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:
- Among women, elevated cortisol depletes progesterone, creating an imbalance with estrogen, and this leads to or aggravates PMS and menopausal symptoms. As an example of the dietary connection, a 10-year study of more than 28,000 women in France, published in Maturitas, concluded: "Among dietary factors, rapidly absorbed sugars and snacking were positively associated with the risk of onset of menopausal symptoms."
- Among men, elevated cortisol reduces levels of testosterone, the "life force" hormone, and this has become a widespread phenom- enon. According to a study of more than 1,500 men in Massachu- setts between the ages of 45 and 79, published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, levels of testosterone have declined substantially in recent years, to a degree that cannot be explained by the aging process.
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:
- Start the day with a breakfast that includes lean protein.
- Eat small meals every 3 hours or so.
- Throughout the day, avoid starchy and sugary foods and beverages sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners.
- Eat lean protein and vegetables at every meal.
- For snacks, choose vegetables or high-fiber fruits (apples, pears and berries work well) and a small handful of nuts in place of starchy foods.
- If you drink regular or diet soda, switch to herbal tea, organic sodas that are naturally low in calories and sugar, or water.
- Take a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement plus antioxidants to support healthy metabolism.
- Exercise regularly and pick activities that reduce your stress levels.
- Control stress in life. Give yourself a break to relax, if just for a few minutes, each day.
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:
- When buying canned food, look for BPA-free cans.
- When choosing any products you put on your skin or use in your home, avoid those containing synthetic fragrance. Instead, select ones scented with essential oils or other natural ingredients.
- Drink water that doesn't contain toxins.
- Use refillable water bottles made without BPA.
- In particular, avoid buying acidic foods, such as sodas, tomato sauces, and soups, in cans that are not BPA-free, as acidity promotes leaching of the toxin.
- For food storage, use BPA-free plastic containers or glass, ceramic, or metal ones.
- Choose organic foods and beverages whenever possible.
- Keep in mind that "microwave-safe" indicates a food container won't disintegrate in the microwave; there is no guarantee that toxins won't leach into food.
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:
- Multivitamin: A product that includes 50 to 100 mg of B1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, up to 1000 mg of B12, 800 mcg of folic acid, 200 to 400 IU of a vitamin E-mixed tocopherol combina- tion and at least 200 mcg of chromium.
- Fish Oil: 3000 mg.
- Vitamin D: 1000 to 2000 IU.
- Calcium: A total (from food and supplements) of 1000 mg up to age 50 and 1200 mg after that.
- Magnesium: 400 mg (glycinate) or 600 mg (oxide) twice daily, with the second dose taken before bedtime for more restful sleep. If you experience diarrhea, cut back.
- Vitamin C: 1000 to 2000 mg and up to 5000 mg during times of stress.
- Flaxseed Oil: As an alternative to fish oil, 1 to 2 Tbsp. or the equivalent in capsules.
- CoQ10: After age 35, 50 mg, and 100 to 200 mg if you are overweight, have high blood pressure, or suffer from fatigue, diabetes, or heart disease.
And for specific situations, Stanton suggests the following remedies:
- PMS and menopausal symptoms: Black cohosh and GLA (gamma-linolenic acid).
- Stress, mood and sleep difficulties: 5-HTP and/or L-theanine.
- Digestive problems: Digestive enzymes.
- Constipation: Ground flaxseed mixed in food or juice.
- Vaginal yeast infections: Probiotics.
- Urinary tract infections: Pure, unsweetened cranberry juice.
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