Throughout a woman's life, hormones work together like a well-choreographed dance; if one hormone is out of balance or not functioning properly, it can impact the entire ensemble.
And now that women are living longer than ever, greater demands are being placed on the glands producing hormones. This combined with stress and less than ideal lifestyle choices including poor nutrition and lack of exercise has led to declining and imbalanced hormone levels in our bodies.
Over the last 100 years as we have doubled our life expectancy, the soft tissue glands which create our hormones are being forced to produce them longer than ever. Our increasingly stressful lives, worsening nutrition, and lack of proper fitness combine to result in declining levels of hormones in our bodies.
Balanced hormones are absolutely vital to our health and well-being. There are at least 50 hormones that circulate in the human body, functioning as chemical messengers between our cells and organs (including the brain). Our hormones affect almost every aspect of our health including, but not limited to, our mood, libido, puberty, menopause, metabolism, growth, appetite, sleep cycles, and how well we manage stress. When our hormones are balanced, they help our bodies to thrive.
The sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, are what most women focus on throughout their reproductive lives. They are certainly important for their influence on a woman’s reproductive health, but they don’t tell the whole story. A woman’s body makes and uses many other hormones. Thyroid, DHEA, melatonin, vitamin D, and cortisol, for example, can have a profound effect on the overall health of women (energy, mood, fertility, sleep, and libido for example). When hormone production is prime and proportions are balanced, we typically have plenty of energy, we feel good, weight management isn’t as much of an issue, and libido and enjoyment of sex is where we’d like it to be.
Unfortunately, hormone imbalance is pretty common. When our hormones are out of balance, it can lead to mild to severe symptoms and health challenges such as weight gain (or loss), diabetes, infertility, sleep disorders, loss of focus, weak muscles and bones, depression and/or anxiety, and more.
Because we are taking a rather broad approach to hormone balance here, before I make a few suggestions, it must be mentioned that it is super important to have your hormones measured prior to implementing any strategy to alter (or balance) their levels and there are many ways to do that. Blood, saliva, and urine samples are all valid sources for measuring hormones, and some are more reliable than others. That may depend on your age, whether or not you are still menstruating, time of day, and symptoms for example. When evaluating sex hormones, cortisol, and melatonin levels, I generally recommend saliva testing, with samples taken over a prolonged period of time. I typically recommend blood tests when looking at thyroid hormones, vitamin D3, and DHEA. Talk to your health care provider about what is right for you and remember to ask for a complete hormone workup (estradiol, estrone, and estriol for example, and free T3, freeT4, TSH, and thyroid antibodies).
Here are some important lifestyle and dietary tips to promote hormone balance:
1. Make sleep a priority. Inadequate sleep and rest can result in hormonal imbalance. No show is binge-worthy enough to allow it to mess with your sleep. Go to bed before 10 pm. Keep your bedroom cool and dark. If necessary, consider 3 milligrams of melatonin to help optimize your circadian rhythm and get the best sleep. Note: Cherries are a great natural source of melatonin.
2. Consume a plant-based, high-fiber diet. Beets, Spinach, Whole grains, Raw fruit, Dark Green Vegetables, Legumes, Beans, Nuts, Seeds, Winter squash – all great sources of fiber. Fiber helps us maintain a healthy weight and can help lower elevated estrogen levels.
3. Zinc and Selenium are essential nutrients for hormonal balance, especially sex hormones and thyroid. Dark chocolate, peanuts, grass-fed beef, lamb, Brazil nuts, organic tofu, oysters. If you are supplementing zinc (15 milligrams) and selenium (25 micrograms), it is ideal to take them together.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary key ingredients for the formation of hormones. Food sources include walnuts, sardines, wild salmon, trout, oysters, eggs from pasture-raised chickens. Supplementation is tricky due to the quality of oils. I tend to recommend Omega-3 Phospholipids by Nordic Naturals, 2 to 4 gel caps per day.
5. Avoid chemicals and plastics that are endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors can mess with our bodies, and wreak havoc on developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems. Things like plastic bottles, metal food cans, certain detergents, chemicals sprayed on clothing, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides can expose us to dangerous chemicals that pose a great risk to our health and interfere with proper hormone function.
6. Include thyroid supportive foods that include iodine, which is essential to thyroid function: tuna, wild cod, yogurt, eggs, prunes, and banana. And more importantly, have your thyroid hormone levels checked annually including thyroid antibodies.
7. Consider supplementing Vitamin D3. Talk to your health care provider about dosing. Organic milk, eggs from pasture-raised chickens, and mushrooms can all provide Vitamin D in the diet.
8. Limit caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine can act as an irritant and increase anxiety, interfere with sleep, and trigger hot flashes. Alcohol has been shown to be a risk factor for certain cancers, including breast cancer. Alcohol can impair the release of hormones, resulting in an imbalance of hormone levels.
9. Avoid processed, fried, sugary, and fatty foods. This is really basic common sense – there’s just no positive outcome when we choose these foods. Not to mention that they are more likely to disrupt hormone balance.
10. Check your Gut. Gut bacteria (microbiome) can impact hormone levels and overall health. Maintaining a healthy microbiome and repairing gut bacteria can boost health and help with hormone balance.
11. Consider herbal medicine (phytotherapy) or Bioidentical Hormone Therapy as a possible treatment for low or imbalanced hormones. Best to discuss with a practitioner who has expertise in this area. I am happy to consult with you about your options.
12. Maintain healthy liver function. The liver plays an important role in the metabolism of hormones. In addition to the above dietary strategies, include foods (and teas) that assist the liver in cleansing, including avocado, dandelion root and greens, milk thistle, turmeric, and eating organic.