Tired, anxious and craving chocolate? It could be hormonal. Dietitian Katrina Pace shows what you can do about your fluctuating hormones.
We are quick to blame our hormones when we’re feeling out of sorts. But are they the cause? We look at how hormones affect your health, what you can do about it, and whether eating the right food can fix your mood.
Every minute of every day, your body is busy making a host of hormones. These control body processes including hunger, growth, mood, stress and reproduction. Hormones are produced by a collection of glands called the endocrine system. These glands include the thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands, the pancreas, ovaries (in women) and testes (in men).
Top six hormones explained
1. The sleep hormone: Melatonin
You need this hormone in order to get a good night’s sleep. Your body makes melatonin as it gets darker, which is why you feel tired later in the evening, and why daylight savings can disrupt your sleep patterns. Short-term supplementation with melatonin can help re-establish normal bedtimes when jet lagged or when on shift work, but too much can cause fatigue, headaches and low body temperature.
Tip: The blue light emitted by TVs and phones slows production of your sleep hormone, melatonin.
2. The mood hormone: Oestrogen
This hormone plays an important role in regulating mood and emotional wellbeing. Oestrogen also causes puberty in girls, protects your bones and manages cholesterol. When women go through menopause, they stop producing oestrogen and lose its protective effects over the heart. Changes in oestrogen can influence your levels of feel-good hormones, such as seratonin and dopamine.
3. The stress hormone: Cortisol
When you’re under stress, your adrenal glands pump out cortisol. Cortisol helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar and metabolism, and reduces inflammation. But too much cortisol, often due to elevated stress, can lead to anxiety, depression and weight gain, whereas too little can cause fatigue, weight loss and mood swings.
Tip: Cortisol is involved in the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress.
4. The fat storage hormone: Insulin
Insulin allows sugar (glucose) in the blood to enter muscle, fat and liver cells, and it stores excess sugar as fat. Insulin resistance, also called pre-diabetes, is when these cells don’t respond properly to insulin, so that glucose builds up in the bloodstream. Over time, as your body has to work harder to make more and more insulin, you might develop type 2 diabetes. In Australia, diabetes is the fastest growing chronic condition, and one person is diagnosed with diabetes every five minutes.
Tip: Insulin resistance can make it hard to lose weight.
5. The metabolism hormone: Yhyroxine
Secreted by the thyroid gland, thyroxine controls essential bodily functions in some way, including the heart, digestive system, metabolism and brain development. When the thyroid gland is underactive, it fails to produce enough thyroxine which causes metabolism to slow down, resulting in weight gain, depression and constant lethargy. One in 20 people will experience some form of thyroid dysfunction in their lifetime, but women are more susceptible than men.
6. The sex hormone: Testosterone
It’s produced by both men and women, but men have much more of it. Testosterone plays an important role during male puberty and is the hormone credited with aggression and sexual behaviour in males. Low levels of testosterone in adult men can cause obesity, mood problems and loss of body hair, while too much of it can often cause irritability and infertility. In women, too much testosterone can cause acne and facial hair, and can indicate polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in some cases.
Hormone or hoax?
‘I’m always tired. Is it adrenal fatigue?’
Adrenal fatigue is a term used to describe a range of symptoms experienced by people who are under chronic emotional, physical or mental stress. The symptoms include tiredness, nervousness, body aches and digestive issues. But doctors agree there is no scientific evidence for adrenal fatigue as a medical condition.
Hoax? The theory is that constant, long-term stress causes the adrenal glands to pump out more and more cortisol, causing the adrenal glands to weaken. There are no scientific facts to support this theory that long-term stress drains the adrenal glands.
What might it be? By blaming your symptoms on adrenal fatigue, the true cause may be overlooked. It is normal to feel intense fatigue after long periods of stress. But long-term stress has been linked to gut bacteria imbalances, which have been scientifically shown to increase the risk of a person developing anxiety and depression.
What should I do? Follow our Five ways to find hormonal harmony (below), and always speak to your GP to get a proper diagnosis for your symptoms.
