We all know that hormones play a critical role in the body, but what do they do exactly? Are there natural ways we can actively help balance them? And what steps can we take in our daily lives to enjoy food for what it is: something to enjoy, something to satiate us, and something to partake in alone as well as with loved ones.
If you have a condition like PCOS, a chronic health condition (such as diabetes), or other health struggles, unfortunately meal times can come with a bunch of unwanted stress, anxiety, and guilt.
Questions surrounding not knowing what is ‘okay’ to eat, feeling bad about indulging in yummy foods and a host of other mixed emotions can all be at play when it comes to grocery shopping and preparing meals. But with increased awareness and knowledge comes power and peace of mind. That’s why we’ll be breaking down the many essential roles of your hormones, why you should care about your hormonal health, what small nutritive steps you can take to protect your hormonal health in your daily life, and some tips on prioritizing balance when deciding what should go in your fridge and what foods can help you reach your health goals. Let’s dive in.
- What do hormones do?
- How hormones work
- Why your hormonal health is important
- Tips to balance your hormones (achievable and easy to implement)
What do hormones do?
According to Johns Hopkins Medical, the endocrine system uses hormones to control and coordinate many functions inside the body, including your:
- Internal metabolism (aka homeostasis)
- Energy levels
- Growth and development
- Response to injury and stress
All of the above sound very important, so what happens if you have a hormonal imbalance? Well, it differs depending on what hormones are disrupted and how out of whack they may be.
Here are some hormones you may or may not have heard of, but they work everyday without us realizing it to keep us healthy:
- Released by the adrenal glands, this hormone is essential to controlling key functions such as inflammation, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, muscle strength, as well as the balance between salt and water in the body!
- That’s right, many people don’t think of insulin as a hormone, but your pancreas is in charge of releasing insulin after you’ve eaten something. This signals to your body’s cells to open, so the food (broken down into blood sugar) can be accepted and converted to energy. Levels of blood sugar in the bloodstream decrease as a result, and insulin decreases too.
- Commonly referred to as the ‘male sex hormone’, women also have small amounts of testosterone! Men make testosterone in the testes, while multiple locations in women’s bodies make this hormone (including the ovaries and the adrenal gland).
- Commonly referred to as the ‘female sex hormone’, both women and men have estrogen (though women have more). A healthy balance of testosterone and estrogen in both genders is critical for sexual growth and development.
- TSH hormone
- Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced by the pituitary gland and prompts your thyroid to make T3 and T4, critical for metabolism and energy levels.
The above breakdown is by no means an exhaustive list of all the hormones in your body. Scientists have identified over 50 hormones in the human body that all work together and make up the larger endocrine system. That being said, you can see from the above list, how big of an impact hormones can have on our day to day lives: for instance, individuals suffering from hypothyroidism often report low energy levels and general fatigue, while a growing insensitivity to insulin can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Note: if you have noticed any health concerns recently, it is critical you make an appointment with your primary care doctor. It may be nothing, or it may be a hormonal imbalance, or something else entirely, but the only way to get answers is to speak to a trusted physician.
How do hormones work?
Think of your hormones as the “chemical messengers” of the body.They interact with each other, as well as different organs, to communicate instructions that often involve a chain reaction of different processes.
These chemical messengers are used for two fundamental purposes:
- Communicating between two endocrine glands
In this scenario, one gland releases a hormone which prompts another gland to change the levels of hormone it is releasing in turn. A great example of this symbiotic relationship is the pituitary gland and the thyroid gland: the pituitary releases TSH, and in turn, the thyroid gland modifies its levels of T3 and T4.
- Communicating between an endocrine gland and an organ
In this situation, hormones communicate with organs directly. For instance, your pancreas releases insulin, and the liver works to both store and manufacture glucose.
Why hormonal health is important
Hormonal health is important because of how much our hormones do for us everyday. Put another way: hormones are critical to the functioning of our bodies to such an extent that they influence our emotional, mental, and physical health, dictating everything from mood, to appetite, to energy levels and beyond.
So what about when your hormones are out of balance?
Well, this picture can look different depending on exactly what is wrong and what’s causing it. For women with PCOS, for example, this hormonal imbalance (in the form of high estrogen and testosterone levels) is thought to be the result of environmental factors, hereditary factors, and insulin resistance. That’s an extremely complex picture, which is why when we approach prioritizing hormonal health, two things are important:
- Working with a physician who is interested in understanding the root causes of your hormonal imbalance, and
- Approaching your hormonal health from a holistic point of view: because our hormones are so interactive and complex, it’s difficult to target ‘one’ thing, and we should always look at the bigger picture
Tips to balance your hormones
Some hormonal imbalances can be treated using specific treatments and medications (to be worked out with your physician), but for the purposes of this article, we are focusing on achievable, natural ways you can fortify your hormonal health, backed by research. Let’s cover each in turn:
There is increasing evidence that exercise has an impact on hormonal health, specifically by increasing hormone receptor sensitivity (which means enhanced delivery of nutrients and hormone signals). It is also linked to reduced insulin levels and an increase in insulin sensitivity, – which is especially helpful for those who may be at increased risk for type 2 diabetes – and this is thought to be independent of body weight or fat loss. In other words: exercise is good for your mental health, and physical health, right down to the chemical messengers in your bloodstream. We call that a win-win!
