Do You Have a Hormone Imbalance?
Women's hormones change throughout the life cycle. Starting from the age at your first period, all the way through menopause, your hormones are shifting and changing on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. The balance is a delicate one that can be disrupted by external factors that you may not realize have any effect on you. Stress, a poor diet, poor sleep, inadequate exercise, and exposure to xenoestrogens can all contribute to a disruption in your hormonal balance.
Unfortunately, these factors are so common in modern society that you may not realize the issues you're experiencing are indicating that anything is wrong. Rather, you might just assume that, since everyone around you is experiencing similar issues, these are normal female issues that are a part of life. PMS is the best example of such a problem. It's not the only way to tell if you're experiencing a hormonal imbalance, however.
Hormonal imbalance can manifest itself in a number of ways in women. Here are the most common signs that something could be going on for you hormonally (1
- Dramatic changes in weight (Weight gain or weight loss)
- Changes in sleep (trouble falling or staying asleep)
- Loss of sex drive
- Changes in energy (lethargy or fatigue)
- Changes in appetite (excessive sugar and carb cravings or changes in your general appetite)
- Sugar crashes or "hangry" feelings
- PMS symptoms (mood swings, bloating, cramps, water retention, tender breasts)
- Irregular menstrual cycles (missed cycles, heavy bleeding, light spotting, spotting between cycles)
- Frequent headaches, especially around the period
- General anxiety, depression, irritability, or other mood issues
- Joint or muscle pain
- Uterine fibroids or fibrous breasts
- Hot flashes
- Male-pattern facial or body hair growth
- Trouble focusing
- Vaginal dryness
- PCOS (polycystic ovaries syndrome)
- Infertility or trouble conceiving
Hormone-Balancing Lifestyle Changes
There are a number of lifestyle and diet factors that can affect your overall health and create issues hormonally. We mentioned stress, a poor diet, poor sleep, inadequate exercise, and exposure to xenoestrogens.
Every individual reacts to these stimuli differently. What one person is sensitive to might not affect another. That being said, they're all important to take into consideration, especially if you're dealing with a serious imbalance like PCOS, infertility, or endometriosis.
Diet to Balance Hormones
Finding the right diet seems like the task of a lifetime these days. There are so many special diets to choose from, each claiming its own list of benefits, especially in the way of weight loss (which is intimately tied to hormone balance).
A hormone-balancing diet follows the same lines as some of the more popular diets among health professionals in that it emphasizes whole foods, high-quality protein, healthy fats, lots of veggies, and minimal sugar. There are also a number of hormone-balancing herbs and supplements
available to help support your diet.
Importantly, a balanced diet for hormone health is also balanced in total intake: avoid overeating and undereating to keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady.
Cut the Sugar
The big one is sugar. Eating too much sugar can create a cascade of effects in your body that could lead to serious hormonal imbalances over time, starting with insulin resistance. Insulin resistance happens when your cells are constantly flooded with insulin after high-carb, sugary meals. The cell walls that should be taking up the insulin to neutralize the glucose from your sugary meal eventually become impervious to it and won't let it in to do its job.
Insulin resistance is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes and PCOS. It can cause weight gain in the midsection and make it a lot harder to lose weight too (2
For this reason, it's really important to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range by avoiding excessive sweets and simple carbohydrates. If you're really a carb lover, stick with the whole food options like root veggies and winter squash, which come with fiber to help you slow down the sugar rush and also feed the good bugs in your gut (which you can support with probiotics
Eat Probiotic Foods
Research shows that the gut microbiota is very closely tied to the endocrine system and can affect "behavior, sexual attraction, appetite and metabolism, gender and immunity" (3
). Still other research shows that there are particular microbes that help you metabolize excess estrogen (this group of estrogen metabolites are referred to as "estrobolome") and move it out of your system before it gets reabsorbed into your bloodstream (4
While this research is still in its infancy, we know there’s a documented connection between gut health and hormonal health
. It stands to reason, based on these studies, that ensuring there's a diversity of probiotics living in your gut is a good thing for your endocrine health. This means eating probiotic foods like kimchi, raw sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, and kefir. It could also mean adding a daily probiotic supplement.
Crave Your Cruciferous Veggies
Cruciferous veggies (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, kohlrabi, cabbage) have been scientifically studied for their effects on breast cancer. That's because they have a positive effect on estrogen metabolism in both men and women.
In other words, eating crucifers (also called brassicas) could not only help prevent breast cancer, but help balance hormones and reduce the risk of estrogen dominance
and the resulting issues that come from this type of hormonal imbalance (5
Focus on the Outer Aisles
The perimeter of the grocery store should be the bulk of your grocery shopping destination. This means whole fruits and veggies, grass-fed and pastured meats and eggs, and wild-caught small fish (avoid anything with antibiotics or hormones).
