Hormone fluctuations are a normal part of being a woman, from puberty and the ups and downs of our monthly periods to the years leading up to the onset of menopause. Those fluctuations are influenced by our lifestyle choices: How much we sleep, what and when we eat and how much we move and exercise.
As hormones rise and fall, we may experience PMS (premenstrual syndrome), irregular periods, infertility, mood problems, weight gain and heart disease, to name a few side effects. But just as we can throw our hormones off-kilter, we can often help bring them back into balance.
When you hear the word “hormones” you probably think of estrogen and progesterone, the two major sex hormones for women. But the many chemical messengers in our bodies include stress hormones, hormones that affect mood and those that regulate metabolism. These allow our organs to communicate with each other and regulate brain and heart activity, reproduction, digestion, metabolism and nearly every other bodily function.
“Understanding how these various hormones impact each other (the hormone ‘dance’), and how lifestyle influences the choreography of that dance, are the first steps toward adopting healthy habits that optimize health and wellbeing,” says Cindy Geyer, M.D., medical director of Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass.
With so many important roles, it’s no surprise that changes to our bodies’ delicate balance can significantly affect our health. Fortunately, there are simple ways to help maintain and restore your body’s hormonal balance:
Balance the Scale.
Body fat—both too much and not enough—is a main cause of infertility and other reproductive issues. Fat cells, also called adipose cells, store and metabolize sex hormones, and having too little or too much fat can alter them in ways that change both the length and frequency of your monthly cycle and therefore your fertility. Correct an imbalance by bringing your weight into a healthy range through exercise and dietary changes. The payoff is major: More than 70 percent of women who are infertile because of a weight problem can conceive once they reach a healthy weight.
Get a Move On.
Regular physical activity is a powerhouse when it comes to balancing hormones; it releases endorphins, dopamine and serotonin—chemical messengers that can improve mood—and it encourages the development of insulin receptors in your muscles, which help keep your metabolism humming along. If you deal with PMS, you may be able to improve your symptoms by sticking to a consistent fitness routine throughout each cycle. And a combination of aerobic activity (in which your heart rate rises) and strength training helps women counteract the impact of declining estrogen levels on muscles and bones. “Plus, women who start strength training in their 40s minimize weight gain through menopause, and exercise also has positive benefits on mood, energy, sex drive and sleep!” Dr. Geyer says.
Cook Up a Recipe for Success.
Any woman who has had food cravings during pregnancy or their period knows that there’s a link between hormones and hunger. A diet high in fiber and whole grains and low in sugar and refined grains helps insulin and cortisol levels to remain stable, which makes it easier to head off overeating and weight gain. Protein triggers the appetite-regulating hormones cholecystokinin and glucagons, so be sure to include foods that are high in protein but low in saturated fat, like nuts and legumes.
Flax, red clover and soy contain isoflavones and lignans, chemicals with properties similar to estrogen; these so-called phytoestrogens may reduce symptoms of menopause and PMS. “Although there has been concern in the past about whether the intake of phytoestrogens might increase the risk of hormone-related cancers, the most recent literature found that eating healthy foods containing phytoestrogens was actually associated with a lower risk of breast cancer and breast cancer recurrence,” Dr. Geyer says. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of consuming phytoestrogens in food or supplements.
Hormones accumulate in fat, so if you are choosing full-fat dairy, butter or meat, look for the “cleanest” options: preferably grass-fed meat (organic, if possible) and organically produced dairy in moderation.
Short-term stress is a part of life: The stress hormone cortisol is secreted along with other molecules like epinephrine and norepinephrine as part of the “fight or flight” response that puts our bodies in a position to handle a threat by making us hyperalert, elevating blood pressure and blood glucose and sending the blood away from our digestive tract and sexual organs to our muscles, heart and brain. After the threat is over, those changes all readjust to baseline. “But when that stress response become chronic (such as when we continue to worry, or are sleep deprived or constantly ‘on the go’), the resulting persistent elevation in cortisol can interfere with almost every biologic process, contributing to increased weight around the waistline, increased harmful inflammation and risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Dr. Geyer says. The good news is that when we engage in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation or yoga, the hormonal response to stress can shift, resulting in lower cortisol levels and lower blood pressure. “It has also been found that when we reach out and connect with others in times of stress, that can also lower cortisol levels and raise production of the hormone oxytocin, which contributes to relaxation and bonding,” Dr. Geyer adds.
Sleep It Off.
Most of us need between seven and nine hours of sleep to function properly. Not getting enough makes you less sensitive to insulin, which can lead to weight gain, as sleep deprivation interferes with hormones that tell you when you’re hungry or full. It also leads to too much cortisol, and over time that can put you at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, among other health issues. If you have difficulty falling asleep, start by turning off the TV and all gadgets and dim the lights a half-hour to an hour before bedtime; light interferes with your body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Our article Bank a Better Night of Sleep offers more techniques for getting good rest.
Being outdoors in daylight hours stimulates your brain to release hormones. By spending at least 30 minutes outside each day (don’t forget the sunscreen), you’ll help regulate your serotonin and cortisol levels.
Try Some Sexual Healing.
Having sex, or even cuddling with your partner, triggers the brain to release neurochemicals like oxytocin and endorphins. These relieve pain and anxiety while promoting feelings of contentedness and relaxation. So light some candles, put on romantic music and invite your partner to activate your hormones.
Toast to Smart Drinking.
Did you know that even minimal amounts of alcohol (less than or equal to one drink per day) may increase estrogen levels and interrupt hormonal function? Excessive levels may boost your risk of hormone-related conditions like diabetes, infertility, osteoporosis and breast cancer. However, in postmenopausal women, moderate drinking (one drink per day: 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of liquor) can lower your heart disease risk by promoting the conversion of testosterone into estradiol, a type of estrogen. If you imbibe, talk to your doctor to see if a drink a day will help or harm your hormones.
Smoking cigarettes is a killer for hormones; it can even trigger premature menopause and make menopause symptoms like hot flashes much worse. It could be that nicotine and other toxins influence insulin and hormones secreted by the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands. Talk to your doctor about techniques for quitting, like nicotine replacement therapy.
Look Into Integrative Approaches.
If you want to combine hormone balancing with a little pampering, consider acupuncture. A few small studies have shown that a good needling balances hormones and reduces symptoms of PMS and menopause. And deep tissue massage can reduce the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine while increasing “happy” compounds like serotonin and dopamine. Check out Natural Remedies for Menopause Symptoms for more drug-free solutions.