Hear the word ‘hormones’ and what do you think? Puberty? PMS? ‘Baby brain’? Menopause? Do you immediately think of oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone – the sex hormones? These are just one kind, but in fact there over 50 different types.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers secreted by glands in the endocrine system. They travel through the bloodstream to their target cells and play a crucial role in your health and how you function day in day out.
- Growth and development
- Reproduction and sexual function
- Regulation of blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature
- Sleep / wake cycle
The hormone orchestra
Hormones can only work on the target cells that have receptor sites for that specific hormone – it’s a lock and key mechanism. If the key fits, the door will open and then they generate a cascade of chemical messages. They are interconnected so they need to work together in perfect harmony - like a finely tuned orchestra - to keep your body in balance. When an instrument is out of tune, too loud or too quiet, then the whole orchestral performance is affected. When your hormones are out of balance you might experience symptoms like fatigue, poor sleep, low mood, anxiety, brain fog, weight gain, hair loss, dry skin or joint pain – I could go on.
So many women who come to see me have assumed that these symptoms are inevitable signs of ageing. They've put up with them for so long, while still juggling a busy home and work life. They become the norm, forgetting what it was like to get a good night’s sleep and wake up full of energy. Sound familiar?
It is true that your hormone levels change as you age, but there are many other factors that can disrupt their balance.
External hormone disruptors
Your diet, sleep, stress levels and exercise are all involved in your hormone balance – both in maintaining it and being disrupted when things go out of kilter – it’s a bit of a vicious circle.
And then there are external factors as well – from everyday pollution, pesticides and plastics, to the products you use around the house and on your body – these can all act as hormone disruptors.
Have you checked the ingredients of your shampoo, shower gel or body lotion lately? Your skin is the body’s largest organ and it absorbs much of what we put on it. Many everyday beauty products contain synthetic chemicals like phthalates, parabens and benzophenones (in sunscreens). These are classed as ‘xenoestrogens’ as they are molecularly similar to oestrogen and can bind to your oestrogen receptors. They can build up and increase the total amount of oestrogen in the body. This ‘oestrogen dominance’ is linked to many conditions including certain types of cancers, infertility, obesity and diabetes. If you’re already dealing with symptoms of hormone imbalance then you really don’t want to be overloading your body and adding to it.
So while some environmental toxins may be out of your control, there are some simple lifestyle changes you can make to help balance your hormones naturally and minimise some of the those symptoms. Reviewing your beauty and household products is a good place to start.
6 tell-tale signs that your hormones may be out of balance
1) You struggle to get a good night’s sleep
Whether that’s because it now takes you longer to fall asleep or perhaps you wake up during the night and then have difficulty getting back to sleep – it’s likely your hormones are to blame.
Oestrogen promotes healthy sleep – it helps the body use serotonin, which converts to melatonin – the sleep hormone. Oestrogen levels fluctuate and then decline as you reach menopause.
If you’re not sleeping enough then ghrelin (the hormone that makes you feel hungry) is increased and leptin (the hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough) is suppressed. So now you feel tired and hungry – bring on the coffee and biscuits to give you that boost!
Levels of your stress hormone, cortisol, should decline naturally during the day. If you still have high levels by bedtime you will certainly struggle to sleep well.
2) You feel tired all the time
If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep then it’s likely you’ll be feeling exhausted. Your body will release higher levels cortisol, which in turn will lead to increased blood sugar levels. Chronically elevated cortisol can overwork your adrenal glands and you’ll feel even more exhausted, even lethargic.
3) You’re stressed
Whether you’re facing a sabre-toothed tiger or dealing with a stressful job, home life, money worries, bereavement, moving house, illness or divorce, your body will trigger the same stress response – raised cortisol and increased blood sugar levels – to give you the instant energy to deal with the stressor. However, when the stress is on going, you create prolonged elevated levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, and this can disrupt almost all your body's processes. And you’ll have consistently high blood sugar levels, which can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes.
4) You crave sweet foods
When you eat sugary foods your blood glucose levels rise quickly, causing a release of insulin – the fat storage hormone. Insulin enables the glucose to be taken up by cells and used for energy, or if it isn’t needed straightaway it gets stored for future use, or as body fat.
A sudden spike in blood sugar is always followed by a sudden drop. That’s when you get that 11am or 3pm slump. So then you grab a biscuit to keep you going. Another spike, more insulin and more fat storage - the infamous blood sugar rollercoaster!
5) You struggle to lose weight – especially around your belly
Even if you’re eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep the fat around the belly can be tricky to shift, and is a sure sign that your hormones are out of whack.
High cortisol could be one of the culprits. Yes, it’s that pesky stress hormone again. There are more cortisol receptors in abdominal fat than anywhere else in the body. So when you’re stressed and your body releases cortisol, that triggers a release of sugar into the blood stream, ready for that fight or flight response. In the absence of a physical stressor, the sugar gets stored away as fat - around the tummy area.
It could also be that your thyroid hormones are to blame. Thyroid hormones control your metabolism – low levels mean a slower metabolism and increased fat storage. And you may have other symptoms, including fatigue – making you less inclined to exercise.
6) You suffer from mood swings
Oestrogen is involved in regulating certain neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin (the happy hormone). Fluctuations in oestrogen levels can affect serotonin production, leading to mood swings in PMS (premenstrual syndrome) or during perimenopause and menopause.
Other signs to consider
If you suffer from heavy, painful or irregular periods, low libido, fertility problems or vaginal dryness these are all signs that your hormones may be out of balance.
What can you do about your wonky hormones?
Rebalancing your hormones naturally is not something that happens overnight but it can be greatly improved with the help of nutritional and lifestyle changes.
Eating real, unprocessed food, including plenty of rainbow coloured fruits and vegetables, can go a long way to keeping your blood sugar levels balanced, as can cutting back on caffeine and alcohol.
Spending more time on your self-care can have a big impact on reducing your stress levels. This can include spending time in nature, practising mindfulness or meditation, incorporating some yoga or including regular breathing exercises throughout the day.
Prioritising your sleep is crucial to allow your body time to rest and repair itself.
Swapping your beauty and household cleaning products for 'cleaner' alternatives can reduce your exposure to external endocrine disruptors.
If you’re concerned about any of your symptoms then it is important to discuss them with your GP and they may decide to run some blood tests to understand what’s going on.