Balancing Hormones Through Nutrition & Lifestyle

By Dr. Randa Ragy November 15, 2021

Balancing Hormones Through Nutrition & Lifestyle

We’ve all heard about hormones and how they can affect our mental, physical, and emotional health, but what are hormones? They are chemical messengers that travel through your bloodstream, playing a major role in controlling your appetite, weight, mood, sleep, and stress levels, to name a few. They control every physiological process in the body, including metabolism, the immune system, the menstrual cycle, and reproduction. Normally, our endocrine glands produce the precise amounts of hormones needed to regulate various processes in our bodies. When you develop hormonal imbalances, you either have too much or too little of a certain hormone, which can have a serious impact on your overall system. Unfortunately, nowadays, with a fast-paced modern lifestyle, this balance is easily tipped. Additionally, hormone levels fluctuate throughout a lifetime, and some hormones naturally decline with age. In a nutshell, hormonal changes affect everyone throughout every stage of life and vary from person to person, as some experience a more dramatic decline than others.

Hormonal imbalances are caused by a combination of factors such as diet, medical history, genetics, stress levels, and exposure to environmental toxins. Some of the major contributors include:

  • Food allergies
  • Being overweight
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Exposure to pesticides, toxins, smoking, and alcohol
  • Constant stress
  • Lack of sleep

The good news is that we do have control over environmental factors like diet and lifestyle, which, when optimized, can help ensure hormonal balance. The main hormones that usually become imbalanced are:

  • Cortisol (the stress hormone): Cortisol is vital for our survival as part of the fight or flight response; however, consistently high levels can lead to high blood pressure and negatively affect heart health.
  • Insulin (the blood sugar hormone): When you eat carbohydrates, the pancreas releases insulin to carry glucose from the blood to your cells, where it is used for energy. If you have insulin resistance, your pancreas produces insulin normally, but your cells don’t respond to it, causing more insulin to be released to help take glucose from the blood into the cells. Excess blood sugar builds up in your blood, leading to diabetes over time. Maintaining a balanced diet, a healthy weight, and replacing simple carbs with complex ones like oats, beans, and vegetables can protect you from becoming insulin resistant.

Any imbalance in cortisol or insulin can disrupt other major hormones like thyroid hormones (responsible for metabolism), estrogen (the main female sex hormone), progesterone (which regulates the immune system), and melatonin (which aids in sleep).

Symptoms of hormonal imbalances differ depending on which hormone or gland is not functioning properly. Common conditions affecting both men and women could cause these symptoms:

  • Struggling to sleep or disrupted sleep patterns
  • Feeling tired even after a good night’s sleep
  • Feeling unable to function without caffeine
  • Mood swings and energy dips
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Disrupted bowel movements
  • Increased or decreased heart rate
  • Muscle aches, joint pains, and stiffness
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Infertility
  • Digestive stress

Note that hormonal changes occur naturally during puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.

In women, hormonal changes produce different symptoms like weight gain, thinning hair, hot flashes, acne, mood swings, insomnia, heart palpitations, heavy, irregular, or missed periods, and many others. Estrogen, the main female sex hormone, naturally declines during menopause. It is cardioprotective and also protects bone mass. Menopausal women can suffer from many symptoms due to the natural decline of estrogen levels. These women are sometimes prescribed hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to augment their estrogen levels. HRT might not be right for every woman going through menopause. If you are considering HRT, speak to your doctor to assess your individual needs, as the benefits and risks vary depending on the severity of your hot flashes, bone loss, and heart health. Note that estrogen therapy may increase your cancer risk. As a natural alternative, women at this life stage should balance their diet, include healthy fats in their meals, particularly flaxseeds (a good source of phytoestrogen), engage in physical activity including weight training, and practice stress-releasing techniques. Avoid triggers like caffeine, alcohol, smoking, and spicy foods. To reduce bone mass loss associated with menopause, take a vitamin D supplement and eat calcium-rich foods like dark leafy greens and sardines with bones. Vitamin B6 is also beneficial for menopausal women. Natural remedies like black cohosh and ashwagandha might relieve menopausal symptoms.

In men, low testosterone can cause symptoms like infertility, loss of muscle mass, development of breast tissue, fatigue, increased body fat, loss of bone mass, and osteoporosis, among others.

To ensure hormonal balance, control environmental factors and maintain a well-balanced diet without a calorie surplus to avoid weight gain. Your daily meals should include:

  • Healthy fats like omega-3s (found in fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, egg yolk, olive oil, and coconut oil) that help increase insulin sensitivity. Avoid trans fats.
  • Clean proteins containing essential amino acids that trigger the production of hormones that suppress appetite, such as chicken, lean beef, fish, lentils, quinoa, and eggs.
  • A variety of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, including dark greens and brightly coloured vegetables.
  • Healing spices and herbs like cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, garlic, cayenne, and ginger.
  • Avoid sugar and sugary beverages, which can cause insulin resistance and increase belly fat storage.
  • Consume a high-fibre diet, both soluble and insoluble.
  • Drink green tea, rich in antioxidants. Try to have 2-3 cups a day.
  • Use Himalayan salt for cooking, as it contains trace minerals that balance hormones.

In addition to dietary regulation:

  • Engage in regular exercise since physical activity reduces insulin levels and increases insulin sensitivity. Balance and vary your exercise between cardio, strength training, and endurance exercises. Exercise boosts muscle-maintaining hormones that decline with age, such as growth hormone and DHEA. Walking in nature and getting sun exposure can also boost your happy hormones like serotonin and endorphins, improving your mood.
  • Get consistent, high-quality sleep. Sleep is restorative and helps balance insulin, growth hormone, hunger, and satiety hormones.
  • Learn to manage stress to keep stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in check. Engage in stress-reducing techniques like meditation, yoga, and massages. Devote at least 20 minutes every day to these activities.
  • Be cautious with medications and birth control pills. Know what you are taking and its effects on the body. Birth control pills can increase the risk of some cancers, heart attacks, weight gain, and mood changes.

Following these behaviours can significantly improve your hormonal health and, consequently, your overall health and immune system.