3 Tips to Support Healthy Hormone Balance with Diet & Lifestyle
Many things can disrupt the healthy balance of our reproductive hormones, but 3 things in particular are in our control – managing stress, nutritional status and avoiding endocrine disruptors.
When we think of reproductive hormones, we usually think of them as separate to the rest of the body, however they are controlled through our endocrine system, which is also responsible for balancing the thyroid and the adrenals, as well as many other hormones in the body.
Hormones are molecules that are released into the bloodstream to have an effect on their organs. It is controlled by the master gland, the hypothalamus in the brain, which communicates via the Pituitary gland, and regulates the nervous system as well as the endocrine system.
The release of hormones is tightly controlled by a feedback loop which is constantly monitoring the hormone levels in the body. We also have receptors on each of our cells that the hormones are meant to attach to, like a lock and key, therefore regulation can also occur at the receptor level.
Reproductive Hormonal System –
In an ideal world each woman of fertile age would experience a 28 day cycle, with a 5 day menses. However, we are all individuals, so this cycle varies, anywhere between 21 days and 35 days, which is also considered normal if there is regularity.
The cycle is divided into 2 stages – the follicular stage, which is where the oestrogen is highest to build up the endometrial lining and support the development of the ovum, then ovulation happens mid-cycle, which is when a woman is most fertile. The second half of the cycle is called the luteal phase which is when progesterone rises to create an ideal environment for a fertilised ovum. If fertilisation doesn’t occur, the endometrium will shed during menstruation. This cycle is carefully orchestrated and relies on the right balance of hormones at the right time.
However there are many influences that can affect the menstrual cycle and affect the balance of these hormones. As we mentioned earlier, the endocrine system also controls the thyroid and the adrenals, so imbalances in either thyroid or adrenals can also affect the menstrual cycle.
One of the biggest influences is stress, which affects the adrenals. Stress changes the way our reproductive system responds.
To give you an idea – our hormones are actually produced from cholesterol, and converted to a few different hormones along the way to get to progesterone, testosterone and oestradiol. Along this conversion path is a hormone called cortisol, which is one of our stress hormones. Cortisol is a normal part of the hormone balance and is important, not just a bad guy. Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation.
Cortisol is also released when we are under stress, and helps the body cope. However cortisol is higher up the chain of importance of hormones than our reproductive hormones, as it is associated with survival. When we are under continual, long-term stress, the high cortisol affects many systems of the body, including our reproductive hormones. Sometimes the reproductive hormones become unbalanced and this can lead to issues such as PMS, heavy periods, fibroids, premenstrual migraines and infertility.
Our reproductive hormones are also linked with our nervous system, and this imbalance then affects our neurotransmitters as well. For example, oestrogen is linked with higher serotonin and dopamine, but also higher stress hormones. Progesterone is linked with lowering the stress response and increasing GABA, which is the calming neurotransmitter. Therefore low progesterone can also be linked with anxiety.
The combination of low progesterone and stress is linked with why we sometimes experience the mood swings, teariness and irritability associated with PMS.
Some of the other factors that deplete progesterone and create an imbalance include insulin resistance and glucose imbalances, excess sugar intake, thyroid dysfunction, food intolerances, immune system dysfunction, inflammation, poor liver function, and excess alcohol.
Tips for Stress Reduction -
Recognising and acknowledging that we are feeling stressed is the first step. Don’t keep ignoring it. Look at what is happening in your life. We are so busy doing stuff, that we forget that we are human beings, not human doings.
Slow Down - What is truly essential on your to-do list? What can you let go of? What is non-negotiable? When we have a long and never-ending 'To Do' list, we can get overwhelmed, despondent and ineffective. If you can slow down and spend some time recharging yourself, giving yourself space and time to process and integrate your thoughts and feelings. This allows you to more effectively understand who you are, and be present with your circle of friends, family and society.
Find Balance - Finding balance is a priority for your wellbeing. It involves time and space alone, away from our busy day to day lives to process and reconnect with ourselves. This can be through meditation, time spent in nature or even a bath. Somewhere that you can take time out and are not bombarded with news, entertainment and the constant hum of society.
Connect with your breath - If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, angry or frustrated, bring yourself back to your breath. Breathing in deeply for a count of 4, breathing out for the count of 4. Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the “fight and flight” response. Do this 10 times, and you'll feel calmer and in control. You can practice this breathing technique anywhere at any time. The more you practice, the easier it gets, and the calmer you feel.
Shake it off - Another technique to manage stress is to shake it off - literally. Stand up and give yourself a shake. We tend to hold onto things when stressed. This loosens you up and allows you to let go of whatever is bugging you. You may feel strange doing this, but having a bit of a laugh at yourself, while you’re shaking it off can also help release some pent-up stress.
