It is easy to perceive hormone issues as a minor nuisance in our lives with an array of symptoms to cause short-term irritation; the truth is, hormones determine vital functions of the body. Hormone regulation is crucial to every process in the body, affecting bone density, mood, immune function, ability to sleep, speed at which we process calories and so much more! Imbalanced hormones, as you may imagine, can cause an array of health problems.
Fluctuating mood and skin breakouts coinciding with women’s monthly cycles are possibly the most common hormone-related health issues. Sex hormones are not to be singled out when considering the vast number of hormones circulating in the body, but we certainly notice their negative effects when even only slightly out of balance.
Symptoms of imbalanced hormones
Premenstrual syndrome, otherwise known as PMS, is possibly the most talked about hormone-related collection of symptoms, with both physical and psychological symptoms occurring approximately one week before a period. It is extremely common for women to experience at least one or two symptoms of PMS, including acne, bloating, breast tenderness, irritability or emotional sensitivity. Other conditions such as fibroids, endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome can certainly be exacerbated by hormone imbalances, so should also be considered.
Although men do not follow the same monthly hormone fluctuations as women, they are not without their own hormone problems too. Difficulty in building muscle, erectile dysfunction, reduced libido and early balding are just a few of the unwanted issues men face when their hormones are out of sync.
Causes of hormone imbalances
So what causes hormones to go out of balance in the first place? You may think of the contraceptive pill flooding our public water system as a culprit, but in reality, the levels are actually extremely low, and certainly not one of the main causes of hormones issues. Oestrogenic hormones detected in the water system are actually mostly accountable from industry manufacture, livestock and agriculture. (1) Synthetic forms of oestrogen at high levels in water have been shown to reduce fish populations due to a negative impact on fertility, (2) so this is certainly worth considering as a contributing factor.
Our environment, including the pollution and toxic chemicals we are exposed to throughout the day, is considered to play a huge role in the development of several hormone-related symptoms. Chemicals of most relevance are those which exert an effect on the body similar to that of oestrogen. These chemicals are called xenoestrogens. Excessive xenoestrogens can exacerbate PMS in women, whilst in men, a high exposure to such chemicals has even been associated with increased risk of prostate cancer. (3)
Hormone imbalances can be a result of numerous contributing factors, not simply down to exposure to environmental chemicals. The body requires a healthy functioning liver to process hormones and a healthy digestive system to excrete excess hormones. Additional stress and inflammation in the body can also tip the balance when it comes to keeping hormones in check. If your liver is weak due to excess drinking, your gut is lacking in beneficial bacteria and you have an inflammatory diet along with a stressful job, it is most likely that, both male and female, you will have disturbed hormone levels.
With a huge amount of evidence to suggest that chemicals are playing havoc with our hormones, it makes sense to limit exposure. The chemicals to watch out for include parabens found in shampoos and body washes, phthalates in makeup and perfume, pesticides in non-organic foods, and bisphenol A (BPA). BPA has repeatedly been shown to disrupt menstrual cycles, (4) and is commonly found in plastic food containers, children’s toys and plastic cooking utensils. Try to limit exposure to this chemical, especially when heated next to food because of its ability to leach out from plastics.
It sounds all too depressing when you start to unfold the source of these chemicals, but when you start looking into alternative natural products, it is not difficult to find replacements. You may also want to consider swapping your current chemical-ridden cleaning products for natural alternatives, also quite easily available.
Some toxic chemicals, such as car fumes, are near impossible to avoid, but if we can limit other easily avoidable chemicals, we are more than half way there! We need to accept the fact that we cannot avoid every single health-damaging chemical we come across on a day to day basis, but what we can do is reduce exposure while supporting liver detoxification capacity at the same time.
If you are considering taking the contraceptive pill to control symptoms relating to hormone imbalances, you should be aware that the hormones provided in the pill will artificially and temporarily mask your symptoms on the surface. If your symptoms are extreme, this may be a viable option for you; if, however, you would like to get to the bottom of the causes of your hormone imbalances, a natural approach with diet and lifestyle changes is certainly possible for many individuals.
