Our relationship with our hormones is a long one. For women particularly, the 40-odd year relationship can be like a rollercoaster, filled with twists, turns, and stomach-churning effects, expected or otherwise. So how do we keep our hormones balanced, and avoid upsetting the very delicate equilibrium? Food is certainly a major part of our toolkit, but there are several other aspects that maybe you haven’t thought of, or realised existed. Let’s have a look at what our endocrine system involves, and what factors could be causing hormone havoc.
Hormones are created by glands in the endocrine system. The main hormone-producing glands are:
Hypothalamus: The hypothalamus is responsible for body temperature, hunger, moods and the release of hormones from other glands; it also controls thirst, sleep and sex drive.
Parathyroid: controls the amount of calcium in the body.
Thymus: plays a role in the immune system and produces T-cells.
Pancreas: produces insulin to help control blood sugar levels.
Thyroid: produces hormones associated with calorie burning and heart rate.
Adrenal: produce the hormones that control sex drive and cortisol.
Pituitary: the “master control gland,” it controls other glands and makes the hormones that trigger growth.
Pineal: produces serotonin derivatives of melatonin, which affects sleep.
Ovaries: secrete estrogen, testosterone and progesterone.
Testes: produce the male sex hormone, testosterone, and produce sperm.
So, what can interfere with how this team works together?
1. Hormone-disrupting chemicals:
Among these very insidious toxins finding their way into our bodies are bisphenol-A (BPA), PCBs, phthalates, triclosan, agricultural pesticides, and fire retardants. As early as 2002, hormonal disruption was identified as one of the consequences of exposure to chemicals that disrupt our endocrine system by mimicking our natural hormones, like oestrogen. There is strong evidence that at levels set as non-toxic, one of the side effects of a whole range of chemicals was specifically to cause weight gain, PMS, thyroid issues, and other reproductive hormone disruption.
2. Pesticides and growth hormones:
Certain agricultural chemicals like glyphosate alter the environment of the gut, killing healthy bacteria. Recent research has shown that glyphosate causes extreme disruption to microbes, and actually targets beneficial bacteria. Glyphosate also enhances the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and environmental toxins, binds minerals during digestion, and so causes nutrient levels to fall, and toxic load to increase – this in turn can impact our hormone levels. The gut is integral to keeping oestrogen levels in check, so whatever affects the gut flora can mean too much oestrogen is left circulating in our systems. The downside of this can be increased risk of hormonal cancers, weight gain, and unpleasant symptoms every month. Excess toxins have been found to be stored in fat cells deposited around the midriff, so, if your weight is stubbornly stuck around your middle, reduce your intake of pesticides and hormones.
Growth-enhancing drugs are used to fatten up livestock in more intensively farmed operations, and these too may wreak havoc on your health. Some growth promoters are powerful oestrogenic substances, but luckily, the worst of these are banned in the UK (not all though!). The famous ‘muffin top’, with fat sitting around the top of the hips also has a hormonal root cause.
Stress is one of the biggest causes of hormones taking us on a monthly mystery tour of symptoms! There’s little point going into the biochemical or physiological processes here – the way our bodies work is complex, but the effects are simple: too much stress upsets the fine balance between progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone. The result? Any number of symptoms, from irritating to debilitating: PMS, unwanted body and face hair, hair loss, skin problems, mood changes, stubborn weight gain, water retention, insomnia, temperature changes, bloating, brain fog, memory problems, and more. Thyroid imbalances are often another result.
Our endocrine system is hugely intricate, with many functions and processes governed by the production, uptake and use of a whole range of different hormones. From cholesterol to prostaglandins, a weak link in the hormone chain can appear when we quite simply don’t get the nutrients we need. For instance, micronutrients like selenium and iodine keep the thyroid working well, while the phyto-oestrogens in beans and pulses exert a beneficial influence on reproductive hormone levels, easing symptoms of monthly misery.
5. Processed food and packaged meals
The issues with processed and packaged foods are in heating and eating. Not only are processed or packaged meals stripped of essential nutrients, heating the meal in the packaging releases endocrine-disrupting chemicals into the food via the fat content, and then into you. The same is true of storing or heating food with any fat content in any kind of plastic container – re-using those old takeaway boxes isn’t a good idea when it leads to contamination. Swapping to non-PVC clingfilm or wrapping foods in parchment paper (especially if they have any fat content) is another way to minimise your intake of plasticising chemicals. The amounts may be small, but the problem arises with the cumulative effect over a period of time.
So, as you can see, there are very likely multiple potential sources of substances that could be causing disruption and contamination – reduce what you can; after all, knowledge is power! Apart from removing sources of contamination from your diet and surroundings, the other weapon you have is to support hormone production and balance, and optimise nutrient intake, absorption and availability, with locally sourced, fresh food. This recipe is not only a brilliant summer staple, it’s adapted to bring in a rainbow of nutritious foods along with an amazing hormone balancer – chickpeas!
Happy Hormone Salad
Combine these ingredients to your personal taste:
Cherry or baby plum tomatoes
Peppers – colour choice is up to you
Feta cheese, cubed
Red onion, chopped small (marinade in lemon juice, then use the juice as a dressing if you like)
Chickpeas, rinsed and lightly toasted
Fresh herbs of your choice – coriander, parsley, mint.
Enjoy more relaxation, less rollercoaster…….