Exercise – If you can remove yourself from the situation, try a 10 minute walk. A change of scenery does wonders for our attitude and also allows time out for some perspective. Regular exercise of any sort is a way of burning off the dross and helping to gain some balance. It also does marvellous things for your cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, nervous system, immune system, and the list goes on. It doesn’t have to be anything strenuous or difficult. But I do suggest something you enjoy. Swimming, yoga, dancing, playing in the park with your kids or your dogs, bushwalking, gardening. Make it something that you want to do, and it will be much easier to be consistent.
Nutrient Deficiency -
Nutrient deficiency is also a big factor which affects the hormones, and we require a balanced diet with a good range of nutrients to support our reproductive health. Important nutrients to support hormonal balance include magnesium, zinc, Vitamin B6, Iodine, Vitamin E, selenium and Vitamin C. Excessive weight or being underweight also affects reproductive health.
Include in your diet:
Balanced diet including good quality protein, such as lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, cheese and legumes; essential fatty acids including monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds and omega 3s, found in tuna, salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, but you can also source omega 3 through vegetarian forms, found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, soybeans, walnuts, spirulina and dark green leafy veges such as kale, collards, parsley. Complex carbohydrates are also very important for energy and nutrients. Include whole grain breads, pasta, rice etc; legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables.
B vitamins – whole grains, meat, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, brewers yeast, vegetables and bananas.
Vitamin C – fruits such as citrus, kiwi fruit, capsicum, strawberries, paw paw and pineapple.
Magnesium – green leafy vegetables, whole grains, meat, fish, nuts, seeds and cacao.
Tips to include at least 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables in your diet -
Buy different kinds of fruits and vegetables when you are shopping to ensure you have variety on hand.
Frozen vegetables are also okay. Have a variety in your freezer for when you are in a hurry.
Keep fruit and veggies in an easy to see location to remind you to eat them
Add fruit to breakfast cereal, or spinach, mushroom and tomato to cooked breakfast
Make your plate at least 50% salad or vegetables
Add extra veggies to things that may be meat based eg. Add grated carrot and zucchini to spaghetti bolognaise, or lots of veggies to stir fries.
Choose fresh fruit for desserts
Have frozen berries on hand to add to breakfast or desserts
Try cauliflower rice or zucchini pasta as alternatives to normal rice and pasta
Swap bread for lettuce wraps
Dip veggies like celery, carrots, capsicum and broccoli into healthy fats like hummus or guacamole to make them tastier.
Endocrine Disruptors -
A major factor affecting hormonal health in our modern world are endocrine disruptors. These are chemicals that are present in the air, water, soil, food, building materials and household products that are linked with the increase in obesity and diabetes, female and male reproductive issues, hormone sensitive cancers, thyroid conditions, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, inflammation and oxidative stress.
These endocrine disruptors are found in –
Plastic bottles, containers and cling wrap
Tinned food (where the lining of tins contains BPA)
Herbicides and pesticides
Some fragrances which contain phthalates
Some foods contained in plastic packaging
Cosmetics and skin care
Coatings on clothing, furniture and carpet
Tips to reduce toxin exposure -
Store food in glass containers and use glass in the microwave rather than plastic
Water bottles – aim for glass or stainless steel if you have a reusable water bottle
Aim for free-range and organic if possible
Reduce household chemicals and choose natural alternatives
Eat low mercury fish – best choices are sardines, anchovies, salmon, small mackerel, snapper, ocean trout, cod, bream, mullet, flathead, whiting, herring.
Throw away old Teflon pots and pans and aim for stainless steel, ceramic and glass.
Use a water filter to reduce tap water pollutants
Swap to natural personal care products as chemicals are absorbed through the skin
Choose fresh foods rather than processed or packaged foods
Avoid the use of pesticides in the home and garden
Avoid artificial fragrances – choose essential oils or fresh flowers instead.
Avoid exercise near main roads or other high pollution areas
Ensure minimum 2 litres of water intake per day
Avoid artificial sweeteners
Avoid cigarette smoke
Reduce alcohol intake
To remove pesticides from conventionally grown F & V - Fill a bowl with water and add 1/8 to 1/2 cup of white vinegar, depending on the size of your bowl, Place your fruits and veggies in the bowl, Soak for 15 to 20 minutes, Rinse with water.
There are many influences on hormonal health, and if you are struggling with menstrual difficulties, PMS, or infertility, naturopathic medicine may also be able to help. Additional nutritional supplementation may be required to support your nutritional status. Detoxification support through supplements and herbal medicine can help to clear endocrine disruptors from your body, and bring back your energy levels and hormonal balance. Herbal medicine is very effective at bringing the oestrogen and progesterone levels back into balance to reduce PMS, breast tenderness, headaches and heavy periods.
I am available for naturopathic consultation in Mount Gravatt, Brisbane. For more information and to book your appointment email firstname.lastname@example.org