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Understanding Hormonal Balance

Understanding hormone balance

Searching for Answers?

Are you struggling with nagging symptoms like weight gain, fatigue, and low mood? Maybe you just don't feel like yourself? It can be so frustrating! Well, it's likely a sneaky hormonal imbalance may be at play here. Hormone levels naturally fluctuate at different stages of life, such as during puberty, the menstrual cycle, and menopause. 

However, they can also be dramatically affected by lifestyle & environmental factors and certain medical conditions. We now know that hormonal imbalance is increasingly more common than previously thought - get this, a new survey showed that almost half of American women between the ages of 30-60 show signs of hormonal imbalance [1]. So, are you ready for a quick crash course on hormonal health and what you can do from today to help restore your balance and zest for life?



What are hormones?

Let's begin with the basics. Hormones are chemical substances that act as messengers in the body and are produced by the endocrine system. Hormones do all sorts of different things that allow your body to function each day; this means even a small change in these essential chemicals can lead to really noticeable shifts. Let's take a look at a few crucial hormones below:  

 

Estrogen

Estrogen is a steroid hormone that plays many different roles in the body. In women, it's essential for the development and maintenance of female characteristics, reproductive hormones, and the reproductive system like breast and uterine tissue. Estrogen is produced by the ovaries, adrenal glands, and even fatty tissue. Most people don't know that fat is a hormonally active "organ" in our bodies.

Estrogen is essential for brain health, bone structure, cardiovascular health, fertility, etc. It's important to remember that men have estrogen too! Women just have quite a bit more of it. Symptoms don't only arise when estrogen is low, as seen in menopause. Excess estrogen or estrogen, which is too high in relation to progesterone levels (known as estrogen dominance), may also cause symptoms of hormonal imbalance. [2]

 

Testosterone

Like estrogen, testosterone is a steroid hormone; however, it's primarily associated with male characteristics, although women require small amounts. Testosterone is produced in the testes in men, while women make it in the adrenals and ovaries. Testosterone plays a vital role in strong bone formation, muscle health, sex drive, and sperm production [3].

 

Cortisol 

Cortisol is in a class of hormones known as glucocorticoids. It's produced by the adrenals, which are triangle-shaped glands on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is most famous for its role in the stress response, which is why it's often referred to as the "stress hormone." You see, cortisol acts like your body's alarm system when exposed to a stressor to prepare you for potential danger (like if you had to run away from a lion!) Resulting in changes in blood pressure and blood glucose. 

Your cortisol levels follow a rhythm throughout the day, peaking in the morning to get you out of bed and then slowly decreasing to their lowest point around bedtime. Cortisol isn't just involved in the stress response but has many uses in the body, such as metabolism and regulating inflammation [4].

 

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone produced in your brain's pineal gland and is essential for regulating the circadian rhythm, i.e., your wake and sleep cycles. It's released in the evenings around bedtime when your cortisol level drops so that you start to feel tired and can get a good night's sleep. Melatonin also seems to play an essential role in mood and acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body [5].

 

Insulin

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. This particular hormone plays a prime role in blood glucose balance. When our blood sugar rises, insulin is released. This allows the glucose in our bloodstream to be taken up by cells and produce energy for all our body's metabolic processes. If we have more glucose in our bloodstream than the body requires for energy, insulin stores it as fat, hoping we can use it as fuel later! [6]

 

Thyroid Hormones

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck and is an endocrine gland. This gland may be small, but boy, is it necessary! In conjunction with the pituitary gland, the thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and many other functions in the body. It's estimated that about 4.6% of Americans are suffering from clinically low thyroid function, known as hypothyroidism, and many more with subclinical low thyroid function [7]

 

What Are The Common Causes of Hormonal Imbalance?

