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Your hormones are the driving force behind just about every aspect of your physical and mental well-being—from your mood and energy levels to your skin health, weight, and sexual vitality.
The endocrine system, to which they belong, is incredibly complex, and any hormonal disruption can wreak havoc on your body. Imbalanced hormones can quickly produce unpleasant symptoms, such as fatigue, irritability, acne, and weight gain. If not addressed, imbalances can develop into more serious and chronic conditions – diabetes, infertility, breast cancer, and autoimmune disorders among them. Fortunately, there are simple lifestyle changes you can make to achieve hormonal balance, increase your health, and improve how you look and feel.
Balance your blood sugar and boost nutrition
Healthy blood sugar levels are intrinsically involved in endocrine balance and are essential for long-term health. Insulin and glucagon are the predominant pancreatic hormones responsible for regulating blood sugar. If blood sugar drops too low, the stress hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands, comes into play to help correct the imbalance.
In a balanced system, blood sugar levels fluctuate gently throughout the day, rising slightly after ameal and dipping a bit before the next. When the system is out of balance, blood sugar levels spike and fall more dramatically. These exaggerated cycles force the pancreas and adrenals to work harder, producing greater amounts of hormones to keep the body functional. If the imbalance persists, these organs can become sluggish. Moreover, receptor cells that respond to these hormones can begin to ignore their persistent messages – a condition known as hormone resistance. This can result in weight gain, adrenal fatigue, and chronic illnesses, including metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
Because blood sugar spikes can be caused by meals high in refined sugars and simple carbohydrates, the most effective way to stabilize your blood sugar (and balance your hormones in the process) is to adopt a traditional diet rich in healthy fats and protein. Eating fats and protein at every meal will help keep your blood sugar balanced by slowing the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream. Focus on unprocessed whole foods, including pasture-raised animal protein, vegetables, fruits (in moderation), and healthy sources of fat, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, and olive oil.
Limit grains, caffeine, refined sugar, processed carbohydrates, and alcohol – all of which can contribute to elevated blood sugar, depleted adrenals, and inflammation. Also, avoid trans fats as they can interfere with adrenal hormone production. Eliminating foods that contain added hormones or hormone-like substances – such as factory-farmed animal products and unfermented soy products – will help ensure you are not unwittingly exacerbating your hormonal imbalance.
In addition to what you eat, it is important to alter how you eat. Don’t let yourself get too hungry between meals – this can lead to steep blood sugar drops and create more work for your pancreas and adrenals. When going out, pack healthy snacks containing protein and fat to take with you. Improve digestion by eating calmly and avoiding stress during meals. Always sit while eating and chew your food thoroughly.
Include supplements in your daily routine
As an addition to an unprocessed, whole foods diet, nutritional supplementation is a simple way to promote hormonal balance. There are many natural products available that support endocrine function, including Chinese herbs, vitamins, minerals, and homeopathic remedies. Supplements can also help address nutritional deficiencies that can lead to hormone imbalances. Keep in mind that nutrients are the building blocks that endocrine glands need to manufacture hormones. The following supplements may be included in a hormone-balancing protocol:
- Vitamin D plays a significant role in maintaining hormone balance and decreasing your susceptibility to disease. Low vitamin D levels are associated with a higher risk for many diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and depression. You can manufacture vitamin D in your skin through exposure to natural sunlight or take a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement. The most accurate way to measure your vitamin D level is with the 25-hydroxy vitamin D test, which is relatively inexpensive and easily available through most doctors.
- B-complex vitamins offer extra protection and support to the body during times of stress. They also assist the liver in metabolizing excess amounts of hormones, including estrogen. This is especially important for women with breast cancer and those using hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy. B-complex vitamins also help prevent estrogen dominance, boost energy, support the adrenals, reduce inflammation, and enhance fertility.
- Magnesium affects numerous structures and processes throughout the body. This critical mineral is easily depleted by factors such as environmental toxins, emotional stress, and alcohol intake. Supplementation can boost low levels, aiding hormonal regulation. In addition, neurosurgeon Norm Shealy, MD, PhD, established that transdermal magnesium raises levels of the vital hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). (For more on magnesium, see “Magnesium: An Essential Element for Good Health” in the Fall 2015 issue of the PPNF Journal.)
