Our health is our wealth, our lifestyle choices are our health insurance, this allows us to do the things we love with a pep in our step. So when it comes to eating, and lifestyle choices, being mindful of what affect the food being consumed and the way we think may be having on our body, is something that can often be over looked until a health complication rares its ugly head. In this blog I go into a little more depth so a pre warning its a longer and slightly health nerdy read...
Travelling tends to open your eyes in many ways, you are exposed to new experiences, cultural traditions, foods and ways of life. For us sailing means life is changing constantly when we are on the move. The types of foods that are available, the people we meet, physical activity that we do, all changes constantly. One thing that can stay constant is the choices we make to take control of our health. Following up from my previous blog on how going sailing had a positive affect on my own health and well being, lets now take more of a look at food and life style choices that can have an affect on health with a focus on hormonal balance and inflammation.
So what are hormones, put simply ? Hormones are chemical messengers that communicate between our body systems to regulate and control thier functions. Hormones play many important roles in our body including quality sleep, brain function, growth, energy metabolism, reproduction, mood, stress response, muscle growth, immune function, respiration, hunger, sex drive, feeling of happiness and more. If even just one hormone becomes unbalanced, it can result in many different health complications. The six big hormones that play many important roles and are more commonly seen to be disrupted by stress, lack of sleep and un balanced diet are Progesterone, Testosterone, Estrogen, Insulin, Cortisol and Thyroid hormone.
Hormonal imbalance is a common occurrence in our modern society and there are many contributors to the root course. Factors such as our exposure to hormone disrupting toxins in our environment and foods, long term use of hormone replacement therapies like the oral contraceptive pill, caffeine, testosterone boosters (supplements commonly used in sport and body building), sleep deprivation, work environment such as shift workers, genetic predisposition, stress, too much or not enough exercise, poor dietary choices, food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies and gut dysbiosis (un balanced gut microbiome) are just some of the triggers of hormonal dysfunction. To take control of hormonal disorders, we need to stop masking the symptoms and focus on what the contributing factors may be, focus on the root cause. If your temperature gage on your car was showing red hot, you wouldn't just cover the light in the dash with some sticky tape. As you can see there are many factors that can impact our hormones and there is no one typical pattern with a quick fix or a pill. Each individuals symptoms and unique case history needs to be looked at individually, however stress is a common factor often overlooked, that causes inflammation and imbalance in both Women and Men.
So whats the big deal with Stress ? When we become chronically stressed, we often don't even realise and for some if left untreated this can lead to complications such as auto immune diseases including thyroid disease, hashimotos and inflammatory bowel disease. Stress sends our body into whats known as as flight or fight mode, this often leads to elevated levels of hormones - insulin and cortisol. Stressors can include psychological stress (a deadline at work), physiological stress (pushing our bodies), emotional (past and present traumatic or emotional events) , immunological ( infection bacterial, viral and parasytic, inflammation) , environmental ( allergens, toxins, irritants) and sometimes a combination of all of these. Elevated insulin and cortisol can lead to unstable blood glucose control and ability to metabolise fat making stress not only a hormone disruptor but also a limiting factor to fat loss.
What are some common signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalance
- mood swings
- feeling of racing from one task to the next
- irregular periods or no period
- unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- Depression and anxiety
- difficulty losing weight
- unexplained weight loss
- poor sleep
- Low sex drive
- Changes in appetite
- Digestive issues, bloating, constipation,
- hair thinning and hair loss
- ance and skin issues
- fluid retention
- tender breasts
- night sweats
- Hirsutism (excessive hair growth, including in places women don’t usually grow hair, such as on the face and abdomen)
- sugar cravings
- brain fog
- poor muscle tone
- poor immune system (poor healing)
- candida (thrush)
- Immune disorders
- stiffness and body aches and pains
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance can vary dramatically depending on the root cause, stress however can be a contributing factor and exacerbate hormonal disorders.
The above symptoms can be signs of the on set of common hormonal disorders including:
- Low Progesterone Has a profound affect on the body, it works to balance estrogen, and assists with brain function, sleep and the feeling of calm and being in control. High stress hormone cortisol can throw the balance out and can lead to low progesterone. Irregular period and PMS, tender breasts, cravings and mood swings just before your period. Low progesterone is seen in PCOS.
