When it comes to hormonal changes, women get the most attention. But hormones have a profound effect on the health of women and men.
In fact, these important chemical messengers, which constantly send instructions from one part of the body to another, may be at the root of mysterious and frequently undiagnosed health problems such as fatigue, insomnia, memory loss, depression and weight gain.
Hormones always act together, much like instruments in an orchestra. That is why a hormonal imbalance—too much or too little of one or more hormones—can trip up your health in many ways.
Six key hormones that may be out of whack…*
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CORTISOL (ADRENAL GLANDS)
The hormone cortisol tells the body to respond to stress—both external stresses (such as traffic jams and financial troubles) and internal stresses (such as inflammation and infections).
The danger: Progesterone (a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands as well as the ovaries and, in smaller amounts, by the testes) acts as a chemical building block for cortisol as well as estrogen and testosterone. If you are constantly under stress, you generate high levels of cortisol, depleting progesterone and, in turn, reducing the production of estrogen and testosterone. That is why effective stress management is essential to overall hormonal balance in women and men.
Common signs of imbalance: High cortisol levels can cause excess belly fat, high blood pressure, insomnia, irritability, low libido and weakened immunity. Low cortisol levels—from exhausted adrenal glands that can no longer manufacture enough of the hormone—can cause such problems as allergies, apathy and chronic fatigue.
My advice: Make stress management a priority. Simple techniques…
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- Breathe deeply. Simply breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of six and breathe out for a count of six. Do this five times whenever you’re feeling stressed.
- Create boundaries. Feeling helpless and out of control is extremely stressful. Identify your major source of stress—such as a difficult relationship—and create boundaries to regain control. If a friend causes stress by always complaining, for example, tell her the topics you’re willing to listen to—and those you’re not.
- Get enough sleep. Sufficient sleep is crucial for balancing cortisol—and all other hormones. To improve sleep, keep your bedroom completely dark and a little cool…and don’t watch TV at bedtime. End each day with a positive ritual, such as writing down things that you’re grateful for or taking a warm bath.
Insulin regulates blood sugar (glucose), telling muscle cells to burn glucose for energy and fat cells to store it for future use.
Common signs of imbalance: Carbohydrate cravings, constipation, excess belly fat, poor memory, prediabetes and diabetes indicate high insulin levels, the most widespread insulin imbalance.
My advice: Balanced glucose levels lead to balanced insulin, and diet is the best way to balance glucose.
- Eat six times a day. Having healthful, smaller meals throughout the day balances glucose. Eat breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, dinner and a bedtime snack.
- Include protein in snacks and at meals. It helps keep glucose balanced. Good protein sources: Nuts, cottage cheese, hummus and oily fish such as salmon and sardines.
- Eat low-glycemic carbohydrates. Slow-digesting carbohydrates that don’t create spikes in glucose levels include nonstarchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.
This hormone regulates metabolism, including body temperature and heart rate.
Common signs of imbalance: Cold hands and feet, dry skin, fatigue, hair loss, slow heartbeat and/or weight gain could signal hypothyroidism, the most typical thyroid imbalance.
My advice: Reducing stress is key.
- Avoid gluten. Research now links gluten intolerance to thyroid problems. To determine if you are sensitive to gluten: Give up gluten-containing foods for two weeks and gradually reintroduce them. If symptoms (such as abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea) return, you are probably gluten-sensitive.
- Take zinc. A daily dose of zinc (30 mg) helps restore normal thyroid levels. (Also take 2 mg of copper—zinc supplements can deplete copper.)
- Take selenium. A daily dose of selenium (100 mcg), a potent antioxidant, helps to improve thyroid function.
- Test for iodine. If you have symptoms of thyroid imbalance, ask your doctor to test your iodine level. This mineral is crucial for production of thyroid hormone. If levels are low, eat more iodine-rich foods, such as sushi that contains seaweed.
ESTROGEN AND PROGESTERONE
(OVARIES, ADRENAL GLANDS, TESTES)
These hormones work together to regulate functions in the brain, heart and every other organ.
Common signs of imbalance: For most premenopausal women, estrogen is too high and progesterone is too low. Symptoms include bloating, breast tenderness, heavy menstrual bleeding and moodiness. High estrogen also increases risk for breast cancer. For perimenopausal and menopausal women, estrogen is usually low, and symptoms can include hot flashes, urinary incontinence and vaginal pain and dryness.
In men, low libido, increased belly fat and breast size, depression and erectile dysfunction may occur with imbalances of these hormones.
My advice: Controlling stress and following the eating habits described earlier in the insulin section are two of the best ways to balance estrogen and progesterone.
Testosterone affects sex drive and muscle mass in men and women.
What’s often overlooked: In men, low testosterone levels are linked to higher rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, prostate problems—and death from any cause.
Signs of imbalance: Fatigue, low libido, decrease in strength, erectile dysfunction, irritability, anxiety, depression, poor concentration, memory loss and weight gain.
My advice: To boost testosterone, don’t smoke or drink alcohol excessively (for men, no more than two drinks a day). Also helpful…
- Lose weight. For men who are overweight, weight loss is one of the most effective ways to boost testosterone. Emphasize filling, low-calorie foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.
- Resistance training. Lifting weights three times a week stimulates the production of testosterone.
- Interval training. This type of exercise also helps boost testosterone levels. What to do: Exercise to maximum capacity for one minute…slow down until normal breathing is restored (usually about one minute)…then repeat that two-part cycle for 20 minutes.
For women: Low testosterone can lead to weight gain and loss of sex drive. The self-care methods described above for men also work for most women. This includes no excessive drinking (for women, no more than one drink a day).
If you take a statin drug: Cholesterol is a building block of testosterone—and cholesterol-lowering statin therapy also can lower levels of the hormone.
If you’re taking a statin and have signs of testosterone imbalance, ask your doctor to test your total testosterone. If levels are 400 ng/dL or below in men, testosterone-replacement therapy should be considered. In women, a total testosterone level of 15 ng/dL or below is considered low.
*If you experience any of the signs or symptoms of a hormone imbalance, ask your doctor about getting your hormone levels tested.
**Check with your doctor before taking any of these supplements—some may interact with certain drugs.
Source: Alicia Stanton, MD, a physician who practices antiaging and integrative medicine in the Hartford, Connecticut, area. A faculty member for the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Fellowship in Anti-Aging, Regenerative & Functional Medicine, she is also coauthor, with Vera Tweed, of Hormone Harmony: How to Balance Insulin, Cortisol, Thyroid, Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone to Live Your Best Life (Healthy Life Library). www.DrAliciaStanton.com