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Know The Signs
As nutritional therapist Sandra Greenbank explains, our hormones are connected in a complex web, almost like an orchestra. “If one is playing out of tune, it will affect the entire body in some way,” she tells SL. “This is why a hormonal imbalance can create some quite diffuse symptoms, some of which may not be entirely obvious. They may be things like mood swings related to certain times of your cycle, sleep disturbances, irregular or absent periods, an inability to lose weight, a racing heart, cold hands and feet or always feeling cold, or excess hair growth on areas such as the chin or tummy,” Sandra says. Hormone imbalances aren’t exclusively linked to the menopause, either, adds Dr Sam Brown, GP and menopause specialist at The Bronte Clinic. “Some of the most common hormonal imbalances are related to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and perimenopause, but can also be linked to diabetes, thyroid disorders, pregnancy, breastfeeding, the contraceptive pill, eating disorders and stress.”
Get On Top Of Stress
Experts agree one of the most common causes of hormonal imbalance is stress – something which none of us are immune to. “The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are both released in times of stress, whether psychological or physical,” adds Sandra. “Adrenaline is the hormone which gives you the rush you feel when you receive an upsetting email or piece of news, whereas cortisol is the hormone which tends to be raised when you’re under chronic stress. If cortisol is raised for a prolonged period, you may notice symptoms such as weight gain around the stomach and an inability to lose weight, sleep disturbances, food cravings (especially for sugary foods or caffeine), high blood pressure, fatigue, low sex drive and anxiety.” If any of these sound familiar, getting on top of stress levels is crucial. “Active stress management that’s proven to work includes meditation, breathwork and mindfulness, all of which help relax your nervous system,” adds Dr Ghazala Aziz-Scott, specialist in women’s health at The Marion Gluck Clinic.
Adaptogens – a type of herbal supplement that adapt to your body’s needs – can also bolster your resilience against stress. “These relaxing herbs can really help for long-lasting stress, such as a busy job, moving house and new babies. They have been intensely researched for their ability to down-regulate the stress response, and ashwagandha is particularly powerful when it comes to tackling cortisol,” says Natasha Richardson, medical herbalist and founder of Forage Botanicals.
Do More Yoga
A sweaty HIIT class at the end of a busy may feel like a good way to tackle stress and blow off the cobwebs, but something more restorative may well be more beneficial. “Exercise affects the secretion and balance of all your hormones – cortisol, adrenaline, oestrogen, testosterone, human growth hormone, melatonin and insulin,” says Ghazala. “However, exercise is a fine balancing act as exercise itself can be a form of stress on the body. Too much cardio can raise cortisol levels, which can strain muscles, energy systems and heart, whereas yoga and Pilates actively reduce the stress response. While it’s important to find a balance that suits you, chances are your body will thrive on a balanced mix of cardio, resistance training and stretching.” If you’re fan of HIIT and spinning, Sandra advises keeping your sessions short and sweet. “Over-exercising can increase levels of the hormone prolactin, which is also the hormone that hinders ovulation. Sweating daily can be very helpful for hormones and helps your liver process toxins and hormones more effectively, but if you notice menstrual cycle disturbances, poor or increased recovery times, aching joints, insomnia and niggling injuries, consider cutting back.”
Eat More Healthy Fats
“When it comes to hormones, the type of fats in your diet can really make a difference as this is what your hormones are made from,” Sandra continues. “Avoid trans fats and hydrogenated fats as well as food that’s been deep-fried or barbequed, which also damages fats, and eat more oily fish, nuts, seeds, olives and avocados, which are packed with healthy fats.” Sugar is also a villain when it comes to hormonal health, adds Alison Hall, a nutritional therapist with an interest in fertility and miscarriage. “Our body controls blood sugar with the help of insulin, but too much sugar pushes our insulin up and this in turn can elevate testosterone levels and disrupt ovulation. My top tip? Always pair protein with carbs. It’s obvious that a doughnut or packet of chocolate biscuits isn’t great, but sugar is sneaky. Take porridge, for example. Plain oats will be broken down into glucose – aka sugar – in your bloodstream. The secret is to have some protein with your porridge – think a generous handful of nuts and seeds to slow the release of carbs.”
