Our hormones control everything from appetite and metabolism to sleep, mood and, of course, our ability to reproduce. While bearing so much responsibility for our bodily function, they are delicate things subject to the vagaries of life. Chronic stress, diabetes, a malfunctioning thyroid, a poor diet, severe allergic reactions and infections, and chemotherapy and radiation are just a few of the things that can wreak havoc on hormone levels.
Symptoms of hormone imbalance include unexplained weight loss or gain, insomnia, changes to the skin and hair, changes in blood pressure and heart rate, irritability, fatigue, a low sex drive...and the list goes on.
As with so many aspects of our lives, a little proactivity on our part can help us avoid a host of trouble down the line. Fortunately, there are ways we can help our hormones stay in balance by tweaking our lifestyle.
Adjust your diet
Eating sufficient protein helps suppress ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Be sure to include lean protein with each meal to help you feel satiated throughout the day and keep the hangries at bay.
Focus on adding healthy fats to your diet in the form of flax, pumpkin and sesame seeds, olive oil and avocado. Choose fatty fish such as albacore tuna, salmon, mackerel and mussels (not a fish, but let's not get technical). The omega-3 fatty acids they deliver benefit the central nervous system and may help treat anxiety and depression.
Fill your produce drawers with leafy greens, bell peppers and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts. Add in some low-sugar fruits, especially berries, kiwi, grapefruit, peaches and watermelon.
Get your fiber. It's essential to gut health and also may help regulate insulin. In addition to many fruits and vegetables, consume complex carbohydrates such as quinoa, beans, legumes and whole grains. They perform double duty by also showing up on the list of foods recommended for regulating hormones.
When choosing beverages, remember green tea is chock-full of antioxidants and compounds that improve metabolic health and have been proven to reduce fasting insulin levels.
Besides being damaging to pulmonary and cardiac health, smoking may alter thyroid hormone levels, stimulate pituitary hormones and increase levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. If you're looking for reasons to quit, add hormonal health to the list.
Regular exercise is known to help reduce insulin levels, which (when high) have been associated with heart disease, diabetes and cancer. As little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week can make a difference, while also improving energy and muscle tone. Weight-bearing activities such as walking, dancing, low-impact aerobics and yoga provide the added bonus of keeping your bones strong.
Take a chill pill
We all have a certain degree of stress in our lives, but when the stress becomes chronic, it also becomes dangerous. Stress elevates levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies: Cortisol helps the body cope with stress, while adrenaline provides the surge of energy we need to push through a tense situation. Both hormones are meant to be elevated for short periods to help us get over a crisis.
However, when chronic stress keeps cortisol levels high, it can lead to excessive calorie intake and obesity. High blood pressure, rapid heart rate and anxiety can all be caused by elevated adrenaline levels. While the latter is the less threatening of the two because it usually doesn't stay high long, both can have a detrimental effect on your health.
Get some zzz's
Getting enough rest is one of the most important factors in regulating hormone levels. Lack of sleep can make you more susceptible to stress (elevating your cortisol), raise your ghrelin and leptin levels (causing you to overeat) and restrict secretion of human growth hormone which is critical for growth and repair.
It can be difficult to unwind after a busy day, but there are steps you can take to improve your sleep patterns, such as regulating caffeine intake, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and cutting exposure to the blue light emitted by electronic devices.
Diet, exercise, smoking cessation, stress reduction and rest—it's a familiar list of items that contribute to improving so many aspects of our health, including (or because of) their influence on our hormones. A few adjustments to them, and we all could be living happier, healthier lives that are more balanced in every way.