Are you one of the many women who’s regularly affected by hormonal imbalances? These can include fluid retention, breast pain, anxiety, sugar cravings and/or acne breakouts leading up to your period, also period pain, irregular or absent periods, heavy bleeding, low libido, and more serious and chronic conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis and fertility challenges.
Although some imbalances have a genetic component, the strongest influences are your diet and lifestyle. This means that you have the power to improve these symptoms through better daily choices.
What you eat can hugely impact your hormone health. Aim for five servings of vegetables and two fruits daily, together with some whole grains, healthy protein sources (e.g. meat, fish, eggs, nuts and legumes) and good fats to help provide the nutrients your body needs to make and metabolise hormones.
Too much sugar, bad fats (e.g. in fried foods) and over-processed foods can lead to nutrient depletion (your body uses stored nutrients to process these kinds of foods) and can trigger inflammation. Both of these can drive the undesirable production of potentially harmful hormones (e.g. oestrogens), while also depleting more beneficial hormones.
Other dietary factors that may compromise healthy hormone balance include alcohol (including beer and white wine), and high consumption of coffee, dairy and refined soy products.
Adding in extra green, leafy and cruciferous vegetables plus other bright and dark coloured plant foods can be very beneficial for supporting healthy hormone balance. Green and ginger teas, plus spices such as turmeric and cinnamon are also useful.
Good quality sleep
Sleep deprivation and altered sleep patterns due to shift work and jet lag, have been shown to disrupt biological rhythms that are involved in regulating hormones of the reproductive cycle. The result can be irregular periods, increased risk of miscarriage, difficulty conceiving and even a higher risk of breast cancer (when combined with other factors).
To support healthy sleep, try to avoid the use of electronic devices that emit blue light in the hour before bed, and don’t consume high sugar foods at night. These can interfere with chemical levels in the body and brain that need to be in balance for good quality sleep to occur.
Also, be mindful of your caffeine sensitivity, as the capacity to break down caffeine can vary significantly from person to person (mainly due to genetics). While some individuals can have an afternoon coffee without a problem, others are best to avoid coffee after midday to prevent sleep disturbances.
Your body prioritises dealing with stressful and threatening situations over maintaining fertility and libido. The result can mean that certain sex hormones can drop when stress levels are high (e.g. progesterone drops, altering a healthy oestrogen: progesterone balance).
These imbalances can be seen in situations such as PMS, period pain, irregular periods, endometriosis and fertility challenges. Research even suggests that this kind of hormonal imbalance may even worsen the severity of autoimmune conditions in women (e.g. autoimmune thyroid disorders).
A healthy body weight
High levels of adipose tissue (body fat) can increase the undesirable production of oestrogen, worsening certain conditions (e.g. PMS, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, heavy bleeding) and disrupt normal ovulation.
Very low bodyweight and excessive exercise with insufficient rest (overtraining) can also cause hormonal issues. These may include a reduction in some hormones (e.g. oestrogen) contributing to amenorrhoea (absence of periods) and a loss of bone density that increases the risk of early osteoporosis and stress fractures.
Environmental exposures and toxins
We are exposed to many toxins on a daily basis via the food and drink we consume, the personal care products we use, and the environment in which we live and work.
Some of these toxins e.g. parabens in cosmetics, Bisphenol A (BPA) in certain plastic water bottles and food cans, pesticides sprayed on foods, mould toxins and cigarette toxins, act as endocrine disrupting chemicals. In other words, they interfere with how certain hormones work. For example, smoking is linked to earlier menopause and a subsequent increase in the risk of osteoporosis-related fractures.
Try to minimise your exposure to these chemicals and support how your detoxification systems work to help clear them from your system
To prevent both toxins and hormones from building up and causing harm, the cells in your gut, liver and kidneys are constantly working to detoxify your system.
Once broken down, toxins require excretion (e.g. via a bowel movement and urination). Adequate fibre and water are therefore needed to help them be completely cleared from the body through the bowel and kidneys.
Detoxification steps can be heavily nutrient-dependent, using substances such as amino acids from protein, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, selenium and active natural chemicals found in broccoli, and herbs (e.g. St Mary’s thistle, bupleurum). So, a healthy diet is essential to help clean your body, and certain supplements may be used to provide additional support.
Your skin, your largest organ, is also involved in toxin excretion. So, saunas may be useful to support detoxification as can Epsom salt baths and dry skin brushing.
Thyroid diseases (e.g. hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism) are one of the most common endocrine conditions affecting women during their reproductive years. The thyroid is well known for producing hormones that maintain metabolism, but it also plays a major role in the proper functioning of the female reproductive system.
Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are known to contribute to sex hormone imbalances and fertility challenges, so consider having your thyroid function checked if you’ve noticed symptoms such as weight changes with mood changes, fatigue, hair thinning, dulling or dry skin, swelling in the neck, tremors, rapid heart rate, or body temperature changes.
Genetics and your health
Your genetics can influence how your body makes, responds to and breaks down hormones (and toxins). Therefore, new tests which identify specific gene variations can give insight into your risk of certain imbalances, and also the most important dietary and lifestyle factors to pay attention to.
Remember that you are not necessarily at the mercy of your genes. Science is proving that enjoying a healthy diet and lifestyle can help to prevent the so called turning on of genes that are linked to disease.
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Fumarola A, Grani G, Romanzi D, et al. Thyroid function in infertile patients undergoing assisted reproduction. Am J Reprod Immunol 2013;70(4):336-341.
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