Exercise and a balanced diet are paramount to good health but we often overlook the role that hormones play in how our body's function. Not only do hormones impact our mental health by causing low moods that affect motivation and food choices but on a deeper level, hormones regulate our appetite, metabolism and the storage of fat in our bodies. Yep, they are kind of a big deal!
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through the bloodstream to carry messages between our cells and our organs. When everything is working like clockwork, the body can thrive and we can feel happy and healthy from the inside out. On the other side of that, when our hormones are out of balance it can cause weight gain, acne, headaches, low sex drive and fatigue among a list of other 'not so fun' symptoms.
There are approximately 50 different hormones circulating through our body so to keep it simple, I'm going to give you the run down on 5 hormones that could be having a negative effect on your body even if you are eating well and exercising regularly.
Insulin is an anabolic hormone that is responsible for muscle and tissue growth however it's also responsible for storing sugar, vitamins and fats in our body. Insulin is released by the pancreas to stabilise blood sugar (glucose) levels when they rise however during times of stress, insulin levels drop in a bid to store excess sugar that will give us energy to get away from a potentially 'dangerous' situation. You see our hormonal reaction to stress is the same whether we are being chased by a bear or whether we are late to school pick up so in today's society where stress is a 'normal' part of daily life, our blood glucose levels are constantly rising putting our bodies at risk of becoming less insulin sensitive and more prone to conditions such as diabetes.
Diet and exercise are proven to assist with insulin sensitivity so regular activity and a diet low in sugar and processed foods is important to help our poor little pancreas keep us alive! Choose foods rich in antioxidants such as leafy greens, berries and vegetables and also foods with a high level of magnesium including seeds, nuts and broccoli. Vinegar is also a great addition as it is proven to improve pancreatic function.
Cortisol is better known as our 'stress hormone' (along with adrenaline) and it controls blood pressure, reduces inflammation and assists our body during times of stress by turning protein into fuel to give us a burst of energy. Cortisol is great in small doses but unfortunately a lot of us live in a constant state of stress and the prolonged level of cortisol in our bodies can slow down metabolism, storing excess fat around our tummies as a protective response to keep our vital organs safe. Besides the fact that none of us want stubborn fat around our midsection, this kind of fat is also a risk for conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity.
To reduce the level of cortisol in your body, you need to find ways to keep daily stress levels low. Meditation, mindfulness and yoga might be your cup of tea or maybe something higher impact like boxing could work for you. Reducing caffeine intake will also help to reduce adrenaline levels so if you feel like a busy bee that's always rushing around then a green tea might be a better option for you than coffee. Green tea has three times less caffeine than coffee and has lots of beneficial antioxidants too! Sleep deprivation can also cause increased levels of cortisol so make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep which is helped by no caffeine in the evenings, reduced alcohol intake and no staring at bright screens close to bedtime (I know you’re all scoffing at that one!)
Leptin is produced by your fat cells and is a signalling hormone to tell your brain when you are full. When there is less fat in the body, levels of leptin also reduce which is what occurs after weight loss. With less leptin in the body, the brain switches to starvation mode which is part of the reason why calorie restriction is hard to maintain over a long period of time. Reduced leptin levels also tell the brain that it needs to store fat to avoid starvation which sends messages to your body to reduce energy expenditure and slow your metabolism down. Unfortunately increased leptin levels in people with obesity hasn’t proven to have the opposite effect and studies have shown a level of leptin resistance in obese patients.
Calorie restriction can have a negative effect on your hormones so my advice is, don't eat less, eat right! Choose healthy foods and eat enough so that you don't feel as though you're restricting yourself all the time. There’s a difference between calorie restriction and portion control so find a good balance that feels right for you. To improve your body’s response to leptin, consume protein and good fats for your first meal of the day (my fave is eggs with avocado and hummus), get enough sleep, don’t overtrain (yes that’s a thing!) and eliminate as many toxins as possible from your lifestyle which can include cheap soaps, perfumes, washing powders and processed foods. Try adding more Omega 3 to your diet by eating fish, seeds and good quality meats and also aim to reduce your intake of sugar and grains which cause inflammation in the body.
Estrogen is produced mostly in the ovaries and helps regulate the menstrual cycle and reproductive system. We need estrogen for a balanced body but ‘estrogen dominance’ is common in women (including me!) and can cause symptoms including acne, bloating, mood swings, breast tenderness and headaches. Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone (also present in men but in much smaller doses) and having too much or too little of it can affect you in a negative way. Levels vary from person to person but 'estrogen dominance' is characterised by little or no amounts of progesterone to balance it's effects on the body.
The liver must be working well to excrete hormones so eating a 'liver healthy' diet with reduced intake of sugar, processed foods and alcohol is a good start. Caffeine also inhibits progesterone secretion so you may need to cut back on your daily coffees (Yes, I said it, don't hate me!) Estrogen is also present in the environment through pesticides, plastics, industrial waste products and some foods so we are exposed to it more of it then we think! Choosing natural products around the home, eating organic and avoiding plastics is a start to eliminating excess estrogen from our environment. Soy is a plant based estrogen so be aware that eating soy products will increase your exposure to it as well.
The thyroid is located just under your Adam's Apple (or lack there of). The thyroid gland is responsible for taking iodine from foods you eat and converting them into thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) and every cell in your body relies on these hormones to not only control your weight but also your energy levels, body temperature and to regulate vital bodily functions such as breathing, heart rate and cholesterol levels. They are pretty bloody important! Abnormal thyroid hormone levels can cause an over active thyroid (hyperthyroidism) with symptoms including weight loss, increased appetite, irregular heart beat, irritability and hair loss. Alternatively it can cause an under active thyroid (hypothyroidism) sometimes resulting in autoimmune disease which is when a person’s immune system starts to attack it’s own organs! Hypothyroidism can cause symptoms including fatigue, low heart rate, weight gain, reduced appetite, depression and infertility.
Sleep is super important for regulating thyroid hormones so to help with good quality sleep it’s important that you're eating a diet low in sugar, reducing caffeine intake and exercising regularly. Foods rich in iodine help to stimulate thyroid hormone production so try adding sea vegetables, cranberries, wild caught fish, green vegetables and brazil nuts to your diet. Thyroid conditions are serious so if you think you may have an over or under active thyroid, you should speak to an endocrinologist in case you require medication.
Understanding your hormones is the first step to getting them under control. If you eat healthy foods and exercise regularly but you still don't feel great or aren't seeing any changes in your body composition then there's a chance that your hormones could be out of balance. Hormones can be our best friend or worst enemy so in the words of one of my biggest inspirations, Dr Libby Weaver, 'be curious.' Endeavour to find out what's going on and take the first step to getting your body at it's optimal health so you can not only look good, but feel good too.
Here's to a happy, healthy and hormonally balanced you,