Hormone imbalance is a topic which many women can relate to, and many health and lifestyle issues are linked with hormone changes. It is said that around 80% of women will suffer from hormone imbalance, such as PMS, menstrual irregularities, or fertility problems, and sadly, most of us are unaware and unprepared for the changes that happen to women from the age of 40, as we reach the peri-menopause phase.
The ways we live our lives, our lifestyle choices, stress, exercise, sleep, diet, and many other factors impact the fluctuation of hormones.
Educating ourselves is important so that we can make informed decisions about appropriate changes in our lives, which may help to stabilize hormones, and improve our health and well-being.
What are hormones?
Hormones are produced by the endocrine system. Hormones are chemical messengers that travel in the blood and regulate a wide variety of processes in the body, including metabolism, sleep, hunger, reproduction, growth, mood, sexual health, and brain function. Women have 50 different types of hormones.
Hormones are produced in the endocrine glands (of which there are many), and once produced they travel in the blood to a targeted organ, where they are needed by the body.
The key endocrine glands are located:
Hypothalamus — middle of the brain
Pituitary gland — below the hypothalamus
Pineal gland — behind hypothalamus
Thyroid gland — front of the neck
Adrenal glands — above both kidneys
Pancreas — upper abdomen
Ovaries — female reproductive system
Testes — male reproductive system
Examples of hormones produced by these glands are:
The adrenal gland produces the hormone adrenaline which impacts the heart and blood vessels.
Cortisol – the stress hormone is reduced by the adrenal gland in response to stress, triggering ‘fight or flight’. This is vitally important for saving lives, but under constant stress, high cortisol levels will suppress the immune system.
The pineal gland produces the hormone melatonin which is released in response to darkness to regulate sleep.
The ovaries release two main female sex hormones, which are oestrogen and progesterone. Oestrogen is responsible for many roles in the body - the female changes associated with puberty (i.e., breast development, etc.), thickening the lining of the womb (uterus) in the menstrual cycle, increasing good cholesterol, promoting bone formation, and improving the collagen content in your skin. Progesterone maintains the lining of the womb during the menstrual cycle.
Naturally, as a part of the process of female ageing, these hormones begin to decline typically around our early 40s, which is a natural hormone imbalance and thereby, we experience related symptoms. E.g., brain fog is linked to a drop in oestrogen levels. Oestrogen stimulates the brain, supports the growth of new cells, and helps existing cells form new connections. When oestrogen levels fall the brain goes into a sudden deprivation state.
There are long-term health risks of low hormone levels, such as low oestrogen, which can contribute to worsening bone health, heart disease, obesity, type II diabetes and dementia.
We need to recognize that women today live almost half our lives post-menopausally, and therefore understanding how we can address hormone imbalance is vital so that we can prepare for and adapt to changing periods in our lives and prevent disease.
Symptoms of female hormone imbalance
The following are indicators that the body is telling us something is out of balance.
Feelings of overwhelm
Inability to concentrate
Exacerbation of existing conditions, such as depression
Weight gain around the middle
Drying of mucous membranes (eyes, mouth, vaginal dryness)
External contributing factors to hormone fluctuation
Ongoing stress creates a hormone imbalance because the hormone cortisol is released in larger quantities, more frequently, which also suppresses the immune system. The body uses progesterone as a precursor to cortisol, meaning that progesterone is needed to form cortisol in the body, causing progesterone levels to decrease when cortisol levels rise. This can lead to oestrogen dominance (i.e., progesterone and oestrogen are out of balance).
When oestrogen is dominant, it increases cholesterol in the body, which is a precursor to cardiovascular heart disease. People with high cholesterol levels have roughly twice the risk of heart disease as people with lower levels.
Being consistently over-stimulated causes stress on the body, and these can include caffeine, alcohol, drugs, social media, toxic relationships/friendships, and overtraining/exercising.
Lack of sleep
How many hours of sleep do you get a night? A lack of sleep is the biggest predictor of chronic stress and burnout, and big contributor to hormone imbalance. Sleep is so important when it comes to your hunger hormones because sleep suppresses or stimulates hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin. Therefore, when you are tired you are more likely to reach for carby foods.
Weight gain or loss
Women who are extremely overweight, or underweight will experience hormone imbalance because weight affects the metabolism, which impacts hormones.
Poor nutrition or a lack of exercise can lead to type II diabetes, which occurs when the body becomes insulin resistant. The role of insulin is to regulate sugar in the blood and metabolize it into energy. Too much sugar in the blood leads to type II diabetes. Obesity is also linked to diabetes.
