Most people think of sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) when they hear the word hormones, but that word is about SO much more than your sex hormones!
When I say hormones, I’m talking about insulin, cortisol, thyroid, AND sex hormones.
Insulin is made by your pancreas and it impacts, and is affected by, your blood sugar (which is impacted by your diet, lifestyle, and stress levels). Insulin imbalances affect the body in a very BIG way, including tanking your energy (check out my free guide if you’re fighting fatigue), promoting weight gain, increasing inflammation, raising blood pressure + cholesterol, and so much more.
Cortisol is released by your adrenals (the little hat-shaped glands that live on top of your kidneys) in response to physical and mental-emotional stress. It also has a rhythm throughout the day that governs your sleep-wake cycle (along with melatonin), so it can impact sleep and energy. Beyond that, cortisol also affects how you deal with stress, your blood pressure and weight, and lots of other areas of your health.
Thyroxine (T4) + triiodothyronine (T3) are made by your thyroid gland (it mostly makes T4). Just about every cell in your body has receptors for thyroid hormone! These hormones impact your weight and metabolism, digestion, brain function, heart health, periods, energy, fertility, growth and development, and the list goes on.
Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are made mostly by your ovaries, but your adrenal glands make these hormones too. And your fat cells also make some estrogen. These hormones play a big role in your periods and the health of your menstrual cycle, fertility, energy, libido, and mood and emotional wellbeing, among other things.
Even though these hormones govern different areas of your body and your health, they’re actually highly connected! So much so that imbalances in one area will eventually lead to imbalances in other areas…
So if you’re dealing with hormone imbalances like SO many women I know and work with, it’s really important for you to understand how connected insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormones, and sex hormones are.
You won’t be able to heal your hormone issues until you do!
The Three-Legged Stool
During my clinical training in naturopathic medical school, I learned to think about these primary hormonal systems as a three-legged stool. Sex hormones make up one leg, thyroid hormones are the second leg, and the third leg represents adrenal hormones.
Let’s say you’ve got an imbalance in your adrenal hormones because of long-term stress, so that leg becomes shorter. Now the stool leans, and you (and your health) can’t sit on it very well, but it’s what you’ve got.
Over time, however, continuing to use this stool with the shortened leg puts stress and strain on the other two legs, and so you eventually develop imbalances in your thyroid hormones, sex hormones, or both.
(You can switch around any of the hormones in this example, and it still applies…)
Since blood sugar regulation is at the center of hormonal balance (this is one reason why your food and drink choices are SO powerful!), I’ve since expanded on this analogy. You can think of blood sugar regulation (insulin) as the seat of the stool. Without it, there’s NOTHING for those three legs to anchor to (and nothing for you—and your health—to sit on).
The three-legged stool is a great way to illustrate how connected these different hormones are, but it doesn’t help you to understand the hierarchy of hormones.
In other words, when it comes to balancing your hormones, the three-legged stool doesn’t tell you anything about how the health of these different areas builds on one another. It doesn’t tell you which hormones you should focus on first, second, third or last.
This is where The Hormone Pyramid shines!
The Hormone Pyramid
The Hormone Pyramid is a way of organizing your hormones from a functional standpoint.
Blood sugar and insulin regulation serves as the foundation of your hormonal balance, and you can’t have healthy hormones if your insulin is out-of-whack. This make sense when you think about the fact that blood sugar regulation is how you control the supply of glucose (your body’s preferred energy source) to your cells so they can function and do what they do. Blood sugar regulation is a fundamental process—it’s literally life or death!
Adrenals make up the second tier of The Hormone Pyramid. While they aren’t quite as foundational as blood sugar regulation, they’re pretty darn close! This is no surprise when you consider that your adrenals are responsible for your “fight or flight” response, which is how your body reacts to threats and danger to keep you safe. (It’s important to remember that to your body stress = stress = stress! Your body doesn’t really differentiate between stressors—it’s ALL a threat!)
So those first two levels are really about surviving!
Your thyroid is the third level of The Hormone Pyramid. Your thyroid governs your metabolism, growth and development, so while this isn’t quite as critical as making sure that your cells have energy (glucose) so you don’t die, or saving you from imminent danger (adrenals), your thyroid impacts your health in a really big way. In fact, your metabolism affects your heart, muscle and digestive function, brain development, bone maintenance, and more!
That brings us to the top of The Hormone Pyramid: your sex hormones. While sex hormone balance isn’t necessary for your survival, it IS necessary for the survival of the human race, and it definitely plays a big role in mood and mental function, your overall sense of wellbeing, and your risk for chronic disease and autoimmunity.
Those top two levels are really about thriving! (But let’s be real: imbalances with insulin + cortisol will also impact whether you thrive!)
The Hormone Hierarchy
In The Hormone Pyramid, your sex hormones are at the top, which means that if your priority is to balance your sex hormones (because maybe that’s the area where your most bothersome symptoms are showing up), you should pay really close attention to everything below that level!
(Actually, by the time you address your insulin dysregulation, adrenal dysfunction, and thyroid imbalances, your sex hormone issues will usually be significantly better—and many times they’ll have disappeared!)
In other words, if your blood sugar regulation isn’t on point, your adrenals, thyroid and sex hormones will suffer. And if your adrenals are off, this will put a major strain on your thyroid and sex hormone balance. If you want to address your hypothyroidism (click here to learn if you’re actually getting adequate thyroid testing), then you better make sure you optimize your blood sugar regulation and adrenal function. And so on—you get the idea.
With that said, this isn’t just about working from the “bottom up.” While you want to be sure you optimize the health of any hormones that come before the tier you are most concerned with, keep in mind that these hormonal systems are very interconnected. So issues with upper levels can also impact lower levels over time.
If your sex hormones are imbalanced, this can lead to thyroid issues. If your thyroid is struggling, this can strain your adrenals. If your adrenals are having a hard time, this can impact your insulin and blood sugar regulation.
This is why it’s so important to pay attention to ALL of your hormones, even if your concern is about one area. It’s all connected in a big hormonal web!
But, it’s smart to be strategic about how you tackle hormone imbalances, and The Hormone Pyramid helps you do just that!
Hormone Help Is on the Way!
Blood sugar and insulin serve as the foundation of The Hormone Pyramid! So if you’re struggling with symptoms of hormone imbalances, start with my Blood Sugar Series:
- Why Your Blood Sugar Matters SO Much
- How to Know if You Have Blood Sugar + Insulin Issues
- How to Reverse Insulin Resistance
- How Low Blood Sugar Causes Insulin Resistance
Also check out my free guide: 4 Steps to Skyrocket Your Energy because EVERY step supports better hormonal balance! AND there’s one in particular that’s heavily focused on happy insulin…
I’ve also written an Adrenal Series to help you address the second tier of The Hormone Pyramid:
- “Adrenal Fatigue” + Why It Happens
- Clues You Have Adrenal Dysfunction
- How to Heal Adrenal Dysfunction
I hope you found this helpful! If you’re looking for more personalized guidance, learn more about my approach and services here.