This article first appeared in the Globe & Mail on March 25, 2020, from the Globe Content Studio.
If you’re low on energy, having trouble sleeping or just feeling ‘off,’ there might be a surprising culprit at work: your hormones. These chemicals are produced by our glands and help control how cells and organs perform their functions.
Scientists have discovered more than 200 hormones or hormone-like substances, which are involved in everything from our quality of sleep to cognition, metabolism, digestion and more.
“We refer to it as a hormonal symphony – they have to ‘play the same piece of music and follow the conductor’ in order for you to feel good,” says Dr. Shannon Trainor of the Westcoast Women’s Clinic in Vancouver. That’s why our bodies go through a lot more than just hot flashes when hormone levels fluctuate, she says.
Here’s what you need to know about some of the most common hormonal imbalance issues:
Energy levels and sleepA lack of thyroid hormone or adrenal insufficiency can also cause low energy and low motivation, says Angela Ysseldyk, national director of education and training for Smart Solutions The thyroid produces two hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). T4 must be converted to T3 before the body can actually use it – and if that conversion is sluggish, or if the thyroid doesn’t produce enough of either hormone, it leads to hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid. Fatigue can be one of the first signs that something’s wrong.
She recommends supporting thyroid health with minerals, such as iron, which are found in white beans, or selenium found in Brazil nuts. B vitamins and magnesium are also important when it comes to adrenal gland health, she says.
If the problem is lack of sleep, that might be hormonal too. When levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) spike during the night, it can cause disruptions to the sleep cycle and result in fatigue.
Practicing mindfulness, whether focusing on your breathing or finding joy in simple pleasures, can also reduce stress, Ysseldyk says. For those struggling through the day, she also suggests taking a 30-minute afternoon nap if possible.
Or, try Sleepsmart, which helps re-set the body's sleep-wake cycle.
Maintaining a healthy estrogen balanceEstrogen plays a huge role in women’s health, from helping to regulate menstrual cycles to keeping cholesterol in check and even protecting brain and bone health. During perimenopause, the life stage right before menopause, estrogen levels naturally fluctuate, causing symptoms such as irregular periods, and sleep problems. (Technically, women don’t officially reach menopause until they have gone 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period.)
That’s why it’s important to keep estrogen levels balanced. In fact, even outside of perimenopause, high levels of estrogen can lead to recurrent breast pain (cyclical mastalgia) and irregular periods. “Estrogen ebbs and flows over a menstrual cycle, and over a lifetime,” explains Ysseldyk. “After menopause, fat deposition shifts to the abdomen1,3.’”
And on top of those natural changes, women are also exposed to chemicals called xenoestrogens that act like estrogens in the body. These chemical estrogens (xenoestrogens) bind to estrogen receptors like a lock and key and cause endocrine disruption.2. Fat cells (adipose tissue) have estrogen receptors which are effected by xenoestrogen and regular estrogen.3 This may explain why fat accumulation differs from men and women and changes with life stages as well.
We’re exposed to a lot of these hormone-mimicking chemicals in our environment, through cleaning products as well as body-care products and medications, including the birth control pill. Bisphenol-A (BPA) and parabens are also common xenoestrogens. The good news: Cyclesmart can help women balance estrogen levels while providing support for BPA detoxification.
Digestion and weightOur gut has a lot to do with our overall health – in fact, experts often refer to it as the ‘second brain’ because it produces a lot of the same neurotransmitters as the brain, including serotonin. That’s why your whole body feels slowed down when you’re not getting the right nutrients.
If you’re dealing with sudden weight gain, cortisol spikes due to stress could be a factor. When we’re stressed, ‘fight or flight’ mode kicks in. Cortisol and adrenaline, a stress hormone produced within the adrenal gland, are released into the bloodstream and quicken the heartbeat, strengthen the force of the heart's contraction, and open up the lungs.
Typically, hormone levels return to normal after short-term stress. But when you’re continually experiencing high levels of stress, your endocrine system doesn’t get the time it needs to recover – and that can impact many different parts of the body. “Constantly being in fight or flight mode suppresses fat burning; because our bodies think we need to preserve, we hold onto more fat,” Ysseldyk says. That’s why many people gain weight during stressful periods at work.
Excess insulin, a hormone that regulates our bodies’ absorption of glucose, can cause us to store more fat as well. In these cases, Ysseldyk recommends a high-protein, low-carb, moderate-fat diet — eating enough fiber and prebiotics will keep your gut happy. And she recommends looking into Glucosmart to promote healthy glucose metabolism.
Brain fog and mood swingsChronic stress depletes serotonin, the so-called happy hormone, and can even lead to decreased size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory.
And cognitive functions can begin to decline as early as our 30s, which is why it’s important to actively try to reduce stress.
Boost your brain health by getting eight hours of sleep. Our circadian rhythms reset between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when our melatonin levels are at their peak. That’s what allows the brain to rest and repair itself, so it can function well the following day.
Eating lots of brain-healthy foods (think salmon for omega-3s and blueberries for antioxidants) also supports cognitive health, as does regular exercise – research shows that interval training and aerobic exercise can stimulate key chemicals that are important for the development of new brain cells.