect of external stresses, can cascade into several hormone imbalances, health conditions, and skin problems.
Skin Symptoms as a Result of Hormone Imbalances:
Low Estrogen (aka Low-E):
- Skin is often blotchy, red, flushed, and prone to rosacea
- Insufficiency in this anti-inflammatory hormone can cause inflammatory skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis
- Night sweats
- Skin is flushed
- Overly dry skin
- Since the endocrine system is the first factor in the aging process, you may see signs of aging skin such as wrinkles around the eyes and forehead.
- Myxedema is a condition that causes thickening of the skin, especially around the legs.
- Flushed skin, rashes, prone to be reactive skin. When these skin symptoms are acute and come on suddenly, they are often referred to as a "thyroid storm."
Tips for Restoring Hormonal Balance and Anti-Inflammatory Skincare:
Eat two raw carrots daily. There is a compound in carrots that helps the body metabolize progesterone, estrogen, and cortisol.
Note: cooked carrots, juiced carrots, and baby carrots do not have the same impact.
Broccoli sprouts contain a compound called DIM (diindolylmethane), which significantly impacts estrogen metabolites.
Seaweed is an excellent source of iodine, which makes your thyroid happy.
Selenium is found in walnuts, which contain compounds to reduce thyroid TPO antibodies.
Consume healthy fats like avocado and full-fat coconut oil. These healthy fats are broken down into LDL, creating hormones.
Foods rich in chromium and cinnamon can help with blood-sugar regulation and help regulate hormones.
Embracing joy, practicing yoga, and meditation are great ways to reduce stress, thereby decreasing cortisol.
Understanding that epigenetics only impact about 20% of your health and that the other 80% depends on your lifestyle.
Boost Collagen: Since collagen production is often diminished with hormone imbalances, it's important to consume collagen or collagen-boosting foods such as aloe vera, silica, vitamins C & E, and pea protein. For skincare, incorporate products with retinol and retinol-like properties, like our Earth Harbor SAMPHIRE Sea-Retinol Digital Serum with its star ingredient Samphire, which has impressive retinol-like properties. Samphire is a succulent type plant that is often found in rocky crevices near the ocean. Samphire is a great natural alternative to retinol and is a much more sustainable option than the endangered Bakuchiol. Incorporate MSM into your skincare ritual. MSM is a sulfur compound that is beneficial for collagen and keratin and helps your skin appear young and smooth. This can be found in Earth Harbor's BLUE CRUSH Marine Perfecting Mask.
Implement anti-inflammatory skin care ingredients: Cannabis Sativa Hemp Oil, Grapeseed Oil, Jojoba Oils, Aloe Vera, Pomegranate Seed Oil, Turmeric, Spirulina, and Squalane -- all of which are found throughout Earth Harbor's skincare line.
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods and supplements:
- Omega Fatty Acids: Essential fatty acids that help reduce inflammation
- Zinc: A powerful mineral that has proven anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating benefits, not to mention a potent antioxidant. Its used throughout the body in over 300 enzyme reactions. It grows and repairs tissues and helps your skin.
- Alpha Lipoic Acid: While most antioxidants are either fat-soluble or water-soluble, Alpha Lipoic Acid is both fat and water-soluble, which can affect every cell in the body. It can help regulate blood sugar, slow skin aging, and reduce inflammation.
- Resveratrol: An antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound found in the skins and seeds of berries.
- Quercetin: An antioxidant that helps clear histamine and combat free-radical damage. Since it can stabilize cells' antihistamine effect, in turn, it can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Plant-Based Proteins: Eating plant-based proteins can help decrease chronic inflammation.
- Hydration: Hydration is key for an anti-inflammatory diet. Drinking half your body weight in ounces of clean, fresh water daily is a good start!
Creating Happy Hormonal Harmony
Our bodies are like a fine-tuned watch and they need to be in tune to function properly. While we have around fifty hormones circulating throughout our body, their functions are endless. It’s important to learn about what our hormones do and the impact they have on our bodies and skin. This basic understanding will help us live in a happy hormonal harmony. When our hormones sail off course, they can cause a ripple effect of other hormones falling out of alignment too. Not only can this impact our health, but it can also present skin issues. With a little love and TLC for our hormones, and understanding about how they work and how to take care of them, we can work to create a happy place for our hormones, ourselves, and our skin.
Disclaimer: The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated these statements. This article or website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Any mention of dietary or herbal supplements needs first to be discussed with your licensed healthcare provider. The opinions and views represented by this article and its author are merely for educational purposes only.
Kurt Stradtman, FDN-P, AADP