Balancing Women’s Hormones
As women, we think a lot about our hormones when it comes to both our first (puberty) and last (menopause) menses but we think a lot less about our hormones in between, even though this period makes up our entire reproductive lives. Many women have very regular cycles, have little to no premenstrual symptoms, and get pregnant when they want to and don’t when they don’t want to, with very little though or effort. Many (possibly more), however, at one time or another struggle with irregular cycles, infertility, painful, heavy periods, severe premenstrual pain, and PCOS. It can take years to get to the bottom of what is causing their symptoms and sometimes there are no clear answers. There are, however, ways to optimizing the balance of your hormones.
Watch Your Diet - The foods that you eat have a very real effect on your physiology and can significantly worsen hormone imbalances. Eating excess sugar can increase your insulin, estrogen, and testosterone. This includes foods that are readily converted to sugar, such as white flour, fruit juice, and other high glycemic foods. Ingesting adequate amounts of fibre can optimize your digestion of sugars, limiting what you actually absorb and also assisting the elimination of metabolites that have been excreted into the digestive system. Dairy can contain dozens of different types of hormones that can create disruption of our own sex hormones, including organic milk as it may come from pregnant cows. Diets that are low in carbs (and thus higher in protein, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats) are known to improve levels of insulin and thus can reduce insulin resistance as well as PCOS symptoms.
Exercise - Everything that we eat or drink must be metabolized in order for us to extract the nutrients and the process results in byproducts that must be eliminated through our digestive system. Similarly as our hormones naturally fluctuate, they are metabolized and the byproducts excreted. Much of this work is done by the liver prior to the metabolites being released for elimination and exercise is a great promoter of adequate liver function and the metabolism of these hormones. Exercise also helps to promote digestion as well as manage stress, which may result in keeping cortisol at its optimal level.
Maintain a Healthy Weight - Being overweight or obese can contribute to hormones being out of balance for a variety of reasons. Excess hormones are stored in fat cells so as they are released, hormones can be further imbalanced and symptoms can be exacerbated. In addition to eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, managing stress can contribute towards maintaining a healthy weight because when our level of stress is elevated so is our cortisol level which can result in abdominal weight gain over an extended period of time. Also, severely restricting your calories or eating considerably more than the recommended amount of calories for your weight can both increase insulin levels and worsen insulin resistance which will contribute to weight gain.
- Improve Your Quality of Sleep - Getting good quality of sleep is so important to your health overall, but it also specifically impacts hormone levels including insulin and cortisol. Chronic sleep deprivation can result in elevated levels of both as well as increased resistance to insulin, leading to increased weight gain and worsening of PCOS and its associated symptoms. Both quantity and quality are equally important so spend some time creating a positive sleep environment for yourself and a routine to allow yourself to fall asleep and stay asleep more readily.
Hormone imbalances really vary from one person to the next so there is no “one size fits all” approach that works for everyone beyond the simple suggestions mentioned above. One you determine the nature of your hormone imbalance, work with your provider to come up with a treatment plan that specifically addresses your needs, whether that be a specialized diet, additional supplements to aid metabolism and liver function, or techniques for managing stress (such as meditation and/or yoga). If you suffer from some of the symptoms of hormone imbalance, go see your health care provider about it and make a plan. Not only will your reproductive health benefit from it but so will your health overall.