How to Balance Out-of-Whack Hormones
They're your body's secret weapon: Hormones keep your heart thumping, your digestive system churning, and your brain sharp. "Whenever you feel off, your hormones could be the cause," says Scott Isaacs, M.D., an endocrinologist at Atlanta Endocrine Associates in Atlanta, Georgia. They can get off-kilter when you're stressed, tired, or eating poorly and create all kinds of havoc.
Here, five signs your hormones are out of whack — and how to balance hormones to get back to normal.
1. You're tired all the time.
"If you're logging eight hours in the sack and still waking up groggy, low progesterone levels could be stealing your sleep," says Sara Gottfried, M.D., the author of The Hormone Cure. Progesterone naturally plummets with menopause, but it can begin dropping as early as your 30s, when your ovaries start releasing fewer eggs. Because the hormone regulates your internal thermostat, a low level may cause your body temperature to yo-yo at night, resulting in night sweats that prevent deep, restorative sleep.
Get back on track: Dial the thermostat down to 64 degrees before bed to keep night sweats at bay, suggests Dr. Gottfried. Also, eat lots of vitamin C-rich foods (red bell peppers, oranges, kiwis, broccoli, strawberries, and brussels sprouts). Getting 750 milligrams of C a day may raise progesterone in women with a deficiency, a study in Fertility and Sterility found. If you have period problems, see your ob-gyn to rule out more serious conditions related to low progesterone levels, like endometriosis or endometrial cancer. (Related: Should You Eat Based on Your Menstrual Cycle?)
2. You get sneezy or wheezy before your period.
Moodiness, headaches, and bloat are annoyances you expect with PMS. But allergies or an asthma attack? Not so much. Turns out, allergy symptoms worsen in some women right before their period thanks to hormones going crazy. And premenstrual hormonal fluctuations can make it harder for those with asthma to breathe.
Again, progesterone may be the culprit: Rising levels in the days before your period coincide with airway inflammation that can set the stage for an asthma flare-up, a study from McMaster University in Canada found. On the flip side, as estrogen levels go up during the first half of your menstrual cycle, airway inflammation goes down. "It's not a simple relationship in which progesterone is bad and estrogen is good; it's more about your individual sensitivity to both hormones," says study author Piush Mandhane, M.D., Ph.D. (See: 4 Surprising Things Making Your Allergies Worse)
Get back on track: Keep a journal (or period tracking app) for a few months recording where you are in your cycle (the first day of your period is day one) and any asthma or allergy symptoms you experience. Then share that info with your doctor. If there's a relationship between the two, your doc may suggest using an asthma inhaler or taking OTC allergy meds preemptively. The pill may also help: Birth control makes your hormones fluctuate less.
3. You're feeling down.
Add depression to the list of problems caused by chronic stress. "About half of depressed people have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol," says Dr. Gottfried. Consistently high cortisol levels may lower your body's production of mood-stabilizing brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. You know that exercise acts as a buffer against stress, but many women make the mistake of working out too hard. Exercising for 30 minutes at 80 percent of your maximum effort (that's a fast run or an intense indoor cycling class) can boost cortisol levels by 83 percent, a study in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation found. (Here's everything you need to know about how exercise and cortisol levels are related.)
Get back on track: If you notice your hormones going crazy, vary the intensity of your sweat sessions, limiting hard-core workouts to two or three times a week, and opt for interval training, which doesn't raise cortisol as much, whenever possible, Dr. Gottfried suggests. On other days, do low-intensity activities like yoga or barre class, which have been shown to decrease cortisol production. And change your diet: Research finds that upping your omega-3 fatty acid intake may also rein in out-of-control cortisol. "Aim for 2,000 milligrams a day from a supplement containing both EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, along with foods that are rich in the nutrient, like walnuts, flaxseed, tofu, and grass-fed beef," says Dr. Gottfried. Swallow omega-3 supps in the a.m. (with food to avoid fishy burps) to help keep cortisol levels in check all day.
4. You have flaky, itchy skin.
Dry patches are one of the first signs that your thyroid hormone level is low. "These hormones help set your metabolic rate; when you don't have enough, all systems become sluggish," says John Randolph, M.D., an ob-gyn and a reproductive endocrinologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The rate at which your skin cells turn over slows, resulting in dryness, redness, and rashes.
