Hormones are chemical messengers that are sent throughout the body, and their purpose is to help control numerous biological functions. Each hormone has a unique job, but they all work together to make sure the body is in healthy, working order.
Hormones are produced by glands around the body – but these glands can be sensitive to lifestyle changes, disrupting the normal hormone cycle. The glands that produce the hormones include the Pituitary Gland, Thyroid, Adrenal Glands, Pancreas, Ovaries, and Testicles.
It can take seconds for a hormone to present itself and disappear again, but the effects it has on our organs can last from minutes to days. It’s not uncommon for some glands to be overactive when going through certain situations and emotions, but if our hormones are imbalanced over a long period of time, it can have long-lasting, damaging effects on our bodies.
We need to keep our hormones balanced, otherwise, our body goes through changes which can have serious health implications. Noticing the symptoms can help you recognize that there could be an existing hormonal imbalance. There is a misconception that only females are affected by hormonal changes, but they can impact both men and women, of all ages.
Some physical symptoms that can occur include:
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- Hair loss or thinning
- Extreme fatigue
- Changes in appetite or digestive issues
- For females, periods can become irregular, heavy or very painful
But hormones can also disrupt your mental health, causing:
- Loss of sexual libido
UNCONTROLLABLE HORMONE IMBALANCES
Some hormonal imbalances that occur are completely out of our control. Here are some of the common ones:
Menopause for women is naturally occurring and usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55 [i]. The menopausal transition occurs when the ovaries produce less of the hormones Estrogen and Progesterone. These two hormones promote the menstrual cycle, which is what regulates a woman’s monthly periods. When women go through the menopause, they may experience hot flashes and mood changes, among other symptoms.
Type 1 Diabetes is a genetic condition, caused by a lack of the hormone, Insulin. Insulin is produced by the pancreas, which sits near the stomach. The main purpose of Insulin is to break down carbohydrates and glucose (sugar) into usable energy – if the pancreas is underperforming, the person doesn’t get the energy from the food they eat, so will experience symptoms such as fatigue, excessive need to urinate, and thirst. When Type 1 Diabetes is left untreated, it can have damaging effects on the nerves of the eyes and kidneys, and increase the risk of other serious diseases.
Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism are caused by an overactive or underactive thyroid. The thyroid is located in the throat, and it produces hormones such as Thyroxine and Calcitonin. When the thyroid produces too much or too little of these hormones, it can cause anxiety, mood swings, weight loss or gain, irregular or fast heart rate, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.
HOW TO BALANCE YOUR HORMONES
Some hormonal imbalances are caused by environmental and lifestyle factors. We should aim to keep hormones balanced where we can, to reduce the risk of serious health threats.
1. Too Much Stress
The stress hormone, Cortisol, is produced by the adrenal glands, which sit just above the kidneys. Cortisol is important for survival, as it’s responsible for the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response – the body reacts to threats, and stress is a threat! The adrenal glands are also responsible for the hormone, Adrenaline, which kicks in when you’re particularly scared or stressed.
But too much Cortisol can play games with your mental health, blood pressure, and visceral fat. High blood pressure (hypertension) can increase the chance of developing heart disease, kidney disease, or having a stroke. Visceral fat is stored in areas around the vital organs, so when there is too much of it, there’s a higher risk of health complications such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Stress also causes higher levels of inflammation in the body and skin, which can, in turn, change the way you look. Skin can break out and show blemishes, while the lack of sleep you experience when going through a stressful period can increase the appearance of wrinkles.
What To Do:
To reduce the amount of Cortisol in your body, there are changes you can make to your daily life that will help decrease the amount of stress hormone your body is producing.
a) Get more sleep:
Sleep deprivation is one of the main causes of a rise in Cortisol, because, without sleep, the body and brain can’t rest. A shocking 35% of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of sleep they need [ii], while 20% have a sleep disorder such as insomnia or sleep apnea.
The recommended amount of sleep is between 7 and 9 hours, but it’s not only about quantity, it’s also about the quality of sleep you get. Things like blue light exposure and staying up late can affect another hormone, Melatonin, which is released at night to help the body rest. Exposure to light when you need to sleep can decrease the amount of Melatonin your pineal gland (a part of the brain) produces, which makes it more difficult to fall into a deep sleep.
