When it comes to health, hormones and gut bacteria have a much bigger effect than many people realize. In fact, these two factors can destroy health even if everything else (diet, supplements, etc) is optimized. Conversely, fixing hormones and gut bacteria can do a lot to boost health, even if not all the other factors are optimal. In fact, there are even studies about using certain hormone reactions to heal brain trauma.
If you doubt the very real power of hormones to affect everything from mood, to weight, to bowel health, ask the nearest pregnant woman if she’s noticed any difference in these areas since being pregnant. Or ask the nearest 13 year old girl… carefully…
If you have symptoms like fatigue, skin issues, weight gain, weight around the middle, trouble sleeping, always sleeping, PMS, endometriosis, infertility, PCOS or other issues, chances are you have hormone imbalance!
What are Hormones?“Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. They travel in your bloodstream to tissues or organs. They work slowly, over time, and affect many different processes, including
- Growth and development
- Metabolism – how your body gets energy from the foods you eat
- Sexual function
Hormones are produced using good fats and cholesterol, so lack of these important dietary factors can cause hormone problems simply because the body doesn’t have the building blocks to make them. Toxins containing chemicals that mimic these building blocks or that mimic the hormones themselves are also problematic because the body can attempt to create hormones using the wrong building blocks… mutant estrogen anyone?
The endocrine system is a complex system that we will probably never completely understand, but there are some basic things you can do to boost your body’s ability to create and balance hormones:
1. Avoid High Omega-6 Polyunsaturated FatsI’ve talked about this before, but the body is simply not meant to consume these man-made fats found in vegetable oils. From that article:
The human body is about 97% saturated and monounsaturated fat, with only 3 % Polyunsaturated fats. Half of that three percent is Omega-3 fats, and that balance needs to be there. Vegetable oils contain very high levels of polyunsaturated fats, and these oils have replaced many of the saturated fats in our diets since the 1950s.
The body needs fats for rebuilding cells and hormone production, but it has to use the building blocks we give it. When we give it a high concentration of polyunsaturated fats instead of the ratios it needs, it has no choice but to incorporate these fats into our cells during cell repair and creation.
The problem is that polyunsaturated fats are highly unstable and oxidize easily in the body (if they haven’t already oxidized during processing or by light exposure while sitting on the grocery store shelf). These oxidized fats cause inflammation and mutation in cells.
In arterial cells, these mutations cause inflammation that can clog arteries. When these fats are incorporated into skin cells, their mutation causes skin cancer. (This is why people often get the most dangerous forms of skin cancer in places where they are never exposed to the sun, but that is a topic for another day!)
When these oils are incorporated into cells in reproductive tissue, some evidence suggests that this can spur problems like endometriosis and PCOS. In short, the body is made up of saturated and monounsaturated fats, and it needs these for optimal health.”
Bottom line: Don’t eat fats like Vegetable oil, peanut oil, canola oil, soybean oil, margarine, shortening or other chemically altered fats. Choose fats like coconut oil, real butter, olive oil (don’t heat!) and animal fats (tallow, lard) from healthy sources instead and eat lots of high Omega-3 fish.
2. Limit the CaffeineI love coffee, a lot, but the truth is that too much caffeine can wreak havoc on the endocrine system, especially if there are other hormone stressors involved too like pregnancy, presence of toxins, beneficial fat imbalance or stress.
Cut down the coffee if you can, or replace with beneficial herbal teas (a list of my favorite recipes coming soon!). If you can’t or won’t cut the coffee, use it as a way to sneak in your beneficial fats by adding 1 tablespoon coconut oil to each cup and blending in the blender to emulsify. It is like a latte but with healthy fats!
3. Avoid ToxinsToxins found in pesticides, plastics, household chemicals and even mattresses can contain hormone disrupting chemicals that mimic hormones in the body and keep the body from producing real hormones. Things like hormonal birth control can (obviously) do the same thing.
If you have hormone imbalance or are struggling to get pregnant, avoiding these toxins is very important! Cook in glass or non-coated metal pans (no non-stick or teflon!) and avoid heating or storing foods in plastic. Find organic produce and meat whenever possible and don’t use chemical pesticides or cleaners. There are recipes for natural cleaners on this page.