Environmental toxins/hormone disruptors
Sometimes we don’t realize the impact the environment around us can have on hormone balance. Chemicals can affect the body’s endocrine system – they can be environmental (e.g., pollution, fragrances), personal care or cleaning products (make-up, body lotions, bleach), plastic food containers, unfiltered drinking water, drugs/medication.
5 factors to consider to re-balance hormones
We can optimize and boost hormones through a natural approach.
1. Be active
Regular aerobic exercise is important to manage weight, for mental well-being, hormone balance, muscle building/muscle mass and overall physical health. Examples are swimming, dancing, walking, cycling, and running. Start with 3 hours a week if you are a beginner and gradually increase. Avoid over-exercising to combat weight gain and stress, because it will continue the stress cycle in the body. Do weight-bearing exercises twice a week to nourish bone density.
2. Reduce/remove stress
Commit to a self-care plan - take this seriously and prioritize self-care every day. Be strict with yourself and find pockets of time every day where you do something to calm your mind and body. Do something that makes you happy (stimulates the happy hormone – dopamine). The hormone oxytocin is released (so-called ‘love hormone’) which lowers cortisol.
Be open to looking at the root cause of your stress – perhaps it is your job, and you may need to make some changes, to prioritize your health and well-being.
Some self-care ideas: read a book, listen to a podcast, meet your best friend for a catch-up, give a loved one a call, have an Epsom salt bath, go for a massage.
3. Get enough sleep
The recommendation is still 8 hours on average and getting less can suppress the hormones that tell you when you’re full, so the cravings keep coming for all that sugar.
Ideally, you want to go to bed around the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, getting 7-9 hours of sleep in between. Getting on a wind-down and sleep schedule can help regulate your hormones, which in turn will help regulate your blood sugar. It also helps you regulate your stress hormones.
4. Audit your environment
Investigate the chemical products you have in your household and try to swap them for natural ingredients. Also, take an honest look at those around you – do you notice any toxic relationships or friendships that are detrimental to your health and well-being? Audit your social media, and if you feel it is excessive, put a limit of hours on your ‘phone.
As we age, we can become more sensitive to food and drink, which we had not noticed before.
Here are some things to consider:
Add in more green veggies daily (increase the diversity in your diet).
Reduce seed oils in cooking, sauces, and dressings.
Switch from coffee to fruit teas or decaffeinated versions.
Hydrate – minimum 3 litres of still filtered water daily.
Increase sources of good cholesterol (sex hormones are produced from cholesterol) – oily fish, organic egg yolks, wild salmon.
Boost phytoestrogens (plant) which mimic oestrogen in the body. They are found to help symptoms, lower cancer risk, and improve bone health. Sources are flax seeds, alfalfa sprouts, oats, lentils, and nuts like walnuts.
Boost protein sources (protein can assist in maintaining muscle mass). Sources are meat, soy, oat bran, beans, lentils, nuts, quinoa, buckwheat, chia & pumpkin seeds.
Include gut-supporting foods because fluctuating oestrogen levels can cause GI tract function issues. These include probiotic foods – yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, and Prebiotics (nutrients that stimulate the growth of microorganisms) – oats, bananas, beans, chia seeds, peas, wheat, barley, rye, garlic, asparagus.
Include insulin regulators in daily diet such as quinoa, oats, and wholegrain sources.
Exclude all refined sugars and white carbs – apart from having no nutritional value, they are going to cause hormone dysregulation.
Ensure enough omega 3 – it is vital for metabolizing oestrogen, reduces inflammation in the body, and helps our immune system. Sources are oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, chia seeds, and walnuts – dosage depends on various factors, but the guidance is not to exceed 3g/day.
Vitamin D is crucial for bone health, and our immune system – we get it from 1 hour in daylight, but we do need to supplement at certain times through the year. Sources are egg yolks, fortified foods (soymilk), and mushrooms. The recommended dose is 1000 micrograms/day.
It is said that around 80% of women will suffer from hormone imbalance. The ways we live our lives, our lifestyle choices, stress, exercise, sleep, diet, and many other factors impact the fluctuation of hormones.
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel in the blood and regulate a wide variety of processes in the body, including metabolism, sleep, hunger, reproduction, growth, mood, sexual health, and brain function.
Symptoms of female hormone imbalance are both emotional and physical. There are things we can do naturally to help re-balance hormones, including addressing stress, getting enough sleep, exercising, self-care, addressing diet and nutrition, and removing toxic environmental factors.
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