Cutting down on caffeine, avoiding cellphones and tablets in the bedroom, and sleeping without nightlights will encourage the body to produce the Melatonin that you need to sleep, and in turn, help you to reduce the amount of stress your body feels from sleep deprivation.
Exercise is a great form of stress relief. High-intensity exercise may increase Cortisol levels in the short run, but exercise releases endorphins from the pituitary gland, a pea-sized part of the brain that helps to regulate growth, blood pressure, and pain relief. These endorphins also improve your ability to get to sleep, which as we know, can decrease Cortisol levels.
Partaking in physical activity is known to give you a “high”, which is due to the release of hormones such as Dopamine and Serotonin after you exercise. Sometimes known as the “happy hormones”, the release of them can improve the feeling of stress. Exercise often increases confidence, too, which has a butterfly effect on improving the feelings of anxiety and stress.
2. A Balanced Diet
A healthy diet can help to stabilize your hormones. Too much of anything can have negative consequences, but certain foods are linked to increasing further health problems.
Too much sugar is known to be unhealthy, but do you know how it can affect your hormones? Well, when we eat a chocolate bar or a bag of candy, the influx of sugar causes a release of Cortisol, and the pancreas is forced to push out a lot of Insulin. The sugar sends the body into overdrive so that it can find equilibrium again.
Insulin has the power to turn sugars and carbohydrates into energy, by funneling the sugar into the bloodstream. For some people, however, the pancreas works so much, that it can begin to fail. When the pancreas begins to shut down and stop producing Insulin, due to dietary as well as genetic factors, it can cause Type 2 Diabetes. If you have a family history of diabetes, it’s especially important to control the number of sugars and carbs you eat.
What To Do:
Choosing to swap sugary meals and snacks for a healthier choice is the first step to having a healthier diet because sugar can toy with the hormonal balance. Instead, choose foods that encourage hormonal balance.
Healthy fats (such as nuts, seeds, avocadoes, and egg yolks) can be incredible tools for balancing your hormones! They include omega 3 and 6, which are vital for the production of hormones and maintenance of hormone function.
Try to base your diet on healthy fats, lean protein, and anti-oxidant rich vegetables – they’ll give you the essential nutrients for hormones to balance well. Protein can be found in meat, fish, eggs, beans, and lentils, and they’re usually very filling, so it will prevent you from snacking. Most dark green and bright-colored vegetables are abundant in antioxidants, such as spinach, asparagus, kale, tomatoes, carrots, and butternut squash.
3. Be Aware Of Medication
Some medication is known to have an effect on hormones, or even aims to do so - most notably are birth control pills. On the other hand, for some medications, it’s a side effect, which you need to be aware of if you are concerned about unwanted hormonal changes.
Birth control pills and other contraceptive implements can alter the amount of Estrogen the female body produces. It is proven to be a safe method of contraception for most people, and it can help to regulate the menstrual cycle. But some critics claim that it may increase the risk of breast cancer, migraines, and high blood pressure among other side effects [iii].
The higher levels of Estrogen can cause many females to experience weight gain, skin breakouts, and mood changes. Estrogen is the female sex hormone produced by the ovaries, which sit near the uterus. The male sex hormone, Testosterone, is produced by the testicles in men. Even though they are identified as ‘gendered’ hormones, women and men actually produce both hormones - just in different amounts.
What To Do:
Despite the critique against the contraceptive pill, there is little research to back up the long-term risk. Ask your doctor for the best advice, and if you are concerned about the risks, research or ask about other forms of contraception that don’t cause hormonal changes.
For other medication, it’s advisable to check the side effects written on the packaging. Medicines that do cause side effects such as fatigue, appetite changes and loss of sexual libido are likely to contain steroid hormones, stimulants or statins, which can alter your own hormones. Ask a medical professional for more advice on the medication if you’re worried about the side effects.
Without a hormonal balance, our bodies are at risk of serious health issues. Although it can be out of our control, knowing what you can do to try to maintain a balance is the primary step to staying healthy. Every physiological function in our body is controlled by hormones, so finding a balance is essential for the body to work efficiently and perform at its best!