Managing your hormones and health
Why are hormones important?
Hormones are chemical substances produced by glands across our body. These glands make up what’s known as our endocrine system.
Our endocrine system, nervous system and immune systems all work together and rely on each other to keep us healthy (i.e., in our natural balance). In this context, hormones play the role as messengers to regulate the biological process that keep us functioning optimally.
From a naturopathic perspective, our body always does what’s needed for us to perform at our best; it is a self-balancing machine! Our network of glands – and thereby hormones – play a critical role in that and, if one hormone is out of balance, then all are out of balance which means we are out of balance.
Where are our hormones?
You may be familiar with some hormones more than others but they all play a critical role in our body’s operations and are be found across our body. If you’re familiar with chakras, each of the major chakra centres map to each of the major endocrine glands.
The primary seat of each of the major glands that make up our endocrine system is as follows, from bottom to top:
Ovaries / Testes
Produce oestrogen / progesterone and testosterone respectively and are known as the ‘sex hormones’
Produces insulin which helps maintain our blood sugar levels
Produce adrenalin and cortisol, critical in fight or flight situations and known as the ‘stress hormones’
Located near our heart and supports our immune system by producing white blood cells (T cells)
Produces thyroxine which is essential for our metabolism (of energy)
Located near the base of our brain; it’s the master gland, sending messages to all the other glands
Located in our brain and produces melatonin, important for sleeping in line with circadian cycles (also called ‘the third eye’)
How do hormones work?
The pituitary gland governs all of the other hormone glands in the endocrine system. It gets its instruction from something called the ‘hypothalamus’ which is a key part of our brain that maintains our ‘homeostasis’ (i.e. natural biological balance). It continually checks what’s going on internally and externally and sends messages to the pituitary gland (via hormones) to take the appropriate action.
For example, our hypothalamus checks if are we too hot, too cold; feeling stressed or threatened etc. The pituitary gland then sends messages (hormones) to all the other glands.
Let’s take a common, practical example of how our hormones work; something we’re all familiar with…stress!
The hormone process of dealing with stress:
- The hypothalamus registers increased mental stress via our nervous system
- It sends a message to the pituitary gland
- The pituitary gland tells the adrenal glands (by releasing hormones) to produce adrenalin or cortisol for a ‘flight’ for ‘fight’ scenario respectively. Adrenalin is responsible for ‘fight or flight’ but If the stress continues then the body swaps to cortisol production to help us deal with continual stress
- The production of adrenalin or cortisol by the adrenal glands causes an insulin spike by telling the liver to release sugar that it has stored
- The insulin gives the body the energy to either fight or take flight by taking the sugar into the cells.
So as one hormone increases (i.e., moves beyond its regular level) it causes the others to do so too because when one part of our body takes the strain, the other parts have to compensate.
What causes our hormones to go out of balance?
As you can see, hormones are critical to our wellbeing. The challenge is that hormone imbalances are relatively easy occurrences because they are very sensitive.
The stress example shows how easy it is for our whole endocrine system – and therefore our body – to get pushed out of its natural balance (optimal wellbeing). And believe it or not, the biggest trigger for a hormone imbalance is…stress!
A hormone imbalance is ultimately the result of a stress on/in the body, whether the stress is current or historic – and it doesn’t matter what that form of stress is (e.g. mental, physical, food allergy, inactive hereditary gene, nutrient deficiency etc).
Some body types (such as Blue body types) are naturally more susceptible to stress. Even with more resilient body types (like Green body types) continually overdoing things will eventually breach the body’s natural threshold, pushing the hormones out of balance. How that manifests is down to our inherent weaknesses, lifestyle, diet and environment; these factors determine what part of our system goes out of balance, by how much and for how long.
A HORMONE IMBALANCE IS ULTIMATELY THE RESULT OF A STRESS
Food choices plays a key role here; for example, dehydration will stress the body. While we may think of preventing that by drinking plenty of water, foods like tea and coffee are diuretics and so cause us to urinate more which can bring on dehydration.
Dehydration is a type of stress on our body and so, if you tend to drink more tea or coffee when you’re mentally stressed in order to power through it, you’re actually making things worse!
Another consideration of tea and coffee is that they are also stimulants (in the form of caffeine). This means they will also trigger the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, causing a release of glucose which, in turns, triggers the production of insulin which then opens the cells to allow the glucose to enter. Something to think about!
What are the signs of a hormone imbalance?
Whatever is causing the stress, it leads to increased cholesterol production, resulting in increased cortisol production. Cortisol is the most powerful anti-inflammatory we know but if not kept in check, this hormone builds up and triggers further biological responses (see below).
