03/12/2015 11:10 am ET Updated May 12, 2015

3 Things That Wreck Your Hormones

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Part 1 of 3: Disease

Your hormones are the keys to vibrant health, and you can find any number of sources that will tell you that you need to fix or balance them. Whenever we set out to fix something, whether it is your body or your car, the first thing is to figure out what needs fixing.

The three things that wreck your hormones are disease, age and stress. Understanding which you're dealing with is critical because they all need to be treated differently. In this series, I'll help you understand which of these categories may be affecting you and what you can do about it, so you can be thriving with happy hormones and vibrant health.

The first culprit I would like to discuss is disease. Even if you eat gluten-free, organic food, exercise and think nice thoughts, there are times when your body may not work right. It is never fair and not always predictable, but disease happens. Through no fault of your own, there are times when your body just does not work right. When it comes to your hormones, there are many ways diseases can screw things up. By far, the most common is when the immune system attacks your hormone-producing glands. This is called autoimmune disease.

To understand autoimmune disease, think of your immune system like a personal, security guard who lives in your home. If a burglar tries to break into your home, the guard grabs him and pins him down. Now, let's say the guard jumped on your mail carrier. The mail carrier is harmless, but the guard attacked anyway. That is like an allergy. It's what happens when your immune system attacks something harmless from outside of you, like pollen. Now, imagine that the guard jumped on one of your children. That would be an autoimmune response. Your children are not only harmless (hopefully), but they belong in your home.

Of all of your glands, your thyroid is most susceptible to autoimmune disease. The most common type is called Hashimoto's Thyroiditis and may affect as much as 25 percent of the population. Although no one is immune, Hashimoto's is more prevalent among women than men and among the elderly than the young.

Autoimmune thyroid disease is rough because your thyroid glands make hormones that are essential for your body to be able to burn energy. This is necessary so you can lose weight and feel energized. With Hashimoto's disease, the thyroid may get so damaged, it has too little tissue left to build these essential hormones for you. When this happens, part of the way to regain your health is to get an additional source for these vital thyroid hormones. Some people with Hashimoto's disease resist the idea of taking thyroid hormones. A common fear is that doing so will leave the person less able to make their own hormones and, therefore, unable to stop taking the pills. This isn't true. Let me illustrate:

Imagine you have a beautiful, fenced garden where you get your vegetables. One day, the neighbor's cows trample down the fence around your garden and ruin your vegetables. Of course, you would want to mend the fence and replant for the next season. In the meantime, since your supply is gone, you'll need to get your veggies from the store. Buying veggies doesn't mean you can't replant your garden. The reality is quite the opposite. You need thyroid hormones to be healthy, and you need to be healthy to have a chance at fixing your thyroid.

There is an important distinction between taking thyroid hormones with Hashimoto's disease and taking them when hormones are lacking due to age and stress. In these latter cases, getting more hormones from another source may not be the main solution.

Autoimmune diseases that attack the adrenal glands are primarily Addison's and Cushing's disease. These are not common, affecting only a few people out of every million. There are also many other diseases that affect hormone-producing glands, but they're also quite rare.

In the next installment, we'll look at how stress can wreck your hormones and how taking more stress hormones is the last thing you want to do.