- PCOS polycystic ovarian syndrome elevated testosterone, low progesterone increased estrogen symptoms can vary but may include, weight gain, hair growth, iregular periods, high blood glucose (insulin resistance), sleep disturbance, painful jawline pimples and acne, infertility.
- Estrogen dominance changes in sleep patterns, changes in weight and appetite, higher perceived stress, slowed metabolism and can lead to endometriosis
- Low estrogen levels: low libido, menstrual irregularity, reproductive issues, mood changes, night sweats and hot flushes
- Hypothyroidism weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, overwhelm, digestive issues, irregular periods, become irritated easily, depression, difficulty concentrating
- Low testosterone: low sex drive, muscle loss, weight gain, fatigue, erectile dysfunction, mood swings, hair loss, sagging skin, poor muscle tone.
- Hyperthyroidism and Graves disease anxiety, weight loss, digestive problems and sensitivities, insomnia, irregular heartbeats
- Insulin resistance and pre diabetes: weight gain, sugar cravings, fatigue, trouble breathing, dry mouth, skin problems, dizziness, headaches, poor wound healing
- Adrenal fatigue: extreme tiredness, muscle aches and pains, depression, low motivation, trouble sleeping, brain fog, trouble falling pregnant, poor immune system function, suffer with bronchitis, flu and is often related to stress.
What can we do to prevent hormonal imbalance? It is not all doom and gloom. With research in the area of hormonal health becoming stronger the evidence shows that a combination of natural and conventional medicines, nourishing fresh foods, and lifestyle changes can prevent, reverse and aid in the management of hormonal health concerns. I for one know personally that sleep deprivation, un nrecognised stress, and possible genetic pre disposition of insulin resistance, hidden sugars in "healthy foods" and long term use of the oral contraceptive were contributors to the hormonal storm I experienced and have managed through diet and lifestyle. I wrote about his in my previous blog.
I believe that balancing hormones is not achieved through taking a pill, it takes bringing in achievable positive and consistent changes over time. Put simply a lifestyle that keeps our hormones in check and immune system in homeostasis is about consistency, not perfection, nourishing with food not deprivation!
So lets highlight some lifestyle and dietary changes that can be implemented to reduce stress and cortisol, boost energy, mood and get those hormones back in check.
Lifestyle and environment
- Reduce exposure to chemicals how many house hold cleaning products do you have? bleaches, oven cleaners, antibacterial and mould killers, weed killer, bug sprays, the list goes on. Choose natural alternatives, there are many safe, less toxic cleaning products on the market now days or you can make your own. bicarb soda and vinegar are great house hold cleaners along with tea tree oil and eucalyptus.
- Cosmetics chemicals in cosmetic products can easily be absorbed through your skin. Think of all the different body products you may use, highly scented body washes, moisturises, deodorants, perfumes, make up, sunscreens, hair spray and tooth paste. All these products can be contributing to hormonal imbalance and irritation as well as an impact on the environment. We may not all be able to live like hippies and I get it that some of our lifestyles and jobs may require you to look a certain way. You can however make a choice to reduce the amount of cosmetics you wear and choose products that are safer on your skin.
- Get fresh air and sunshine daily Make time during your day to go for a walk or sit outside for example in the park during your lunch break at work. Getting out doors, taking your shoes off and walking on the grass, breathing in fresh clean air, breathing slowly and getting sunshine on your skin can calm anxiety, reduce tension and of course get your daily dose of vitamin D
- Exercise regularly in a way that is suitable for you If you are feeling tired don't push your body by pounding away on the treadmill or pushing through a long cardio session. It is great to get your heart rate up and fantastic to sweat, but research suggests that that 30 - 1 hour cardio session or high intensity workout can increase cortisol levels so you may in fact be contributing to hormonal imbalance. Mix things up, try some yoga and Pilates, suspension training, interval strength training, particpate in group training. Exercise is a great way to make release feel good endorphins, and assist in stress reduction but be careful not to over to it. listen to your body.
- Socialise and surround yourself with people who make you feel great. The people we spend time with play a major role in our health and well being. Catching up with friends for a walk, being a part of a social group, spending time with loved ones and people who make you feel good is a great way to reduce cortisol and stress. Don't under estimate the power of a good old 20 second hug!
