The perils of hormone imbalances are increasingly associated with greater exposure to man-made chemicals such as BPA and phthalates, but there is more than chemical doom and gloom when it comes to balancing our hormones naturally.
Chemicals seem to engulf us wherever we go these days, so how can we limit our exposure and how can we rid the body of chemicals once we have been exposed? Thankfully there are ways to tackle this and the more we know about the source and impact of these chemicals, the more in control we can be as individuals when maintaining our health.
Hormones and what they do
When we think about hormone balancing, we often single out the sex hormones as the most influential in terms of how we feel, their effect on our mood and our ability to reproduce. Consider the vast number of hormones constantly circulating in your body simultaneously and you begin to understand just how important hormones are, impacting on every function in the body, from metabolism to bone health and appetite. Our mood at any one time, our ability to fall asleep, our tendency to lose or gain weight, and ability to fight off infections all revolve around a precise, tightly regulated balance of hormones in the body. This balance can often be tipped, causing all sorts of unwanted problems, effectively making us unbalanced.
Let’s briefly go through some of the negative effects of unbalanced sex hormones. A slight unbalanced ratio of hormones can lead to or exacerbate conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome and fibroids. Disturbed hormones can also result in PMS-type symptoms causing fluctuating mood, lower production of our all-important mood-enhancing brain chemical messengers, period pains and acne. Although most of these symptoms are relating to women, men also suffer from sex hormone imbalances causing symptoms of hair loss, reduced muscle mass, erectile dysfunction and reduced libido. Overall, quite a significant level of unwanted issues can result from sex hormone imbalances.
If you are attempting to balance your hormones by taking a contraceptive pill, you may see an improvement in your symptoms, although this is only temporarily and artificially creating hormone levels which do not cause problems on the surface. Although the contraceptive pill and HRT certainly have their place and are a suitable option for many individuals, if you are looking to truly balance your hormones naturally, this would exclude any synthetic forms of hormone medication.
Hormones and exposure to chemicals
So what causes hormones to go out of sync? One of the most extensively researched areas in factors which negatively affect hormone health is an array of rather nasty man-made chemicals which are chemically similar in structure to hormones in the body, called xenoestrogens, resulting in hormonal imbalances. Synthetic forms of oestrogen at high levels in water have even been shown to reduce fish populations for their negative impact on fertility. (1)
The most common symptoms relating to an abundance of xenoestrogens in women are:
- PMS, insomnia, painful breasts, unexplained weight gain, anxiety, headaches, infertility, bloating, heavy bleeding, migraines and mood swings.
In men, a high exposure to chemicals exerting an oestrogenic effect has been associated with increased risk of prostate cancer (2) and an imbalance of testosterone and oestrogen, resulting in symptoms of:
- Muscle loss, enlarged breast tissue, low sex drive, fatigue and erectile dysfunction.
Where are all these chemicals coming from?
It doesn’t seem to be common knowledge that chemicals cloud our world in hundreds of different ways throughout the day, though, unfortunately for us all, this is the case.
You start your day after spending the night under sheets which have probably been washed in sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulphate, shower in water flooded with fluoride and chlorine and then shampoo parabens into your hair, after which you apply your make up and perfume which are full of phthalates. You may sit on furniture ’made safe’ with fire retardant chemicals while you eat your pesticide-laden breakfast, pack your lunch into a Tupperware box containing bisphenol A (BPA) and then step out into the diesel exhaust polluted air, ready for your day ahead. This may sound depressing, but it highlights that the chemicals affecting how your hormones behave are not obvious to the human eye, and that most of us are blissfully unaware of what is being absorbed through our skin, breathed through our lungs and consumed through our mouths.
To move to a more positive note – if we can understand how to eliminate 80% of these chemicals and support the body’s ability to detoxify the rest of the chemicals optimally, we may be able to eliminate many of the symptoms associated with hormone imbalances. Of course, some chemicals are unavoidable unless we can hide away in a bubble for the rest of our lives, so it is important to accept that we cannot and should not become obsessed with trying to figure out a way of avoiding every single chemical we come across. Your liver is specifically designed to eliminate toxins from the body on a constant basis, so keep on living your life while boosting your liver function and you should get on just fine.
How to limit chemical exposure
First things first: go organic. Organic food, although it is still not considered the norm and is a little more expensive, really is the easiest way to eliminate toxins such as pesticides and herbicides from your diet. Directly consuming non-organic foods, especially those containing fat such as meat and dairy, will have high levels of unwanted toxins that your liver could certainly do without.
When it comes to food you eat, after going organic, you may also want to consider cutting out other xenoestrogens such as aspartame, an artificial sweetener. Fluoride in tap water has been shown to reduce fertility in animal studies (3), so consider filtering your water. Better safe than sorry.
For men especially, heavy metals such as methyl mercury may be one to watch out for in food, as they have been shown to reduce sperm count. (4) Methyl mercury is found in large fish such as tuna, so eat smaller fish where possible. Contrary to popular belief, men do not consume large amounts of oestrogen hormones from the contraceptive pill making its way into drinking water. Only a very small amount of female hormones are present in drinking water because of widespread use of the pill. The majority of the oestrogenic chemicals found in water are actually sourced from industrial manufacture, livestock and agriculture. (5) Another very good reason to filter your water.
