Harnessing our hormones

If you want to feel good, your hormonal system needs to be functioning properly. But in my experience, and talking to most of my (middle aged female) friends, hormonal imbalance is contributing to a range of unwelcome symptoms, including sleeplessness, irritability and depression. Let’s explore what we can do to feel better. 

Hormones. What do you really know about them? They make me have periods and PMT. Make me female. And sometimes make me crazy? Yes to all of these. But more, so much more.

Hormones are an extremely smart chemical dance troupe (called the endocrine system) that work together to make your body system rock. They include sex hormones (like oestrogen and progesterone), as well as metabolic hormones (like thyroid hormones and insulin), and stress hormones like cortisol.

Hormones affect: your metabolism (how hungry you are and how much energy you have), your libido (whether you want sex or not), your emotions (whether you are happy, OK, or bursting in to tears regularly), your appearance (the way your skin, hair and nails looks and feel).

Women have a more complex hormonal system (or better dance moves) than men. And of course the system is constantly changing, particularly as we age. It needs a bit more TLC if we are to thrive.

Today’s stressful lifestyles and poor diets (processed food, sugars and caffeine), together with a lack of sleep and environmental pollution all hammer our hormonal system. And then the ‘perimenopause’ comes along (that’s the 10 year period before your last period, on average age 41-51) and changes everything.

Your body craves balance. Your hormones’ job is to maintain or resume that internal balance. And it’s very good at it. If one part of the endocrine system goes off piste, the hormonal team kicks in to get you back on track. It’s an amazing hormonal dance that is constantly foxtrotting in response to what your life throws at it.

But the system can only take so many hits before it starts to overcompensate, get confused, and pass out. This leads to all sorts of symptoms (heavy periods, fibroids, IBS, insomnia, yeast infections, depression, weight gain, feeling tired and lethargic in the morning, acne, colds and infections and sugar cravings).

When we feel these symptoms, our instinct is to fix it with medicine or drugs. Instead we need to help our endocrine system get us back on track. We do this by choosing a lifestyle and a diet that allows balance, in line with our natural monthly rhythms.

Three enemies of hormonal balance: 

  1. Unstable blood sugar
  2. Stress
  3. Not respecting the cycle

 

1) Unstable blood sugar, or ‘foods that make our blood sugar levels go haywire’

“Unstable blood sugar is the most important underlying cause of hormonal problems”, according to Alisa Vitti, author of WomanCode.

Unstable blood sugar is caused by eating too much processed carbohydrate and sugar in one go, and/or not eating nutrient rich food frequently enough during the day. (In other words skipping breakfast then eating white pasta or bread for lunch with a chocolate bar and coffee.) This stresses out your pancreas and liver as they struggle to produce the hormones to regulate your blood sugar.

And it has knock on effects too: your liver is distracted from it’s other hormonal jobs, including breaking down and getting rid of oestrogen. So oestrogen stays in your bloodstream longer than it should, throwing your sex hormone balance off.

And when your brain and hormones are battling blood sugar highs and lows, you produce more cortisol (stress hormone) which dampens production of DHEA and testosterone. Us ladies need testosterone to maintain fat burning muscle mass, boost our libido, give us energy, and stabilise our mental health (feel happy).

What to do?

Keep your blood sugar levels steady:

  • don’t skip breakfast (or any meals) and don’t wait too long between meals
  • eat a protein-rich breakfast (eggs, beans, yogurt) along with complex carbohydrates (not white toast or processed cereal)
  • eat a decent size lunch that includes one ‘good fat’
  • snack on ‘nutrient dense’ food (fruit, veg, nuts, hummus)
  • make dinner mostly veg with lean animal protein and avoid grains and sugar
  • drink more water

See my Food Rules for more info and my recipes for inspiration.

2) Stress

When you are stressed your adrenal glands release hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline boosts blood pressure and heart rate. Cortisol blasts glucose to the muscles.

If these glands are constantly working and these chemicals constantly firing it has side effects like insomnia, weight gain, fatigue, reduced libido and can lead to long term problems like heart disease and stroke.

Turning to alcohol and bad ‘foods’ to calm your nerves or reward yourself for surviving sends your blood sugar soaring and crashing. Cue hormone crisis.

What to do? 

Find a better way to deal with your stresses than a large glass of vino. The best choices are exercise, yoga and meditation. So start today, and do one of these three every day, starting with just 15 minutes. You WILL feel better.

3) Ignoring your menstrual cycle

Our reproductive hormones fluctuate every day, depending on where we are in our monthly cycle. They have a huge impact on our mood, energy levels, water retention and libido. So we can hardly to expect to feel the same every day of the month.

When your reproductive hormonal system is working properly there are four clear phases (follicular, ovulatory, luteal, menstrual). In each you will have different energy levels and symptoms as the levels of your 5 sex hormones rise and fall. Knowing this in advance can help you plan your days accordingly, including your diet and exercise.

How clear and regular your personal cycle is depends on how your reproductive hormonal system is operating, including:

  • the natural changes that begin in perimenopause (the 10 years before your menopause (last period))
  • what kind of hormonal contraception you are using (as this changes your natural hormonal activity and can masks your natural cyclical symptoms)
  • if your reproductive hormones are being thrown off course by other grenades and hormonal imbalances (e.g. stress, poor diet etc).

What to do? 

Start tracking your cycle  so you can start figuring out how it’s working and if it’s causing any of the symptoms you are feeling.

Find out more about what to eat and how to exercise to counterbalance your hormonal fluctuations. Check out the ‘My Flo Tracker’ app to get started.

 

In summary

In summary, if you want to feel good, your hormonal system needs to be functioning properly. To do so it needs you to:

  1. Eat good food: a healthy, balanced diet full of real wholefoods (fruit and veg, protein, complex carbs) and low in refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol and caffeine and high in whole foods.
  2. Chill out: get a handle on your stress
  3. Respect the system: educate yourself, recognise your own symptoms and respond to them

If you do these three things and you still feel out of kilter, the next step is to get your hormone levels tested.

For further advice please get in touch, and for more information check out Alisa Vitti’s FloLiving site and her book WomanCode and Sara Gottfried’s The Hormone Cure.