Get back on track: See your doc if your skin is still desert-dry after a month of slathering it with moisturizer, especially if you notice any other signs of an underactive thyroid, such as unexplained weight gain, brittle nails and hair, or if your periods become irregular or MIA, says Dr. Isaacs. He or she will give you a simple blood test to diagnose the disorder, which is usually treated with a synthetic hormone medication that you will need to take long-term. "Skin symptoms should clear up within two to three months," says Dr. Isaacs. (And in the meantime, layer on one of these best lotions for dry skin.)
5. You've put on extra pounds for no apparent reason.
Lack of zzzs may be affecting your appetite hormones. A study published in Sleep found that after snoozing for only four hours a night, levels of glucagon-like peptide 1, a hormone that controls satiety, decreased in women. "When you don't feel full, you tend to just keep eating," says study author Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D. In fact, another of her studies showed that women down an average of 329 more calories on days they don't get sufficient sleep. (Related: The Sleep-Exercise Connection That Can Change Your Life and Your Workouts)
Get back on track: Log adequate pillow time — seven to nine hours a night. And start your day with protein-packed eats to keep hunger hormones in check. Overweight women who ate an egg-and-beef-sausage breakfast consumed 135 fewer calories from evening snacks than those who started their day with a bowl of cereal that had the same number of calories, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The reason: A high-protein breakfast boosts levels of another satiety hormone, peptide YY, all day. (Discover more about how your hormones affect your metabolism.)
7 Hormones to Know
When they're working right, your hormones are the unsung heroes of your health. Here are seven so-good things they do for you:
- Oxytocin, the hormone of love and social connection, helps you bond and create meaningful relationships.
- Testosterone gives you vitality, confidence, and revs your sex drive.
- Progesterone keeps you calm and plays a role in menstruation and pregnancy.
- Thyroid hormone boosts your metabolism.
- Cortisol triggers the fight-or-flight response to help you handle a life-threatening crisis.
- Leptin decreases your appetite.
- Estrogen strengthens your bones and gives you clear skin.
How to Keep Hormones Balanced Before Things Go Awry
What's easier than figuring out how to balance hormones? Keeping them at healthy levels to begin with. To keep your hormones from getting out of whack, eat right, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. And take time to relax and unwind. Women with a lot of job stress are 38 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease, in part because of chronically high cortisol levels, a study in the journal PLOS One found. Luckily, healthy lifestyle habits can offset the effect that stress has on your ticker, other new research revealed.
What's more, your gut microbiome does way more than aid digestion. It affects your brain, stress, sex, metabolism, immune system, and hormones, according to a report in the journal FEMS Microbiology Reviews. "The bacteria in our guts release chemicals and hormones that influence our health and how we think and feel," says Marc Tetel, Ph.D., a neuroscience professor at Wellesley College. The key is to keep your bugs healthy and balanced so they perform at their optimum level. Get started with this three-point plan.
Eat Probiotics for a Good Mood
More than 90 percent of your serotonin — a hormone and neurotransmitter that governs your well-being — is produced in your gut, says Omry Koren, Ph.D., a microbiome researcher at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. If your microbiome is out of whack, serotonin levels may drop, which can affect your mood and anxiety levels.
Keep your gut bugs happy by eating a diverse high-fiber diet with plenty of vegetables and whole grains, plus probiotic foods like kimchi and yogurt, says Tetel. In fact, have some yogurt daily. Lactobacillus — the bacteria it contains — may get depleted by stress, causing depression-like symptoms, an animal study in Scientific Reports found. Restoring levels of these good bugs may reverse the effect.
Find Your Sleep Rhythm
Your microbiome has its own circadian rhythms with a continual fluctuation of the amounts of different bacteria, depending on the time of day, which influences your sleep. It also interacts with the genes that regulate your body clock. Melatonin, a hormone that is an important regulator of sleep, is produced in not only the brain but also the gut, where it helps your organs sync up your circadian rhythms, says Arthur Beyder, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at the Mayo Clinic.
To keep your rhythms steady and get more z's, feed your microbiome prebiotic foods (the foods probiotics feast on), like artichokes, raw garlic, leeks, and onions. When bacteria digest these, they release by-products that affect your brain, boosting sleep quality, according to an animal study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
Keep Your Cycle Humming
The gut makes and metabolizes estrogens. Certain microbes produce them, while others break them down, says Tetel. Having the right levels of estrogens is important since they affect your fertility, menstrual cycle, mood, weight, and risk of certain diseases, like heart disease and some cancers.
To keep estrogens at the ideal level, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and manage your stress, experts say. Also, avoid taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, because they can throw off your microbiome and decrease estrogen's effectiveness, says Tetel.