Learn how exercise, sleep, and even snuggling can keep your hormones balanced
Whenever you’re in danger—or just really frazzled—your hypothalamus slingshots cortisol, a stress hormone, into your bloodstream. It quickens your heartbeat, feeds your brain extra oxygen, and unleashes energy from your fat and glucose stores—all good things, in a pinch. But studies show unrelenting stress can actually break that initial internal slingshot, leaving you with too little cortisol and making you feel perpetually spent.
Balance It Out: Just three hours a week of cardio or weight training considerably reduces cortisol levels, especially if you keep your workouts short and sweaty. “When you exercise for longer than 40 minutes, your cortisol starts to rise again,” says naturopathic physician Natasha Turner, N.D., author of The Hormone Diet. Go for intense, interval-based routines such as alternating jogging and sprinting for 60 seconds each, for 30 minutes total.
Come sunset, your brain’s pineal gland starts to secrete this sleep-promoting hormone. (Levels peak in the wee a.m. hours.) It needs total darkness to work: Real or artificial light puts the kibosh on production, which is bad news, because melatonin also counteracts stress and acts as a free-radical-busting antioxidant. In fact, low melatonin levels have been linked to obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
Balance It Out: If your bedroom isn’t pitch-black, you’re not optimizing your output of melatonin. Banish any light-emitting electronic devices (cell phones, laptops, TVs) and try an eye mask or invest in black-out window shades. Ditch your bra and leggings and sleep au naturel: Studies show that tight clothing can curb melatonin production by up to 60 percent. You can also snack on a few melatonin-rich cherries before bedtime.
Your brain releases the so-called love hormone whenever you touch someone (a lover, a friend). High levels can bolster sex drive, heighten trust, beat back stress, and lower blood pressure. They can also impair memory, which may be why “hugging it out” actually works—releasing oxytocin could essentially help you forget a fight. Estrogen greatly enhances oxytocin’s effects, making women bond more intensely after sex, and making a normal touch a turn-on during ovulation.
Balance It Out: Snuggling—with your mate or even your pet—can trigger oxytocin. So can just thinking about touch: In one study, levels were lifted in women who daydreamed about their partner. But the best way to trigger a love rush is to hop into the sack. Oxytocin levels typically skyrocket during and after orgasm.
Thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3)
The thyroid gland’s hormones act as the body’s internal thermostat; they’re also major players in regulating your metabolism and energy levels. Unfortunately, factors such as chronic stress, nutritional deficiencies, and inflammation can throw these hormones out of whack, leaving you with too much or too little, and feeling fatigued, constipated, or constantly cold, says physician Rashel J. Tahzib, D.O., of Advance Health Integrative Medicine in Los Angeles.
Balance It Out: Environmental toxins, including bisphenol A (BPA), the nasty chemical in certain plastics, can also disrupt thyroid function, says Tahzib. Be sure to research plastic products before buying and remember that BPA can lurk in sneaky places like plastic to-go coffee cup lids (so toss ’em, don’t sip through them). Heavy metals like mercury—often found in big fish like tuna—may incite a thyroid imbalance.
Estrogen and progesterone
As your ovaries ramp up production of one female sex hormone, they simultaneously slow down production of the other; it’s a vital seesaw that keeps your reproductive system running (and, sadly, ushers in PMS). But the happy partnership can be compromised by weight gain, chronic stress, and exposure to toxic chemicals like BPA. And unchecked estrogen levels can tamper with your libido and lead to irritability, migraines, depression, extreme PMS, and a host of reproductive disorders, says ob-gyn C. W. Randolph, M.D., of the Natural Hormone Institute in Jacksonville, Florida.
Balance It Out: Your best defense against an imbalance is eating an organic, whole-food diet and maintaining a healthy weight (excess body fat secretes extra estrogen). “Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower, citrus fruits, and whole grains are crucial for regulating estrogen,” says Randolph. Cut back on processed junk and eat more foods like kale, spinach, oranges, and brown rice.
Yup, you’ve got it too. While your ovaries and adrenal glands churn out just 10 percent of the testosterone that guys have, the male sex hormone plays the same role in any body: It pumps up sexual desire, muscle strength, bone density, and metabolism. Too little of the stuff can leave you sluggish, depressed, and disinterested (“Not tonight, honey…”), but too much can lead to acne and facial hair, among other unsightly woes.
Balance It Out: Experts are still researching how women can best keep their testosterone at a healthy level. One thing they do know: Some female-centric conditions, including polycystic ovary syndrome, can cause big testosterone spikes (and that unfortunate facial hair). If you suspect an imbalance, head to your ob-gyn for help.
Leptin and ghrelin
Your hunger hormones are always playing tug-of-war, telling you when to eat and when to back away from the fridge. Ghrelin, produced in the stomach and pancreas, alerts your brain when your belly is empty. Leptin, secreted by fat cells, triggers appetite-suppressing hormones when you’ve eaten enough. The evenly matched duo can be knocked off course by sugar, which can impede leptin production, leaving ghrelin to send out unwarranted hunger signals.
Balance It Out: Slash the amount of refined sugar in your diet. Americans consume an average of 22 teaspoons per day, but women should be eating no more than six, according to the American Heart Association.
Partly responsible for mood and memory, serotonin is mostly produced in the gut. Often called the feel-good hormone or neurotransmitter, it also helps control the ability to multitask. Screwy levels are linked to obsessive behavior (ever been stuck on one idea?) and depression.
Balance It Out: Your body needs carbs to make serotonin, so a low-carb diet can lead to a hormonal dip (and a rise in foul moods). You also need the amino acid tryptophan to make serotonin; get plenty in foods like yogurt and bananas, says Susan M. Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., author of The Good Mood Diet.
November 14, 2011