Hormones are the chemical messages that travel through our blood to each and every part of our body. From PMS to menopause, these messengers of womanhood can affect your mood, your weight, your food cravings – even your desire for sex.
“Women can be, and many are, greatly affected by hormone fluctuations. Sometimes it gets to the point of feeling totally overwhelmed – as if for a time they have lost control of their life,” says Christiane Northrup, MD, author of The Wisdom of Menopause and Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisdom. Dieting, stress, anxiety, depression – even exercise -are all among the factors that can create a hormonal tailspin. So there are plenty of opportunities for things to go awry.
You may have be aware of the importance of hormones in our overall health, but let me briefly summarise the role of a woman’s most important hormone: Oestrogen (aka Estrogen).
Oestrogen is produced primarily in the ovaries. Some oestrogen is produced by the adrenal glands, and some more from your fat cells. Signals for oestrogen production come from the pituitary gland, and levels vary throughout life depending on the stage of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Oestrogen is the hormone that provides female characteristics for women. I’ve included an infographic at the bottom of this article to educate you more about Oestrogen, if you’re interested.
Cases of excess oestrogen are rare but can occur due to use of oral contraceptives or post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
Low oestrogen is a more common imbalance and can occur with poor diet, excessive exercise, and diseases and disorders of the pituitary gland (the gland that controls the release of oestrogen in the ovaries). Extreme exercise, just before and during puberty, such as gymnastics and dancing, can cause oestrogen levels to be low, delaying normal female development.
How do you know your Oestrogen is Off-Balance?
Signs and symptoms that your oestrogen may be ‘out of whack’ (as mine is, I’ll get to that) include loss of menstruation, tiredness, moodiness, depression, bad skin and thinning hair. If you don’t take care of your oestrogen balance, you can end up having bone loss and osteoporosis, and inability to become pregnant. You can have your oestrogen tested with a blood test.
My oestrogen obstacles
Last year I was diagnosed with having extremely low oestrogen. The cause is likely to be excessive exercise, inconsistent eating (sometimes unduly restrictive), low body fat and high stress (yes…). I’ve exercised pretty consistently since I was a teenager, always had high stress levels (caused by both working as a lawyer and life in general), and pre-wedding dress dieting, exercise and juice-cleanses is also to blame.
My treatment for low oestrogen
To overcome my oestrogen imbalance, I’ve been ordered off exercise, told to increase my body fat, eat more consistently and try to stress less – all of the above easier said than done.
My daily commute is cycling to work, so I’m doing that with less intensity, quit my gym membership, and eating more ice-cream. If you have even one vain bone in your body, I’m sure you can imagine that feeling my muscles get softer and my jeans get tighter is not a great feeling – so though it might sound really appealing to be told to eat more ice-cream, I really didn’t want to have to put on weight. In fact, prior to this advice I was seeing a personal trainer and a nutritionist.
What else can you do if you have high oestrogen
If you have high oestrogen, taking supplements like magnesium and Vitamin B complex can help. I actually take Go Healthy Magnesium Sleep, which is a great product for those who are used to restless nights and it also helps muscle recovery after my daily commute.
Of course, while oestrogen is the most important hormone for women, other hormones have important parts to play too.
Cortisol – produced by the adrenals, it is the stress hormone which also keeps you healthy and energetic. When your body is stressed, your hypothalamus boosts cortisol to help with the situation. It quickens your heartbeat, feeds your brain extra oxygen, and unleashes energy from your fat and glucose stores. While generally these levels then lower naturally, in some people cortisol levels remain high. I also take Go Stress Remedy which is a ‘Healthy Mood Support’ for sleep and nervous system, and Swisse Mood Ultiboost which supports your body’s natural response to emotional stress. It supports good mood, relaxation, calming and encourages my body to just chill. Relaxation techniques, exercise and medication can also help, as well as reducing the causes of stress in your life.
Serotonin is another crucial ‘feel good’ hormone, regulating mood, sleep, appetite, memory and some muscular functions. Imbalanced serotonin is most often simply a fault of the brain, though some medications can also cause excess serotonin. Low levels can cause depression, weight gain, panic attacks, carbohydrate cravings and insomnia. Natural ways to help regulate serotonin include regular 7-8 hours’ sleep and eating foods rich in trytophan such as avocado (yuss!!), yoghurt and pork, and getting some exercise. P.S. Your body also needs carbs to make serotonin, so it’s no wonder a low-carb diet can result in a bad mood.