4. SLEEPCan’t emphasize this one enough (tried with the all-caps-yelling though)! If you aren’t getting enough sleep, your hormone will not be balanced. Period.
Use these tips to help improve your sleep and just do it! This can singlehandedly improve hormones and is even linked to longer life, less chance of disease and optimizing weight.
5. Supplement WiselyIn a perfect world, we would be rising and sleeping with the sun, getting Vitamin D from the sun and Magnesium from the ocean while relaxing and exercising in great balance each day in a stress-free world. Since I doubt that describes any of us currently, supplements can fill in the gaps. I’ve talked about the basic supplements that I take before, but there are some specific ones that are helpful for hormone support.
- Maca- A tuber in the radish family that has a history of boosting hormone production and libido. Many women notice less PMS, increased fertility, and improved skin while men notice increased sperm production, libido and better sleep. Maca is also high in minerals and essential fatty acids, making it great for hormones. It is available in powder form (least expensive option) or in capsules.
- Magnesium- Magnesium supports hundreds of reactions in the body and often contributes to better sleep (which is great for hormones!). There are several effective forms of Magnesium: In powder form with a product like Natural Calm so that you can vary your dose and work up slowly, ionic liquid form can be added to food and drinks and dose can be worked up slowly,or transdermal form by using Magnesium oil applied to skin. This is often the most effective option for those with damaged digestive tract or severe deficiency.
- Vitamin D- A pre-hormone is supportive of hormone function. Best obtained from the sun if possible, or from a D3 supplement or Fermented Cod Liver Oil.
- Fermented Cod Liver Oil- Provides many of the necessary building blocks for hormone production including Vitamins A, D, and K. It also is a great source of Omega-3s and beneficial fats.
- Gelatin is a great source of calcium, magnesium and phosphate. It supports hormone production and digestive health and helps sooth inflammation, especially in joints. We use Great Lakes Kosher as I was able to verify with the company that it is sourced from grass-fed, humanely raised cows, and as such is higher in nutrients.
6. Exercise LightlyIf you have hormone imbalance, intense extended exercise can actually make the problem worse in the short term. Sleep is actually more important, at least during the balancing phase, so focus on relaxing exercises like walking or swimming and avoid the extended running, cardio and exercise videos, for now….
7. Lift Heavy WeightsWhile extended cardio can be bad, short bursts of heavy lifting (kettlebells, deadlifts, squats, lunges) can be beneficial since they trigger a cascade of beneficial hormone reactions. Aim for a few sets (5-7) at a weight that really challenges your, but make sure to get help with form and training if you haven’t done these before as bad form can be harmful!
8. Eat Some Coconut OilCoconut Oil is amazing for hormone health. It provides the necessary building blocks for hormone production, can assist weight loss, reduce inflammation, and even has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties.
If you really need hormone help, aim to consume 1/4 cup of added coconut oil a day. My favorite way is to blend into coffee or tea. This is the highest quality one I’ve found.
9. Fix Your LeptinLeptin is a master hormone, and if it is out of balance or if you are resistant to it, no other hormones will balance well. Fixing leptin will also help boost fertility, make weight loss easier, improve sleep, and lower inflammation.
Cravings? Fix Your Leptin!
Ever had trouble sticking to a diet?
Want to snack, especially at night?
These are all indications that you could have some Leptin issues. Leptin is a master hormone in the body that controls hunger and feelings of satiety.Leptin is secreted by adipose (fat) tissue, so the more overweight a person is, typically, the higher his leptin levels.
According to Mark’s Daily Apple: “Leptin is the lookout hormone – the gatekeeper of fat metabolism, monitoring how much energy an organism takes in. It surveys and maintains the energy balance in the body, and it regulates hunger via three pathways:
- By counteracting the effects of neuropeptide Y, a potent feeding stimulant secreted by the hypothalamus and certain gut cells.
- By counteracting the effects of anandamide, another feeding stimulant.
- By promoting the production of a-MSH, an appetite suppressant.”
