Hormones influence every aspect of your daily life from making you feel unstoppable in the weight room to that exercise high that comes after a great workout.
Although properly designed workout programs will optimize hormone balance, it’s also common for people to use exercise incorrectly, which leads hormones to get out of whack.
The confusing thing about hormones is that each one influences others in a domino-like fashion. When one gets out of balance, many others are profoundly affected.
This makes figuring out what’s going wrong with your hormones pretty darn difficult. Fortunately, there are simple habits you can use to optimize most hormones, Therefore, these tips can be used to improve balance of all of the the following hormones:
Androgens such as testosterone, estrogen, and DHEA
Metabolic hormones like insulin, leptin, and ghrelin
Stress hormones including cortisol and catecholamines
Circadian hormones such as melatonin and growth hormone
#1: Do strength training and interval workouts. Don’t overdo cardio.
Training with weights is arguably the number one best health-promoting, hormone balancing activity you can do for the following reasons:
it improves muscle mass, creating more insulin receptor sites.
it reduces body fat, lowering estrogen—body fat produces estrogen and other inflammatory markers that “act” like hormones.
it enhances function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that regulates hormone release.
it improves balance of hunger hormones, lowering appetite
There are a few key points to getting the best hormone balancing results with weight training:
Keep workouts to under an hour because this will allow you to apply just the right amount of physical stress for favorable adaptations, while avoiding sky-high cortisol.
Always do your lifting and intervals on different days because this will allow you to maximize recovery.
Use a periodized program that incorporates progressive overload so that you continue getting leaner and stronger instead of spinning your wheels.
Avoid overdoing cardio because it leads to very high cortisol levels and a catabolic environment that promotes lean muscle loss over time.
#2: Use a meal frequency that allows you to avoid hunger and cravings.
Eating resets your entire hormonal cascade and improves the body’s biological circadian rhythm. After you eat, cortisol is reduced, as is the hunger-causing hormone ghrelin, which allows for an increase in leptin, blunting hunger.
If you’re just starting to fix your eating habits, or you’ve been living on high-carb processed foods for a while, try eating 5 to 6 meals a day for more stable blood sugar management and improved insulin sensitivity.
If you’ve got your nutrition dialed in and don’t get crazy hungry from a low meal frequency, 1 to 3 meals may work well for you. The vital point is to eat in a way that allows you to avoid cravings and hunger.
#3: Avoid sugar & refined carbs.
Sugar and refined carbs wreak havoc on hormone levels. First, they spike blood sugar, which leads the pancreas to crank out insulin, often overshooting the amount needed. This reduces insulin sensitivity over time and causes inflammation in the body.
Second, we know that diets high in sugar and refined carbs play a role in high cortisol. Every time you get stressed, cortisol goes up, which causes cravings for high-fat, high-sugar junk foods. At the same time, cortisol shuts off the goal-oriented, rationale parts of the brain.
When your cortisol is up you eat more and you’re more likely to choose low-quality foods that are high in sugar, which the body will readily store as fat. A side effect of blood sugar spikes is that testosterone is reduced by as much as 25 percent.
This creates an unfavorable ratio of testosterone-to-cortisol, which makes you more likely to experience a catabolic or tissue-degrading state, leading to muscle loss, and greater fat accumulation.
The solution is a diet that provides plenty of protein, healthy fat, and complex carbs so that even if you’re stressed, cortisol doesn’t go as sky high. Insulin response to meals is lower, and insulin sensitivity improves.
#4: Plan meals around protein and eat a higher protein diet.
Protein is the most satiating food, helping you to avoid hunger and cravings. Planning meals around protein improves blood sugar and lowers insulin, while providing nutrients that promote optimal hormone levels.
For example, fish and grass-fed meat and dairy provide omega-3 fats, which are necessary for insulin sensitivity and androgen balance. In addition, animal proteins provide bioavailable zinc, selenium, and copper to support healthy testosterone levels.
Vegetarian proteins like beans and seeds should also be included because they provide fiber as well as the amino acids lysine and threonine, which are necessary for optimal estrogen metabolism. Brazil nuts support healthy testosterone levels, and sesame, flax and fenugreek seeds can help block aromatase, or the enzyme that turns testosterone into estrogen.
#5: Eat plenty of healthy fats.