Aging 

Some natural hormonal changes and transitions are unavoidable with age, such as menopause in women and declining testosterone levels in men. Let's start with the ladies - menopause is a natural transition that usually occurs between the ages of 49-52. During menopause, the ovaries begin to produce less estrogen, and menstruation stops. This drop-in estrogen levels can result in uncomfortable hallmark menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, headaches, night sweats, low libido, sleep issues, and bone weakness [7].

Men usually see a natural decline in testosterone levels that already starts around the age of 30 and continues to decline by up to 2% every year going forward. In men, low testosterone levels can lead to symptoms like muscle loss, weight gain, low libido/erectile dysfunction, fatigue, and low mood [8]


Exposure to environmental toxins & chemicals 

Our modern environment is overflowing with toxins and chemicals classified as "endocrine disruptors." Endocrine disruptors can disrupt the delicate balance of hormone production and impact the reproductive system. Some of the most well-known endocrine-disrupting chemicals are bisphenols, phthalates, and parabens commonly found in plastics, fragrances, body care, and cleaning products. For example, bisphenols can mimic hormones like estrogen in the body, which may increase the risk of developing hormone-associated cancers like breast cancer [9]

This is a great reason to choose 100% natural body care and cleaning products that state they are free of fragrance, phthalates, and parabens.


Chronic Stress

With today's busy lifestyle and pressures, it's no surprise that stress is taking its toll on our health. Unfortunately, stress can be particularly unkind to hormonal health. Chronic stress can result in changes to the regulation of chemical signals seen in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). These changes can negatively affect thyroid function and may even disrupt your natural cortisol rhythm throughout the day.

If your cortisol level is still high at night due to stress, this can negatively affect the release of the melatonin you need for a good night's sleep. High cortisol can also affect weight loss, making it harder to shed those pounds by promoting belly fat [10] [11]


Refined Diets

If we are constantly exposed to high carb and high sugar diets, our cells can become resistant to insulin. Insulin resistance leads to high blood sugar and insulin levels over time [6]

High insulin can lower an essential protein called sex hormone-binding globulin which binds to hormones like testosterone and estrogen to be transported around the body without being active [12]. This means low sex hormone-binding globulin levels can lead to extra active hormones like estrogen floating around, resulting in estrogen dominance symptoms in women like breast tenderness, weight gain, and heavy periods. 

Meals that cause a significant spike in blood glucose have been linked to an increased output of the stress hormone cortisol [13]. Interestingly it's not just high blood sugar that's the problem. You see, when blood sugar levels spike quickly, they tend to crash as rapidly, leading to bouts of low blood sugar, and guess what? 

Low blood sugar has also been linked to the secretion of cortisol! [14] creating a vicious cycle that has damaging effects throughout the body.

The bad news is that highly refined diets are often low in essential vitamins and minerals needed for hormone production. For example, your thyroid relies on a variety of different nutrients like zinc, iron, selenium, and iodine to produce thyroid hormones [15]

 

Signs & Symptoms You Might Have A Hormonal Imbalance

Now that you've gotten the low down on some of the body's most essential hormones, you may be wondering how you can tell if some of these hormones are out of whack. So, we've listed a few of the most common symptoms below, which often give a clue about hormonal balance. 

Remember, it's important to note that you should always seek professional advice from a healthcare practitioner if you have nagging symptoms which concern you!


  • You're breaking out all the time or suffering from dry skin: In women, skin breakouts can be an indicator that you're struggling with high levels of androgen (male) hormones like testosterone which is often seen in the condition of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), or that you have an imbalance in progesterone to estrogen ratios. Dry and flaky skin is a common symptom of perimenopause, menopause, and low thyroid hormones.

  • Your moods are all over the place, or you're generally feeling low: Low mood can be associated with suboptimal thyroid hormone levels, estrogen fluctuations in women, or low testosterone in men.

