Hormone Health Is Having A Moment On TikTok — But Is It Doing More Damage Than Good?
Medical experts speak on the buzzy topic.
Increasingly over the past few years, it’s become nearly impossible to take a casual stroll through social media without being inundated with wellness advice — whether solicited or not. On the one hand, this could be considered a positive shift, indicating that more and more people are taking their health — both mentally and physically — more seriously. On the flip side, it can be difficult to determine the validity of this widely shared advice, and in some cases misleading information (particularly as it relates to food) can be counterproductive, leading to health problems or obsessive practices including disordered eating, as shown in a recent study by the University of Vermont. One of the latest examples of these buzzy wellness topics? Hormone health.
Yes, from diet tips to lifestyle changes, there’s an abundance of information on TikTok and Instagram on how to keep your hormones balanced, much of which is coming from non-medical professionals. All this considered, how can you actually determine the truth about hormone health, including whether or not you need to be concerned about yours — and if so, what methods for improving them are most helpful? In order to separate fact from fiction (or at least misinformed online opinions), TZR consulted with a few hormone experts who were able to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the topic, as well debunk the biggest misconceptions, and offer guidance on getting diagnosed and treated.
Before diving in, however, it’s worth taking a look into why hormone health or “balancing your hormones” has become one of the biggest wellness trends for 2023. If you ask Dr. Raymond Douglas, a board certified oculoplastic surgeon who specializes in inflammatory autoimmune conditions and Thyroid Eye Disease, one reason could be the fact that influential figures have been more forthcoming about their own health and imbalances. “Seeing celebrities and people in the public eye being more open to these conditions has contributed to the conversation and made the topics less hidden and more relatable,” he explains.
Despite the fact that you only may have just recently been made aware of the importance of your hormone health, imbalances are actually extremely common. In fact, Dr. Douglas shares that 1 in 8 women will have thyroid (a butterfly-shaped gland responsible for creating hormones your body needs to function) issues at some point of their lives. Still, general symptoms for these issues can make them tricky to diagnose. If you’re wondering whether or not hormone health is something you should be concerned about, read ahead for intel and advice from medical experts, and above all else, don’t hesitate to reach out to your own doctor with any specific questions.
Why Are Hormones Important?
Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, insulin, cortisol, growth, adrenaline, and thyroid are among the over 50 types of hormones scientists have identified in the body, and as Dr. Benjamin Bikman, Ph.D, lead scientist and co-founder of HLTH Code explains, these chemical messengers control essentially every process in the body and allow your cells to communicate with one another. When you have too much or two little of a hormone, said processes can be affected. Take insulin, for example. “If a person suffers from high cortisol levels from adrenal glands (i.e., the primary stress hormone), the liver will sense this signal and increase blood glucose,” explains Dr. Bikman. “The range of problems that result from disordered hormones are enormous, and almost every chronic disease is influenced in some way by hormones. For example, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, the most common form of infertility in women, is driven by elevated insulin levels. When insulin is too high for too long, it will prevent the ovaries from making the needed estrogens for ovulation.” Other conditions can result from the imbalance of hormones and range from acne to diabetes to perimenopause, among many others.
As previously mentioned, the thyroid hormone is one specifically connected to many common women’s health concerns. “Thyroid hormone is critically important for human development (i.e., babies) and through all stages of life,” Dr. Bikman shares. “Accordingly, it’s little surprise that if thyroid hormone goes too high or too low, the results are obvious and critical.” Too high of hormone levels, otherwise known as hyperthyroidism, can result in symptoms such as weight/muscle loss, anxiety or irritability, and diarrhea, among other concerns. Conversely, too low — or hypothyroidism — can cause fatigue/ lethargy, weight gain, hair loss, and constipation. And in either case, a thyroid hormone imbalance can cause mood fluctuations (including bouts of depression) and in extreme cases, infertility. And while hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can be a result of thyroiditis, or an inflamed thyroid, the most common cause of these are autoimmune disorders, Grave’s Disease and Hashimoto’s.
Who Should Be Concerned?
According to Dr. Bikman, everyone should be concerned with ensuring that their hormones are at proper levels. “Too often, we think hormones are outside of our control — that they ebb and flow according to their own clock,” he says. “While some hormones do indeed march to the beat of their own drum, others follow orders that we inadvertently provide.” That said, these medical experts acknowledge that recent buzz around hormone health can lead to self-diagnosing and non-professionals sharing wellness advice that may be uniformed or even worse, inaccurate. Take, for example, the idea that one can manage an imbalance on their own — without the help of a doctor. “Probably the greatest misconception is that hormone imbalance does not need any medical attention or the fact that anyone can achieve the right hormone balance without medical attention,” Dr. Douglas explains.
And Dr. Bikman cosigns. “Unfortunately, the necessity of doing what we can to help hormones perform at optimal levels is an opportunity to provide faulty information,” he tells TZR. “Often, non-medical professionals will blame illnesses on hormones without any justification or evidence. True hormone disorders are uncommon, and we should avoid the temptation to assign too much blame on hormones for not feeling well.”
