Hormones — we either rarely talk about them or we blame them for everything! But have you ever stopped and tried to understand your hormones and the crucial role they play in mental, physical and emotional health? Well, today’s your lucky day.
Where do hormones come from?
Hormones are created by your endocrine/hormone system — the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in your brain, the thyroid, adrenals, ovaries or testes and pancreas. Altogether, this is known as the HPTAG axis.
How it works — messages come from your hypothalamus to the pituitary, then to each of the appropriate endocrine glands. These glands then produce the appropriate hormonal response and tell the hypothalamus to stop stimulating the release of hormones via a feedback system.
Think of it as a symphony orchestra — the conductor is the hypothalamus; your glands are the musicians and the hormones released are the music!
Why are hormones important for good health?
Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. They travel through your bloodstream to tissues and organs where they control most of your body’s major systems.
Your HPTAG axis is responsible for producing just the right amount of each hormone your body needs to regulate:
- Menstrual cycle and fertility — pituitary, ovaries and testes produce oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone
- Metabolism — thyroid produces thyroid hormones and affects appetite and weight-regulating hormones
- Stress response — adrenals produce adrenaline and cortisol
- Sleep patterns — your brain produces melatonin
- Blood sugar regulation — your pancreas produces insulin
- Mood — your brain produces serotonin and other neurotransmitters to balance your mood. Low levels of serotonin can lead to depression, while GABA and glutamate imbalance can cause anxiety.
Keep in mind, this is just a very brief introduction to what our hormones influence. Every cell in our body — via receptors and ultimately our genes — is influenced by every hormone that we produce. That’s why good hormonal balance equals good health!
In recent years, I’ve noticed a dramatic rise in the number of patients who come to me with hormonal imbalances, which I feel is due to stress and our fast-paced modern lifestyle as well as the dramatic increase in toxins that we all come into contact with daily.
So, is your HPTAG symphony orchestra playing a beautiful and calming, uplifting and restoring piece of music? Or is it playing a discordant heavy metal song that’s painful and disturbing to listen to, making your daily life difficult? (Apologies to the heavy metal enthusiasts!)
There are many conditions and symptoms associated with hormonal imbalance, including:
- Hot flushes and some other symptoms of menopause
- Painful periods
- Thyroid health
- Weight gain or loss
Thankfully, Naturopaths have so many tools that can counter this imbalance so that you can improve your hormonal health and have you feel your best. Read on to discover my top tips to balance your hormones naturally.
- Get a good night’s sleep
One of the most important things you can do to improve your hormone health is to get enough quality sleep — which is often, easier said than done! With stress, technology and kids, it can be difficult to switch off and catch some Z’s. But no matter how healthy your diet or lifestyle is, your hormones won’t be balanced without enough sleep.
Poor sleep has been linked to increased stress, poor food choices and a lack of energy, which can all lead to weight gain. Sleep impacts insulin, cortisol, leptin, ghrelin and growth hormone. Poor sleep patterns can also lead to depression and anxiety, as serotonin levels are affected.
As I always say, it’s the hours before midnight that count. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning, aiming for 7 to 9 hours sleep per night. If you struggle with sleep, check out my top tips for a good night’s sleep.
- Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can have a huge impact on your hormonal health by reducing insulin and cortisol levels, as well as increasing insulin sensitivity.
One of insulin’s main functions is to allow cells to take up sugar and amino acids from the bloodstream, which are then used for energy and maintaining muscle. However, too much insulin can be extremely dangerous.
Studies have linked high insulin levels to inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. Insulin resistance — when your cells don’t respond to insulin’s signals — can also be caused by too much insulin in your system.
To get the benefits of physical activity, I recommend enjoying a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 to 6 times per week. Also, make sure it’s something that you enjoy! There’s no point putting yourself through something you hate. Personally, I love swimming and walking, and make sure to take time for both regularly throughout the week.
- Cut out sugar
I know — you’re probably thinking I may as well have said cut off your left arm, but it’s actually not as hard as you think to cut out (or at least cut down) on sugary, refined foods. Plus, your hormones will thank you for it!
Sugar and refined foods have been linked to several health problems, including obesity, diabetes and much more. Studies show fructose can increase insulin levels and lead to insulin resistance, especially if you are overweight. Instead, eat plenty of whole foods, healthy lean proteins and good fats to keep your hormones balanced and happy.
- Learn to manage your stress
Stress and hormones don’t mix well. Increased stress levels can wreak havoc on your cortisol and adrenaline levels, which can have terrible long-term consequences for your body.
Adrenaline creates your ‘fight or flight’ response to danger to keep you out of harm’s way. Unlike our ancestors, we don’t have to deal with many predators, so these hormones are usually triggered now by our busy lifestyles.
Cortisol is called the stress hormone as it helps your body cope with stress in the long term. Chronic stress causes cortisol levels to stay elevated, which can lead to more fat around your belly.
Chronic stress also shifts the whole of your HPTAG axis. To make more cortisol, your HPTAG axis steals hormone precursors to make more cortisol at the expense of other hormones. As an example, this can lead to low progesterone levels and cause PMS, infertility, endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
One of the best ways to lower your cortisol levels is to prioritise relaxation and mindfulness practices — try Tai Chi, yoga or meditation. Find something that works for you and take 10 to 15 minutes each day to pause and de-stress, even if you feel like you don’t have time, make it a priority. These free mediations from ABC’s Life Matters have been very helpful for me
Another great tip which helps me is to plan regular holidays. By breaking the year up into manageable chunks and planning regular mini-breaks, I give myself something to look forward to and dedicate time to relaxing. It’s also a nice way to celebrate special occasions like anniversaries and birthdays.
- Support your hormones with natural medicines
While the diet and lifestyle recommendations I’ve made above are important for balancing your hormones in the long-term, my secret weapons to resolving hormonal imbalances effectively and more efficiently are natural medicines.
Natural medicines can play an essential role in balancing hormones by helping us to deal with our crazy pace of life. Nutrients like Zinc, Magnesium, Vitamin C, Vitamin B and Calcium improve our resilience by restoring function to our HPTAG axis. You might have heard the term adrenal fatigue when referring to chronic stress — new developments show that it’s actually caused by dysfunction in the HPTAG axis.
Natural medicines also help us deal with toxins more effectively by improving the health of organs like our liver. I recommend herbs like St Mary’s Thistle, Turmeric and Globe Artichoke as part of an individualised herbal medicine formula to improve detox pathways and speed up detoxification.
Depending on your particular area of need, there are also plenty of natural medicines that can help you rebalance your hormones:
- For a healthy fertility cycle, egg quality and ovulation — try Chaste Tree to improve pituitary function.
- For help with hot flushes and other menopausal symptoms — try Wild Yam, Shatavari and Tribulus, as well as Magnesium.
- For improved thyroid hormone production — try Iodine, Tyrosine, Zinc and Selenium.
- To balance cortisol levels — try Licorice and Withania to nourish your adrenals, as well as Magnesium.
- To reduce anxiety and help with sleep — try Kava to improve levels of the calming brain chemical GABA, reduce anxiety and promote the healthy production of melatonin to help improve sleep cycles.
Naturopaths prescribe nutritional supplements (like vitamins, minerals, herbs and probiotics) not just to correct deficiencies but as therapeutic tools to shift your physiology and improve gene expression for better long-term outcomes.
Your hormones play a crucial role in your overall health, so it’s important to take the steps to make sure your endocrine glands are producing a delicate balance of hormones. We all want to be listening to our HPTAG axis play a beautiful symphony!