  • You're noticing changes in your weight: If you're struggling with weight loss or gaining weight too quickly, you may benefit from a consultation with your doctor. Proper testing and diagnoses are the best places to start. Low thyroid hormone levels interfere with your body's metabolic rate, making it difficult for both men and women to lose weight. Stubborn weight gain is also commonly seen in women with estrogen dominance, perimenopause, or menopause. Decreasing testosterone levels in men are also often associated with an increase in fat accumulation. If your insulin levels have been raised for some time, this can also make it easier for your body to store energy as fat, which might be why those pounds just won't budge!

  • You have a low libido/sex drive: No magic happening in the bedroom? Low libido is commonly associated with imbalanced estrogen in women and low testosterone in men. 

  • You feel tired or run down all the time: Fatigue is a widespread symptom of hormonal imbalance, and it can make you not feel like yourself. Chronic fatigue can indicate low thyroid hormone function, low testosterone, or dysregulated cortisol levels throughout the day. 

  • You're suffering from PMS or irregular periods: No woman should have to dread her menstrual cycle, so if you are, you may be struggling with imbalanced estrogen levels. Irregular periods are a common symptom associated with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), so it's always good to have this checked out by your primary health care professional.

  • You're having trouble sleeping or don't feel rested in the morning: Insomnia is often a struggle for women going through menopause. It also may indicate a disruption in your circadian rhythm and melatonin levels since melatonin is essential to make you feel tired at bedtime and help you fall into a deep and restorative sleep.

  • You have anxiety or feel sensitive to life's stressors: If you've been under chronic stress, your adrenal gland may have been pumping out high levels of the hormone cortisol consistently, making you feel really on edge. High levels of thyroid hormones and fluctuations in estrogen and testosterone can also promote feelings of anxiety.

If you check off quite a few of these signs and symptoms, it may be time to give your hormonal health a little bit of love! 


The Best Natural Ways to Help Balance Your Hormones

 

Exercise

It's time to get moving! Research shows that physical activity positively affects hormone production in women by lowering circulating estrogen levels and shifting the way estrogen is metabolized, reducing the risk of developing hormonally related cancers [16] [17]

Exercise also seems to be particularly effective in lowering insulin levels and improving the body's sensitivity to insulin [18], which can have a positive ripple effect on hormonal balance by regulating levels of sex hormone-binding globulin. 

Regular exercise is often recommended to help reduce stress by offering excellent protection against anxiety [19]. Exercise outdoors on sunny days can boost your Vitamin D levels, contributing to balanced hormone production.


Supplements

One of the easiest and most convenient ways to promote hormonal balance can be achieved by adding the right nutritional or herbal supplement into your daily regime. Here are some of the top research-backed supplements you can look into:

  • Ashwagandha is a traditional Ayurvedic herb that may help balance hormones in many powerful ways. A randomized controlled trial found that ashwagandha can significantly lower levels of serum cortisol [20]. It may play a role in men's hormone levels, specifically steroid hormones, possibly improving male fertility [21] and raising testosterone levels [22]

  • Ceylon cinnamon is a wonderful research-backed spice that has been shown to help balance blood glucose levels and promote insulin sensitivity [23], which in turn can help to naturally promote healthy hormonal balance by regulating levels of sex hormone-binding globulin, which may be low in those with high insulin levels [12]

  • Did you know gut health and hormonal balance are intricately interlinked? Research has shown that probiotic supplementation may have positive effects by lowering high testosterone levels and increasing sex hormone-binding globulin in women [24] 

  • Diindolylmethane, more commonly known as DIM, is a phytochemical derived from cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage and is an exciting, newer supplement on the market! Research shows that DIM supports the healthy detoxification of excess estrogen and also modulates estrogen metabolism to promote a more beneficial ratio of the different types of estrogen in the body [25]

Stress Management

Regulating the stress response is one of the most effective (and free!) ways to balance your hormones naturally. A meta-analysis of clinical trials found that consistent mindfulness-based practices, such as meditation, had a beneficial effect on lowering cortisol levels [26].