Shunning dietary fat can compromise hormone balance because the cholesterol that fat contains is used to make hormones in the body. For example, very low-fat diets have been found to reduce androgen levels in both men and women. In one study, men who switched to a low-fat, higher carb diet resulted in a 12 percent drop in testosterone and other androgen hormones.
The solution is to eat a higher fat diet (at least 30 percent of calories) from a variety of sources including saturated animal fat (to provide cholesterol), omega-3s like fish oil (to provide balance with the ubiquitous omega-6 polyunsaturated fats), and monounsaturated fat from olive oil, nuts and avocados (improve absorption of nutrients in veggies and protein).
Be sure to avoid processed fats, in particular vegetable oils like canola and corn oil because they are highly refined and will cause insulin resistance and poor estrogen metabolism when over-consumed. Trans fats—a.k.a. hydrogenated fats—that are often found in peanut butter and other processed foods should also be avoided.
#6: Optimize carb intake by eating low-carb veggies at every meal.
Although high-carb foods negatively affect hormone levels, a complete lack of carbs can also be detrimental.
For example, carb intake is important for testosterone production. The same goes for thyroid hormone—lack of carbs can cause your thyroid to take a hit—and cortisol can also be dysregulated form zero carb diets, particularly if you are training hard or living a high-stress lifestyle.
Therefore, vegetables, fruit, and other whole carbs from beans and select grains can be beneficial for healthy hormone levels. A few carbs worth noting:
Cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, and bok choy, contain compounds that improve the body’s ability to metabolize excess estrogen.
#7: Optimize your circadian rhythm and get enough sleep.
Your circadian rhythm is your biological clock and it is influenced by many factors including your genes, hormones, light exposure, and physical activity.
Here are a couple of simple things you can do to improve your circadian rhythm:
Sleep according to your “chronotype,” which is your natural tendency to be a “morning” or “evening” person. Studies show that men who sleep against their chronotype have lower testosterone levels, whereas women who sleep against their natural tendency have more trouble getting pregnant than women who are synched to their chronotype because their hormones are slightly out of whack.
Expose yourself to light at the right times. Light serves as the major regulator of your “master clock,” which controls your circadian rhythm. To “anchor” your master clock, you want to get bright outdoor light exposure for at least 30 minutes in the morning, preferably right after waking up.
Avoid blue light at night. Turn off all computers and phones in the hour before bedtime because they decrease production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Dim your lights, get amber bulbs, and install f.lux on your devices to automatically dim screens after sunset.
#8: Ruthlessly avoid BPA, animal hormones & similar hormone disruptors.
Chemicals such as BPA, growth hormones in meat, and parabens will negatively affect the androgens and insulin.
These chemicals mimic the action of estrogen in the body and cause inflammation.
Doing the little things that help you avoid exposure to endocrine disruptors will make a big difference:
Eat organic meat and dairy.
Avoid plastic bottles and containers in favor of glass.
Avoid aluminum cans unless they are BPA free.
Use natural shampoo and personal care products. Avoid products that contain the word paraben as in "methylparaben."
Avoid chemical scents from air fresheners, lotion, and perfume.
#9: Avoid nutrient deficiencies—vitamin D, magnesium & zinc.
Minerals such as magnesium, vitamin D, and zinc are extremely important for hormone balance.
For example, magnesium improves insulin sensitivity of cells. Vitamin D prevents the hormone testosterone from being aromatized or changed into estrogen. Zinc enables androgen production and acts as an antioxidant, keeping cells and DNA healthy.
If your levels of these nutrients are topped off, they cease to be a concern, but if you’re deficient, they become a top priority.
If you are deficient in zinc, 15-50 mg of elemental zinc can raise levels quickly. Avoid taking zinc chronically because it can be toxic.
Try up to 500 mg a day of a blended magnesium bound with taurate, ororate, glycinate, or fumarate for the greatest absorption. Avoid magnesium oxide because it is a cheap form that is poorly absorbed.
Daily sun exposure or a dose of 1,000 to 5,000 IUs of vitamin D, depending on individual factors, has been effective at maintaining blood values. Be sure to get tested at least annually and preferably twice a year.
#10: Meditate or perform a daily stress reduction practice.
Meditation has been found to balance cortisol with hormones involved in body composition such as testosterone, DHEA, and growth hormone. It also enhances release of the hormone melatonin and can improve sleep.
Other mind-body practices that are associated with better hormone balance include yoga, judo, and deep breathing.