01 Feb How to balance your hormones naturally10 minute read
Do you experience any of the following?
– Loss of libido
– Dry skin and/or hair
– Joint pains
– Mood swings
– Difficulty in concentrating
And, if you’re a woman, are you familiar with these?
– Monthly weight fluctuations
– Tender, enlarged breasts
– Hot flashes
– Irregular cycles
– Premenstrual migraines
While these conditions may seem disparate, they have a common theme: they’re all influenced by your hormones.
You have dozens of hormones in your body. The key players include insulin (which manages your blood sugar); adrenalin and cortisol (your stress hormones); oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone (all involved in the reproductive cycle); and thyroid hormones (which regulate your metabolism).
While the nuances of their functions are different, they all act as chemical messengers, telling your cells to enact certain functions to keep your bodily processes ticking along.
Crucially, their functions and feedback mechanisms also overlap. Think of your hormonal function like a symphony. One note signals the next, and the next, and so on. One discordant note—either too high or too low—can throw the whole piece out of whack.
Women can be particularly susceptible to this, simply because their interplay of hormones is more complicated (thank you, periods!).
But why do hormones get out of sync? There are many, many driving factors, including psychological stress, lack of sleep, overexposure to plastics and other chemicals, an inappropriate diet, poor gut health and both over and under-exercising.
However, just as there are many things that can negatively impact your hormones, there are several practices and behaviours that can positively influence them. This is where nutrition and Functional Medicine become truly empowering—with every bite and every little action, you have the power to enhance your health.
So, if you recognise yourself in any of the above symptoms, try following some of the steps below. Start with one, master it, and then move onto the next. You might be amazed at how much better you can feel.
1) Balance your blood sugar
Regular readers will know that I often speak balancing your blood sugar, simply because it’s critical for good health. In order to understand why, we need a quick recap of how food affects our hormones.
Whenever you eat, sugar (glucose) enters your bloodstream and the hormone insulin is released to help transport it out of the blood and into your cells. This is an important metabolic function.
However, problems arise when too much sugar repeatedly enters the bloodstream. More and more insulin is released, and over time the cells stop listening to it. This leads to a state of high insulin (called hyperinsulinemia) and, if left unchecked, this can develop into type-2 diabetes.
High insulin also has a knock-on effect on several other hormones, and has been associated with both raised testosterone and cortisol [1, 2]. In women, this can contribute to symptoms such as acne and excess body hair. Over time, high insulin can also contribute to weight gain, which then impacts your production of oestrogen.
So how do you keep your insulin at a nice, steady level—and avoid all this hormonal chaos? It’s really quite simple: focus on eating complex carbohydrates (such as vegetables, pulses and wholegrains), eat a little protein with every meal or snack, and watch your intake of products made with sugar and white flour.
If you eat in this way, glucose enters your bloodstream more slowly, and your insulin levels remain within a healthy range.
2) Consume adequate fat
A slew of dubious studies led to the low-fat craze of the Eighties and Nineties but, thankfully, we now seem to be out of the thick of the fat-phobic days. This is a very good thing—especially when it comes to our hormones.
Did you know that oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are all made from the same raw material? And do you know what that raw material is?
That’s right. It turns out that the much-maligned cholesterol is critical for hormonal function, especially when it comes to fertility.
We do use the cholesterol we eat, but that only accounts for about 20%. Cholesterol is so important that our bodies take it upon themselves to make the remaining 80% the liver and intestines from dietary fats and sugars. Interestingly, if you eat a little more cholesterol, your body takes a break and makes a little less .
As well as providing raw material for hormones, cholesterol and other types of fats are also critical components of your cell membranes. These play a key role in enabling the right amounts of hormones to pass in and out of your cells.
Thus, to ensure healthy hormone production and balance, you need to ensure you’re eating a healthy supply of fat. In case you need more convincing, studies show that low-fat diets can lead to irregular periods or stop a woman from menstruating altogether. Eating low-fat dairy has even been associated with infertility .
Fats that are helpful for hormonal function include those found in oily fish, organically raised animals, nuts and seeds, avocados and extra virgin olive oil. Aim to eat 1–2tbsp or a thumb-sized serving with each meal.
3) Optimise your detoxification
Your body needs to get rid of used hormones, just like it needs to get rid of any other waste product. If hormones aren’t excreted properly, then can re-enter circulation, once again affecting the delicate balance.
Let me be clear: detoxification does not mean going on a juice-only detox diet. Your body is perfectly equipped to detox itself naturally—you simply need to give it the right tools.