With detectable levels of oestrogenic hormones in drinking water, this is perhaps a valid reason to justify filtering your tap water. Fluoride in tap water has also been shown to reduce fertility in animal studies. (5)
Hormone balancing and exercising generally go hand in hand, as long as you don’t overdo it! Intensive exercise is generally better received by men when it comes to hormone levels, with overweight men actually producing ideal amounts of increased testosterone when losing weight as a result of exercise, (6) which is most effective when weight training. (7) For women, however, the child-bearing body is designed to carry a little more fat, and therefore it is much easier to stress the body with excessive exercise. It is very common for women with very low body fat (below 16%) to experience irregular or no periods, reflecting the hormonal changes that occur.
Exercise in moderation is more often than not a very good thing for general health as well as hormone balancing, so keep up the exercise. Remember to give your body a break though, to fully recover between workouts. Also, after a workout, why not continue sweating out excess toxins in the sauna too! Exercise, relax, recover and sleep to keep your hormones ticking along nicely.
Consuming large amounts of alcohol can have a serious impact on hormone balance, partly due to the increased stress on the liver which would otherwise be regulating hormones! Alcohol reduces sperm quality (8) and decreases testosterone in men, clearly, therefore, affecting fertility. (9) For women, alcohol can exacerbate PMS symptoms, and for those with PCOS, alcohol may worsen symptoms relating to insulin resistance such as weight gain. Keeping alcohol consumption to 3 units per day for women and 4 units per day for men will help you a long way to improving hormone levels, especially if you currently binge drink.
An easy way to reduce the chemical load from pesticides and herbicides in your diet is to go organic. Simple and reasonably easy to do, eating organic food, although slightly more expensive, is certainly worth it when it comes to your health. Eating organic will limit toxin intake while at the same time giving your liver a bit of a break.
Small fish vs. large fish
Oily fish is an extremely healthy food to include in your diet for hormone health, although some large fish high up in the food chain can accumulate heavy metals such as methyl mercury from eating many smaller fish. There are already clear recommendations for pregnant women to avoid eating large fish for this reason. It is also important for men to consider their intake of large fish due to the fact that methyl mercury has been shown to reduce sperm count. (4)
Your liver is a crucial organ for both the production and regulation of hormones, therefore if it is not functioning at its absolute best, hormones can build up in the body. As the liver also detoxifies by removing toxins consumed on an everyday basis, it is a crucial organ so treat it well.
Limiting intake of toxins such as BPA and alcohol should, of course, be your number one priority; it’s also important to consider correct nutrition for optimum functioning of your liver as this can go a long way to balancing your hormones.
To support the liver, you do not necessarily have to undertake a strict detox type plan. Your body is always detoxifying, so if you give it the right tools to detoxify properly, you can certainly boost your ability to detoxify. The liver requires a vast array of antioxidants found in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables including peppers, spinach and berries. Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts are especially helpful in speeding up processes in the liver needed for detoxifying.
Once the liver has worked hard at preparing a toxin to leave the body, it next needs to be transported, most often via the digestive system. Soluble fibre found in foods such as oats, seeds and vegetables is excellent at taking toxins out of the body with bowel movements, and finally ridding the body of these unwanted chemicals or excess hormones. Soluble fibre is considered to be so effective that it has even been shown to reduce risk of breast cancer. (10)
Blood sugar balance
If you live on crackers, sugar, crisps and white bread, you are most likely stressing out your body with an endless influx of insulin. Insulin is the hormone released in the body to control blood sugar levels, so if you regularly eat refined carbohydrates, your stress hormones may also be out of sync. A knock-on effect of stress hormone imbalances can certainly affect sex hormones too, so keeping blood sugar levels stabilised may help to calm hormone imbalances and reduce symptoms such as mood swings, energy levels and acne.
As many of the symptoms relating to hormone imbalances (such as acne and period pains) are also associated with increased inflammation in the body, controlling inflammation is certainly a step in the right direction. Balancing inflammation is not just for women, however, as infertile men have been shown to have lower omega-3 levels. (11)
The delicate balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fats in the body determines inflammatory levels because of the hormone-like substances they produce in the body. Too much of the wrong type of omega-6 fat can cause inflammation to run high, whilst healthy omega-3 EPA and DHA fats help to reduce inflammation. If you aren’t consuming 2-3 portions of oily fish per week, you may want to consider topping up your levels with a purified fish oil, free from heavy metals. Evening primrose oil is also an excellent oil that provides a specific type of omega-6 fatty acid called GLA and triterpenes, antioxidants which are particularly beneficial for dry skin. (12)
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