- Adaptogens are a group of herbs that modulate the body’s response to stress, allowing for proper regulation of cortisol and supporting the adrenals. They can also address other issues, such as blood sugar imbalance, impaired immunity, poor energy levels, and low libido. Examples of adaptogens that may be helpful include ginseng, eleuthero, rhodiola, tulsi (holy basil), maca, and ashwagandha.
Consult with your healthcare practitioner to determine the best options for you, and, when possible, avoid or reduce intake of pharmaceutical drugs that interfere with endocrine function.
Choose appropriate exercise
According to family physician and author Mark Hyman, MD, “exercise might be the most powerful medicine to manage blood sugar levels and make your cells more insulin sensitive.” Indeed, a study in the Journal of Obesity found that high-intensity intermittent exercise lowers insulin resistance and improves glucose tolerance – both factors that help stabilize blood sugar. Exercise can also positively impact the sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. Additionally, it reduces stress, depression, and anxiety, thus reducing cortisol levels and supporting the adrenals.
When beginning an exercise regimen, consider the current state of your endocrine system, especially the adrenals. If you are concerned about adrenal fatigue, choose light to moderate exercise. Overexercising increases cortisol levels and inflammation and can further weaken your adrenals. Moreover, if cortisol levels are already elevated, high-intensity aerobic exercise can actually slow down your metabolism and accelerate tissue breakdown. Instead, choose low-intensity activities that decrease cortisol, such as Pilates, yoga, and walking.
Endocrinologist Diane Schwarzbein, MD, recommends tai chi, qigong, and restorative yoga to reduce stress. She also suggests that rest can be more beneficial than exercise when you are sick, overlystressed or sleep-deprived.
Improve your sleep habits
Women’s health expert Christiane Northrup, MD, asserts, “Sleep restores adrenal balance more effectively than any other modality.”(p537) Your adrenals are the source of a number of hormones, so restoring their function is imperative for hormone balance and optimal health. With adequate sleep, you are likely to notice increased energy, optimized mental function, and decreased sugar and caffeine cravings.
The impact of insufficient sleep is far-reaching – it can inhibit growth hormone, promote insulin-resistance and thyroid imbalances, and reduce immune function. Research has shown that decreased sleep can be a risk factor for obesity because it influences the hormones that control appetite. A recent study noted: “Sleep restriction was associated with reductions in leptin and elevations in ghrelin and increased hunger and appetite, especially an appetite for foods with high-carbohydrate contents.” Leptin is a hormone that induces feelings of satiety, while ghrelin is one that stimulates hunger.
Keeping your bedroom totally dark at night facilitates deep, restorative sleep. The pineal gland secretes more melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep and wake cycle, during periods of darkness. Make sure you have proper blinds and/or curtains to block light from entering your bedroom windows. Electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) can also interfere with quality sleep. Opt for no night-lights, cell phones, or other electronics in the bedroom, and limit television, cell phone, and computer use before bedtime.
The detoxification process can support the liver, which performs more functions in the body than any other organ. The liver must process the large amount of environmental toxins we are exposed to every day. Detoxification reduces its workload, so it can focus on the other tasks at hand – including the metabolizing of excess hormones.
For some, simply giving up sugar, alcohol, and processed foods may be enough to facilitate detoxification and healing. Adding certain supplements can also be helpful. Examples include herbs such as burdock and dandelion to support the liver, and chlorella to move heavy metals such as mercury from the body. Exercise and other activities that promote sweating – using an infrared sauna, for example – can be important adjuncts because toxins are released through perspiration. Always consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner to determine the appropriate detoxification protocol for you.
Eliminate endocrine disruptors
In addition to detoxifying your body, you should do everything possible to remove toxins from your home. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a helpful resource for identifying and phasing out toxic household products, as well as body care products and cosmetics. In its online “Guide to Healthy Cleaning,” EWG provides scores for over 2,000 household products, based on potential health concerns (such as endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, and carcinogenicity), and highlights the safest ones available in categories such as air freshening, dishwashing, floor care,kitchen, and laundry. (See EWG’s Health Guides at www.ewg.org.)
