Hormones are vital to our health and well-being, every single part of the body takes direction from the endocrine system to exert their specific function.
And hormones are the chemical messengers through which the endocrine glands communicate with the rest of the body. They do this by travelling in the bloodstream to tissues or organs. These messengers are involved in numerous purposes such as sexual and reproductive health, development and growth, food metabolism, appetite, sleep cycles, body temperature control and cognitive function.
The body always strives to maintain “homeostasis”, balance among its hormones but there could be cases of hormonal disruptions leading to certain hormone driven conditions. Laboratory tests can be used to test bodily fluids such as the blood, urine or saliva for hormone abnormalities that can present themselves in different ways.
Some common signs of imbalance are sleep disruptions, constant tiredness, significant weight fluctuations, irregular cycles (dysmenorrhoea, amenorrhoea), premenstrual syndrome, mood disturbances and skin issues.
Let’s look at sleep cycles
Sleep cycles are mainly regulated by melatonin which is largely dependent on the presence of serotonin for its production – an imbalance of either hormones can cause altered sleep cycles. Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are also involved in sleep patterns as oestrogen helps us to stay asleep, progesterone has a calming effect on the nervous system and testosterone is helpful to achieve deep sleep states.
One of the main stress hormones in the body is cortisol which is secreted by the adrenal glands. A prolonged imbalance in cortisol’s natural rhythm can lead to adrenal insufficiency, feelings of tiredness and sluggishness. Also, thyroid imbalances like thyroid hormones conversion issues or autoimmune attacks against the thyroid gland can cause low concentration and production of thyroid hormones that can present itself as fatigue among other symptoms.
We’ve heard a lot about the benefits of probiotics on gut health, we may not automatically associate them with hormonal health.
Significant weight fluctuations could be another sign of hormonal disruptions. An example is a condition called insulin resistance where levels of insulin become constantly elevated. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas to extract glucose from foods and bring it to cells to be used as energy. But when blood sugar levels are too high for a prolonged period of time, cells can stop responding to insulin and the excess glucose is stored as fat.
One of the main symptoms of hormonal imbalances that women experience is changes in their menstrual cycle. The most common cause is an imbalance in oestrogen and progesterone that cause changes in ovulation which often happens in people suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or thyroid conditions. Chronic physical and psychological stress will also negatively impact menstrual cycles as an increase in cortisol levels will lead to fluctuations in oestrogen and progesterone.
Hormones and your skin
Hormones impact the health and function of our skin too. Hormonal and thyroid imbalances along with nutritional deficiencies are common causes for skin issues such as dryness, irritation, and breakouts as oestrogen and testosterone are involved in collagen and sebum production.
Hormones and stress levels
Changes in hormones levels and functions can have a variety of causes that we can’t control or predict but there are a few dietary and lifestyle habits that could hinder hormonal health such as prolonged elevated stress and poor sleep patterns.
Prolonged mental and physical stress can lead to raised levels of cortisol that can cause impaired thyroid hormones function and conversion as well as sex hormones imbalances. When the body is under stress, it will favour the production of cortisol instead of progesterone. Cortisol also raises blood sugar and consequently insulin which long term can lead to insulin resistance. High cortisol can impact serotonin levels as well.
Serotonin is the precursor of the hormone melatonin which regulates sleep cycles leading to sleep disturbances that can then negatively impact insulin sensitivity leading to impaired blood glucose levels and a possible increase in fat storage as well as adversely influence our hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin. All hormones and systems in the body are interconnected.
One of the main stress hormones in the body is cortisol which is secreted by the adrenal glands.
Correcting the imbalance through good nutrition
When there are advanced hormonal conditions or severe hormonal deficiencies, hormone replacement therapies and medical interventions may be necessary. But there are certain things that we can all do to support our hormonal health. In terms of diet, make sure to include sources of essential fatty acids (oily fish, avocado, nuts, seeds) and protein daily as hormones are either derived from lipids or amino acids.
Include plenty of plant-based foods as they are sources of fibre that helps to balance blood sugar and insulin levels and stimulates the production of hormones that make you feel full and satisfied. Brassica vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, rocket, Brussel sprouts) and lignans are two other categories of foods that would be great to have as part of the diet. Nutrients contained in brassica vegetables, especially compounds called glucosinolates, are utilised by the liver and are broken down through chewing and digestion.
Lignans are chemical compounds found in plant-based foods like flaxseeds, sesame, pumpkin seeds and rye. When you consume these foods certain gut bacteria convert the “plant” lignans into compounds that the body can utilise, called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are substances that can bind to some of the oestrogen’s receptor sites, reducing oestrogen’s activity when needed while if levels are too low, lignans intake may increase its amount to restore balance.
Also, as much as we have heard a lot about the benefits of probiotic containing foods like sauerkrauts, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, pickled or fermented vegetables, we may not associate them with hormonal health. But our gut bacteria can regulate the production of numerous hormones. For example, part of the conversion from the inactive form of thyroid hormone T4 to the more active T3 form, occurs in the gut.
The products we choose to use play a role too
The skin is our bigger organ and everything that we apply to it, what we breathe can actually enter into the bloodstream. So, it’s extremely important that we try to choose products and ingredients that are as safe and non-toxic as possible. That are many substances in our environment, personal care and households cleaning products that can interfere with the production, transport, breakdown and elimination of hormones called endocrine-disrupting chemicals. So, when possible, try to choose more natural derived cleaning products, skincare items and reduce the use of plastics which can release chemicals called xenoestrogens that can behave as hormone disruptors too.
As featured inside Thrive Magazine Spring issue 2021.
Alessandra is a BANT registered nutritionist that graduated from the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London and a plant based chef that gained her training from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York.
She’s currently working as a nutritional therapist doing private consultations, training and consulting and as a plant based chef. She is also a nutrition and health content writer for both UK and Italian based health and cooking publications as well as sharing her knowledge and passion by teaching private and group nutrition workshops and cooking classes. https://www.yoursweetnutrition.com