Hormonal balance is a buzzword in today’s wellness culture. For about $50, you can subscribe to anything from a “hormone balancing” workout, to a juice cleanse, to an expensive regime of supplements. But the only thing you can be sure about with these sorts of programs is that they are gimmicky and ineffective, and that the creators are probably more concerned with making money than with your hormonal health…which I say with confidence based on the total lack of scientific support.
So, what does work, then?
As with anything in functional medicine, it starts with building a foundation. Nutrition, rest/exercise balance, stress management, and psycho-emotional health serve as the self-care building blocks of our health. Those elements need to be in place in order for us to function at all, much less start thinking about optimizing/maximizing our well-being. When those building blocks start to crumble, hormones are one of the first systems to fall out of balance.
Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalances
The hormones of the human body are so diverse and dynamic, that it’s pretty much impossible to zero in on a specific hormone imbalances without getting into the nitty-gritty details of the patient’s lifestyle, labwork, and physical exam findings. (This is why any prepackaged program is pretty much guaranteed to be a scam.) Of course nutrition, exercise, and supplements can play important roles in restoring hormone balance, but you can’t diagnose HPTAG axis dysfunction through a web page or subscription box. #sorrynotsorry
In general, imbalances in the delicate relationships of our hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid-adrenal-gonadal axis start with a few generalized symptoms. If one of my patients came into my office complaining of a group of the following, and their history supported the pattern of these symptoms, I’d immediately start thinking about the endocrine system:
- Weight gain or loss
- Changes in hair thickness or texture
- Irregular, absent, or other changes in periods
- Sleep disturbances
- Blood sugar regulation problems
In order to confirm a hormonal imbalance, we would need to run a series of blood tests, including a thyroid panel and sex hormone panel. Keep in mind that those symptoms can correspond to lots of different life circumstances and/or pathologies, so it’s important not to self-diagnose or jump to conclusions without looking at the big picture of health. (That means taking personal history, physical exam, and lab work into account in addition to presenting symptoms.)
What to Do About a Hormone Imbalance
The #1 thing that you can do for your health whether you suspect you’re suffering the effects of a hormone imbalance or not, is to make sure that the foundational building blocks of self-care are in place in your life. No cocktail of medications or supplements, and no juice cleanse or exercise regime can undo the continual damage of a poor self-care routine. In fact, those things often contribute to allostatic load, amplifying the stress response and making hormonal problems worse.
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1. Manage Stress
Probably the most important thing you can do to support your hormones is take steps to manage your stress. Chronic stress profoundly affects our health and wreaks total havoc on our hormones. The longer we are suffering the effects of stress, the harder it is to interrupt (or reverse) the damage that is done. Stress comes in many forms, but we most typically think of psychological triggers like work deadlines and over-packed schedules.
To manage psychological stress, learn to start saying no. Take the time to self-reflect, and let go of the things that no longer serve you—whether they be extracurricular commitments, hobbies, toxic relationships, or involvement in activities that don’t align with your values. In certain cases, this might even mean finding a new job or moving to a new area. I am a huge proponent of therapy, and would recommend it to just about anyone who is looking to improve their psychological well-being through stress management.
Sleep is probably the most underrated aspect of modern life. Most people get far fewer than the recommended 8+ hours of sleep per night. When we aren’t sleeping enough, cortisol goes into overdrive. We also suffer pretty dramatic cognitive effects from sleep deprivation even after just one night—things like memory problems, mood changes, and even personality fluctuations.
Not getting enough sleep also has been proven to contribute to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, elevated cholesterol, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Yikes!
3. Eat enough
Most of the women I talk to vastly underestimate the amount of food they need. The diet industry has convinced us that we need about as much food as toddlers, which is so sad. Not only does under-eating amplify the stress response in our bodies, but it’s psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually toxic.
Not getting enough calories, enough fats, enough carbs, or enough proteins very quickly leads to hormonal disruption. Micronutrient deficiencies (vitamins and minerals) take a little longer to manifest, but they interrupt hormonal signals, too. Eating balanced meals is essential for hormone health, and that includes eating early, eating often, and eating enough. [See also: 10 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Relationship With Food]
If you’re struggling in your relationship with food, you’re not alone. I’ve worked with so many women who have stories similar to this one, and together, we’ve been able to put together a plan for healing. Click here to learn more about my intuitive eating services.
4. Balance Exercise and Rest
Just like many of us vastly underestimate the amount of food we need, we also tend to overestimate the amount of exercise we need. Both too much and too little exercise can lead to hormonal disruption, so it’s important to figure out the right amount of exercise for your body, and find movements you enjoy so you can stay consistent.
5. Cultivate a Support Network
As with anything, it takes a village. No matter how much sleep you get, or how balanced your approach to exercise and nutrition is, life happens. The difference between people who crumble in the face of trials and those who are able to endure actually has far less to do with the people themselves, and far more to do with their support networks. We were never meant to live this life alone.
The influence of relational and spiritual support on health and well-being should never be ignored. To build your social support network, make time to regularly meet up with friends and family, plug in to a local church, and join community groups centered around common interests, like baking or biking.
To balance and beyond…
If your self-care routine is well-established and firmly in place, yet you’re still experiencing symptoms, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. He or she can take a closer look at your health history, run some lab tests, and help you get to the bottom of your struggles once and for all. But even if and when you identify what’s going on, don’t neglect your self-care. There’s no better medicine than a healthy self-care routine in terms of exercise, nutrition, sleep, social support, and stress management.