While your friends may talk about their favorite diet or preferred exercise strategy, few people harp on their hormones, unless being comforted as teenagers in the midst of acne and angst, or enduring the heat wave of menopause years. Hormones, however, impact our lives on a daily basis. Every time we feel the urge to eat, sob, laugh, have sex, sleep, or wake up, we experience hormones at work. So why is it that we only discuss hormones during adolescence or older age, when the truth is that they have quite a lot to do with mood, weight loss efforts, and beyond?
Simply put, your hormones regulate your body. Beyond making some women feel crazy or emotional once a month, hormones are also crucial to vital brain and cognitive function, bone metabolism, thyroid regulation, heart health, immune response, and more. The endocrine glands produce and store hormones, which are sent to the organs, tissues, or cells, as needed, via the bloodstream. In order for everything to work effectively, glands must work properly, blood must transport hormones to the necessary locations, receptors on target cells must exist, and the system which controls creation and use of hormones must run smoothly. Sounds simple enough, but if anything goes wrong within that system, the body can be thrown into a state of havoc which can take years to recover from.
Healthy hormone function can be thrown off by a number of factors, including ongoing sleep deprivation, chemicals (like the notorious BPA and DEHP, found in many food containers), GMO foods (which may cause hormonal imbalances leading to infertility), increased cortisol levels (from stress or coffee), hormones added to meats and poultry, sugar, and light exposure at night (electronics). Given that many of these factors surround us on a daily basis, how can you tell if your hormones have been affected?
Hormonal imbalance can produce a slew of symptoms, including—but not limited to—unexplained weight gain, sugar addiction, insomnia, headaches, painful intercourse, lethargy, depression, mood swings, acne, excessive or thinning hair, cysts, decreased willpower/motivation, and beyond. If you suspect you may have an underlying hormone imbalance, ask your doctor to administer a saliva test (or you can order a saliva test kit online). Saliva testing is more precise and can identify hormone levels at a cellular level, as opposed to serum testing (or blood testing), which measures the amount of particular hormones moving through the bloodstream.
With so many complications resulting from hormonal imbalances, it’s no wonder everyone wants a quick fix to address the slew of side effects. While some turn to hormone therapy—particularly to alleviate menopause symptoms and to support health in aging individuals—some clinical trials have indicated that it may cause more health problems and risks than rewards. Just a few weeks ago, another study in Denmark (involving over one million women) linked the use of hormonal contraception—especially among adolescents—with a slightly increased risk of depression. As side effects like these have come to light, the “one-size-fits-all” approach of much of Western medicine has become increasingly less favorable, as far as safe, viable treatment options go.
More and more doctors, as well as patients, have turned their attention to nutrition and lifestyle changes, which offer promising results. A 2010 study showed that those who switched to a “fresh foods intervention” for a period of three days, rather than eating their usual canned foods or items packaged in plastic, substantially reduced BHA and DEHP in the body (both of which are proven to disrupt the endocrine system). The Nutrition & Diabetes journal showed that in lab mice, overeating reduces production of the hormone uroguanylin, which signals fullness. However, these same mice had increased levels of uroguanylin once they went on diets (and restricted caloric intake to what was actually needed by the body). Effectively, switching to more fresh foods and getting our portions back under control, as well as limiting exposure to toxic elements around us, can enable our hormones to reset.
It may not be easy to incorporate all of these changes at once, so perhaps try starting small. Dr. Sara Gottfried, author of The Hormone Reset Diet, offers a simple chain of changes across a 21-day hormone reset. After years of blood tests and guesses, it turns out living a balanced lifestyle may be exactly what’s needed to enjoy living with balanced hormones.
Chelsea Vincent has been teaching fitness for almost ten years. Prior to teaching, she had 15 years of formal dance training.