Let us set a familiar scene: it’s 6:42 p.m. and you’re finally through the door. After a day of feverishly answering high priority emails, talking an irate boss off of the edge, and putting out fires in places you had no idea were even flammable, you’re exhausted. It’s finally time for you to decompress.
As you scan the contents of your cabinets, looking for something to snack on as you sink into the sofa, the options feel limitless, but nothing calls to you. Then you see them tucked behind the boxed rice and cereal: the cookies you bought the other day. You stare at the package and begin fantasizing. Soon, you get to the point where you’re practically cat-calling the cookies. Oooh, they look good. That little internal voice is coaxing you to take just a bite. You had a bad day. You had a rough week. You deserve — nay — you earned a cookie, didn’t you? So you do it, you eat the cookie (in fact, you eat four of them), and it’s absolutely blissful. And then it isn’t. Suddenly, the exhaustion and guilt appear, depressing you into eating several more.
It is a vicious, vicious circle, but it isn’t necessarily your “weak will.” A growing body of research says that your hormones could spark these unhealthy habits.
“Hormones are those powerful little naturally occurring chemicals circulating in our systems that signal to our cells when and how to react to various stimuli,” explains Dr. David Greuner, cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon in New York City. “For instance, hormones instruct our cells when to grow, when to die, when to enlarge, and when to shrink. They control our responses to stress, are responsible for how we feel when we are in love, and have a huge impact not only on when we gain and lose weight, but the type of weight we gain or lose. "Hormones control our responses to stress, are responsible for how we feel when we are in love, and have a huge impact not only on when we gain and lose weight, but the type of weight we gain or lose." - Dr. David Greuner
When we think about hormones and hormonal imbalance, our minds immediately flash to images of pregnant women crying or menopausal women raging. These are not entirely incorrect images — just extremely stereotypical. In fact, all humans produce hormones, and those hormones can be easily disrupted. A scarier fact? Hormone disruptors could be in everything from your deodorant to the foods you eat.
“Once these hormone disruptors enter the body, they can be stored for years in your fat cells,” says Dr. Constance Crisp, medical director of BodyLogicMD of Little Rock, a treatment center that specializes in hormone therapy. “This causes further problems when you burn fat during normal metabolic processes, because these chemicals are then recirculated throughout the bloodstream.”
There are two major hormones that affect how we eat, what we crave, and how our bodies utilize food, Dr. Greuner says. They are insulin and cortisol, both of which are linked to levels of sugar in the bloodstream. He defines them here:
“Insulin is the body’s main anabolic hormone. It is the universal signal for your body’s cells to take in fuel, rest, and grow. It is stimulated by a rise in blood sugar, and serves to lower blood sugar by allowing cells to absorb the sugar from blood. Insulin is responsible for the ‘food coma’ that you feel after a heavy meal. People with diabetes either have the inability to produce insulin, or the inability to use it effectively, leaving large amounts of sugar in the blood because the cells cannot use it effectively. Cortisol is the body’s main catabolic hormone, or the hormone that breaks existing cells down in the body for the purpose of raising blood sugar. It is usually released in response to some sort of stress, or low blood sugar levels, and is essentially the opposite of insulin. The easiest cells for the body break down for quick fuel are muscle cells, which are chemically less complex than fat cells. For this reason, cortisol causes mainly muscle breakdown and preserves existing fat. This makes cortisol basically the archenemy of anyone wanting a toned, lean physique. “
Signs of a hormonal imbalance can range from fatigue to memory loss. These symptoms may indicate a number of diseases, like hypothyroidism. Imbalances in insulin and cortisol can also affect your sexual hormones.
"Foods that are in the high-glycemic index, such as refined sugars, bananas, potatoes, and other heavy starches, will disrupt hormonal balances and your body's ability to maintain a whole body health,” says Dr. Nicholas Panagiotis, endocrinologist and internist with Dignity Health Northridge Hospital in Northridge, California. “Processed foods are heavy in starch and preservatives, which will slow down your metabolism, cause fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, skin changes, and other signs relative to hormonal imbalances."
The good news is that there are ways to balance your hormones naturally. Of course, it is important to talk to your physician or endocrinologist if you think you are suffering from a hormonal imbalance.
Much depends on what is meant by hormonal imbalance, warns Dr. Antonio Pizarro, board-certified OB-GYN who also specializes in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery. “The term must be defined with specificity. For example, conditions such as thyroid disease, pituitary failure, and adrenal insufficiency can be life-threatening forms of hormonal imbalance for which treatment with diet is not clear.”
In conjunction with a doctor’s visit, a good amount of sleep, and light exercise, changing your diet to include some of the following foods, which have been shown in studies to help regulate estrogen levels in particular, may be a great way to correct hormonal imbalance or to help prevent it from occurring in the first place.
These little beans can pack a hugely helpful punch when it comes to regulating hormones. “Mung bean sprouts are perhaps one of the most overlooked foods," explains Dr. Michelle Cook, nutritionist and board-certified natural medicine practitioner, "yet they restore adrenal gland health and help our bodies cope with excess stress by allowing these glands to regulate production of cortisol and adrenalin.”.
We all know that coconut oil offers an unbelievable amount of health benefits, but did you know that it can also balance your hormones? Coconut oil regulates blood sugar and insulin and boosts thyroid functionality, helping to restore balance to a system that could be out of whack.