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Hormones are tricky. You don’t even think twice when everything is in balance and functioning correctly, because that is how your body is suppose to work. But even the slightest hormonal imbalance (too much or too little of a particular hormone in your bloodstream) can cause you to experience unwanted side effects in your body, leaving you asking the question: What causes hormonal imbalance?
Trying to identify what underlying issue or issues caused your hormonal imbalance can be challenging. Often, it is not just one thing that throws everything off. Here is a list of areas to consider when trying to rebalance your hormones.
We need sleep, specifically uninterrupted sleep. Yes, I know this is a basic concept, but many of us are so busy that one of the first areas we tend to sacrifice is in this area in order to accommodate everything else.
It is important to remember that sleep is fundamental to restoring and repairing the body and allowing our body to function correctly, including our endocrine (hormonal) system. Some of us need 8 hours and others more or less, often it falls in a 7-9 hour window. Make an effort to know how much sleep you need and blocking out the time daily to get it.
Take the time and money to invest in making your sleeping environment conducive to improving your sleep to ensure that you are truly getting the restorative sleep you need. This will benefit many areas of wellness, not just your hormones.
2. Standard American Diet
What we eat makes a difference to our bodies. We need to be eating to nourish and choose health versus eating fake foods that are overly processed. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is making us sick and miserable (it leads to standard American diseases and deaths). We see diseases, such as diabetes, that not only ends in taking life but it sadly destroys decades of the quality of life.
Everything that I have found in my research about hormones, health and food all point to consuming more of a whole food, plant-based diet while maintaining blood sugar balance. The less refined foods we eat the better the health of our bodies. Now I live in the real world and understand that this cannot be perfect. But any effort to clean up the food we consume will be beneficial for our hormones and overall health.
Some hormone balancing diets that have been designed recommend the removal of meat, poultry, dairy, gluten, sugar, caffeine and alcohol! I know that it can be very overwhelming to consider removing all of these things and wonder what exactly these people are eating for their daily meals.
The overall consensus is one of the issues we are dealing with is that we are consuming toxins, too much antibiotics and hormones through our food chain and it is negatively impacting our gut health, and consequently our hormonal health. These extremely restrictive hormone balancing diets claim to help alleviate all PMS symptoms and issues with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and Endometriosis so might be worth considering if you have severe hormonal issues and symptoms.
Also, there are some key foods that we can be eating that can help support our bodies by providing the essential building blocks for our hormones. Some help to provide healthy fats that are absolutely necessary in hormone creation and others contain the necessary vitamins and minerals that are needed. Taking vitamin supplements can be helpful when it is not possible to consume all that we need through food to support our hormones.
3. Sugar and Blood Sugar Levels
I know I mention this above but it is enough of a health issue that it deserves a category of it’s own. We simple consume too much sugar. We add it to our food and beverages. Companies and food producers add it to food and beverages that they make and sell to us to keep us addicted to their product so we keep coming back for more and their profits increase.
According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services:
Two hundred years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. In 1970, we ate 123 pounds of sugar per year. Today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year. This is equal to 3 pounds (or 6 cups) of sugar consumed in one week!
Not only are we looking at the sugar content, but also how refined is the product you are consuming? Anything that is ground down into a white powder before being added to a product the easier and quicker the body will be able to digest it and it will cause a spike to your blood sugar levels similar to sugar (think flours that are used in breads, cakes and most processed food). These simple, or also called refined, carbohydrates should be treated as sugar when making food choices.
And this even goes for any natural sweetening product. Sometimes it is easy to justify using raw honey and pure maple syrup instead of sugar, but the impact to our blood sugar levels produce the same result: an increase of glucose (blood sugar) in our bloodstream that insulin (a hormone that tells your cells in your body to absorb the glucose) must be released to off set. Yes, I know there are at least some healthy benefits to these less refined and natural sweetening products, but moderation should still be considered when using these products.
We should be limiting and reducing our consumption of sugars and refined carbohydrates when and where we can for over all health, however when dealing with a hormone imbalance it is important to get our blood sugar levels under control and somewhat steady, primarily by reducing our sugar intake. The swing between blood sugar highs and lows causes additional stress on the body that impacts our hormone production (read about the impact of stress below).