Avoid food packaging and plastic container storage. It is hard to avoid plastics when they are everywhere, on our foods we buy in the supermarket, in our clothing, in food and drink storage containers. Some of the chemicals that they are made from can mimic hormones and bind to hormone receptor sites. These chemicals are known as xenohormones and they affect endocrine system function which throws out our hormonal balance. This occurs when Xenohormones impact on the way natural hormones are produced, metabolized and eliminated. The most harmful chemical found in plastics is Bisphenal - A, or you may know it as BPA. BPA is commonly found in plastic water bottles, food packaging, plastic food wrap as well as food storage plastic containers. Reducing plastic is better for you and the enviroment. Some ways you can avoid harmful chemicals in plastics are - Store water in BPA free water bottles, Store left over food in class or BPA free storage containers, use bees wax wraps instead of plastic wrap for storing food, do not re-heat or cook your food in plastics or cling wrap and when purchasing meats you can take your own storage container to the deli or your local butcher.
Nourish your body with the building blocks in whole foods to optimise your hormonal function and prevent chronic disease. Even small changes in diet can make a profound difference to hormonal balance. Gradual changes to the diet are easier for the body to adapt to and this often means you are more likely to stay consistent, to keep things simple eat REAL, WHOLE foods the way nature intended and reduce processed "food".
- Don't cut carbs eat the right carbs. Avoid refined carbohydrates, bread, pasta, rice, sweats, biscuits, pastries as well added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Instead eat nutrient, vitamin and mineral rich carbs like fibrous vegetables. Where possible choose in season vegetables and fruit and remember fruit it is also a natural source of sugar. So over indulging on sweet, ripe fruits can also increase insulin. Fruits are a wonderful natural source of vitamins, fibre, antioxidants and digestive enzymes but should be consumed wisely. When aiming to stabalise blood glucose it is best to choose fruits lower in fructose. Some examples of fruits lower in natural sugars are blue berries, raspberries, blackberries, lemons, limes, grapefruit and kiwi fruit.
- Eat vegetables that will assist with elimination and detoxification processes, reduce inflammation, and promote cellular repair. Some great choices to include regularly are broccoli, leek, red cabbage, bitter greens, kale, brussel sprouts, swiss chard, cellery, zuchini, bok choy mushrooms of all sorts experiment ( shiitake are also a medicinal mushroom) . When consuming starchy vegetables don't over do it as they are high in carbohydrate and although a better choice than processed carbohydrates, they are still converted in the body to glucose, increasing blood glucose and insulin levels. Some lower carbohydrate root vegetables with beneficial nutrient value are sweet potato, beetroot, pumpkin, onion and radish. Use plenty of herbs and spices. Some great common choices are rosemary, parsley, mint, thyme, basil, fresh garlic, ginger and tumeric - Not only will your gut love you for it but also herbs and spices add amazing flavors to your food so you can avoid processed artificial flavoring and sauces. They also have many healing properties including anti bacterial, anti fungal, assist elimination processes and decreasing inflammation. People often comment on how much garlic, and ginger I add to our meals on Roam, but when they realise that there is no need for processed flavoring and sauces they quickly come around.
- READ THE NUTRITION PANEL on the food products you are buying. Do not be fooled by the "health isle" in the supermarket or the low fat, gluten free, star rating and health tick. It is a confusing experience being a consumer with so many different options, shiny packaging and clever marketing ploys. Your best bet is to just read the label, compare products and look for the lowest in sugar, avoid polyunsaturated processed fats like seed oils, canola and vegetable oils and take note of how many grams of carbohydrate. Breakfast cereals, muesli bars and margarine speads are the biggest commonly mistaken healthy options. Again just eat REAL food.
- Avoid sugar, Sugar increases plasma insulin, insulin resistance which can imbalance sex hormones. Sugar consumption is a major course of excess adipose tissue (fat tissue) increasing in the body particularly around the belly. This greatly increases risk of chronic disease and plays havoc on hormonal balance. Remember that high carbohydrate foods are converted to glucose (sugar) in the body and if not used for energy processes in the body then is stored as fat. Breakfast cereals are one of the most overlooked foods that often even get marketed as a healthy choice. If you cant live without your breakfast cereal first thing in the morning then choose one with a lower carbohydrate and sugar content or mix things up and have natural whole fat yogurt or coconut yogurt, chia seed pudding with some blue berries and cinnamon or a cooked breakfast instead.
