When we hear the word “hormones” we may think back to awkward days spent in junior high sex-ed class—but that’s just the beginning. Hormones are responsible for far more than our libidos and body hair.
Hormones act as signaling molecules (also known as chemical messengers) that help to regulate a lot of our key bodily functions, affecting our moods, metabolism, appetites, sleep cycles, and so much more. They’re responsible for a significant amount of our physiology and behavior, and without even realizing it, there’s a lot we can do to throw our hormones out of balance.
But before we get into how that might happen, let’s break down how it all works.
First, hormones are created in our endocrine glands, including—but not limited to—the hypothalamus (regulates sex drive, temperature, mood, hunger), the pancreas (produces insulin), the thyroid (controls calorie burning and heart rate), the pineal (produces mood-affecting serotonin and sleep-regulating melatonin) and the pituitary (controls all the other glands and is sometimes referred to as the “master gland”). On top of those, there are several other glands, including the ovaries and testes.
All of these glands work in tandem to manage your hormones—which include many you’ve probably heard of, like the main sex hormones estrogen (in women) and testosterone (in men), progesterone, cortisol (or, the “stress hormone”), melatonin, along with others. These hormones then travel through the bloodstream to our tissues and organs.
When your hormones are thrown off, you can end up feeling fatigued, anxious, depressed, and you may experience hair loss, infertility, and weight gain.
Here’s how your hormones can get thrown off:
1. Eating Poorly
Our diets play a role in almost every aspect of our health, and our hormones are no exception. The impact of hormonal disruption can be significant, leading to everything from weight gain and exhaustion to digestive issues.
For example, when we eat way too much sugar, our bodies can become insulin-resistant. (We need insulin, a hormone, because it moves the sugar we consume into our bloodstreams to be used for cellular energy). Too little insulin could lead to metabolic disorder or type 2 diabetes.
So what to do?
“The most important aspect of food is quantity,” says Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, a board-certified family and obesity physician for SteadyMD and author of The Fat Loss Prescription. “Most people who are consuming too much energy are getting it through highly processed, high-calorie ‘junk’ foods like chips, candies, donuts, etc.” These foods are high in carbohydrates, sugar, and fat while also being low in protein.
Does this mean you have to kiss that weekend-morning pancake stack goodbye? Not at all. “Enjoy those foods as a treat once in a while, and eat less-processed foods whenever possible,” Dr. Nadolsky advises. “Focusing on a more whole-food approach while still being mindful of portions will help you lose belly weight and improve your hormones.”
2. Not Getting Enough Sleep
Our hormones impact the function of our sleep cycles (the reason you get sleepy at night and wake up in the morning—thanks, melatonin!) so getting enough sleep is key, according to an article in the journal Endocrine Development. In fact, says Dr. Nadolsky, her patients with hormonal imbalances often deal with sleeping issues.
A lack of sleep can disrupt testosterone and cortisol levels, and it can throw our hunger cues off as well, Dr. Nadolsky explains. “The issue isn’t as sexy as nutrition or exercise, so it doesn’t get the spotlight it should. When a patient’s sleep is off, this is usually where I start to help them improve their health—specifically their hormonal status.”
How much sleep should you be getting? Aim for seven to eight hours (nine or more is too much, though). Also: You should also put away the iPhone while lying in bed (no thanks, blue light), find a relaxing and intentional nighttime ritual, and cut the caffeine after your morning cup, if possible.
3. Stressing Out
Similar to the way disrupted sleep patterns can alter the balance of our hormones, chronic stress also plays a role, too, according to research in the Journal of Pharmacy and BioAllied Sciences. Ongoing stress can alter hormones in ways that impact growth, promote mood disorders, and lead to other health issues.
And remember how we said food can affect our hormones? Well, chronic stress can also affect how we eat: “Changes in our cortisol regulation and hunger hormones can occur from chronic stress,” says Dr. Nadolsky. This can create an insidious cycle: Stress can lead to an increase in hunger hormones, potentially driving us to eat more highly processed foods, which leads to additional weight gain, which then disrupts our hormones even further, Dr. Nadolsky explains.
Your plan of attack? Adopt a lifestyle that allows you to seriously de-stress. Whether that’s through adopting a quiet daily yoga regimen, performing periodic breathing exercises, turning to an essential oil routine, meditating in the morning before commuting, or taking an Epsom salt bath before bed, it’s key to regulate those stressful emotions.
4. Using Certain Plastics
Food, sleep, and stress are critical components when it comes to balancing our hormones better, but we also have to pay attention to the products we use—especially plastics. Industrial chemicals like BPA and phthalates are found in polycarbonate plastics that we frequently use to package our food and water, which means they easily get ingested.
These endocrine-disrupting chemicals have a significant impact on our hormones. “More and more studies are showing these may really be a threat even at low levels despite what we thought was maybe safe before,” says Dr. Nadolsky. There’s growing evidence, according to a statement released by the Endocrine Society, that shows endocrine disruptors can affect reproduction, cancer growth, thyroid function, metabolism, and obesity, as well as cardiovascular endocrinology and neuroendocrinology.
While total eradication of these synthetic compounds from our packaging and products may be unrealistic, there are many steps we can take in our day-to-day lives to help reduce our exposure and help keep our hormones in check. These include using ceramic and glass for cooking and food storage, limiting canned and processed foods, and buying products that are labeled as BPA and phthalate-free.
The Bottom Line
Regulating your hormones is important for your health, and like any health regimen, you’ll see the most success by starting with small, manageable changes.
“The biggest bang for your buck will be trying to maintain or achieve a healthier weight and waist circumference through proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep and stress management,” says Dr. Nadolsky, but that won’t happen overnight. Be kind to yourself, and work on incorporating these changes into your lifestyle one day at a time.
If you feel you do have a hormonal imbalance, an endocrinologist can help.
Here’s a useful guide to keeping your hormones healthy: