Hormones and Fertility – What You Need To Know
When your hormones are in perfect balance, your body — reproductive system included — runs smoothly. However, when any one of your hormones dips too low or peaks too high, it can wreak havoc on your body. When you’re trying to get pregnant, this can feel overwhelming and, if you’re like most people, you may not even realize what’s going on.
While it’s natural for hormones to fluctuate (men experience daily fluctuations; women go through different fluctuations depending on where she’s at in her menstrual cycle), it’s not normal for them to be completely out of whack. When a hormonal imbalance occurs, your fertility is negatively impacted and your journey to conception delayed.
Thankfully, there are many options — both natural, at-home remedies and medical treatments — that can help balance your hormones and improve your fertility.
What do hormones have to do with fertility?
Hormonal imbalances can change your reproductive health and the outcome of your treatments or your family planning. But to better understand how hormonal imbalance can affect fertility, it’s important to start with a baseline knowledge of the role different hormones play in your reproductive health.
Hormones are chemical messengers that structure how complicated processes like, for example, the baby-making process, are done; that is to say, hormones play a vital role in the fertility process. Hormones are deposited into the bloodstream by glands that make up the endocrine system. At times, chemicals may interfere with the endocrine system — these are known as endocrine disruptors, and they can cause quite a bit of trouble for those struggling with fertility issues.
The following hormones play a large role in fertility: gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH); follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH); luteinizing hormone (LH); estrogen; progesterone; and testosterone. Let’s explore what each of them does.
- Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) — This hormone has different functions in women and men. For women, FSH controls the menstrual cycle and egg production via the ovaries. With men, FSH controls sperm production; interestingly, FSH levels in men is fairly consistent, whereas, with women, FSH levels vary throughout a woman’s cycle and are highest just before an egg is released.
- Luteinizing hormone (LH) — The pituitary gland produces LH; this hormone aids in regulating the menstrual cycle and egg production, much like FSH — the difference being that, while FSH causes an egg to mature, LH causes the egg to release from the follicle. It is, of course, different in men as well: FSH deficiencies cause low levels of LH, resulting in decreased sex drive or sexual dysfunction, infertility, and low sperm count because of the absence of testosterone — another negative side effect of lower levels of LH in men.
- Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) — Released by the hypothalamus part of the brain, GnRH produces follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), as well as luteinizing hormone (LH).
- Estrogen — This is another hormone that is secreted by the ovaries on-command, per the signaling of the LH and FSH, once the hormones have been secreted. Only a small amount of estrogen is needed (with peak levels at around 3500 pg/mL) for the uterus to accept the embryo. Conversely, if there is too much estrogen present, it can drastically alter the genetic process at the site of implantation and decrease the window available for implantation.
- Progesterone — Progesterone is a sex hormone found in women that is also released by the ovaries on-demand; low levels of progesterone can lead to infertility. The main function of the hormone is to prepare a woman’s body for pregnancy by thickening the uterine lining for a fertilized egg. If no fertilized egg appears, a woman’s progesterone levels will drop, and she will begin menstruating. Progesterone is also necessary for breastfeeding and breast development in women, so even after you give birth, an imbalance of progesterone can have a negative impact
- Testosterone — Similar to estrogen and progesterone, testosterone is secreted according to the FSH and LH. It is an important male hormone — though both males and females have it— that plays a vital role in fertility. In men, low testosterone, or hypogonadism, can lead to low sperm count, making it less likely that they can impregnate a woman. Hypogonadism can be treated with hormonal therapy and should be closely overseen by a doctor. For both men and women, low testosterone can lead to loss of sex drive, which plays a clear role in an infertile couples’ struggles. When women have low testosterone, it can negatively affect the follicle-stimulating hormones that aid in reproduction.
What causes hormones to get out of balance?
No matter where you are in your journey of trying to get pregnant — from deciding you’re ready to go off birth control to undergoing fertility treatments — your body is going through some major changes. In fact, your body is always changing; your hormones fluctuate daily, weekly, and monthly throughout the stages of your menstrual cycle.
Some components that lead to hormonal imbalance include:
- Endocrine disruptors — Studies have shown that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can affect metabolism, leading to significant weight gain and obesity. Endocrine disruptors, in referencing fertility, are essentially hormonal copycats — they mimic estrogens and androgens, the female and male sex hormones, respectively. This mimicry can result in overstimulation, which studies show can result in “irreversible abnormalities.” These abnormalities can cause fertility issues, development deficiencies in children, issues with the nervous system and immune system, and even an increased risk of cancer. Women who want to become pregnant, are pregnant, or are nursing should avoid chemicals that have been classified as endocrine disruptors.
- Obesity — Infertility and obesity often go hand-in-hand, with further studies showing that there is a strong link to obesity and reproduction issues. Obesity can cause the hormonal imbalance polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which can lead to infertility; additionally, an abnormally high amount of insulin production can cause a body to release androgens, which can affect regular ovulation.
- Smoking — Smoking is also a factor that can affect hormonal balance and, subsequently, fertility, with female smokers having “reduced ovarian function” (i.e., decreased embryo counts), and male smokers having reduced sperm counts and a lower amount of semen by volume. Additionally, in a study featuring menopausal women, smoking was shown to increase adrenal hormones, like cortisol. This increased production of a stress hormone resulted in volatile blood sugar; this instability causes high levels of insulin and blood glucose, which then overstimulates the ovaries into producing androgens, which are primarily considered male hormones. When a woman has an overabundance of a male hormone, it does not make for a good environment for conception.
What are symptoms of a hormonal imbalance?
By now, you’re probably wondering if you could have a hormonal imbalance. Even without consulting a doctor, you can easily recognize some of the signs. According to the Women’s Health Network, signs of a hormonal imbalance in women can include:
- Irregular or missing periods
- Weight gain
- Moodiness and/or irritability
- Skin issues (especially acne, which many women with polycystic ovarian syndrome experience)
- Hair loss or male pattern hair growth
It’s entirely possible and even likely that you have had some or all of these symptoms, without realizing how closely they correlate with your hormones.
You have a hormonal imbalance — now what?
There are many options you can utilize in order to get your hormones back to healthy, balanced levels. Both natural, at-home remedies and medical treatments can be effective. It is, of course, imperative that you do your research when figuring out what treatments are right for you and your body — be sure to discuss with your doctor before taking any medication.
If you want to go the natural remedy route (after speaking with your doctor), know that there are several methodologies you can try, from natural hormonal inhibitors to losing weight, eating healthy, and implementing a workout regimen.
- Aromatase inhibitors — these are natural estrogen blockers that men can take to regulate their hormonal imbalance. Studies have shown that aromatase inhibitors can also prevent cancer in postmenopausal women. Grape seed extract is one natural aromatase inhibitor. Other common estrogen blockers include chrysin, wild nettle root, and maca. In regards to maca aiding in infertility issues, one study found that in nine men who took maca for four months had an increase in “seminal volume, sperm count, and sperm motility.”
- Healthy diet and exercise — A nutritious, fertility-friendly diet is a big part of balancing your hormones. Consider adding plants in the cabbage family (like broccoli) to your diet. Vegetables are packed with much-needed electrolytes, and cruciferous vegetables hold DIM, which is a phytonutrient that helps with estrogen metabolism. Adding in a regular exercise routine that combines cardio and strength training can help balance hormones — for example, getting your heart rate up to an active level for, at a minimum, 30 minutes each day, increases estrogen levels.
- Reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption — Studies have shown that even moderate drinking can play a part in female infertility. Chronic drinking can affect the hormones that regulate your reproductive system, like androgens and estrogens. These hormones are synthesized by the testes and ovaries, respectively. An overabundance of alcohol can affect how these hormones are synthesized, leading to negative effects on fertility.
- Avoid parabens — Steer clear of parabens in personal care products whenever possible. This information is usually located on the label of the product. Deodorants, shampoos, and other toiletries often contain parabens, which are used for the preservation of the cosmetic item. Their purpose is to actually prevent harmful bacterial growth but the FDA does not have solid information on their effect on humans. However, a 2011 study by the University of Michigan found that avoiding parabens can help balance hormones.
Treating hormonal imbalances with your doctor
In addition to trying out natural remedies for hormonal balance, men can talk to their doctor about medical estrogen blockers which can help aid testosterone production:
- Tamoxifen (pill or liquid form)
The above are known as estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), and are typically marketed as treatment for breast cancer; however, they can be an effective tool in an infertility-fighting arsenal and can be used to treat low testosterone levels, low sperm count, and even gynecomastia, or, the condition of males having enlarged breasts.
Additionally, there are medicinal hormonal imbalance drugs that can help women, like:
- Endometrin vaginal
- Progesterone micronized vaginal
- Bioidentical hormones, like bi-estrogen or tri-estrogen
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
- Non-bioidentical hormones
- Synthetic hormones.
Keep in mind that all of these medical treatments can have side effects. It’s important to have a serious discussion with your doctor to make sure you’re taking the right steps toward improving your hormonal balance.
Hormonal imbalance can drastically impact your fertility but, rest assured, you can restore them using natural remedies, medication, or both. The most important thing is to start now — the sooner you begin balancing your hormones, the easier it will be to regain control of your fertility and your overall health. That being said, make sure you talk to your doctor or fertility specialist to come up with a personalized hormonal treatment plan that works for you.