‘Hormones’ have been blamed for a lot of health concerns in recent years, from low energy to weight gain. But what does the science actually say? Katrina Pace investigates.
Social media feeds and ‘health’ blogs are rife with claims attributing all manner of health concerns to hormone imbalance.
What are hormones?
Our bodies are flooded every second of every day with a massive range of hormones, all with a distinct role to play. Hormones are chemical messengers made and secreted by the endocrine system, a network of glands that, with help from organs such as the liver, kidney, gonads and heart, regulate a wide range of bodily functions. Hormones are designed to have specific effects on other cells in the body. Often these effects are stimulating a certain activity in a cell.
Endocrine glands include our thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands, pancreas, ovaries (in women) and testes (in men).
Hormones help control a range of functions in our body. Often we have no idea what they’re doing, but we can certainly tell if they’re not doing their job properly. Hormones help control our hunger, when we feel full and what our body does with the food and drink we have consumed. They help us feel sleepy and stay asleep, control our reproductive cycles and even influence our temperature, heart rate and breathing. As many teenagers would know, hormones also affect our skin condition, hair and nails.
When hormones do their job properly, our body can function well. They help us feel healthy and happy. But one hormone not working efficiently can set off a cascade of actions that may affect our wellness.
Hormones that keep our body happy
Appetite and metabolism hormones
Gut hormones play an important part in controlling our metabolism and digestion, how much and when we eat and how the body uses the nutrients from the food we eat. For instance, leptin gives our brain the heads-up we’re feeling full. If we have less leptin, we start to feel hungry. And ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates our appetite.
Our thyroid gland sits at the front of our neck and the two hormones it produces are thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Together they work to regulate our metabolism (including weight and energy levels), body core temperature, skin, nail and hair growth, brain development, muscle control, heart and digestive functions and bone maintenance.
For a good night’s sleep, it’s melatonin you can thank. Our body produces melatonin in a cycle, producing more or less depending on the light levels received by our eyes. This is one of the reasons using electronic devices close to bedtime can lead to sleep disruption. The light generated by electronic devices makes us produce less melatonin so we don’t feel sleepy.
Insulin is produced by cells in our pancreas in response to rises in our blood sugar levels. All forms of diabetes have the common feature that the body can’t regulate blood sugar levels because of problems with the hormone insulin.
Testosterone is produced by both men and women (to a lesser degree). It plays an important role in male puberty and stimulates development of male characteristics. Testosterone is converted into another hormone, oestradiol, in men and women for reproduction.
Cortisol is the hormone responsible for making sure our body can respond to stressors, increasing heart rate, breathing and muscle tone to make us ready to take flight or stay and fight. Cortisol also has an important role in helping babies develop during late pregnancy as well as helping us form memories and control our blood sugar levels and metabolic rate.
Oestrogen is one of the main reproductive hormones for women, although it’s also present in men. Oestrogen also plays a part in body temperature regulation, fat storage, mood regulation, maintaining bone strength and preventing osteoporosis and protecting against cardiovascular disease.
Are your hormones really a problem?
1. Oestrogen dominance
Recently a condition called ‘oestrogen dominance’ has been blamed for everything from painful periods to menopausal symptoms, anxiety, fatigue, food cravings and weight issues.
This isn’t a recognised medical condition, it’s just a description of high oestrogen levels and low progesterone levels. It is medically known, though, that oestrogen excess and deficiency can happen.
What you need to know:
- Oestrogen and progesterone levels change naturally both daily and during women’s monthly menstrual cycles. Oestrogen levels are lowest during their periods. During menopause, oestrogen levels drop.
- Both the birth control pill and hormone replacement therapy may contain oestrogen to raise levels. Other medications, including steroids, may also increase oestrogen levels.
- Factors that can raise oestrogen levels include puberty, being overweight, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and ovarian or adrenal tumours.
If not ‘oestrogen dominance’ then what?
- Premenstrual tension (PMT)
Symptoms of high or low oestrogen can be very similar and include menstrual problems, fatigue, sleep problems, mood swings, depression and anxiety. Low levels of oestrogen trigger lower levels of serotonin, which may cause the fatigue, sleeplessness and mood swings of PMT. Fluctuations in these hormones may also cause blood sugar levels to drop, tricking you into craving sweet foods. Remember, the hormone insulin is specifically designed to deal with sorting out blood sugar levels, so extra snacks aren’t necessary.
- Irregular periods
Irregular periods may be because of peri-menopause, menopause, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or sudden weight changes.
Unexpected weight gain, sleep changes and body temperature changes may be due to hormone changes around menopause.
Weight gain, lack of sleep, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome are also common side effects of stress or imbalance in our lifestyle.
What you can do:
Talk to your doctor. If you’re thinking of using an oestrogen-boosting supplement, remember your symptom(s) may hide an underlying problem. A 2016 review of studies investigating the effects of plant and herbal medicines on menopause symptoms found there was little effect of these supplements.