Avoid over consumption of foods that cause inflammation - Sugar, processed fats, alcohol, caffiene, too much red meat and refined carbohydrates. This doesn't mean you can not enjoy the occasional treat or let your hair down every now and then, a healthy diet and lifestyle is about making smart decisions and achieving balance. I like to aim for an achievable 80/20 ratio. 80% of the time I eat unprocessed foods, avoid sugar, processed fats and alcohol. 20 % of the time I allow myself to enjoy a glass of red wine with friends or just with a book on the couch, I like to enjoy a hot drink accompanied by a couple of pieces of chocolate or occasionally share a interesting dessert from a restaurant menu when out with Mick. Balance is the key.
- Introduce eco warriors - help the internal eco system of your gut by introducing pre and pro biotic foods. Fibrous vegetables create the perfect food for our microbiome and the probiotics we may be taking as a supplement. Some of my favourite probitotic foods include
- Ensure you are getting optimal good quality REAL protein- This doesn't mean you have to go out and eat a 50 ounce steak or down some fancy protein shake full of fillers, sweeteners and flavoring . Think of a portion of protein as the palm of your hand weather that's steak, chicken duck, lamb or fish. Go for the grass fed and organic where you can. Prioritise quality over quantity, this goes for vegetarian and vegan sources also free range eggs, organic fermented soy. Remember many vegan protein sources can also be a source of carbohydrate as well so be sure you are balancing your meals so it is not too high in carbohydrate.
- vegan sources of protein may include beans, soy, tofu, lentils, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Include good fats in the diet DO NOT avoid Fats Include a small amount of fat to each meal. For years health guidelines recommended us to avoid fats and health experts believed that it was saturated fats that were contributing to heart disease and high cholesterol levels. This brought about the "low fat" diets, food products and had many avoiding fat all together. New research shows that healthy fats are in fact protective against heart disease, essential for hormonal function as well as many other mechanisms in the body including cognitive function, immune modulation, cellular and tissue growth ( 1). However there is still much confusion around fat. To keep it simple avoid the processed fats and eat more of the natural fats. Not all fats are created equally, fats found naturally in foods include saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated omega-6, polyunsaturated omega-3. There are two main categories of healthy fats - Saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are further broken down into polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. It is important to get a balance of these fats in the diet but how do you know which to consume and avoid.
Some healthy fats that are beneficial in the diet include:
Saturated healthy fats:
- Small amounts of red meats (preferable grass fed, organic)
- Full fat dairy such as butter, ghee, whole heavy cream, aged cheese, raw whole milk (preferably grass fed and organic) also keeping in mind many people are sensitive to dairy and may be better with goats or sheeps milk alternatives.
- Animal fats such as lard, tallow and free range eggs
- Virgin organic coconut oil
- Coconut and Coconut oil products such as coconut flour, coconut flakes and butter
- MCT oil
- Cocoa butter
Healthy unsaturated fats - Monounsaturated fats ( MUFAS) and Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAS):
- Extra virgin olive oil
- avocados and avocado oil
- Nuts such as cashews, almonds, pecans, macadamia and Brazil nuts
Polyunsaturated fats to inlcude
- Nuts and seeds such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds
- oils like flax seeds oil, fish and krill oil, avocado oil
- Fatty fish and seafood like wild caught salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna and trout
Fats to avoid: Read your nutrition label on food products and avoid processed fats. Many food products use highly processed seed and vegetable oils which cause inflammation in the body and new research shows consumption is linked to many health disorders including hormonal imbalance, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. For some great ideas how to implement a healthy amount of good fats and limit bad fats in your diet, one of my favorite pages and support networks is Nutrition for life health care.
Fats to avoid:
- vegetable and seed oils
- Soybean oil
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Canola oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Safflower oil
- Rice bran oil
Which fats to cook in ?
What May a Nutritionist look for in assessing your health hormonal balance
- Take a detailed heath history and lifestyle profile
- Tracking your mood, food intake, digestion and menstrual cycle ( in women )
- Look for deficiencies in minerals such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, and B vitamins.
- A full cycle hormonal panel test as opposed to just spot checking hormonal panel
- Health history patterns
- microbiome analysis
There are many positive choices we can make to help keep our hormones in check and reduce over all inflammation in our body, however knowing what is going on in your unique situation is really where I believe management should start. If you are suffering with signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalance seeing a nutritionist, dietitian or naturopath is a good place to start. A thorough health history, consultation and where appropriate functional testing will paint a clearer picture of what is going on and guide you with an individualised, and effective management plan that works for you starting with the root course. Making small changes one step at a time can make a BIG improvement to your health YOUR WEALTH.