High levels of Leptin and the accompanying leptin resistance can also decrease fertility, age you more quickly and contribute to obesity. If you’re trying to lose weight or improve a health problem, chances are you have Leptin resistance. If you can’t seem to stick to health changes, chances are you have Leptin resistance.
In other words, if you want to make lasting health changes or lose weight and keep it off, you have to fix your leptin. The good news is: if you’ve failed at diets or health changes in the past, it was likely because you failed to regulate your Leptin levels and doing so can help you finally make lasting changes. Leptin resistance and its related problems are a complex problem involving the endocrine system and reversing them requires more than simple calorie restriction or will power.
The Downward SpiralLeptin is the satiety hormone produced by fat cells, so it would seem logical that those with more fat cells would produce more Leptin, which would signal the body to eat less food and weight would normalize. This over-simplified idea is great in theory, but doesn’t always occur, especially in those with damaged metabolisms or endocrine problems (which includes most overweight people).
According to this article: “The problem is not in the production of leptin, but rather, studies show that the majority of overweight individuals who are having difficulty losing weight have a leptin resistance, where the leptin is unable to produce its normal effects to stimulate weight loss. This leptin resistance is sensed as starvation, so multiple mechanisms are activated to increase fat stores, rather than burn excess fat stores. Leptin resistance also stimulates the formation of reverse T3, which blocks the effects of thyroid hormone on metabolism (discussed below).”
So, the person is eating excess food but the body thinks it is starving and tells the person to eat more. It’s easy to see how this cycle could contribute to weight gain!
Factors that Contribute to Leptin ResistanceAs with all hormone issues, Leptin resistance is a complex issue with no singular cause, but there are many factors that can negatively impact Leptin levels including:
- Fructose consumption (especially in forms like High Fructose Corn Syrup)
- High stress levels
- Consumption of a lot of simple carbs
- Lack of sleep
- High insulin levels (vicious cycle here)
- Exercising too much, especially if your hormones are already damaged
- Grain and lectin consumption
How to Fix Leptin Resistance:As I said, this is a complex problem, but not an irreversible one. Dr. Jack Kruse (a neurosurgeon) and Stephan Guyenet (an obesity researcher) have both written in depth about the causes of Leptin imbalance and ways to reverse it. I highly recommend these articles for more information about their approaches: Changing the Body’s Setpoint, Factors that affect Leptin, and Dr. Kruse’s Leptin Prescription. The book Mastering Leptin also has a much more in depth explanation and suggestions.
In short, the (non-negotiable) factors that will help improve leptin response are:
- Eating little to no simple starches, refined foods, sugars and fructose
- Consuming a large amount of protein and healthy fats first thing in the morning, as soon after waking as possible. This promotes satiety and gives the body the building blocks to make hormones. My go-to is a large scramble with 2-3 eggs, vegetables and left over meat from the night before cooked in coconut oil.
- Be in bed by ten (no excuses) and optimize your sleep!
- Get outside during the day, preferably barefoot on the ground, in mid-day sun with some skin exposed. There are many reasons this is helpful and I’ll be explaining them soon)
- DON’T SNACK!!! When you are constantly eating, even small amounts, during the day it keeps your liver working and doesn’t give hormones a break. Try to space meals at least 4 hours apart and don’t eat for at least 4 hours before bed. This includes drinks with calories but herbal teas, water, coffee or tea without cream or sugar are fine.
- Don’t workout at first. If you are really Leptin resistant, this will just be an additional stress on the body. Let your body heal a little first, then add in the exercise.
- When you do exercise, do only sprints and weight lifting. Walk or swim if you want to but don’t do cardio just for the sake of cardio. It’s just a stress on the body. High intensity and weight lifting, on the other hand, give the hormone benefits of working out without the stress from excess cardio and are great after the first few weeks. Also, workout in the evening, not the morning, to support hormone levels.
- Remove toxins from your life as these are a stress on your body. There will be more specifics on how to accomplish this in the next few weeks, but getting rid of processed foods, commercial deodorants (make your own) and comercial soap (use microfiber) will go a long way!
- Eat (or take) more Omega-3s (fish, grassfed meats, chia seeds) and minimize your Omega-6 consumption (vegetable oils, conventional meats, grains, etc) to get lower inflammation and help support healthy leptin levels.