Sugars (besides what is found in whole grains, fruit and vegetables) and processed foods should be decreased, even avoided, as much as possible when working to fix a hormonal imbalance. Then they should be consumed in moderation to maintain blood sugar balance when trying to maintain hormonal balance.
Alcohol can impact hormones a few ways. It can negatively impact the glands that release the hormones as well as the tissues that need the hormones. Specifically, estrogen metabolism is impacted resulting in elevated levels of estrogen in the bloodstream.
In addition, as your body attempts to metabolize the alcohol your fat and sugar (primarily glucose) are moved to storage, ie. fat cells. And your body stops focusing on building your sugar reserves in the form of glycogen (this is stored in the liver and muscles and turns to glucose quickly when blood sugar levels decline). This means that once the alcohol is metabolized your body will not have sugar energy readily available and will have low blood sugar.
Unfortunately, hitting a blood sugar low tends to really throw off the sugar balance and even after eating and bringing the blood sugar back up there tends to be some more swinging of the pendulum before blood sugar can stabilize again. Low sugar levels tend to beget low sugar levels.
On top of this, when drinking alcohol we tend to make poor food choices (or is that just me?), often times binge eating high fat or high sugary foods. Also, many alcoholic concoctions contain loads of sugar. These choices put additional strain and stress on your body (see the hormone impact of stress below).
Plain and simple, alcohol should be avoided when trying to regain balance with your hormones. And should be avoided or consumed in moderation when working to maintain hormonal balance.
There seems to be a number of studies that state the health benefits of caffeine and just as many that state it is actually bad for us. When it comes to the female body and specifically hormones it seems the verdict is in: caffeine is BAD for your hormonal balance.
There are a few reasons for this, but ultimately for caffeine to be metabolized by the liver it requires the same enzyme (CYP1A2) as estrogen metabolism. The more caffeine you consume the less estrogen can be effectively metabolized and removed from your body. This results in a build up of estrogen and throws off your hormonal balance. There may be a few lucky women who create enough CYP1A2 to effectively metabolize estrogen and caffeine, but the majority of us would not fall in this category.
Caffeine stimulates the production of cortisol, our stress hormone. Additionally, caffeine increases our blood sugar levels (more so if we like it sweet) and after a high there is always a low. As mentioned above this causes additional stress on the body (read more below about cortisol and stress).
Something to consider in this area, when pregnant or breastfeeding we are told that we should avoid caffeine or at least reduce the amount we are consuming. Anything that should be removed from our diet during these periods of our life are most likely not something we should be consuming at other periods of our hormonal life cycles.
Caffeine should be avoided when trying to regain balance with your hormones. And like most of the other items in this list, removing or at least consuming in moderation when maintaining hormonal balance.
6. Gut Health
Have you been hearing about “gut health” and your “gut or digestive microbiome” recently? There have been a number of studies that show how your gut health correlates to everything from your immune system to emotion and mental health to your endocrine (hormonal) system.
Besides the role gut bacteria plays in functions in our body, our gut needs to be functioning correctly to be able to absorb the nutrients from the food we are consuming. If it doesn’t work right, then the food and nutrients will just pass through our digestive system and be eliminated without being absorbed into the body to be used where it is needed.
Many of us have been ignoring and abusing this area of wellness. Some simple ways to improve your gut health is eating slower, drinking more water and getting enough fiber. I found that taking prebiotics as well as probiotics were key in addressing this area of wellness in balancing my hormones.
Closely related to the function of digestion in our gut is the process of eliminating waste from our bodies. This process is essential to removing toxins from the body. If we are not removing toxins from our body in this way then some will be re-absorbed.
These toxins can impact a number of areas of the body, including the endocrine system. However, the biggest area of concern regarding our hormones is that excess estrogen is secreted in our stool and will be reabsorbed into our bloodstream if it is left sitting in our colon.