First and foremost, you need to make sure you are passing stools (pooping!) regularly. This may seem crude, but it’s the primary method of getting rid of these ‘spent’ hormones. In fact, studies have observed that constipation leads to a slight increase in risk for breast cancer in women .
It’s healthy to visit the loo for this purpose up to three times per day—at the very least, you need to go once. If you suffer with constipation, first increase your fluid intake, increase the fibre in your diet (primarily from fruits and vegetables), and make sure you’re getting enough exercise. If you’re still having issues, it’s best to go and see a nutritional therapist.
Another important part of detoxification is supporting your liver function, as this organ plays a key role in processing hormones. A very easy way to give you liver a helping hand is to increase your intake of cruciferous vegetables.
This family of vegetables—which includes broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts—contain special compounds that upregulate the enzymes in your liver . This, in turn, helps you detoxify old hormones and other substances more efficiently.
4) Keep your stress levels in check
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times, and it’s very easy to ignore. We live in the modern world, and it’s fast-paced, demanding and stressful—what can you do?
It’s true that a normal stress response is a healthy and essential part of life. Let’s imagine you need to jump out of the way of an oncoming car (a modern version of a tiger, if you will). Your hormone adrenalin shoots up, causing your heart to beat faster and blood to rush to your muscles. At the same time, the hormone cortisol also goes up, raising your blood sugar to give you that much-needed energy to move. All this comes together to enable you to act quickly, getting you out of harm’s way.
Once this stressful situation has passed, the levels of adrenalin and cortisol should return to normal. The trouble is, while we (hopefully) don’t have to escape an oncoming car most days, we do have lots of things that cause mild stress: money worries, relationship woes, long commutes, difficult bosses, drinking too much coffee…the list goes on.
As a result of this, cortisol (in particular) remains mildly elevated in a lot of people. Not only does this affect your blood sugar, but it also impacts lots of processes that are deemed ‘non-essential’ when the body is under stress, including reproductive function, digestion and immune system function [8, 9]. It makes sense that if you were going to be eaten by a tiger, is wouldn’t matter if you’d digested lunch or not.
Minimising this stress response is a hugely important part of keeping all your hormones, and thus all your metabolic functions, humming along as they should. You can’t necessarily quit your job or get rid of money worries overnight, but you can get your body into a state of relaxation. Focus on the following:
Getting enough sleep so that you don’t feel tired. For most adults, that is between 7 and 9 hours a night.
Exercising so you feel energised, not exhausted. While exercise is important, it can become another stressor if pushed to the extreme. Find a form of exercise that fills you with energy, rather than one that depletes you.
Giving yourself at least half an hour of restful time per day. This may feel impossible if you’re very busy, but actively relaxing makes you more efficient in the long run. For some, this could be reading, for others meditation, and some may enjoy simply going on a walk. Whatever it is, it needs to get you out of yourself and into that rejuvenating sense of ‘flow’.
5) Limit exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals
In today’s modern world, we are exposed to thousands of chemicals. In fact, in the US, it’s estimated that there are 80,000 chemicals in circulation, only a handful of which have been adequately tested. It is difficult to obtain figures for the UK, but it is likely to be similar.
These chemicals are everywhere. They’re used in the flame retardant on your sofa, in your plastic Tupperware, in your anti-ageing face cream, in your non-stick saucepan and also in your food production. One survey found that the number of ‘toxic’ chemicals applied to onion crops rose from 1.8 In 1966 to 32.6 in 2015 .
So what are these chemicals doing to us?
For the most part, we don’t know. Many of these chemicals have not been fully assessed in isolation, let alone in conjunction with others—and it’s very likely that they have synergistic effects.
What we do know is that some of these chemicals have the ability to disrupt normal hormonal function. They do this in a number of ways, including interacting with the receptor sites on your cells . This can contribute to many of the symptoms listed above.
This can seem a bit overwhelming, but it need not be. We cannot fully escape the chemicals of the modern world, but we can all take steps to limit our exposure. Here are a few simple tips:
– Swap your plastic water bottles and Tupperware for glass versions.
– Opt for organic skincare and other cosmetic products.
– Use a ceramic frying pan, rather than non-stick.
– Choose organic meat, fruits and vegetables when you can.
– Filter your tap water.
Every little action helps. Reducing your toxic ‘load’ is one step, and optimising your detoxification is another. Refer back to point three for further details.
These foundational habits will get you a long way to achieving happy hormones. To keep them at the forefront of your mind, it’s helpful to realise that your hormones help you respond to the circumstances of your life. Balance your lifestyle—and your hormones will likely follow suit.
For personalised recommendations, please feel free to get in touch.