Follow our ‘How to keep our hormones happy’ suggestions (below) as a place to start helping the symptoms that may be thought to be or labelled ‘oestrogen dominance’.
Truth or myth?
BPA causes oestrogen dominance
Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a chemical found in plastic. BPA is one type of chemical that can mimic oestrogen in the body. People writing about oestrogen dominance often encourage us to reduce the plastic in our environment, especially if it comes into contact with food or drinks.
While reducing plastic in our life has good consequences for the environment, research findings vary as to how much effect this actually has on our oestrogen levels.
Food influences oestrogen levels
Soy products are high in isoflavones (phyto-oestrogens) which can increase oestrogen levels. Studies aren’t conclusive as to whether isoflavones are useful to help reduce hot flushes attributed to lack of oestrogen during menopause.
Cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage) may help to remove excess oestrogen from the body through the liver.
2. Adrenal fatigue
We all run the risk of living a high-stress lifestyle. Work, raising children in a digital age and the high expectations we put on ourselves can leave some of us feeling stressed, anxious and burned out. A ‘pop diagnosis’ for this feeling is ‘adrenal fatigue’.
What you need to know:
Adrenal fatigue is not a recognised medical diagnosis and treating yourself as though you have it may mean you miss other conditions with similar symptoms. The theory behind adrenal fatigue is that being stressed over long periods of time, with sustained high cortisol levels, depletes your adrenal glands, leading to a ‘low cortisol state’, in turn, causing low energy, low mood, brain fog, cravings and other vague symptoms.
What it may be:
- There are recognised conditions that lead to adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease) or high cortisol levels (Cushing’s syndrome).
- You really are too busy and stressed. Start with our ‘How to keep hormones happy’ (below) section to try to get some balance back.
What you can do:
Always see your doctor first with any health concern and before starting a herbal supplement.
Truth or myth?
A cortisol test will tell you if you have ‘adrenal fatigue’
Cortisol levels fluctuate normally during the day, so one blood or saliva test is not going to give a reliable measure of what your cortisol levels are really doing. None of these tests have been shown to support a diagnosis of adrenal fatigue.
Ashwagandha supplements fix adrenal fatigue
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a herb. In 2014, a systematic review of five studies investigating the effect of aswagandha on anxiety and stress was published. All were small studies, with high drop-out rates, potentially affecting any results. The results of the review suggest aswagnadha may improve stress and anxiety when compared with a placebo, but there was a major risk of reporter bias influencing several studies. The most common reasons for the symptoms attributed to adrenal fatigue are that we really are busy, have too much going on in our lives and have set ourselves some high expectations to live up to. A pill is not going to change this.
How to keep our hormones happy
Here are some things we can start doing today to help keep our hormones healthy and ourselves happy.
Dial down the stress
Too much stress and being chronically stressed can cause many different problems in our lives and with our hormones.
- Take small actions every day to help manage your stress levels such as exercise, taking time out, using your breaks or talking to friends.
- Be aware of your surroundings, thoughts, feelings and actions without judgement or being critical of them. Acknowledge how they may be affecting you at this time.
- Delegate to co-workers, kids, partners or family. See if someone else can cook dinner, chair the meeting or play taxi driver. Use this time to do something to relax rather than fill it with something else that may cause stress.
- Relax and unwind throughout the day rather than just at the end. Taking short breaks to walk around the office, getting some fresh air, stretching or going into another room (alone) can help to keep your stress from building up.
- Activity helps our hormones in several different ways.
- Outdoor activity helps by allowing us to get vitamin D from sunshine, which may reduce our risk of an underactive thyroid and insulin resistance.
- Regular activity can help oestrogen levels. More activity can help weight loss, or maintenance, which can reduce the risk of developing insulin resistance and low testosterone levels in men.
- Building up to short, intense exercise sessions for men may help to increase testosterone levels.
While there may not be a lot of research supporting foods to eat or avoid to support specific hormones, there’s definitely a link between hormone health and weight.
- Eat to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Finding what will motivate you to do this is key. While most of us know what we ‘should’ be eating, doing it is a different matter. If you struggle with being overweight, try working with a dietitian or nutritionist to discover how you think about your food choices and how you can reframe this conversation.
- Eating a diet high in wholegrain carbohydrates can increase insulin secretion in people with prediabetes, helping blood sugar control.
- Hormones and gut health go hand in hand. Help your gut bacteria to help your hormones by choosing foods low in saturated fat and sugar and eating plenty of fibre from beans, legumes, whole grains, fruit and vegetables.
Put down the device to manage stress and get enough sleep
- Turn off your phone and email alerts. We often don’t realise the stress responses that occur when we hear the ding of another email or alert coming in.
- Limit your use of electronic devices during the evenings and aim for an hour device-free before bed to help your melatonin levels come up, leading to a good night’s sleep.
- Don’t stay up to watch ‘just one more episode’. Try to have a regular sleep routine and time.
Article sources and references
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- Franco OH et al. 2016. Use of plant-based therapies and menopausal symptoms: A systematic review and metaanalysis. JAMA 315:2554-63https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27327802
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