- Gut health
We wrote an article detailing the underrated importance of gut health, but in a nutshell: scientists and researchers are just beginning to understand how critical the gut may be in multiple functions in the body, including hormone secretion, inflammation, mental health, weight, the development of autoimmune disorders, and more. Researchers believe that the gut microbiome plays a role in regulating hormones by “modulating insulin resistance and feelings of fullness.”
Protect your gut health by eating more fermented foods and drinks (such as kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi), and reducing your intake of highly processed foods (which are thought to harm the production of ‘good bacteria’ and help the production of ‘bad bacteria’).
Consider also working more fiber and complex carbohydrates into your diet (good prebiotics, ie food that helps the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut), such as vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.
- Follow a high fiber diet
Speaking of fiber, it can be not only great for your gut, but for your hormones too, all in its own right. Recent research indicates that fiber can increase insulin sensitivity, as well as stimulate the production of hormones that play a critical role in feelings of ‘fullness’. Good examples of high fiber foods include whole grains (think oats, whole-wheat English muffins, and whole-wheat bread) as well as berries, popcorn, lentils, legumes, and all sorts of seeds and nuts. Look on the back of the packaging at the grocery store to check there aren’t unnecessary added sugars to sources of whole grain foods, if you are looking to reduce your sugar intake.
- Try reducing your stress levels
We know this is way easier said than done! And don’t become so focused on being less stressed, that this in turn becomes a new source of stress for you. At the end of the day, reducing stress can be boiled down to doing more of the things that make you feel good, and reminding yourself to focus on the present moment.
The following habits can be great for working in a few times a week, and often give outsized benefits relative to how much time you spend on them: we recommend meditating, journaling, going for a long walk, taking a long bath, or doing yoga as some beginner habits you can dedicate anywhere from 10 minutes to 1 hour several times a week to improve your mental health.
- Follow the Mediterranean diet
In case you don’t know what this is, essentially it is a counter-offer to the Western diet. While our Western diets have a focus on processed foods, a large quantity of red meat, and high-sugar snacks, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and nuts and seeds.
So why switch to this type of diet? Well, in a sentence: research indicates that the Western diet is linked to high estrogen levels (a risk factor for breast and ovarian cancer), while the Mediterranean diet may help reduce estrogen levels, thought to be the result of protective plant compounds like polyphenols and lignans.
There is not a single food that acts as a silver bullet for solving a hormonal imbalance. Hormones are extremely complicated chemical messengers that serve a multitude of functions in the body, interacting not only with one another, but with organs as well, and so it is difficult to target specific processes and ‘fix’ an imbalance of one hormone over another, if for instance, you have estrogen dominance or too much TH3.
That being said, food, nutrition, and lifestyle factors – taken together – seem to play a definite role in promoting a balance of hormones.
For instance, exercise could increase hormone receptor activity, while reducing insulin sensitivity, which is especially good news for those at risk for diabetes, obesity, or heart disease. Compounding a lifestyle change, such as signing up for gym classes, or simply running with a friend multiple times a week, alongside a nutritional change such as reducing meat consumption and replacing it with more healthy fat intake (in the form of fatty fish) could also work to reduce inflammation and signs of pro-inflammatory markers.
All in all, we recommend the following small changes, which may help balance your hormones, and are almost certain to improve your overall health and quality of life:
- Consuming more vegetables, particularly cruciferous veggies
- Think kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, garden cress, and brussel sprouts
- Get more sleep
- Consider turning off all blue-light an hour before you want to go to bed to aid with this step
- Connect with friends and family that make you laugh
- Life can get super stressful, but there is nothing like calling a friend or a trusted family member to distract yourself from a problem or even to find the silver lining to an unideal situation.
- Alternatively, put on a funny TV show or comedian that makes you laugh. The benefits of laughter for your immune system and endorphin levels are numerous.
- Take care of yourself
- The way you talk to yourself can have either a positive or negative impact on your stress levels, your energy levels throughout the day, and how you choose to self-soothe the inevitable wrong turns life can throw at you. Be kind to yourself. Start implementing one or two of the pieces of advice on this list that most appeal to you, and begin working them into your natural routine. Don’t worry about perfection, just focus on the bigger picture. Then as time goes on, implement more tips from this list to get closer to your goals!
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.