The disturbance to our natural hormone levels caused by stress can travel ‘up the endocrine system’ eventually affecting our thyroid function and metabolic health. Here are some of the escalating signs to look out for suggesting that our hormones are out of balance.
1. Ovaries/Testes: Fertility problems
A hormone imbalance usually first show itself in issues with reproductive health due to incorrect levels of oestrogen/progesterone/testosterone. Problems with conceiving are a major tell-tell sign and are becoming increasingly common.
2. Pancreas: Elevated blood sugar levels
As we have seen, stress causes our adrenals to produce more cortisol causing insulin spikes which, if a common occurrence over a number of years, will alter our natural blood sugar levels (eventually resulting in type 2 diabetes)
3. Adrenals: Burnout, digestive issues, high cholesterol
Ongoing stress cause the adrenals to keep firing until they eventually become fatigued (‘adrenal fatigue’ leading to ‘burnout’). Our natural instinct is to eat sugary food which won’t help!
This can be accompanied by poor digestion as the body de-prioritises the digestive function in order to deal with a perceived fight / flight situation (digestion is secondary to survival!)
High cholesterol may also be a tell-tale sign that your hormones are out of balance. Modern lifestyles tend to lead to elevated levels of stress which requires cortisol production to manage it; cholesterol is essential for producing cortisol. So, the more stressed we become the more cholesterol we produce in order to create more cortisol.
While we’re all now aware of having high cholesterol, it’s important to note that if our cholesterol it too low, our body will prioritise its production over other hormones. This will disrupt our overall hormonal health and general wellbeing as well as compromising our brain health (which requires an adequate level of cholesterol).
Green body types are strong enough to cope with multiple adrenal ‘asks’ but Blue body types will suffer adrenal fatigue and burn out much quicker.
4. Thymus: Compromised immune system
Overloading our adrenal glands and spiking insulin puts pressure on our thymus gland which causes our immune system to weaken; this is why we’re more likely to catch a cold (or covid!) when we’re stressed. This can also lead to increased allergies
5. Thyroid: Feeling overly hot/cold, hot flushes, weight gain/loss, insomnia, autoimmune disease, Graves’ disease, Hashimoto disease, aches and pains, feeling stiff in the morning, hair loss
Anyone with a naturally weak thyroid function (which can be hereditary) can react to ongoing stress with a thyroid imbalance. Because our thyroid governs metabolism and temperature regulation, this can result in us feeling either too hot (including hot flushes) or too cold.
Thyroid issues tend to be more common in women and especially after giving birth or around menopause because those are both times of big hormonal changes. If previous underlying hormonal issues are present, even if having gone unnoticed, the effects can be especially pronounced.
A hormone imbalance in the thyroid leads to either an overactive or underactive thyroid, described as hypo-thyroid and hyper-thyroid respectively. Each carries its own issues and if the imbalance deepens, hyperthyroidism can lead to hypothyroidism although this can take years. Any thyroid symptom is best checked out professionally as soon as possible to prevent further health complications.
Hyperthyroidism is an overactive thyroid because the body creates too much of the thyroid hormone, thyroxine. This results in the metabolism speeding up; increased heart rate, feeling hot. lack of sleep, weight loss, eye irritations
Hypothyroidism is an underactive thyroid because the body doesn’t create enough thyroxine. This results in the metabolism slowing down which can lead to slower heart rate, weight gain, feeling cold, sleeping more than you need, hair loss (including losing the outer ends of your eyebrows).
Graves’ disease is a form of hyperthyroidism where the immune system attacks the thyroid, causing inflammation there. Conversely, Hashimoto’s disease results in hypothyroidism due to the same issue of the immune system attacking the thyroid.
It is worth noting that gluten can inhibit thyroid hormone production and is common in people with an autoimmune disease which can be a result of an underlying thyroid issue.
So, to recap, a hormonal imbalance which isn’t addressed in the context of ongoing stress can escalate up the endocrine chain thereby pushing the body ever further out of it natural balance.
A HORMONAL IMBALANCE NOT ADDRESSED CAN ESCALATE UP THE ENDOCRINE CHAIN
Pills, patches and hormone function
Generally, women are more naturally in tune with their bodies and so are more sensitive to hormone imbalances. In addition, the menstrual cycle, childbirth and menopause are times of hormonal shifts.
As a result, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is most often a female consideration, although not exclusively, and is increasingly a choice for men with low testosterone. But what are the implications of HRT?
HRT replaces hormones that the body is low in and in most cases, this is oestrogen. When given HRT, the body responds by reducing and then stopping its own oestrogen production.