‘I can’t lose weight, so my hormones must be out of whack.’
You’re eating healthily, watching portion sizes and exercising, but still putting on weight. Why?
Hoax? Unexplained weight gain can indeed be due to hormone problems, such as low oestrogen after menopause, or undiagnosed PCOS (in women); low testosterone (in men); and low thyroid levels.
What should I do? Weight gain for no apparent reason should be investigated by your doctor.
‘Why do I always crave sweet foods before my periods?’
Oestrogen levels may drop before your periods, which can influence your mood, as it also causes serotonin levels in the brain to fall. Serotonin is the body’s natural ‘happy-drug’, and low levels of it can cause fatigue, sleeplessness, mood swings, and in some people, cravings for sweet, carb-rich foods.
Hoax? As hormones fluctuate, so too can blood sugar levels. This may trick you into thinking you need a sweet treat. But your body is well-equipped to deal with a drop in blood sugars without needing to eat during this time!
What should I do? Make sure you eat regular, healthy meals, and include protein to help fill you up. Exercise helps to regulate hormones and blood sugars, so try to be active every day, even if it’s just a 15-minute walk at lunch-time. And swap sugary snacks for fresh fruit, nuts or yoghurt. While chocolate has been shown to improve mood, as it contains a similar hormone to serotonin, eat it in moderation.
A weighty issue.…
Can what you eat trigger hormone production problems?
Endocrinologist, Dr Catherine McNamara, says obesity is a major cause of disruption to hormone production. The hormone levels of people who are obese encourage the accumulation of body fat. Different hormones also influence our appetite and metabolism (the rate at which we burn kilojoules). Here are some ways obesity can affect hormone health:
Obesity can trigger insulin resistance, which can develop into type 2 diabetes.
Being overweight may lead to lower testosterone and increasing oestrogen in men, causing cardiovascular disease and infertility.
Women with obesity can have increased oestrogen levels which has been linked to an increase in breast and endometrial cancers.
Obesity has an important role to play in the development of autoimmune diseases, which may be a cause of hormone problems.
Five ways to find hormonal harmony
1. Change the way you eat
Choose whole foods, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, plain yoghurt and lean protein, instead of selecting highly processed, packaged foods.
Limit high-sugar, high-fat foods. It’s okay to have the odd treat, but be mindful of portions.
Fill up on fruit and veg. Whole fruit and vegetables, as opposed to their juice, retain all the fibre and nutrients. These goodies are lost in the juicing process.
Choose breads, cereals and pasta made from whole grains to boost your fibre intake. This will help to keep you full.
Include foods that have a low-glycaemic index to prevent sharp rises in blood sugar levels, and, in turn, insulin levels.
Eat protein foods at each meal to make you feel full. Grehlin is the hormone that signals hunger, so you’ll reduce the level of this in your system by eating protein.
2. Be aware of your stresses
Strategies to manage stress will improve your energy levels so you won’t feel fatigued. Try beach walking, socialising, dance, meditation or yoga.
3. Move more every day
Being active can help balance oestrogen levels, reduce insulin resistance and improve your mood.
Vitamin D gained from a little time spent in the great outdoors while you exercise can potentially reduce your risk of having an underactive thyroid gland and also improves insulin resistance.
Moving about throughout the day can result in having better sleep at night.
4. Get a good night’s sleep
Aim for 7–8 hours of quality sleep every night by establishing regular sleeping and waking times.
Turn off any electronics, such as phones and TVs well before bedtime as the blue light emitted from the screens disrupts the production of the hormone, melatonin — the hormone that helps you sleep.
Try to eat your last meal two to three hours before your bedtime — and avoid eating spicy, high-fat meals that may disrupt your sleep.
5. Seek help
Searching your symptoms on Dr Google can lead you to misinformation. If you are experiencing unexplained weight gain/loss, poor sleep, fatigue or other symptoms you are concerned about, talk to your GP first, before you make any significant changes to your diet or lifestyle.