One common endocrine disruptor that contributes to estrogen dominance and other hormone imbalances is bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical found in many plastics and food can liners. Plastic food containers may also contain phthalates, endocrine disruptors that are particularly damaging to the male reproductive system. Steer clear of plastic containers for leftovers, and use glass or stainless steel for water and food storage. Avoid canned foods, as the cans frequently contain BPA – and those that are labeled “BPA-free” often contain bisphenol-S (BPS), another endocrine disruptors.
Replace nonstick pots and pans with glass, ceramic, or high-quality stainless steel to protect your thyroid from perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Switch to organic feminine hygiene products to avoid the endocrine disruptors dioxin, BPA, BPS, and phthalates, as well as pesticides. In addition, when purchasing fish for consumption, choose types that contain low levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), such as sardines and wild salmon.
Purchasing organic rather than conventionally grown produce can greatly reduce your exposure to endocrine-disrupting pesticides (such as organophosphates) and herbicides (such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and many other products). Choosing organic and pasture-raised when it comes to dairy products is important as well, as it will enable you to avoid recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a synthetic hormone used to increase cows’ milk production.
Install a water filter
Our water supply is contaminated with a variety of toxic chemicals. These toxins accumulate in human tissue and blood and cause endocrine disruption. Depending on your location, your water supply could contain a laundry list of endocrine disruptors, including:
- pharmaceutical drugs
- perchlorate (jet fuel)
- heavy metals
- polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
- perfluorinated compounds (PFCs)
Reduce your exposure to these contaminants by drinking filtered or natural spring water. (If using bottled water, select glass to avoid xenoestrogens found in plastic). Install a high-quality water filter inyour home. Also invest in a filter for your shower or bath, as your skin absorbs toxins from the water.
Address your stress
One of the most important and effective ways to balance your hormones and prevent disease is to reduce stress. When you experience stress, the body often reacts with the survival-driven fight-or-flight response, even if the situation isn’t actually a matter of life or death. Stress-hormone production is always prioritized over less-pressing matters, such as digestion, reproduction, and healing. Reducing stress allows your body to focus on these important functions.
You can lower your stress levels the same way you balance your hormones – by stabilizing your blood sugar, maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough restorative sleep, exercising appropriately, and detoxifying as necessary. In addition, making some of the following adjustments to your daily routine can go a long way toward reducing stress:
- Schedule regular unstructured time for yourself.
- Make sure you have enough downtime for rest and leisure activities.
- Refrain from making additional commitments that will raise your stress levels.
- Plan carefully when facing stressful situations, such as work deadlines. If possible, balance unavoidable heavy workloads with intermittent rest, which is proven to increase focus, creativity, health, and well-being.
- Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and recognize your moment-to-moment needs. People who practice self-compassion are happier, more optimistic, and less anxious and depressed.
Incoporate an integrative medicine approach
Alternative healing modalities and health practitioners are often excellent resources to help you identify and address the underlying reasons for a hormonal imbalance. The following methods have been found effective in balancing hormone levels and improving overall health:
- Chiropractic adjustments and spinal alignment can enhance function of the nervous system, which is the major regulator of hormone production.
- Traditional Chinese medicine and herbal therapies can assist with hormone imbalance, detoxification, and stress reduction. Acupuncture has been shown to be especially effective in reducing cortisol levels and feelings of anxiety, boosting immune function, and increasing pain-reducing endorphins.[15-17]
- Meditation and yoga can reduce cortisol levels and improve mental well-being. In a meta-analysis of 47 studies, researchers found that meditation eases psychological stress factors, such as depression, anxiety, and pain. As stress levels decrease, the workload of the adrenals also decreases.
- Massage reduces stress by lowering cortisol levels and boosting oxytocin (known as the “bonding hormone” or “bliss hormone”).
Balancing your hormones is one of the most important ways to improve your health. Remember that you have the power to actively influence your hormone levels by making lifestyle changes. For best results, take your time and create small, attainable goals. Go as slow as you need to ensure the changes you make really stick – your endocrine system and health depend on it.
About the Author
Monet Euan is a health and wellness writer, researcher, and consultant based in Los Angeles, California. She founded Transcend by Monet, an integrative health support system, to provide others with information and resources that can help them explore their options and make informed health decisions. For more information, visit www.transcendbymonet.com.
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Winter 2015-2016 | Volume 39, Number 4
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