While many of the signs of hormone imbalance can be quite common, Dr. Bikman shares that there are some things to look out for if you think you may be experiencing health problems as a result of improper balance. “The signs of a hormone imbalance are myriad and based on the specific hormones that are changed,” he says. “Changes in thyroid hormone are among the most common hormone imbalances due to the frequency of thyroid disorders, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In this case, a person would feel the effect of having low levels of thyroid hormone, including weight gain, often feeling cold, feeling tired, and more. If a person had an imbalance in insulin production, such as what accompanies insulin resistance (‘pre-diabetes’; the most common health disorder worldwide), the person would likely experience high blood pressure, possibly infertility, and may have certain skin problems (e.g., skin tags around the neck).”
If you’re concerned, the good news is that a routine blood test may be all it takes to get answers. “Proper diagnosis is actually simple,” Dr. Douglas explains. “All it requires is a TSH blood test which is key.” Therefore, instead of following the trendy wellness advice that is widely available on social media (from supplements to diet and lifestyle tips), share any troublesome symptoms with your general practitioner to rule out or confirm any issues that require medical intervention.
How To Treat Hormone Imbalances
Just as there is a wide array of hormone-related health issues, there is also quite a range of treatments — and as Dr. Bikman explains, they’re dependent on the nature of the problem. Some treatments do consist of lifestyle management such as diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep, while others require the assistance of medication. “Natural factors we can activate or influence in support of hormone balance are gut health, physical activity, stress reduction, proper nutrition, and good sleep, and are all supporting players,” says Dr. Douglas.
In terms of food, both doctors note that an anti-inflammatory diet can be beneficial in some instances. According to Medical News Today, the AIP (or Autoimmune Protocol) diet is focused on consuming anti-inflammatory foods like non-nightshade veggies, healthy fats, high quality seafood and lean meats while avoiding inflammatory foods like sugar, nightshades, dairy, coffee, eggs, alcohol, grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds. Additionally a phytoestrogen diet may also help with healthy hormone production. Phytoestrogens, as explained by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, are naturally occurring chemicals found in plants that may respond mildly like estrogen in the body. Some common foods that contain phytoestrogens include soy beans (and products made from soy beans such as tofu and tempeh) and cruciferous vegetables (ie: broccoli and cabbage), but this also doesn’t mean they are harmful to everyone.
Dr. Douglas also explains that limiting sugary and starchy foods can be beneficial for some hormone-related issues. “Frequently eating [these foods] will force the hormone insulin to be constantly turned ‘on’,” he notes. “If insulin is high throughout the day, it promotes hunger. It can also force the body to retain water, thereby increasing blood pressure, and much more.” An excess of sugar, he adds, can also disrupt gut microbiome, another important factor in keeping a healthy hormone balance. “It is important to care for the gut microbiome and the healthy bacteria environment in your gut that produce the metabolites affecting our hormones and modulating our insulin resistance,” he explains.
While being avoidant of potentially harmful foods can aid in the management of some hormone-related issues — as recommended by a doctor — Dr. Douglas is quick to point out that diet is only one small aspect of managing hormone imbalances. “Diet is key and food is a source of active ingredients that absorb through the digestive system to do their work to keep things in check, but it is only one part,” the expert says. Take for example Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ Disease, autoimmune disorders that cause the thyroid gland to function improperly. While inflammation is a factor — and therefore reducing causes of inflammation through diet, stress management, etc. can improve symptoms — these changes alone may not be able to fully restore balance. “If you make too much thyroid hormone from an autoimmune condition attacking the thyroid, pushing it to overdrive, no amount or type of food or supplement alone will ever restore a healthy balance,” he notes. “The category of AITD [Graves' and Hashimoto's] is absolutely non-negotiable in terms of needing medical attention. The thyroid is viewed by the defense systems in our body as an ‘enemy’ and therefore attacks it, causing dysfunction and disease in various presentations. No amount of nutritional attention, iodine, stress reduction strategies, or increased sleep alone will ever cure the condition.” In these cases he says that habit changes in addition to taking a prescribed medication to take synthetic thyroid hormone is the most helpful treatment.
Medications prescribed to help with hormone balance include hormonal birth control, estrogen or testosterone therapy, bioidentical hormone therapy, Metformin, and Levothyroxine — again, dependent on the specific cause of the imbalance. The good news is that such treatments, when properly prescribed and regulated by a physician, can be powerfully effective at managing symptoms with little to no disruption to your everyday life. As for eating a well-balanced diet, keeping stressors at bay, incorporating movement throughout the day, and clocking in at least 7 hours of sleep nightly, these lifestyle habits are overwhelmingly beneficial to all, regardless of your hormone balance. But as always, be sure to consult with your doctor before making any major changes or self-diagnosing — no matter how tempting is TikTok’s wellness bait.