Hormones play a key role in the emotional state of both men and women, but as women we are more likely to experience extreme and sudden changes in mood as a result of our hormones, mainly due to the monthly cycle and changing levels of progesterone and estrogen.
Imbalances in hormones can affect our physical health, as well as our mental health. The hormonal shifts caused by the menstrual cycle, the menopause and pregnancy, can lead to irritability, lethargy, cravings and more for many women. A decrease in testosterone levels that typically occur in men in their 50s, can cause hair loss, weight gain and lethargy. In both sexes, imbalances of certain hormones can lead to thyroid problems and diabetes.
The good news is that with the right nutrition, vitamins and lifestyle, we can help support and regulate our hormones, thereby lessening some of the unwanted physical and mental symptoms of hormonal imbalances.
Why hormone imbalances occur
Hormonal level changes occur naturally at certain times in our lives; during puberty, in pregnancy and during the menopause. Hormone imbalances can be caused by an unbalanced lifestyle, inadequate nutrition, stress and environmental toxins.
In order to help prevent such imbalances occurring, it is important we understand the exact causes of them in female hormones.
The environment can play a role in disrupting our hormones and causing imbalances. For example, the chemical found in plastics known as bisphenol-A (BPA) can disrupt the endocrine system (the body's chemical messaging system, consisting of hormones and the glands that produce them and carry them to the circulatory system) and has been linked to hormonal disruption. More than 90% of the world’s population are thought to have BPA in their urine. Such chemicals can bind to hormone receptor sites and disrupt the body’s natural hormonal balance - and these are known as endocrine disruptors.
Pesticides such as DDT are also regarded as a cause of major hormone dysfunction in humans, as can dioxins, certain cosmetics and household chemicals such as detergents.
Being exposed to the environmental estrogens found in chemicals, plants and the environment mimics the effect of the estrogen hormone, resulting in unnatural hormonal patterns.
The food you eat
Food regulates many of our bodily functions, including the transport of certain hormones.
Consuming certain foods in moderation can help the body maintain a healthy hormone balance. For example, sugar is known for wreaking havoc on the hormones as it can lead to spikes in the hormone insulin. A diet that is high in sugar can cause insulin levels to rise until the cells develop resistance. This causes the body to focus more on processing the sugar and less on the other hormones, resulting in an imbalance in estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, amongst other hormones.
Other food can disrupt hormonal balance. The combination of gluten and sugar found in white bread, for example, can increase inflammation in the body, putting stress on the adrenal glands. This can lead to a fall in the production of estrogen and progesterone, adrenals and thyroid, negatively affecting the balance of the hormones.
Stress, both physical and mental, can also affect the balance of our hormones due to rising levels of cortisol, when we are feeling stressed our hormones can become out of sync. In stressful situations, our bodies start using progesterone and transforming it into cortisol.
During stressful periods when cortisol levels are raised, the adrenal glands steal vital nutrients from the thyroid gland in order to manage this stress-state. This ‘cortisol steal’ can impact negatively on our thyroid function - the gland that regulates most systems in the body - potentially leading to poor memory, weight gain, lower immune function and affected ovarian function.
Hormone imbalances can also be caused by certain medication. Hormone drugs, like birth control pills, disrupt a woman’s normal hormone production with a synthetic version of progesterone and estrogen. Some birth control pills prevent ovulation by eliminating the peak of estrogen, so the ovary doesn’t receive the signal to release an egg.
What Vitamins can help to balance hormones
Whilst many hormonal imbalances should be discussed with a doctor, vitamins can play an effective role in supporting and balancing the healthy hormone production in your body. However, it is important to consult your GP if you have lots of symptoms or a condition that needs further support to ensure that any supplements you take are suited to you and are not interfering with any medication that you may be taking.
If you do suffer from physical or mental issues caused by hormonal imbalance, you may want to consider taking the following vitamins to help support a more healthy and balanced system:
Vitamin D and thyroid dysfunction
Vitamin D can help play a part in regulating insulin and the thyroid hormone. Research shows that a deficiency of vitamin D is associated with a high risk of thyroid antibodies, which are found in individuals suffering with autoimmune thyroid disorders. A vitamin D supplement can help with the regulation of insulin flow and balance blood sugar, allowing the body's natural hormone cycles to function more effectively.
Vitamin B6 and PMS
Vitamin B6 can help alleviate some of the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), such as mood changes and irritability. Studies have proven that taking around 100 milligrams of B6 daily can be an effective way to ward off PMS symptoms associated with mood and emotion - it helps in synthesising some of the neurotransmitters that affect these feelings.
Vitamin E and menopause
For menopausal women, supporting the body with vitamin E can help ease certain symptoms. Taking vitamin E as a supplement can help alleviate the severity of many common menopausal symptoms, including insomnia, hot flashes, night sweats, palpitations and vaginal dryness. It is believed that vitamin E actually reduces stress through its natural antioxidant properties.
Vitamin Niacin (B3) and stress
Niacin is one of the B-complex vitamins, known as B3. One of B3’s unique properties is its ability to help you relax and aid a more restful night of sleep. This is due to the fact B3 relaxes the muscle tissue, allowing the arteries to widen and blood flow to increase. This leads to increased blood flow and reduced blood pressure. By aiding relaxation and better sleep, niacin is associated with significantly reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Niacin can cause skin flushing so take advice on dosage from a health professional.
Balancing your Hormone Levels
Along with taking vitamin supplements to help support your hormone cycles and offset some of the negative physical and mental symptoms of hormonal imbalances, there are other simple but effective things you can do to balance your hormone levels.
You can help regulate your hormone levels by:
- Drinking up to 2 litres of plain filtered water daily
- Being aware of the saturated and trans fats you are eating
- Reduce processed foods
- Limit sugar intake and refined carbohydrates
- Choose nutritious food, naturally rich in vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin B6 and niacin
- Regularly exercising
- Getting adequate, good quality sleep
- Being aware of your stress triggers
- Avoiding under-eating or overeating by eating regularly and consciously
- Include omega 3- rich oily fish in your diet
- Include fibre-rich food in your disruptors diet such as whole wheat bread, peas, beans and pulses
- Eating sufficient protein such as eggs, fish, meat and nuts
The contraceptive pill and the suppression of progesterone
As touched upon earlier, most contraceptive pills purposely disrupt the natural menstruation cycle by producing progestin and suppressing the production of progesterone (the combined pill works by suppressing the production of Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinising Hormone (LH), as well as producing synthetic progesterone). Eating foods that are naturally rich in certain nutrients and taking supplements can help boost your progesterone levels and balance the hormonal disturbances caused by taking the contraceptive pill.
Vitamins and nutrients that are associated with boosting progesterone levels include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin B6
When it comes to our hormones, the food and nutrients we consume, alongside the lifestyle we choose, can directly affect our mood, sleep, memory and emotions. They can also play a role in certain physical factors, such as the condition of our skin and our weight.
Whilst we shouldn't try to control our hormones, we must support and nourish them in our day to day lived to keep them functioning effectively. Eating a well-balanced diet, taking vitamin supplements if necessary and getting plenty of exercise and sufficient sleep, can lead to more balanced hormones. And with balanced hormones comes a happier and less stressed out you.