I recently did a poll on my Instagram that asked what my audience was most interested in learning about. Majority of them said they were curious about hormonal balance. Digging deeper, 100% of those that answered hormonal balance were women.
So, this blog will be more geared toward women with chat about the thing that makes us the most different, periods. However, to my male audience, this information is valuable for you too… you have my permission to skip the part about periods if you want!
We will be talking about the adrenals, which are tiny hormonal glands that sit above the kidneys.
Your adrenals works in conjunction with your hypothalamus to get the signal regarding what hormones it needs to produce. The main hormones that are produced from the adrenals are your stress hormones and sex hormones. These hormones eventually interact with majority other systems in your body.
This conversation is pretty complicated because hormones are pretty complicated. Hormones are depended on many factors. Food, stress level, your workouts, sleep, other hormones and environmental toxins all contribute to whether or not your hormones will function at their best or not.
I’ll do my best to break it all down, while still making it as easy as possible for you to understand. Remember, to get real results you need specific recommendations, but I will give you the main topics to think about below.
Lets dive in:
Food: Nutrition is a vital component to healthy living, yet we have become so disconnected and fearful of the food that we eat. The standard American diet (aka SAD diet) consists of plenty of packaged foods that are laden with chemicals and ingredients made in the lab. This way of eating definitely disrupts your hormones for plenty of reasons. One being that you are missing important nutrients that are vital in synthesizing your hormones.
Similar to being deficient in nutrients from eating processed foods, I also see that most people are chronically underrating or are malnourished. Both of which lead to chronic underconsumption of nutrients your body depends on. This can also cause some major issues down the line.
Let’s break down the under eating part for clarity. Under eating means consuming simnifically less food then your body needs to sustain its weight. For those of you who use the “calories in, calories out” mindset, it means being in a caloric deficit for a prolonged period of time.
Why is this an issue?
Chronic under eating can also cause the sympathetic nervous system to go into overdrive. Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for you being in fight or flight mode. Evolutionary speaking it was vital for you to be able to switch into your sympathetic nervous system in order to run away from danger. These days danger doesn’t tend to look like running from a bear but could look more like stressors at work, people that you’d prefer not be to around and environmental toxins.
Under eating signals this sympathetic nervous system because our mind is getting the indication that we are not able to eat (biologically it thinks there is a famine), therefore it must rely on internal metabolic processes to convert our stored energy into usable energy. In order to do this your adrenals are pumping out norepinephrine and epinephrine (aka adrenaline hormones). These hormones are only meant to be produced for a short period of time, so when the stress continues your adrenals switch to cortisol. Cortisol is your stress hormone and can remain in production by the adrenals if the stress continues for a long period of time. An example of this would be high stress at work, that leads into high stress at home, that flows into more stress after your high intensity workout, that leads to lack of sleep, which leads to even more stress. As you can see it becomes a downward spiral.
Let’s take a moment to pause for a second and think how this relates to your overall hormonal health. If your adrenals are getting the signal that it needs to pump out adrenaline and cortisol then the last thing it will do is pump out sex hormones. Your body is not going to want to reproduce when it is in constant stress, heck for all it knows you are being chased by a bear and it is not trying to get you pregnant, or increase your sex drive, it is solely focused on pumping out cortisol to get you to safety. Therefore, why even bother producing sex hormones?
This is why it is important to find balance.
Having a slight caloric deficit to lose weight is okay, however you never want to dip too low. In fact, I hardly ever recommend my clients go under 1600 calories/ day as this tends to be the sweet spot for most active women to be able to function at their best in terms of hormones. Men, you would probably want even more in order to support your muscle growth. Probably somewhere between 2,200-2,500 calories minimum is a good starting point.
I’d like to just make a note here though that calories are not the main focus. It is more about eating real, quality foods. There are less calories in a piece of candy then there are a half an avocado. However, the avocado is the better option as it has more nutrients, quality fats and comes from the earth.
Eat healthy fats. Sex hormones require the consumption of healthy fats in order to be synthesized. If you are constantly under eating chances are you are under eating your healthy fats, which in turn caused the inability of your body to be able to produce hormones. Make sure you are consuming healthy fats at every meal and that you are digesting your fats!
It is also important to note that having a regulated blood sugar is vital to proper hormonal and adrenal health. If your body is constantly trying to regulate your blood sugar it causes more stress on the body, relying on stress hormones to bring it back up when it dips too low.
Some ways to help regulate your blood sugar– make sure your meals are balanced with proteins, healthy fats and carbs with fiber. Cut out excess sugars and refined carbohydrates. Limit caffeine as this makes regulation harder. Limit snacking throughout the day.
(I will most likely do a separate blog diving deeper into blood sugar regulation so stay tuned 😉 )
Exercise: Similar to food, exercise can make or break your hormonal balance. Too little and you are not giving yourself the benefit of improving your metabolism, getting your lymph moving and enhancing your overall well being. Too much and you run the risk of over exercising and increasing your risk of hormonal imbalances. How do you know if you are getting too little or too much?
