Your hormones might not be something you can readily see, but you can definitely feel when they’re amiss. Hormones refer to the chemical messengers in your body that affect everything from your metabolism to mood and sexual function.
Endocrine glands—the pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands, among others—are at the helm of hormonal production. “Everything in our body is controlled by hormones—your temperature, hunger, satiety, sleepiness, fat storage or burn, stress response, and more. Rather than acting independently of each other, our body’s hormones are constantly interacting in a very delicate balance with each other,” explains Parsley health coach Danielle DeSimone.
And we, in part, have control over that balance, as there are many lifestyle habits and environmental factors that can affect hormone function and production. When too much or too little of a hormone is produced, it can send your body out of whack. “When hormones are balanced, our bodies run like a well-oiled machine. But when one aspect of hormonal health is off-balance, it’s like a domino effect that can cause negative consequences in many other areas,” says DeSimone.
Here are some common factors that may affect your hormonal health—and what you can do to get things back on track.
Poor sleep can mean a lot of things. It might mean that you’re not getting enough of it. Maybe, despite being in bed for 8 hours per night, you’re getting poor quality of sleep, so you wake up feeling groggy and unrefreshed. Either can affect your hormone function in a variety of ways.
“One night of poor sleep—defined as less than six hours—makes the body more resistant to the effects of insulin the next day,” says DeSimone. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas in response to the rise in blood sugar that happens after eating. When insulin is released, it helps push glucose from the bloodstream into cells, which ultimately gives you energy.
“Normally, just enough insulin is secreted to help store glucose in our cells for energy, and then it leaves our bloodstream until the next meal or snack,” DeSimone says. But insulin resistance means cells don’t normally respond to insulin—it leaves things akin to a noisy neighbor who’s constantly knocking on your door (but no one’s responding), she describes. When glucose can’t enter cells, it sits in the bloodstream, which creates more insulin release. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance that’s implicated with many chronic health conditions.
Not only that, but poor sleep also skews hunger and fullness hormones like leptin and ghrelin, which have the role of telling you when to eat and when to stop. You might notice that after a night of poor sleep, you’re feeling more snacky—and those snacks are more of the processed, sugary kind.
And because sleep is such a big factor in hormonal health, there’s one more issue to cover, and that’s its effect on the stress hormone cortisol. “When we’re sleep deprived cortisol increases, especially later in the day when it should be tapering down to prepare for quality sleep. This not only causes trouble sleeping and can lead to the ‘tired but wired’ feeling many of us experience,” says DeSimone. Increased cortisol levels also prompt your body to prioritize fat storage and burn muscle tissue, ultimately leading to weight gain, she says.
There are some medications that are designed to correct a hormonal imbalance, with the goal of healthy hormones. (One straightforward example: Taking medication to correct hypothyroidism.) But medications can also have the opposite effect: “Everything we put in our body has effects on our homeostasis, or our body’s natural balance,” says DeSimone. “There is no such thing as a medication that will do one specific thing and leave the rest of the body’s systems unaffected,” she explains.
There are so many times when a medication is warranted. Sometimes, you might be taking multiple medications from different specialists and they might actually be working against one another, or not working in the best way for you. At Parsley, your Care Team will thoroughly review your medications and make suggestions to streamline, if necessary.
Stress is inevitable. But it can also be useful, as it can push you to get things completed and stay on task. But there’s been way more of it during the pandemic, and so it can feel as if stress just won’t let up. And that’s a problem, especially for hormone health.
“Our bodies are smartly designed to effectively manage acute stressors and then return to our normal, lower stress state once they are handled,” says DeSimone. Without the benefit of rest and relaxation, however, your body stays in a chronically high state of stress. “We are constantly surrounded by both physical and mental stressors in the form of constant emails, work, social media, nutrient-depleted foods, stressful commutes, street noise, poor mental health, and more,” she says. And these all affect our hormones function.
Chronic stress forces your body to prioritize functions that are only absolutely necessary. “Thyroid hormones may slow down to conserve energy, reproduction may also slow or even stop, and it may become difficult to get a good night’s sleep with elevated stress hormones,” says DeSimone.
At Parsley Health, your Care Team might consider a condition called HPA Axis Dysfunction (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction), which is a problem among the interaction between adrenal, sex, and thyroid hormones. High-stress levels suppress both thyroid and sex hormones, DeSimone says. As a result, you may see issues related to thyroid hormones (low energy, problems with temperature regulation, weight gain) and, for women, sex hormones (irregular periods and more severe PMS symptoms). Your clinician can help you determine how to prioritize your responsibilities, build resilience to stress, and set systems in place to prevent burnout.
Caffeine and alcohol
When you’re stressed or sluggish, you may reflexively reach for caffeine, but that can backfire. “Caffeine is a stimulant that increases cortisol when ingested, which is not a good thing for people who are under a lot of stress, have anxiety, or have an adrenal or thyroid imbalance,” says DeSimone. Alcohol might be sipped as stress relief, but it can affect your liver, leading to estrogen buildup. Plus, while alcohol is a sedative, it’s also famous for disrupting sleep.
She recommends switching to green tea or matcha green tea, which is packed with L-theanine, a “chill out” chemical that buffers the body’s stress response, and a much better option for hormone health.
Excess sugar consumption
Sugar found in highly processed foods like refined grains, white flours, sweets, baked goods, and alcohol are metabolized as sugar in your body, says DeSimone. Overconsumption of these foods can lead to problems with insulin sensitivity, as well as with the appetite hormones ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and leptin (the fullness hormone) that can drive cravings for sugar and prompt overeating, she explains. (Here is some healthy recipe inspiration to start you on a path to better nutrition, for you and your hormones function.)
There are many environmental toxins that are categorized as endocrine disruptors. “While there are many types of endocrine disruptors, the ones that are most relevant to Parsley Health are the xenoestrogens found in tap water, plastics, beauty products, household cleaners, food additives, and flame retardants in furniture,” says DeSimone. These chemicals mimic estrogen in the body, leading to an estrogen buildup in the body. It’s difficult to eliminate these from your life entirely, but you can reduce their burden with simple lifestyle measures: asking for an email (not printed) receipt at the store; avoiding plastic water bottles and plastic wrap on food (and using glass or stainless steel instead); using natural skincare and household cleaners.
How Parsley Health approaches hormonal balance and hormone health
When you first meet with your Care Team, you’ll have an in-depth conversation about your overall health, symptoms, and lifestyle. “This helps our doctors order the best tests so that we can take a deeper look into what’s going on under the hood, so to speak,” says DeSimone. This might include more extensive and comprehensive labs than you’re used to, including blood, urine, saliva, stool, and others.
Any health conditions will be treated as needed, but that’s not where it ends. Your clinician and health coach will work with you holistically, to uncover the root cause of the problem. “That helps us work on correcting it from the inside out with lifestyle modifications to your diet, stress management, sleep hygiene, and physical activity,” she says, and all which affect healthy hormones.