Is a hormone imbalance making you overweight, tired or crave chocolate? Dietitian Katrina Pace looks at how hormones affect health and whether diet is to blame or not.
There’s a trend among health bloggers right now to blame a whole array of ailments on hormones, but how much truth is there behind these claims and is there anything we can do about it? Let’s take a closer look at the science of hormones, health and nutrition.
At all times of the day, your body is making a host of hormones. These are chemical messengers that control body functions including hunger, growth, mood, stress and reproduction. Hormones are produced by a collection of glands called the endocrine system. These include thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands, pancreas, ovaries (in women) and testes (in men).
Top six hormones you need to know about
- Insulin lets sugar in the blood enter muscle, fat and liver cells, or stores excess sugar as fat. Diabetes is a range of conditions that result from lack of insulin, or insulin resistance. According to specialist endocrinologist Catherine McNamara, type 2 diabetes is the most common hormone problem seen in New Zealand, affecting over 260,000 people. Insulin resistance, called pre-diabetes, is estimated to affect nearly one in four adults aged over 15.
- Cortisol controls our stress response. It helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar and metabolism and reduces inflammation. Too much cortisol is linked to anxiety, depression and weight gain, whereas too little can cause fatigue, weight loss and mood swings.
- Melatonin is what you need to get a good night’s sleep. You make more melatonin at night when light levels start to drop. This is why you may notice a change in your sleep patterns when the clocks change. Short-term supplementation with melatonin can help re-establish normal sleep patterns, but too much can cause fatigue, headaches and low body temperature.
- Thyroxine is a hormone secreted by the thyroid gland that controls many essential functions of the body, including the heart and digestive system, metabolism, bone health and brain development. It’s estimated that five per cent of women and one per cent of men in New Zealand have conditions that affect the thyroid gland.
- Testosterone is produced by both men and women, but men have it in much higher amounts. Testosterone plays an important role during male puberty and is the hormone credited with aggression and sexual behaviour in males. Low levels of testosterone in adult men can cause obesity, mood problems and loss of body hair, while too much can cause irritability and infertility. In women, too much testosterone can cause acne and facial hair and can indicate polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
- Oestrogen is one of the main female hormones. It is produced in the ovaries and causes puberty in girls, protects bones, manages cholesterol and can affect mood. When women go through menopause, they stop producing oestrogen and lose its protective effects over the heart. Too much oestrogen in men can manifest in low libido, enlarged breasts and increased abdominal fat.
Hormone or hoax?
I’m tired. Is it adrenal fatigue?
Endocrinologists (doctors who specialise in hormone disorders) agree there is no scientific or research evidence for adrenal fatigue as a medical condition. It is a term frequently used to describe a range of symptoms often experienced by people who are under long-term or chronic emotional, physical or mental stress.
Hoax? The theory is that constant stress causes the adrenal glands to pump out more cortisol, a stress hormone that causes anxiety, depression and weight gain. Research has shown that cortisol levels can change in the short term after a short, sharp negative experience but not after chronic stress.
What might it be? By using the non-diagnosis of ‘adrenal fatigue’, the true cause of your fatigue may not be found. It is normal to feel intense fatigue after long periods of stress. Long-term stress has been linked to gut bacteria imbalances, which have been scientifically shown to increase the risk of anxiety and depression.
What should you do? Follow our ‘Four ways to give your hormones a hand’ suggestions (see below).
Why do I crave sweet foods before my periods?
Oestrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate before your periods. These hormonal changes can influence your mood. As oestrogen levels fluctuate, so do serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is the body’s natural ‘happy-drug’. Low levels can cause fatigue, sleeplessness and mood swings.
Hoax? As hormones fluctuate, so can blood sugar levels. This may trick you into thinking you need something sweet. But don’t forget, your body can deal with a drop in blood sugar without needing to eat!
What should I do? Make sure you have regular healthy meals during the day. Have protein foods at meals to help fill you up. Exercise can help regulate both hormones and blood sugars and prevent you falling into the trap of snacking on sweet foods. (But it’s nice to know that chocolate contains another neuro-transmitter, similar to serotonin, which improves mood.)
Why am I gaining weight? Is it my hormones?
If you are eating healthily, minding your portion sizes and exercising, then unwanted weight gain might indeed be a symptom of hormone problems. Women tend to gain weight after menopause when oestrogen levels are low, or with undiagnosed PCOS. Men with low testosterone also tend to gain weight. Weight gain and fatigue can be a sign of low thyroid levels in both men and women. Weight gain for no apparent reason should be investigated by your doctor.
Can my diet upset my hormones?
What we eat is what the body uses as building blocks for making our hormones. But can this alone trigger hormone production problems? Endocrinologist Catherine McNamara says obesity is possibly one of the main factors disrupting hormone balance in both women and men. Here is how obesity can affect hormone health:
- Obesity can cause insulin resistance, which can develop into type 2 diabetes.
- It has been implicated in lowering testosterone and increasing oestrogen in men, causing cardiovascular disease and infertility.
- Women with obesity can have increased oestrogen which has been linked to an increase in breast and endometrial cancers.
- Obesity also has an important role in the development of autoimmune diseases which may be a cause of hormone problems.
Apart from obesity, the most common causes of hormone problems are autoimmune disorders and adenomas (a type of non-cancerous tumour). Whether diet can influence these causes is still under debate by the experts.
Four ways to give your hormones a hand
1. Eat to lose weight or prevent obesity
- Choose whole food instead of packaged foods.
- Keep away from high-sugar, high-fat foods.
- Fill up on plenty of vegetables and fruit.
- Choose wholegrain cereals.
- Grehlin is the hormone that tells you that you are hungry. Eat protein foods at each meal to help reduce the amount of grehlin in your system and give the sensation of being full.
2. Be aware of your stress
Strategies to manage stress will improve your energy levels. Try beach walking, socialising, dance, meditation or yoga.
3. Get moving
- Regular exercise can help balance out oestrogen levels, reduce insulin resistance and improve your mood.
- Vitamin D from sunshine while you exercise potentially reduces your risk of an underactive thyroid and improves insulin resistance. But remember to be sun smart from September to April and exercise before 10am or after 4pm.
4. Seek help
If you think you are experiencing unwanted weight gain, weight loss, poor sleep, fatigue or other symptoms you are worried about, talk to your GP first.