American College of Sports Recommend at least 30-60 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days/ week or 20-60 minutes of vigorous activity three days/ week. I think this standard recommendation, along with having the goal of doing some form of movement every day, will help you live a healthier life.
Again, these are just starting points.
When you are someone who takes exercise a little more seriously you need to make sure you are not overdoing it. I’m talking the people who love the gym, have signed up for races, are a regular at their favorite exercise class. Athletes who partake in marathons, ultra marathons or are competing in some other form of activity that requires a heavy load of training are a more special case. However, these people would absolutely need to be under the guidance of a professional for a training program and a nutrition expert to make sure they have enough consumption.
Back to these regulars who are used to exercising on a daily basis. These people are ones that can fall into the pit of overdoing it. Why? Typically these people also have other stressors that, when mixed with increased stress from exercise, can cause issues.
It is important to make sure that your fitness routine is balanced with the stress in your life because it will continue adding stress you are constantly in the sympathetic nervous system. When in this fight or flight you produce more cortisol leaving little time for your adrenals to pump out sex hormones. To put in simple terms: adding in too much exercise to an already stressed body is like putting gas on the fire.
How do we find balance with our exercise routines? The first step is to schedule out your workouts and see if you allow anytime for rest. Rest days do not necessarily mean sitting on the couch doing nothing all day, but can be an active recovery day where you do a light yoga class, go on a little hike, or walk around the neighborhood with your pup. Most people would benefit from at least one rest day per week.
Next, take into consideration what your body is trying to tell you. Are you so sore that you can hardly move and are still dragging yourself to your workout the next day? Are you feeling like you are completely drained by the time your rest day comes up? Are you excessively tired or fatigued constantly? If you answer yes to any of these questions you may need to either scale it back or add in one extra rest day per week.
Lastly, during periods of over stress you can still exercise but be smart about it. This could be a good time to focus on basic lifts, lifting moderately heavy (rep ranges of 10-12) and taking the appropriate rest breaks in order to decrease intensity.
A note about high intensity exercise and hormones. With CrossFit getting really popular and places like Orange Theory at every corner it is no secret that people are loving the higher intensity workouts. Heck, I love them too! However, you really should only be doing 1-2 high intensity workouts per week. This will allow for your body to recover appropriately and adapt in a way that does not cause overtraining. In between your high intensity sessions you can work on strength, do recovery runs, Pilates, Yoga, anything that is still challenging but not leaving you completely tuckered out! If you overdo it without proper rest and recovery your muscles have no opportunity to rebuild and can hinder your performance goals by decreasing your strength.
Sleep: Sleep is one of the most underutilized recovery tools that can be a game changer in the overall function of our bodies. Unfortunately, here in America, we almost like to use our lack of sleep as a badge of honor, right next to how busy we all are. BUT sleep is so important!
During sleep your body is essentially in a rebuild and repair process. Sleep allows for everything to slow down, get into that parasympathetic nervous system state (the opposite of your fight or flight) and start gearing up for the next day.
Sleep is important for your hormones because without it your body never gets the chance to fully switch from that high stress, sympathetic nervous system state to rebuild and repair.
Think about the last time you got less then 6 hours of sleep at night. Chances are the next few days were a little rough to get through. You may have experienced more hunger, less hunger, more stress, more cravings for sugar, increased consumption of caffeine, decreased libido and overall decreased vitality.
This all equates to increased stress which, as we know now equals your adrenals struggling to keep up and lack of production of sex hormones.
Each night you should be striving for 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
Make sure to implement some sort of a night time routine to help get your mind and body to unwind from a higher stress state to more relaxed. Some easy ways to do this include: limiting electronic devices after a certain time and only using them if you have blue light blocking glasses. Reading a book before you go to bed. Implementing an evening meditation practice. Making sure your phone notifications are turned off to allow you time away from your devices with potential stressors and more time in relaxation mode.
Other important factors: As you can tell your adrenals are very sensitive to stress. It is important to cultivate an environment where you are able to relieve your stress. Whether that is a meditation practice, doing gratitude journaling, taking deep breaths whenever you feel your stress heighten, or doing a little yoga practice to get you grounded. Whatever it is, find what works for you and do it regularly.
It is important to also take inventory as to whether or not your environment is helping support you or harming you. Do the friends you hang out with add to your stress? Are there relationships that are toxic around you? Do you find yourself constantly indoors under florescent lights? Are you using harsh cleaning chemicals around your house? How many products are you putting on your skin or hair? Do those have chemicals that are far from natural? All of these are stressors and need to be addressed.
**Note: if you are struggling with toxic relationships and know you have a history of trauma I highly recommend seeking the help of a mental health professional who can help you deal with this.
PHEW. That was A LOT of information.
This blog just skimmed the surface when it comes to the intricate complexities of hormonal balance and your adrenals. While it may have just skimmed the surface, considering all of these factors can help you achieve a better balance.
If you suspect your hormones are imbalanced and are looking at ways to improve your nutrition to get them in improved function I would love to help. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.