This can cause a vicious cycle when dealing with estrogen dominance (excess estrogen). Your body is working hard to clear out the excess estrogen from your body to balance your hormones and when it gets it close to being removed it gets re-absorbed into the body adding to the estrogen load that your body is working to remove. This continues to happen at the same time as new estrogen is being created or absorbed into the body via xenoestrogens (read more below).
It is easy to envision how quickly and easily our hormones can become imbalanced in this scenario.
8. Avoiding Endocrine Disruptors
Oh my, this is the loaded canon. In the environment we live today we are bombarded with xenoestrogens, which are chemicals that mimic estrogen when absorbed into the body and disrupt our endocrine system.
We are exposed to xenoestrogens in our environment on a daily basis because they are literally EVERYWHERE and I found this to be so overwhelming and concerning. We are talking about in sunscreen, cleaning supplies, pesticides on our produce and in the air we breath, beauty products, on receipts, the plastics we store our food in, the glue on envelops, ect, ect, ect.
Now it is impossible to completely avoid all endocrine disruptors based on the fact that we live at this time in history in the world. But, if we are able to reduce the toxic load on our body then we can help our body to function better. One way to do this is to look at the things you have control over. What do you use to clean your house? What products are you using on your body? How are you storing your food? How do you heat up or cook your food?
It is easy to want to live in a bubble to try and avoid all these negative inputs….but unless it is a bubble made of glass, you might still be exposed to endocrine disruptors in the plastic 😉
This is why I work to reduce or remove the chemicals that my family and I are exposed to that I can control, mostly by my purchase decision making power. Here are a few posts to help you get started or find other ways to make improvements in this area.
Another huge trouble area is stress. We experience stress from many factors, anything from family and work responsibilities, friendships, toxic relationships, dealing with death or divorce, keeping our commitments, moving, dealing with the toxic load from our environment, blood sugar swings (mentioned above), depression, anxiety, exercise, inflammation within the body and finances. The list can go on and on.
Stress impacts our body by causing us to produce the hormone cortisol, known as the “fight or flight” steroid hormone. One of cortisol’s roles is to help your body react in a situation of immediate danger or threats. It does this by flooding the bloodstream with glucose (sugar energy) and stops insulin, to avoid the storage of glucose so it can be used immediately when needing to fight or run from the danger or threat that has been detected. Cortisol also shuts down systems that are not needed immediately in a time of crisis such as immune, reproductive and digestive systems.
This built in response to a moment of crisis was great for our ancestors when they encountered a bear or lion or unfriendly human. But after this threat was removed there would be a time of peace and their bodies had a time to regain hormonal and blood sugar balance. Then another incident would occur and the process would repeat.
But today, with our hectic schedules and multiple demands coming at us in various directions we live in a heightened state of awareness and constant stress. We do not get that necessary time of peace and relief for our bodies and hormones to bounce back.
How does stress impact our hormonal balance? In a few ways, with the flood of glucose we are hitting a blood sugar high which will then cause a blood sugar low. This causes stress on the body so cortisol will be released and the cycle continues.
But the largest problem with this over stressed living and constant cortisol release is that for cortisol to be created it requires the hormone pregnenolone; guess what other vital hormone needs pregnenolone: PROGESTERONE! The body will always make cortisol when a threat is perceived, since this is a life preserving hormone. So that means progesterone production takes a back seat.
As mentioned earlier, the reproductive system is one that cortisol essentially shuts down in those fight or flight scenarios. Which makes sense that your body wouldn’t want you to get pregnant during a more vulnerable state, or bring a baby into the world if living in a high stress, life threatening environment. But having lower progesterone, which is needed to stimulate our uterus for our reproductive system and balance our estrogen levels, on a consistent basis leads to the dreaded hormonal imbalance.
Constant Stress = Higher Cortisol = Lower Progesterone = Hormonal Imbalance. The longer your body is in this equation the larger the hormonal imbalance you have to bounce back from.
The other thing is that stress can be from the bad things in life (like the car that almost hits you at the stop light) and from the good things (like preparing for a birthday party or holiday gathering).
I hope that I didn’t stress you out talking about the impact of stress on our hormones! Working to eliminate the stress we can (think of your calendar and starting to say no to some things) and practice stress management technics better is necessary to regain and maintain hormonal balance.