Venture into the center aisles for hormone-balancing foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and green tea, but stay away from the junk food. You might also want to stock up on canned wild-caught salmon and sardines from the center aisles, just make sure they're in BPA-free cans to avoid those xenoestrogens.
Lifestyle to Balance Hormones
Lifestyle changes are some of the hardest changes to make because they require forming new habits and finding ways to deal with unchangeable circumstances in life. For example, most people don't have a lot of control over their commute time, when they have to be at work, and how long they have to stay there.
These unchangeable factors in your schedule may mean that your time to make lifestyle changes is limited. That being said, there's still a lot of room for change. Changes like reducing your toxic exposure of xenoestrogens, finding healthy ways to deal with stress, improving your sleep, and doing some gentle exercise can go a long way toward helping you achieve hormone balance.
X-out the Xenoestrogens
Xenoestrogens are chemicals in your environment that can mimic the natural estrogen in your body. These chemicals are found in certain household cleaners, body care products, makeup, plastics, pesticides, herbicides, and building materials. Chemicals you may have heard of include Bisphenol A (found in plastics), phthalates (in plastics), parabens (in cosmetics), benzophenone (in sunscreen)(7
). This is not a comprehensive list.
Importantly, xenoestrogens aren't the same as phytoestrogens, which are the natural estrogen-like compounds in foods like soy and flax seeds. Talk to your healthcare provider to decide if eating foods rich in phytoestrogens is a good idea for you. Medical advice on this topic depends heavily on your health history, especially if you've had a type of cancer that involves estrogen receptors (like certain breast cancers).
Sure, it's easier said than done. We mentioned all those uncontrollable factors. Stress is the result of many of those factors, but finding ways to manage and release stress is crucially important to get to a state of hormonal balance.
Stress hormone production ramps up when you're constantly under the gun. The main stress hormone, cortisol, is very closely related to insulin, which we know doesn't help with hormone balance. Chronic exposure to stressors without a healthy outlet leads to chronic stress. Chronic stress leads to chronic cortisol release, and chronic cortisol release could lead directly to insulin resistance.
Multiple human and animal studies reveal that as cortisol levels go up in times of stress, so too does insulin (10
). One study, in particular, showed that this effect is even more pronounced in women than in men (12
). So find a way to destress. Whether it's yoga, meditation, taking a walk with some peaceful music in your ears, calling a friend, or watching your favorite comedy special, find what works for you and make it a regular practice.
Get Some ZZZs
Sleep is critical for basically everything in the health and wellness world. A good night's sleep will help on the stress front (controlling cortisol production). It will also help on the appetite front (controlling leptin and ghrelin).
Your circadian rhythm depends on healthy hormonal levels, and healthy hormonal levels are more likely when you get adequate sleep (13
). Use good sleep hygiene to get yourself to bed on time and up in the morning with the sun.
Turn off the screens as close to sun-down as possible, establish a good bedtime routine in which you wind down for at least an hour before bed. Avoid eating anything too heavy or spicy close to bedtime, and don't watch or read anything that will increase your stress or keep you up late. Try to stick to the same sleep and wake time every day in order to get your circadian rhythm on track.
How to Balance Hormones
The natural approach to balancing your hormones involves a number of aspects of your life. Food, sleep, stress reduction, and eliminating toxic exposures are all key ways to help balance your hormones.
Staying away from overly sugary foods, eating lots of cruciferous veggies, shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, and finding a healthy way to deal with everyday stressors are all examples of how you can make moves in the right direction. Each of these takes time to implement, so start with the ones you think would be the easiest for you, and go from there.
If you've been wondering how to balance your hormones naturally, you'll be relieved to know that there's a way forward. In fact, there are multiple ways forward, and a holistic approach that addresses your whole body is the best way to address a system that's interconnected with everything else in your body.
Hormones are the chemicals in your body that make things happen. Sure, there are sex hormones, and if you're looking to balance your hormone levels, it's likely you're referring to sex hormones, but those aren't the only hormones in your body.
The endocrine system is the umbrella term for all the various hormonal functions of the body. This includes thyroid hormones, adrenal hormones, stress hormones, growth hormones, metabolic hormones, and yes, sex hormones (as well as many others).
It's virtually impossible to look at a single piece of the endocrine system without looking at the other pieces, especially if you're taking a more holistic approach to your health. In other words, to address your estrogen levels, progesterone levels, and testosterone levels (the main sex hormones), you may also need to look at some of the other systems and how they’re affecting your sex hormones. There are a number of diet and lifestyle factors that may come into play if you're experiencing hormonal imbalance. Taken together, they can help you achieve hormonal balance the natural way.