Hormonal balance is vital to a healthy body and mind as hormones control many processes in the body from metabolism to reproduction to mood. Hormonal fluctuations can occur naturally throughout the lifecycle, such as in puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding, perimenopause, and menopause. In addition to lifecycle changes, women’s hormones function in a delicate balance that can be easily thrown off by factors like diet, stress levels, sleep, exercise, and environment.
How do you know if you’re experiencing hormone-related issues? While symptoms can be similar to other health-related issues, hormonal imbalance may show itself as weight gain, fatigue, sensitivity to cold or heat, constipation or more frequent bowel movements, dry skin, thinning hair, infertility, decreased sex drive, depression, increased hunger, pain or stiffness in joints, and more. For females of reproductive age, hormonal imbalance may include heavy or irregular periods, hirsutism (excessive hair on the face or other parts of the body), acne, hair loss, vaginal dryness, pain during sex, night sweats, and headaches.
Here’s the good news (yes, there’s good news!)—while medication can’t always be avoided, there are things that are within your control that may help alleviate symptoms. Unfortunately, you cannot control age and natural lifecycle stages. However, you can control certain lifestyle factors that may help to balance hormones. Understanding what you can control can empower and equip you to make the best decisions for your health, helping you feel better, think better and do the best you can to care for your body and mind.
What are hormones
Hormones are like little chemical messengers that have a lot to say. They are produced and secreted from glands in your body to your tissues and organs, regulating body functions. The entire system is called the endocrine system. For example, your thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate metabolism and body temperature. Your ovaries produce sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which regulate your menstrual cycle, fertility, and pregnancy, and also support bone health. When you eat, your pancreas secretes insulin to take glucose (sugar that’s converted from the food you consume) from your blood to your cells, where it’s either used as energy or stored as fat (in the case of excess calories). Hormones that control appetite include peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP1), which are secreted in the gut when you eat a meal containing fiber. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland. It’s responsible for regulating your circadian rhythms, helping with quality sleep. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands. When its secretion is balanced, it plays a key role in metabolism, immune function, and blood pressure, and is your natural morning nudge telling you to wake up. However, it’s often termed the “stress hormone” because it is also released during times of stress. Too much cortisol can be problematic as it’s been associated with weight gain, anxiety, depression, and risk factors for heart disease when it’s elevated long-term. (There are more, but, I don't think you came for a full science class!)
How to manage hormones
There are several lifestyle factors that may help manage hormones:
Getting adequate sleep (power down your computer and cell phone one to two hours before sleep to power down your mind and allow release of melatonin)
Minimizing stress (remember to take some deep breaths throughout the day to keep excess cortisol at bay)
Moving daily (even if it’s walking the dog, gardening, or dancing while you’re cleaning the house)
Avoiding environmental toxins (whenever possible)
Consuming certain foods (fiber-filled plant-based like beans, nuts, seeds, and veggies) may help to keep your hormones balanced and your body grounded.
A note about environmental toxins...
Avoiding environmental toxins as much as possible can make a huge positive impact on your hormones and your health. Physical environment examples may include chemicals in your home, from furniture to window treatments to cleaning products to skincare. Use glass rather than plastic for food storage and definitely steer clear of heating food in plastic containers. Heat especially causes nasty hormone-disrupting chemicals to leach their way into food. Use natural paper towels, napkins and tissue paper if possible (the white paper products are not naturally white). Avoid the use of household chlorine bleach or use gloves when handling it. Switch to organic sanitary napkins and tampons. Minimize use of nail polish and nail polish remover unless they’re free of formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). When purchasing canned food, look for BPA-free on the can (bisphenol-A is a chemical used to make plastic and has been linked to hormone disruption). Friends, this is just the short list of environmental factors. Unfortunately, there are hormone-disrupting chemicals around us everywhere. It may be a challenge to avoid all chemicals, but avoiding what you can may help.
Food and hormones
In addition to implementing the lifestyle factors above, there are specific foods that may help to balance hormones naturally. But first, let’s address hormone-disrupting foods. Excess sugar, alcohol, processed foods (processed meats and pastries), meat, and dairy may all disrupt hormones. It’s not that you can never have another chocolate chip cookie again or have to become vegan tomorrow, but it’s helpful to, at least, know the culprits that like to mess with your hormones. That way, on days where you’re not quite feeling like yourself, you may be able to trace it back to what you ate.
Rather than focus on restrictions and what you can’t have, let’s focus on all of the things you can add to your plate that may help with balanced hormones and a happy life.
1. Whole grains
Whole grains contain complex carbohydrates, including fiber, as well as vitamins, minerals, and protein. Because of their fiber, protein, and slow-releasing carbohydrates, whole grains help to manage blood sugar. In contrast, when we eat processed carbohydrates (for example, sweets and baked items made with white flour and sugar), our blood sugar can spike. This leads to a spike in the hormone insulin. When insulin increases rapidly, as in the case with eating processed carbohydrate rather than whole grain carbohydrate, you are likely to feel hungry again soon after eating. Complex carbohydrate allows for a steady release of insulin from the pancreas and keeps you feeling satisfied and energized.
2. Flaxseed and Sesame Seeds
Ground flaxseeds (flax meal) and sesame seeds are excellent sources of phytoestrogens called lignans, or plant compounds, that have a similar structure to estrogen in our body. Phytoestrogens have been controversial, but research is showing that phytoestrogens may have both an estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effect, depending on your individual levels and also depending on your gut microbiome. One large review, in “Integrative Cancer Therapies,” concluded that flaxseed consumption in women either had no impact or caused a decrease in blood estrogen levels. Of note, one of the studies reviewed showed that two tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily reduced estrogen levels in women who were overweight, but did not significantly decrease estrogen levels in normal weight postmenopausal women. Lignans found in flax and sesame seeds may also inhibit aromatase, an enzyme that synthesizes estrogen. While more research needs to be done, studies are showing that lignans, due to their effect on estrogen levels, may reduce the risk of breast cancer.
What’s more, research also shows that consuming flaxseed may help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer through the seed's fiber, flavonoid, and omega-3 fat content.
If anyone has ever told you to take turmeric for premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and the painful crampi