Not exercising at all and too much exercise can impact our hormonal balance. If we are not moving around our overall health will decline, including our hormonal health. Physical exercise causes various releases and positive impacts to our hormones and is an important area to focus for our wellness. There is a reason why the phrase “Sedentary Death Syndrome” has been created, our lack of exercise is literally killing us.
HOWEVER, after 30 minutes of exercise we deplete our glucose levels and then cortisol is released to cause your fat cells to release sugar into the bloodstream for energy. We just reviewed how stress and cortisol can cause issues to our hormonal balance. Also, if we have excess estrogen in our blood stream and cortisol is releasing glucose, estrogen will be telling our body to store the glucose as fat. So spending too much time working out might actually be hurting our weight loss progress as well as our hormonal balance. In addition, the elevated cortisol level from exercising too long can cause the body to break down muscle protein for energy, which should be used to repair damaged tissues.
Another risk we have when working out longer than 30 minutes is putting additional stress on our adrenal glands (where most of our cortisol production occurs) and potentially leading to adrenal fatigue that further impacts our hormone balance.
When working to rebalance hormones and exercising it is important to listen to your body. Are you tired or energized after working out? If you are exhausted, you might be pushing it too hard and your adrenals might need a break. Doing lower impact exercise, like yoga or walking, for 30 minutes or less might be beneficial compared to some of the higher intensity options when working towards balancing hormones.
While most sites state that perimenopause, the phase that a women enters prior to menapause, occurs in the 40s. I did see some note that it starts at age 35. I thought that it was interesting that it correlates with the age of being higher risk in pregnancy. There is a hormonal shift in our mid-thirties where our natural hormone levels peak, usually at age 35, and then begin to decline, even if it is not specifically perimenopause. So maybe this is the beginning of the end for me, haha.
Regardless of hormone peaks, as we age our bodies do not bounce back like we use to. I feel the effects of exercise or an intense volleyball game much more than I did 3, 5 and especially 10 years ago.
As we age, we do not respond to stress as well as we once did. Physically our bodies take more of a toll and struggle bouncing back when dealing with stress, this includes our hormones. Even mentally it can be harder to process stress. Also, the stressful problems that we encounter as we age can be more complex and more stressful than the issues that we encountered when we were younger.
One of the first hormones that the body starts to naturally produce less of is progesterone. So we are moving towards an estrogen dominance situation naturally if our estrogen levels have not started to decline. If some of the factors in this list exist then we might see a bigger hormonal imbalance that causes unwanted symptoms.
No matter what age we are, living in a state of estrogen dominance is concerning due to the implications on your overall health, not just the pesky symptoms you might be experiencing at the moment. With elevated levels of estrogen there is a higher risk of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers as well as an increased risk of blood clots and stroke.
Our body weight can also impact our hormonal levels, specifically estrogen. Estrogen is produced by our ovaries and in other areas of the body, including fat cells (where it is also stored).
The more fat cells you are carrying around the more estrogen that is flowing through your system. Here is another reason for motivation to work on dropping a few pounds or more, if needed.
Final Thoughts On Dealing with the Causes of Hormonal Imbalance
There are many factors that can cause hormonal imbalance. As you can see, a number of them impact one another in a domino type of relationship (one domino gets knocked over and they all fall down). Many of these areas I abused over the years and contributed to my hormonal imbalance that I shared about in How I Fixed My Hormonal Imbalance post.
Taking the time to learn more about the areas that can impact our endocrine system and what we have the ability to change through our choices can be empowering in finding healing when dealing with hormonal imbalances. Take the time to take a personal inventory on how you are doing in these different areas and work to develop your own hormonal imbalance treatment plan.
Since many of the areas listed above contribute to overall health, not just hormonal health, any improvements you are able to make will increase your overall wellness.
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How about you, are there any areas listed above that you have struggled with in the past or now? What are ways you have worked to address?
Disclaimer: For informational and educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. If you have a health concern, a medical condition, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or are taking any medication please consult your healthcare provider.