 Another study found that when young women with polycystic ovary syndrome undertook a 12-week yoga program, they saw a significant improvement in hormone levels, excess hair growth, and the regularity of their menstrual cycle! [27] So now's the time to roll out that yoga mat, take some deep breaths, and connect with yourself.


Blood Sugar Balance & Diet

We've been talking a lot about the critical role of insulin in hormone balance, which is why balancing blood sugar is non-negotiable when it comes to keeping your hormones in check. Luckily, there are some basic dietary steps you can take to help balance your blood sugar and improve your body's insulin response: 

  • Apple cider vinegar: Research has consistently shown that vinegar can lower blood sugar levels. For example, a randomized controlled trial found that patients with type 2 diabetes who took vinegar had significantly reduced blood glucose levels and insulin secretion [28]. Taking vinegar with a meal is thought to help slow down the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream and enhance how your body uses glucose [29]

You can get apple cider vinegar into your diet by drinking 1 tablespoon in a glass of water before meals, OR the easier option is to add in a high-quality apple cider vinegar supplement in the form of capsules or gummies! 


  • Balance meals with healthy fats and protein: The macronutrient composition of meals and snacks can significantly affect how much your blood sugar levels rise after eating. It's important to always balance meals and snacks with healthy protein and fat and reduce your refined sugar and carbohydrate intake. 

For example, you can balance a piece of fruit with a small handful of nuts or a tablespoon of nut butter or tahini. When eating grains or starchy vegetables like sweet potato, ensure you include a portion of high-quality animal or plant-based protein!

In women going through menopause, adding natural "phytoestrogen" rich foods into the diet may help alleviate some uncomfortable symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats. Flax seeds contain lignans rich in phytoestrogens, which "mimic" what estrogen would naturally do in the body - one study found that when menopausal women added ground flaxseed to their diet, they saw a remarkable 50% reduction in their hot flashes! [30]


Sleep Hygiene

Aren't we all craving that perfect night's sleep, where we wake up rested and ready for the day? It turns out that focusing on healthy and restful sleep is essential for balancing our hormones and natural circadian rhythm throughout the day. Getting enough sleep can even help to balance insulin levels! [31] There are a few things that you can do to help balance and boost the super sleep hormone melatonin:


  • Research has shown that exposure to natural light during the day and reduced exposure to artificial light at night can help with regulating melatonin and our natural body clock. Therefore, it's suggested to get some morning exposure to sunlight (15-20 minutes) and reduce the exposure to artificial light at night, such as from screens (TV, phones, tablets, etc.) and bright home lighting, since these can hinder the release of melatonin! [32] [33]

  • Melatonin is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan. Therefore consuming foods high in tryptophan may help support your natural melatonin production. For example, a study found that those who consumed a tryptophan-rich diet significantly improved sleep duration, sleep quality, and reduced time to fall asleep [34]. Chicken, turkey, tuna, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, and bananas are rich in tryptophan [35]

Final Thoughts

Knowing where to start when it comes to balancing your hormones can feel overwhelming, so it's important to remember that your body naturally yearns to find balance and homeostasis; you just have to give it the tools to do so, beginning with the basics: healthy food, restful sleep, and movement! 

Before you go, let's take a look at a summary of what you learned today:

  • Hormones act as chemical messengers in the body, and when they're out of balance, they can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms in both men and women.
  • Hormones regulate reproduction, metabolism, circadian rhythm, inflammation, blood sugar balance, body weight, fat storage, stress response, mood, and more.
  • Aging, stress, environmental factors, and diet can all play a role in hormone imbalance.
  • Research shows that exercise, stress management, a balanced diet, and healthy sleep positively impact hormonal health.
  • Natural supplements like Ashwagandha, Ceylon cinnamon, Apple cider vinegar, probiotics, and DIM may further support balanced hormone levels and overall well-being. 
  • Last but not least, remember always to seek guidance from a health care professional if you suspect you may have a hormonal imbalance!

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and not intended for use as medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplement.

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