Traditionally, hormone imbalance has been associated with PMS or menopause. But times have changed. Hormones are being disrupted by lifestyle factors such as refined foods and environmental toxins, in addition to natural fluctuations, and symptoms can manifest in subtle to debilitating degrees. Among women and men, signs of hormonal imbalance often include one or more of these experiences:
"I'm eating less and still gaining weight."
"I don't feel like myself."
"I've lost my get up and go."
"I can't get a good night's sleep."
These types of symptoms may be harder to pinpoint than ones commonly associated with menopause, such as hot flashes, mood swings, irritability, muscle stiffness or incontinence, or PMS symptoms. However, in all these situations, there are underlying lifestyle issues that aggravate monthly or mid-life hormonal fluctuations and, at any age, prompt imbalances.
“Our hormones are like an orchestra,” says Alicia Stanton, MD, an OB/GYN and specialist in hormone balance and wellness in Glastonbury, Conn. “They don’t work in isolation.” Although estrogen and progesterone get a lot of attention among women and testosterone among men, they are only part of the picture. Understanding two other hormones, insulin and cortisol, opens the door to creating balance.
Solve the Food-Stress Syndrome
In day-to-day life, we continually influence our insulin and cortisol levels by what we eat, and our choices drive hormones into or out of balance. Most often, explains Stanton, imbalance begins when we eat too many refined carbohydrates, as is customary in our culture. Blood-sugar levels spike to very high levels, and insulin works overtime to deliver the fuel to our cells as quickly as possible. And then, blood-sugar levels crash to below-normal levels.
The result is a sudden drop in energy after a “high” from a sugary or starchy treat. The crash portion of the cycle produces physical stress, and in response, our bodies produce above-normal amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone. Life stress also increases cortisol production, but its effects are dramatically magnified by dietary stress.
Abnormally elevated cortisol levels can cause sleep and energy problems, but they also disrupt other hormones. Cortisol, progesterone, and testosterone share the same building blocks, and when too many of these are diverted to produce the stress hormone, the other ones suffer. The most common scenarios, says Stanton, are these:
Hormone Makeover Checklist:
You can virtually eliminate the dietary trigger of physical stress and hormonal disruption by using food to keep blood sugar levels stable. These are some key things to do:
For many years, scientists have known that toxins disrupt hormones in humans and wildlife, and in 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to screen chemical pesticides and other contaminants for their potential effect on hormones. However, such a program to test pesticides just began to be implemented in October 2009, and it will take some time for changes to occur.
In the meantime, there are simple things we can do to minimize our exposure to these types of chemicals, such as choosing food grown without chemical pesticides and drinking non-toxic water. And we can avoid two specific hormone-disrupting toxins in food and beverage containers and in synthetic fragrance, an ingredient in many beauty, grooming and household products:
BPA (Bisphenol A): Found in plastic containers and the linings of cans, BPA mimics estrogen, and has been linked to obesity, hormone-related cancers, hyperactivity, and brain damage. BPA-free reusable plastic water bottles, food storage containers, and canned foods are available and are labeled as such. Plastic containers marked on the bottom with a 3, 6, or 7 (the number is inside a triangle) are the worst sources of leached BPA. In cans, acidic foods and beverages leach the most BPA.
Phthalates: Pronounced “tha-laytes,” these chemicals also mimic and disrupt hormones. For example, phthalates can lead to artificially depressed levels of thyroid hormone, contributing to fatigue, weight gain, and other problems. These toxins are most often found within synthetic fragrance, which can be in cosmetic products, air fresheners, candles, laundry and cleaning products, and in “new car smell.”
Hormone Makeover Checklist:
These are some ways to reduce your exposure to toxins that disrupt hormones:
Establish a Nutritional Foundation
Sound nutrition gives your body a foundation to withstand assaults from an imperfect diet and environmental toxins. While supplements can’t replace a healthy lifestyle, they can certainly enhance one.
Vera Tweed and Alicia Stanton, MD, provide a comprehensive plan for balancing hormones in their book, Hormone Harmony: How to Balance Insulin, Cortisol, Thyroid, Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone to Live Your Best Life.
Hormone Makeover Checklist:
Stanton recommends the following daily amounts from a multivitamin/mineral, and additional supplements as needed:
And for specific situations, Stanton suggests the following remedies:
Maximum Living 7 Strain Probiotic Blend Boost immunity, ward off yeast infections, and support digestive health in this powerful probiotic. Formulated to protect beneficial bacteria from destructive gastric acids.
Ascenta Health NutraSea+D provides important omega-3 fatty acids from pharmaceutical quality fish oils, green tea extract, and vitamin D, a nutrient in which many people are deficient.
Garden of Life Ocean’s 3 Healthy Hormones with OmegaXanthin softgels deliver essential nutrients, hormone-enhancing botanicals, and omegaXanthin (a fish oil blend), in a pleasant strawberry flavor.
Oöna PMS1 helps you combat symptoms of PMS—including bloating, fatigue, anxiety, breast tenderness, forgetfulness, and mood swings—with chaste tree berry, black cohosh, and passionflower.
Lane Labs AdvaCal Ultra 1000 provides 1,000 mg of vitamin D3, and 1,000 mg of bone-building calcium—which is especially important for women—in small, easy-to-swallow capsules.