Testosterone while predominantly the ‘male’ hormone, it is also crucial in women, being the main sex hormone and a natural steroid to help the body build and retain muscle. Testosterone imbalance may be the result of too much meat, a sedentary lifestyle, excess drinking and smoking. Symptoms your testosterone is off-balance include weight gain (especially tummy fat), decreased sex-drive, insomnia and depression. Like the others, you can improve it by reducing stress, having a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Another part of the reproductive hormone see-saw, progesterone is balanced by oestrogen and together, maintain your periods, libido and mood.
At sunset, your brain’s pineal gland starts secreting melatonin to promote sleep, but it needs total darkness to work. You’ve guessed it, lights emitted from cell-phones, laptops and televisions all mess with melatonin, which isn’t just bad news for your sleep. Melatonin counteracts stress and acts as a free-radical antioxidant. You could consider taking Tart Cherry for natural melatonin (which is also part of Go Healthy Magnesium Sleep), but most importantly, stop staring at your cell-phone late at night (even if you’re browsing my instagram).
The thyroid glands are the body’s own thermostat, also regulating metabolism and energy, digestive function, muscle control, brain development and bone maintenance. Like many other hormones, they’re affected by chronic stress, nutrition and inflammation.
Hypothyroidism is the term for the production of too little thyroid hormone by the thyroid gland. This may be because of autoimmune diseases, poor iodine intake or the result of taking particular drugs. Since thyroid hormones are essential for physical and mental development, hypothyroidism before birth and during childhood results in learning disability and reduced physical growth.
Hypothyroidism in adults results in a slowing of the body’s functions with symptoms such as tiredness, intolerance to cold temperatures, low heart rate, weight gain, reduced appetite, poor memory,depression, stiffness of the muscles and infertility.
Hyperthyroidism is an overactive thyroid, which may be the result of an autoimmune thyroid disease, among other things, signs of which include nervousness, irritability, the inability to relax, feeling warm, heat intolerance, increased sweating, palpitations, fatigue, increased frequency of bowel movements, increased appetite and weight loss. In around 20-30% of cases difficulties in sleeping (insomnia) and irregular periods can occur.
Libby of Julia & Libby has written more about adrenal fatigue, having experienced it herself. To summarise: adrenal fatigue is when our adrenal glands, which are the walnut sized organs that sit on top of the kidneys, become fatigued. Our adrenal glands have a huge job within the body. They are responsible for many functions in the body and produce cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline which control the ‘fight or flight’ response or when our body goes into high alert and senses danger.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue are:
- Craving caffiene to get you going in the morning
- Difficulty waking up in the morning
- Having increased energy in the evenings and finding it difficult to fall asleep
- Reduced short term memory
- Inibility to concentrate
- Decreased sex drive
- Craving salt or sugary foods
- Poor immunity
- Finding it hard to cope with stressful siturations
- Irregular blood sugar levels
- Dark circles under eyes
- Weight gain and an inibility to lose weight
- Feeling wired throughout the day
Tips to help prevent adrenal fatigue
- Reduce your coffee and alcohol intake: fill up with water instead
- Don’t smoke. This places stress on your body; it can accelerate adrenal fatigue and prevent recovery
- Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veges
- Exercise regularly – but don’t overdo it. It’s also common for athletes to suffer from adrenal fatigue because of the mental and physical stress high levels of activity place on the body
- Eat regular meals every day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks between each meal
- Sleep! Get to bed before 11pm as often as possible
This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice, of course – I just want to highlight the importance of being aware of the various hormones in your body and what can easily go awry. I had no idea that a combination of dieting, exercise and stress would ever affect my hormones, putting my health, bones and fertility at risk. Thankfully, at 26 I have more than enough time (hopefully) to turn things around, and regulate my oestrogen in the future, so that I can eventually have a family. As a young, healthy woman, it’s scary to be told that your lifestyle has had such a huge impact on your health and fertility, and I feel like I can’t possibly be the only person affected by this (yet I’ve never read of anyone else’s experience).
Had I been made more aware of my lifestyle choices’ potential effects on my health, I would have been much more careful with my diet, exercise and stress levels – especially last year when panning my wedding. If I help just one person to do the same, then this was worth sharing.