Next on your list is to swap all your chemical-ridden products for natural alternatives. It is astonishing how many products we accumulate in our homes that have a negative effect on our hormone levels. Opting for natural moisturisers, body and hair washes, perfumes, make up and make up remover is a great start, as all of these products are directly absorbed into the skin. Taking it a step further in the direction of all natural is to start swapping your cleaning products for less harsh and more natural alternatives. There is a huge range of effective products out there, from probiotic cleaning products to natural soap nuts.
Once you have eliminated all of your usual chemical filled products, the next step on your road to chemical free living is to consider the plastic objects in your home and how you interact with them. Plastic toys for children which are not labelled BPA free are a big no no. BPA, one of the most aggravating chemicals in terms of hormone health and with huge science-backed opposition to it, shows a disruption in menstrual cycles. (4) BPA is also found in plastic cooking utensils and plastic food containers. As BPA can leach out from plastic when the plastic is heated, it is strongly advised that you do not heat plastic containers in the microwave. If in doubt as to the chemical levels in your plastic containers, use glass or ceramic bowls to heat foods.
Detoxifying the body
A build-up in toxins in the body, and even a build-up in hormones in the body most commonly results in an irregular hormone cycle in women. If you feel that you are very sensitive to hormonal changes throughout the month, or if you have an irregular menstrual cycle, detoxifying should be on the top of your priority list – after reducing your toxin intake in the first place, of course.
The word detox is more often than not misused by fad products claiming to detoxify your body in a miraculous manner. In reality, your liver is constantly detoxifying and to support this ongoing process, the most important dietary improvements we can make are to have a huge variety of antioxidants from foods such as berries and broccoli. Broccoli, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts are all from the family of cruciferous vegetables and are particularly beneficial for speeding up the detoxifying enzymes in the liver. Fibre intake must also not be ignored, as it is soluble fibre that binds to toxins and takes them out of the body to be excreted. Foods such as beans, lentils, oats, nuts and berries are great sources of soluble fibre to include on a regular basis in your diet to regulate the flow of waste materials. Soluble fibre can have a huge impact on hormone levels in the body and intake has even been shown to reduce risk of breast cancer. (6)
Alcohol is obviously hot on topic when considering toxins and, interestingly, has a significant impact on male fertility, decreasing testosterone in men (7) and reducing sperm quality. (8) A few pints at the pub may not be so manly after all! If you are a woman with PCOS, alcohol is likely to significantly worsen your symptoms relating to insulin resistance. You may not need to completely cut out alcohol to get your hormones back on track, but it may be a good idea to give your liver plenty of rest days, drinking a maximum of every other day. The absolute ideal would be to drink less that 3-4 units of alcohol on the days that you are drinking.
Lastly, to ramp up your detoxification ability, why not hit the sauna to encourage toxin release via sweat.
Other key nutritional factors
Significantly reducing your exposure to toxins and supporting your liver to properly detoxify those unavoidable toxins is possibly the most influential change you can make to supporting hormone balance. To take matters a step further, there are many other nutritional aspects to consider.
Keeping your blood sugar levels balanced can help to reduce insulin production and stress hormones having a huge impact on other hormones in the body. Reducing your intake of processed sugary foods and increasing your intake of whole foods along with good sources of healthy fats and protein will do wonders for your blood sugar levels. Keeping blood sugar levels constant not only helps to reduce stress hormone production, it may also reduce mood swings, skin breakouts and body weight, and help to improve energy levels.
The process of inflammation is essential for the functioning of the human body, however, an excess of inflammation can lead to all kinds of symptoms from joint pains to inflamed skin. Balancing your inflammatory levels is particularly effective for reducing period pains. To control your levels of inflammation, balancing your omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is key. Omega-3 fats are the most anti-inflammatory so concentrate on increasing your intake of omega-3-rich oily fish, ideally 2-3 portions per week. If you are unable to manage a good intake of oily fish, try a concentrated fish oil supplement combined with hormone-balancing evening primrose oil and vitamin D, such as Pharmepa MAINTAIN. Note: It is not recommended to take an evening primrose oil supplement (omega-6) without combining it with omega-3. If you are vegetarian, include flaxseeds and chia seeds daily, and consider a supplement containing anti-inflammatory omega-3, 6 and 9 echium seed oil, as in Echiomega. Remember that balancing inflammation is not just for women; infertile men have actually been shown to have lower omega-3 levels. (9)
Nutrition for hormone balancing is not simply about what to avoid in terms of toxins and unhealthy food, but quite importantly is to provide your body with the nutritional building blocks to function optimally. Ensure that you are providing your body with a range of vitamins and minerals: vitamin B6, magnesium, vitamin D and antioxidants are ones to concentrate on for hormone production. Zinc, in particular, is essential for men, being required for sperm production.
Exercise vs relaxation
For both men and women, keeping active may be a positive for hormone balancing; however, don’t overdo it as excessive exercise could overload your body with stress, reducing fertility and therefore impacting on hormone levels. Women with very low body fat (below 16%) who exercise extensively commonly experience irregular periods and in some cases menstruation comes to a halt.
Low body fat and regular intensive exercise is considered more beneficial for men. If an overweight man loses weight, this has been shown to raise testosterone levels (10), particularly effective when weight training. (11) If a man is suffering from symptoms relating to high oestrogen, it is ideal to get the testosterone levels up slightly to balance this out.
To give the body time to heal and rejuvenate, always take time out from exercise and busy lifestyles. The adrenal glands (responsible for dealing with stress in the body), if kept healthy, will help you to feel less stressed, and may also support sleep quality. Rest, sleep and relaxation are always beneficial to keeping your hormones happy, so soak in a bath and then put your feet up!
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