Heavy periods are often one of the issues that can lead to a course of action of either HRT or taking a contraceptive pill (which is sometimes used as an alternative to HRT).
However, it’s important to note that heavy periods are a sign that the body is actually moving out of balance and needs attention. They can result from a build-up of fibroids which in turn are a result of high oestrogen levels.
Periods perform a critical function in the body’s wellbeing because they allow the elimination of toxins. In cases where a hysterectomy results, taking periods out of the equation results in toxins building up in the body and places more pressure on the liver to detoxify. HRT and oestrogen based contraceptive pills actually increase oestrogen levels. This can lead to a downward spiral of health.
Probably the most common form of hormone disruption is through the use of painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen. These have been shown to interrupt the build-up of hormones.
The regular use of painkillers may seem like a no-brainer but they actually create a deeper issue in both the short and long term. A growing body of research underlines the health issues of strong pain killers (opioids), including infertility, anxiety, depression, muscle loss and long-term osteoporosis.
Self-care tips for balancing hormones
Hormones can largely be managed without medication with some simple steps based on the basic understanding outlined earlier.
Five steps for natural hormone management
1. Manage stress
As we have seen, stress in any form starts a hormonal shift which has a chain reaction to push the body out of balance. Tackling the cause has to be the first step and can be done naturally. Often, it’s just a case of taking time out when mental stress builds up.
2. Improve hydration
Stress has a diuretic effect on the body (causes water to leave the body), leading to dehydration. The first step is to reduce foods that encourage dehydration – like tea and coffee! They are both stimulants that we tend to reach for when stressed and in large quantities will actually increase stress.
The second step is to hydrate the body – that includes not just drinking more water but also more fruit and vegetables since they actually help the body absorb the water more efficiently.
3. Balance your blood sugar
As the body produces more insulin as a response to stress, it’s important to stabilise our blood sugar since we are not facing a real fight or flight scenario (and to avoid the sugar turning to fat). To do this, increasing our vegetable intake is key, especially leafy green vegetables. And we should support this with physical activity in line with your body type, helping cut stress and using up any excess sugar.
4. Try ‘Tapping’
Tapping is a kinesiology technique that has been shown to help restore our body’s natural balance. It’s especially beneficial for balancing the thymus which becomes suppressed with stress and supports our immune system.
Using your fingers, tap or gently thump (with a clenched hand) the centre of your upper chest, where your thymus gland is. Take a few deep breaths as you do that and this will correct the energy flow, giving your immune system a boost.
5. Increase Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) enable our endocrine system to work. EFAs are where Omega 3, 6, 7 and 9 come from (although 7 & 9 are not essential). EFAs help reduce cortisol which helps prevent the chain reaction of hormone imbalance.
We primarily need Omega 3 and 6 for good hormone health; ideally, we should have four times more Omega 6 than Omega 3 in our diet. We can get this from nuts, seeds and vegetables for example. A lack of EFAs can lead to diabetes type 2 (EFAs and insulin have a symbiotic relationship and insulin prevents the breakdown of EFAs in our body)
A word on sleep, circadian rhythms and chakras:
Our endocrine glands work with light; sun exposure regulates our hormones; the most obvious example of the sunlight-hormone connection is the production of serotonin by the pineal gland to wake us up in the morning.
This is why going to sleep and waking up at the right time and working in harmony with nature’s circadian rhythms is key to our hormone health; when these rhythms are disrupted, so are our hormones. Nature gives us what we need, where we need it and how we need it!
Chakras are (light) energy centres and each of them directly corresponds to an endocrine gland. If you are familiar with them, balancing your chakras will also help balance your glands and therefore hormones levels.
Recommended foods for good hormone health
As mentioned, Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) play a critical role in keeping the endocrine system healthy and Omega 3, 6, 7 and 9 is a major contributor to that. Including these foods in your diet will help achieve that:
Good sources of Omega 3:
Oily fish*; oysters, seeds (esp, flaxseeds*), nuts (esp. walnuts), algae, soybeans
Good sources of Omega 6:
Nuts* and seeds*, vegetables/veg oils (esp. sunflower oil), evening primrose oil, borage oil, fish, eggs, meat, poultry
Good sources of Omega 7:
Sea buckthorn* berries, avocado, olives
Good sources of Omega 9:
Fish*, seeds, nuts, soybeans, Olives, olive oil, vegetable oils, nut oils,
* highest natural sources
If you are suffering from any of the health conditions mentioned here and these diet and self-care tips don’t address your health concerns, you should seek the advice of a qualified professional.
Fish oils and stress
EFAs and stress
EFAs and mental health
Light and the endocrine system,
This self-care health hack is from Superfied expert nutritionist Mary Sharma
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