Hormones affect all aspects of human function from regulating your mood to dictating your energy levels. They determine how your body response to physical and psychological stress and tell you when you’re sleepy and how hungry you are.
We often think of hormones selectively, but hormone levels are constantly in flux, influencing each other and impacting different systems in the body. When one hormone gets out of balance, it sets off a cascade-like effect, altering other hormones in the body.
For example, insulin, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, thyroid hormone, cortisol, adrenaline, leptin, and ghrelin are all interrelated, impacting each other and how you FEEL and PERFORM on a day-to-day basis. It’s worthwhile to do everything you can to promote hormone balance. Here are ten factors that can compromise hormone levels, leading to health problems over the longer term.
#1: Lack Of Sleep
Anytime you cut your night’s sleep short, the stress hormone cortisol is elevated to help you navigate the rigors of the day. At the same time, glycemic control (your body’s ability to maintain blood sugar in healthy ranges) is reduced, and your metabolic rate slows. You feel hungrier and fatigued, so you eat more and move less. Long-term, if cortisol becomes chronically elevated, you have MORE trouble sleeping, gain body fat, and develop inflammation and metabolic problems.
#2: Excessive Stress
We’ve all been there: A killer day where everything goes wrong and we just feel gross inside. Hunger spikes and we don’t want to exercise. Nothing sounds better than the couch, beer, pizza, and ice cream. What’s happening is that too much cortisol triggers cravings for high-carb “comfort foods” because insulin, which is released by the body in response to carbs, is a cortisol antagonist. When insulin goes up, cortisol goes down. It's the body’s way of protecting you from too much stress.
#3: Low-Calorie Dieting
Back when we were hunter—gatherers and food sources were unreliable, the body needed a way to slow metabolic rate when food was scarce. Altering hormone levels is how the body does this. Cortisol increases to free stored energy and insulin goes down so the body can burn fat. Thyroid hormone decreases, reducing body temperature and slowing daily calorie expenditure. Testosterone and estrogen drop to prevent the body from wasting energy on reproduction. Hunger hormones spike and we become less sensitive to satiety cues that tell us to stop eating.
Obviously, if you want to lose body fat, a calorie deficit is necessary. The key is to avoid going below your resting metabolic rate (around 1,600 calories), and consider cycling calories so that you have a higher calorie intake once a week.
#4: Long Term Low-Carb Intake
Low-carb diets can be great for reducing body fat quickly because they lower insulin so that the body can burn stored fat. But over the longer term they can cause hormonal changes including insulin resistance, low thyroid hormone, and reduced androgens.
Interestingly, not everyone responds the same to a low-carb intake, making low-carb eating more appropriate for some people than others. Additionally, there are actions you can take to mitigate hormonal changes if you choose to live a low-carb lifestyle (carb cycling, ensuring sufficient calories). For example, keeping daily carb intake above 50 grams a day appears to mitigate the drop in thyroid hormone.
#5: A Sedentary Lifestyle
Our bodies were made to move. We need to be physically active in order for hormone levels to be balanced. A sedentary lifestyle leads to changes in the axis of organs that regulate hormonal release (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). This means that when we are inactive, our stress response is compromised, reproductive hormones get out of balance, and insulin is elevated, increasing diabetes risk.
Too much exercise can also be a problem. When the body doesn’t get the time to rest and repair after days and days of intense exercise (often combined with insufficient nutrition), hormones get out of balance. The body senses that nutritional resources aren’t sufficient and various physiological systems are reduced, including reproduction, while others are stimulated, possibly in an effort to help us find more food.
#7: Nutrient Deficiencies
A well-balanced diet is essential for the body to manufacture hormones: Adequate cholesterol from fat is necessary to produce steroid hormones. Vitamin D and zinc allow for androgen production. Vitamin A and the B vitamins must be present for thyroid function. The amino acids in protein are used to synthesize many neurotransmitters in the brain. Magnesium sensitizes cells to insulin.
#8: Too Much Unhealthy Fat
Adequate healthy fat is a must for balanced hormones, but too much unhealthy trans fat, or an imbalance in your polyunsaturated fat intake from excess omega-6 fat (from seed and vegetable oil) and not enough omega-3 fat (from fish) can cause problems. Completely eliminating trans fat (identified as “hydrogenated oils” on labels) and reducing your intake of vegetable oil (mainly be avoiding processed foods in favor of cooking with coconut and olive oil instead of canola, soy, or vegetable oil), while eating fish regularly should do the trick.
#9: Too Many Refined Foods
Refined foods tend to be high in simple carbs, which means they spike blood sugar and insulin. Frequently eating these foods in combination with lack of physical activity often leads to fat gain and problems with insulin resistance, which sets the stage for diabetes. Additionally diets high in refined foods won’t supply the nutrients you need to prevent deficiencies, making you more susceptible to low hormone levels.
#10: Excessive Chemical Exposure
Certain chemicals in our environment are known to mimic the action of different hormones in the body. For example, BPA (in plastic) mimics estrogen, leading to imbalances in reproductive hormones.
Halogen compounds that are present in chlorine, food additives, and fluoridated water can reduce thyroid function by displacing iodine, which is what thyroid hormones are made out of.