Hormones control almost every aspect of our physical and mental health. Food and exercise can be the first line of defense when they are out of balance, writes Katie Byrne
CONTROL HORMONAL ACNE
Hormonal acne tends to be deeper, cystic and sore to touch. In women, it is commonly found on the chin, neck and jawline areas. It generally gets worse just before menstruation and can be exacerbated by stress and resistant to standard therapies. It can also occur during the third trimester of pregnancy (when testosterone levels spike) and after the menopause when oestrogen levels taper off.
Dermatologist Dr Jessica Wu, author of Feed Your Face, suggests dietary changes for those suffering from hormonal acne. Her no-nos include dairy products as well as whey protein (as it is a by-product of the cheese-making process).
Curbing your refined carbohydrate and sugar intake and eating a low glycemic food plan can reduce testosterone levels, she writes, while opting for anti-inflammatory foods like green vegetables and salmon, and zinc-containing foods like lean red meat, chicken, beans, lentils and seeds, will help balance the hormones that can inflame skin. Holistic health professionals often recommend the natural anti-androgen supplement, saw palmetto.
MANAGE PCOS (POLYCYSTIC OVARY syndrome)
If you have irregular periods and excessive hair growth (especially on the face) alongside adult acne, it could be a sign of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. "PCOS affects 5-10pc of women of child-bearing age. It's the most common hormonal issue in women and is one of the main causes of infertility," explains nutritionist Orla Walsh. "When there is too much fat on the body, the body becomes more 'insulin resistant'. The main cause of insulin resistance is excess fat around the waist. Insulin is a hormone found in the body that helps bring glucose, formed from the digestion of sugars and starches, into our body's cells to be used as energy or else stored.
"Insulin resistance occurs when insulin is less effective at lowering blood glucose levels. Therefore, more insulin is secreted and blood glucose levels can become too high. Insulin is thought to play a central role in the development of PCOS due to the interaction between it and other hormones. The first step in treating PCOS is weight loss in the overweight as well as tailoring the diet to maximise blood glucose control."
GET GLOWING SKIN
The skin is simply a reflection of what's going on inside your body, hence it's affected by myriad hormonal processes. However, many dermatologists agree that it is the female sex hormone oestrogen that gives women that youthful glow. Oestrogen levels begin to decline in women in their mid-to-late 40s, and sooner in women who have a low BMI. When oestrogen declines, so to do the substances collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid - the holy trinity that give skin its elasticity and plumpness.
Once you have ascertained that your oestrogen levels have declined, and dietary supplementation has been advised, phyto-oestrogens (plant foods that act like oestogen in the body) such as flaxseed and sesame seeds can be added to the diet.
TURN TO TURMERIC
Turmeric, an age-old medicinal herb in India, has long been considered a wonder spice for everything from inflammation to indigestion. It can help the body handle cholesterol and it's fantastic for balancing hormones, especially female sex hormones. As always, consult a healthcare professional before manipulating sex hormones with supplements, and do not take turmeric supplements if you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant or breastfeeding.
LOSE WEIGHT FOR GOOD
"People often ask me about the 'hunger hormones' leptin and ghrelin," says nutritionist Orla Walsh. "Leptin is a hormone that is made by our fat cells and its role is to decrease our appetite. Therefore, it's supposed to work in a negative feedback fashion... the more fat we have, the more leptin produced, and therefore the less we eat, thus helping us to maintain a healthy body composition.
"Ghrelin is a hormone that increases appetite, thereby working antagonistically to leptin. Ghrelin is released primarily in the stomach and sends a signal to our brain telling us that we are hungry. So ghrelin levels go up dramatically before you eat and then taper off after the meal. These two hormones are certainly not the only hormones in the body trying to help us control our intake of food... there are many. However communication will be poor unless we slow down the speed at which we eat."
Orla recommends eating mindfully in order to allow leptin and ghrelin to function properly. "Drink a 200ml glass of water before you eat. The same centre in the brain tells us when we are thirsty as hungry. Take smaller bites. Try taking bites the size of a 20 cent coin. Make sure to chew your food well enough. Put the cutlery down between mouthfuls. And leave 20 seconds between mouthfuls in order to savour your meal and be present throughout."
Cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands, is responsible for the regulation of blood sugar, glucose metabolism and immune function. It is generally elevated in the morning to give the body some get up and go and dwindles in the evening before bedtime. The body also produces higher levels of cortisol as part of the "fight or flight" response, which nowadays includes the everyday stresses of modern life including lack of sleep, work stress and too much coffee. When there is no "fight or flight" response, cortisol levels can build up and lead to prolonged feelings of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. Cortisol spikes need to be balanced by high-intensity physical activity and holistic modalities like yoga and mindfulness meditation. Taking time out works too - physically connecting with family and friends, laughter and music - have all been proven to reduce cortisol levels and alleviate anxiety.
BALANCE MENOPAUSAL SYMPTOMS
"Perimenopause is a transitional period during which the ovaries gradually stop making sex hormones," explains Dr Paivi Shedd, who specialises in anti-ageing medicine and hormonal diseases. "We can't make ovaries work again, but we can help with the symptoms." Dr Shedd recommends natural remedies and herbs to relieve symptoms, especially in the beginning of perimenopause. "Black cohosh is used to help with hot flushes. Agnus castus is derived from berries and can help with irritability, sleep disturbances and premenstrual syndrome type of symptoms. Dong quai is an old Chinese medicine for fatigue and to balance female hormones."
She also suggests some simple dietary changes: "Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower contain indole-3-carbinol, which supports oestrogen metabolism and has been shown to have anti-cancer effects, especially against breast cancer. Take your multivitamins, including vitamin D3, to lift your mood and support your bones and immune system. Avoid obesity and abdominal fat. Fat tissue produces oestrogen, especially estrone, which, in excess, imbalances other hormones and can cause abnormal bleeding and increased risk of cancer."
As part of her practice, Dr Shedd works with natural bioidentical hormones, which she claims are safer than synthetic hormones. "'Natural' means the hormones come from plant sources. 'Bioidentical' means they are an exact chemical match to hormones within the body, and they provide the same physiological activities as our own hormones. They are custom-made for you based on your individual need. The use of bioidentical hormones has increased during the last few years as women have sought out a more natural approach to restoring hormonal balance and feeling well again."
EASE HORMONE HEADACHES
"Many women are prone to getting headaches just before they start their periods - a time when oestrogen levels take a dive," writes Dr Sara Gottfried, author of The Hormone Cure. If you're one of them, she recommends eliminating gluten, reducing sugar intake and cutting out red meat. She also suggests avoiding tyramine, "which is a migraine-triggering compound found in aged and fermented foods like old cheeses, smoked fish or cured meats".
If a hormonal deficiency, leading to pre-menstrual headaches, has been detected by a medical professional, she recommends the supplements magnesium, CoQ10 and 5-HTP.
USE YOUR GUT INSTINCT
The intestinal tract produces and stores countless hormones, from the ones that regulate appetite to the "happy hormone", serotonin. Gut health is good health. Remember: a leaky gut, or a lack of probiotics lining it, can cause hormonal imbalances.
Dr Paivi Shedd, who is holding clinics in Dublin this week (see below for details), doesn't agree with simply treating cholesterol by numbers. "Statin medications will bring cholesterol back to normal, but the risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer continues. It's good to remember that cholesterol increases for a reason. It's like a smoke detector sending us a signal that something is wrong. To turn that alarm off does not save you. So I prefer to focus on finding the underlying cause.
"The most common underlying causes for high cholesterol are chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, which are caused by toxins, wrong nutrients, overweight, chronic infections, etc. Cholesterol can also go up when your sex hormones go down. And that happens around the age of 50." If you discover that your high cholesterol is diet-related, Dr Shedd recommends reducing refined carbohydrates and embarking on a low-glycaemic diet that is high in fibre and omega 3. "Use supplements that support healthy cholesterols," she continues, "such as omega-3 (EPA/DHA) and vitamin D3. Niacin (B3) can help HDL to come up and LDL to go down, while garlic reduces cholesterol absorption."
She also recommends that patients consider the natural statin, red yeast rice, as a first line of defense.
Always consult your GP if you think you are suffering from a hormonal imbalance.
Orla Walsh, nutritionist, is based at the Dublin Nutrition Centre, 01 639 8852. Dr Paivi Shedd is based in London. Her next Dublin clinics take place in the Dublin Holistic Centre, 28 South William Street, D2, on February 26-27; healthlongevity.co.uk
Health & Living