Hormones and the roles they play in women’s health are having a moment on social media, but the claims, quips and memes may do more harm than good.
“Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true,” says Karroll Payne, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Our Lady of the Angels Health. Dr. Payne separates myth from facts about women’s hormones across their lifetime in this episode of our podcast, The Doctor Will Hear You Now.
Hormone Health Ages & Stages
Women are not just men who have babies, and women’s health includes more than just what happens with the reproductive system.
Hormones affect us throughout our entire lives from birth to death and are working throughout the stages of a woman’s life.
Even before puberty, a girl’s ovaries are working, producing estrogen and progesterone. “During that phase, hormones are pretty quiet, just helping that child grow and develop bone maturity,” Dr. Payne says.
Height and weight are regulated by hormones, and not just the hormones produced by ovaries, including estrogen and progesterone. The thyroid produces hormones that help regulate metabolism, energy levels and body temperature.
After puberty, the ovaries start to rev up through a woman’s reproductive years— regardless of whether she chooses to have children — continuing on to menopause. “At each stage of our lives, hormones are designed to do different things,” Dr. Payne says.
No Such Thing as Hormonal Imbalance
“Hormones are never really balanced,” Dr. Payne says. “At any stage of life, you’re going to have more of one hormone than another.” Having too much of a hormone can cause symptoms, and knowing the symptoms can help a provider figure out how to get hormones back into proper ratios.
“If you feel like you’re tipping one way or another, I can help make that ratio better for you depending on the stage of your life,” Dr. Payne says.
Information Overload – Ask Your Provider
After watching the latest trending Instagram reel or reading a Facebook post about hormones, your best approach to making health decisions is to vet that information with a trusted provider.
“The biggest thing I’d like patients to understand is that if you have a question ask me,” Dr. Payne says. “A lot of the things you’ll see on TikTok and elsewhere online will have a kernel of truth, but if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.”
One good thing about social media is that it can bring what may have been taboo in the past out into the open. Some women may realize an issue they’re having needs treatment when they otherwise would have continued suffering.
“I’m discovering a lot of these issues earlier because young women will talk to peers about it,” she says. “Somebody will understand and say ‘Hey, this isn’t right.’” For older women, they may now just be figuring out a diagnosis of hypothyroidism they’ve suffered with for 30 years because they didn’t talk about it and thought everyone only had a period once every 12 weeks and everyone sweat through their pajamas each night.
“As women get older (and experience hot flashes), we can do hormone replacement,” Dr. Payne says. “Also other things such as black cohosh, certain soy in your diet and even certain antidepressants can help with hot flashes.” Medication can help with sleep disruptions, which might be caused by estrogen and progesterone levels.
Integrating Lifestyle Choices
Needing help with hormonal regulation during the childbearing years is common, such as younger ladies having issues with their periods when trying to get pregnant. Dr. Payne says many things can help, including changes to diet and exercise. Medications may also be prescribed.
The choices you make during the times you’re not in the doctor’s office make the difference for your health.
“I can guide you, but those decisions you have to make on your own,” Dr. Payne says. “What you put in your body, sleeping, exercising — all of those things have a huge impact on your health, not just the meds that I give you.”
Listen to Your Body
What you can hear from your body depends on your age and life stage, and no one knows your body the way you do.
Most women will start their period by age 16, and if they haven’t by age 17, they should see a pediatrician or gynecologist to be checked out. By age 21 or 22 a period should be regular, although that’s not every calendar month, more like every 28 to 40 days. Heavily bleeding more frequently is a symptom that should be checked out no matter your age.
Some symptoms that may indicate a hormonal issue that deserve investigation with your provider include:
- Sweating profusely
- Can’t sleep or fall asleep
- Losing or gaining a lot of weight without trying
- Being very irritable, can’t be consoled — always angry or always very sad
“I would rather you come in and see me and I tell you everything is fine than for you to sit at home and worry,” Dr. Payne says. “If you’re concerned and you don’t feel comfortable talking to your doctor, you might need to get another doctor.”
When you feel something isn’t right, do not wait. If common treatments don’t work, see your provider. It’s also important to get screenings including mammograms, Pap smears and colonoscopies.
“Those really do save lives, and I’ve seen too many things that have gone too long because a patient’s scared or didn’t have money or resources,” she says. “If I can’t do it, I’ll try to find someone who can.”
Take Time to Prioritize Yourself
“Women tend to be the caretakers, so we tend to put everyone else’s needs first,” Dr. Payne says. “When you step into my office, I stress that this is your time — your time to center on yourself.”
A doctor’s visit, even a routine one, can be nerve wracking. Consider bringing a support person, and either way Dr. Payne advises making a list.
“When you’re sitting down, make sure you’re calm and can express yourself,” she says. “Take a breath, exhale and follow your list of what needs to be said. You know your body, but you have to be forceful and sometimes as women we have trouble doing that.”
A Physician’s Approach to Care and Listening
“My goal is to be your advocate,” Dr. Payne says. “Your body is the greatest gift that you’ve ever been given and ultimately what you do with it is up to you.” Listening is key for an OB-GYN, who will listen to hear how patients want to approach their pregnancy experience, labor experience and those first moments after baby is born.
“If you stop and listen, most patients inherently know what’s going on with them and want to tell you, but often feel they don’t have a chance to speak,” Dr. Payne says. “The easiest way I do that is actually by being quiet. Two or three minutes is typically enough time for a patient to feel heard and get out all their concerns.”
Once she has an idea of what’s going on, Dr. Payne provides objective information including handouts to help any information sink in. She also prioritizes follow-up appointments.