Consider The Mediterranean Diet
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for more balanced hormones, a Mediterranean-style diet is a good place to start, says registered nutritionist Emma Bardwell. “A Mediterranean diet, which includes wholegrains for fibre, omega-3 foods which are anti-inflammatory and healthy fats for cell, brain and heart health, will always serve women well, especially when it comes to hormones.” Experts also agree dark, leafy greens should be consumed daily for optimal hormone health. “My all-time favourite hormone hero is broccoli,” adds Alison. “It’s rich in a compound called indole-3-carbinol, which helps the body get rid of excess oestrogen and may reduce PMS symptoms. Broccoli is also rich in gut-loving fibre to keep our bowel movements regular, which can also aid hormonal balance.”
Cut Back On Coffee
Your morning cup of coffee may be a sacred ritual, but it may be wreaking havoc with your hormones. “Caffeine can intensify the stress response by putting extra pressure on your nervous system,” explains Dr Rocio Salas-Whalen, medical advisor at Hormona. “Caffeine is also a diuretic, which mains it causes more frequent urination. This, in turn, takes water away from the bowel, promoting sluggish digestion and irregular bowel movements, which can lead to a build-up of hormones in your system, as well as depleting the body of vital nutrients needed for hormonal balance.” However, not everyone responds to caffeine in the same way. “If you feel wired after a cup of coffee or struggle to sleep if you have coffee later in the day, chances are you are a slow caffeine metaboliser,” adds Sandra. “Oestrogen and caffeine are detoxified via the same pathway in the liver, so if you are a slow caffeine metaboliser, this can cause a bottleneck in this system and create hormone imbalances.”
Nourish The Gut
Looking after your gut may not be the most obvious way to support hormone balance, but Ghazala explains there’s more to it than meets the eye. “Your gut plays a massive part in ensuring healthy and happy hormones,” she stresses. “You have an entire microbiome department solely dedicated to the task of regulating your oestrogen levels – the estrobolome. But your estrobolome can only function properly if your microbiome is healthy and contains the right type and diversity of bacteria.” The experts recommend cutting back on refined sugar, as well as alcohol, while eating more colourful fruits and vegetables. “At the same time, cutting back on white carbs can help, and eating more prebiotic foods such as onions and garlic provide food for your microbiome to thrive. It’s also important to avoid toxins such as pesticides and antibiotics,” advises Ghazala. Remember, the gut is where all our hormones are transported once they’ve done their job, ready for excretion. “We need regular bowel movements to eliminate these ‘used up’ hormones, otherwise they can hang around too long, re-enter our circulation and cause further hormonal imbalance,” adds Alison.
Support With Supplements
While there’s no such thing as a magic pill, the right supplements can give your body a helping hand. “You can never out-supplement a poor diet,” Sandra stresses. “Having said that, today’s lifestyle zaps our nutrient stores more than ever, and our soil is increasingly depleted in nutrients, meaning a supplement can be helpful. A supplement can help within weeks when it comes to something like fatigue or painful periods, but if you’re looking for support with more complex issues like fertility or menopause, you can expect to see changes within three to six months.” Sandra recommends starting with a good-quality multivitamin, and then adding in a B vitamin and magnesium, particularly if you struggle with mood swings and period pain. Ghazala is also a fan of supplements in this context: “Milk thistle can help support liver health for optimal detoxification of hormones; maca can boost energy levels and aid libido and fertility; shatavari and red clover can improve menopausal symptoms; vitex or chasteberry can help PMS; DIM can support oestrogen dominance; zinc can support testosterone production; and oil of evening primrose can help breast tenderness in PMS.”
Just avoid falling into the trap of taking too many supplements, Emma concludes. “There’s a real tendency for women to take handfuls of supplements daily without getting the foundations of their diet and lifestyle right. That said, vitamin D is crucial for everyone. It’s actually a hormone, not a vitamin, and can help protect us from serotonin depletion.”
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