When we think of hormones, stereotypical images of moody teenagers and menopausal women might come to mind. However, hormones play a very important role in our bodies – they’re the chemical messengers of the endocrine system that help with growth and development, metabolism and digestion, fertility, stress and mood. As a result, hormonal imbalances can affect any of us at any stage of life, bringing with them a whole host of not-so-desirable symptoms like PMS, headaches, mood swings, weight loss or gain, spots, bloating, low libido, insomnia and many more, as we discovered in our article on how to hack hormones. If you’re looking to improve these symptoms and live in harmony with your hormones, read on!
Signs of imbalanced hormones
As Healthline specifies, the body requires precise levels of hormones to function properly. Even a minor imbalance can cause significant effects, especially with the menstrual cycle. Before starting treatments or including any hormone-balancing foods into your diet, It’s important to know which of your hormone levels are too high or too low. This can be done by a health practitioner, who can help you assess your symptoms with a hormone test and determine which ones need some fine-tuning.
Typically, issues with metabolism are caused by an imbalance of insulin, leptin, ghrelin or thyroid hormones: insulin takes sugar (glucose) from the blood to the cells for energy, and is responsible for storing extra sugar as fat. Leptin helps control appetite, maintain weight and tell the brain you are full. Ghrelin is responsible for stimulating your appetite. The thyroid hormones triiodothyronine and thyroxine help regulate weight, energy, temperature, and the growth of hair, skin and nails.
Issues with the reproductive system are typically caused by an imbalance of estrogen levels and testosterone levels. Estrogen is the female sex hormone that helps regulate the menstrual cycle, maintain pregnancy, keep cholesterol in check and keep bones strong. Meanwhile, testosterone is the male sex hormone that increases sex drive, bone density and muscle strength (in both men and women).
Alternatively, issues with our stress and mood are often caused by an imbalance of cortisol levels, adrenaline and melatonin. Cortisol is released in times of stress and increases blood pressure and heart rate. Similarly, adrenaline is released in times of stress and increases heart rate, triggering our ‘fight or flight’ response. Melatonin is released at night and prepares the body for sleep.
What causes hormonal imbalances?
Because your endocrine system is so complex, there’s no single cause of hormone imbalance. They can all fluctuate and affect each other. For instance, the exact cause of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is unknown, but it’s thought to occur from several different hormones imbalancing. Hormonal fluctuations may be caused by any number of reasons such as being overweight, high stress levels, poor sleep, poor gut health, a lack of or excessive exercise, and a poor diet or reliance on stimulants and depressants like caffeine, sugar and alcohol. As a result, hormonal imbalances can sometimes be remedied with the following steps.
Eat a healthy diet
Hormones need a steady stream of nutrients for them to work efficiently. As nutritional therapist Gabriella Espinosa explains in our feature on a balanced plate for better hormone health, “food sets the foundation and provides building blocks for our bodies to find balance and function optimally. Drink lots of water and eat a whole ‘real’ food diet without the processed stuff, including lots of fruit and veg, whole grains, beans, seeds and pulses, good-quality meat and dairy. Choose organic where possible.” Organic fruit and veg are likely to be richer in vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E and other antioxidants. For instance, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and bok choy can help our livers metabolise estrogen in an efficient and healthy way.
Eat more fibre and protein
Fibre has been found to increase insulin sensitivity, stimulating the production of hormones that trigger satiety and fullness. Fibre can also help to remove excess hormones from the body, which may be beneficial for women who experience heavy, painful periods that are exacerbated by surges in oestrogen. To get more fibre in your diet, fill up on vegetables, beans, pulses and whole grains. Protein has also been found to reduce the levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin whilst stimulating other hormones that help to maintain satiety. For a diet with increased protein, eat more eggs, poultry and fish, as well as plant sources such as beans, pulses, nuts and seeds.
Avoid certain foods
As mentioned, processed foods can be detrimental to your hormonal health, but so can fried foods, sugar, artificial sweeteners and alcohol. One reason for this is that a crash after increased blood sugar levels releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which disrupt the production of oestrogen and may prevent ovulation. Artificial sweeteners may also alter our gut bacteria, impacting the balance of leptin and ghrelin and affecting our hunger and satiety. Likewise, alcohol interferes with several hormonal processes, from blood sugar control to estrogen metabolism.
Improve your gut bacteria
Since many hormones are actually produced by the beneficial bacteria in the gut and unbalanced hormones can affect your microbiome, it’s important to keep your gut happy. Eating foods with probiotics such as fermented foods, yoghurt and sauerkraut, and prebiotics (fibrous foods that probiotics nosh on) like bananas, asparagus and shiitake mushrooms, can help increase the number of friendly bacteria in your gut.
As Harvard School of Public Health has found, our bodies react to all types of stress via the same mechanism – hormones are released that instigate pumping blood and oxygen quickly to our cells, quickening the heart rate and increasing mental alertness. In prehistoric times, this rapid response was needed to quickly escape a dangerous situation or fight off a predator. However, these hormones do not return to normal levels until the stress levels decrease. If the stress does not pass, or you experience chronic stress, the hormonal imbalance continues and can eventually lead to inflammation and damage to cells.
Get a healthy amount of sleep
Maintaining a consistent circadian rhythm is essential for general health, as good sleep helps us keep stress and hunger hormones in check. As the Hormone Health Network says, not getting enough sleep in the short-term leads to fatigue, impaired learning and memory, and irritability. Consistently depriving yourself of sleep can release stress hormones and lower your immune system, making you susceptible to illnesses such as the common cold or the flu.
According to Frida Harju-Westman, in-house nutritionist at health app Lifesum, “adaptogens are edible herbs and roots that possess healing abilities and can be used to treat anxiety, stress and Seasonal Affective Disorder. An adaptogen produces a non-specific response in your body, and increases the power of resistance against multiple stressors, including physical, chemical or biological agents. It’s there to help your body adapt, stabilise and become more balanced.” See our list of adaptogens here, for the 20 plants that qualify and what they can do.
Exercise is great for so many reasons, but in this case, it can speed up the process of delivering nutrients we need to every cell in the body – including our reproductive cells and the glands which regulate our hormones. It also helps with weight management, as weight gain and weight loss are contributors to hormone imbalance, because fat cells can produce oestrogen.
Eat healthy fat
Short-, medium- and long-chain essential fats are vital for hormone production, and may help maintain a balance of hormones involved in appetite, metabolism, and feeling full. Eating a variety of healthy fats may keep inflammation low, boost metabolism and keep your weight in check. Likewise, you need enough cholesterol to make sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, so the key is to choose omega-3 fatty acids and to limit saturated fats (and eliminate trans fats). These include oily fish like salmon, tinned albacore tuna, walnuts, flaxseed, olive oil, avocados and chia seeds.