7 things you need to know about your hormones that have nothing to do with periods2023-01-30
When we think about hormones, our first thought is often the menstrual cycle. But these clever chemical messengers influence a lot more than just our periods.
Hormones. We blame so much on them, from mood swings to food cravings, and a hormone imbalance is often cited as the reason for various ailments. But what do our hormones really do?
Put simply, hormones are responsible for telling our organs what to do and when to do it.
“Hormones are part of what’s known as the endocrine system – a network of organs, glands and chemicals which basically help keep your body in status quo, or homeostasis,” explains Dr Zoe Watson, GP and founder of wellness platform Wellgood Wellbeing. “Hormones are essentially chemical messengers, secreted by organs or glands within the body. These chemical messengers act to regulate various body functions, such as growth, reproduction, metabolism and digestion, mood and lots more.”
We have hundreds of hormones (and they all do different things)
It’s a myth to assume that the sex hormones are all there is to know about this complex system.
“There are literally hundreds of hormones, which control all of your bodily functions,” explains Watson.
“They’ll tell you when to eat (ghrelin), when to stop eating (leptin), when you’re tired (melatonin), when to wake up (cortisol), they’ll tell your heart to beat faster (adrenaline), they’ll tell your heart to slow down again (acetylcholine) – every single body process is controlled by hormones.”
“Sex hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone are probably the most well-known hormones,” acknowledges Watson, “and I think often when people talk about their hormones being ‘imbalanced’, it’s these hormones which they mean. However, the endocrine system is so much more complex than just the sex hormones.”
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Are hormones genetically predisposed?
It’s tempting to blame genetics for any hormone issues we might be experiencing (thanks, Mum) but it’s not as straightforward as this.
“Like most things, hormone issues are a complex interaction of genetics and environmental factors,” says Dr Watson. “Genes are switched on and off by factors in our environment, so while having a family history of a hormone disorder such as hypothyroidism may increase your risk of getting it, it isn’t that simple.”
While we will all have a genetically predetermined range within which our hormones are balanced and stable, it’s important to note that hormone levels are designed to fluctuate and will ebb and flow naturally.
Hormone levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day
Our body’s hormone levels naturally rise and fall throughout the day in response to our environment, which is exactly what they are meant to do.
Think about when you go for a run, for example. Dr Watson explains: “When you run, your adrenal glands (which sit on top of your kidneys) are stimulated to release adrenaline, which in turn increases your heart rate, allowing your heart to pump more blood around your body in order to get oxygen to the muscles that are working hard to move your body during your run.
However, when you finish running, your body no longer requires the heart to be pumping so quickly, so adrenaline levels will naturally start to fall back to their status quo until the next time a boost is needed.”
Clever little things, aren’t they?
“Hormone levels change constantly,” agrees nutritional therapist Thalia Pellegrini. “Month to month, for example, your hormonal levels will shift depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. Likewise, they can change depending on our age and life stage: there are key stages when there are hormonal surges and drops – for example puberty and perimenopause.”
Is there such a thing as a hormone imbalance?
“This is something I get asked a lot about as a GP,” says Watson, “and there’s a lot of misinformation in the wellness space about how we can “balance” our hormones through lifestyle changes,” she warns.
“There is no such thing as a hormone imbalance in the sense that people often think,” Dr Watson continues. “There is also no such thing as a ‘hormone type’ despite what many people believe. Your body is a finely tuned machine; if you are otherwise well, and your body’s hormone levels are within their usual normal reference range, there is literally nothing that you could, or should do that will ‘balance’ your hormones as they are already balanced.”
Good news, then. But there are some hormone disorders that can be treated, and it’s crucial to make the distinction between these and normal hormone fluctuations.
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There are medical hormone conditions
“There are multiple medical conditions which affect the endocrine system, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Addison’s disease, PCOS, Cushing’s disease, acromegaly, hyperparathyroidism, to name just a few,” advises Dr Watson.“These are medical conditions which need to be taken seriously, properly assessed, diagnosed and treated in a medical setting.
“It’s important to note that these are not disorders which can be fixed by lifestyle changes, and some of them can even be life-threatening if left untreated.”
If you’re concerned you may have one of these endocrine disorders, always go and see your GP.
How can we achieve/maintain hormone health?
Here’s where things can get confusing. While it’s tempting to be seduced by claims of hormone-balancing diets or lifestyle choices, Dr Watson is clear that we can’t influence our hormones in any long-term, permanent way.
“There is nothing you could or should do that will have a long-term effect on your hormones,” she insists. “The natural fluctuations we experience throughout the days and weeks in response to environmental triggers are short-lived. Levels may rise, and then they fall back down.Hormonal balancing is all cleverly done for you without you having to think about it.”
That’s not to say that we can’t support hormone health by having a healthy lifestyle, and there are plenty of ways we can help this process.
“There is so much we can do to support our own hormonal balance,” advises Pellegrini. “As a nutritional therapist, I always advise eating enough protein. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which are essential (which means our bodies can’t make them) and they are needed for our body to make hormones. I always encourage women to eat healthy fats every day too, as they are also building blocks for our hormonal health. Include oily fish (or a fish oil or algae supplement), nuts, seeds and avocadoes in your day-to-day.
“Try to reduce your stress levels,” suggests Pellegrini. “I know it’s easy to say, but we know that stress can have a negative impact on our health partly because of the effect on our hormones. If you know that stress is impacting your life, it’s worth exploring ways to reduce or help you to manage it.”
Get more sleep
If you’re not catching enough Zs, this could impact your hormones. “Sleep is huge for hormonal balance as it helps to regulate our cortisol levels,” advises Pellegrini. “This in turn helps regulate other hormones in the body.”
And even if your hormones aren’t out of whack, your body will still thank you for these.
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