How to keep your hormones in balance


Helen Hosker, Writer and Broadcaster on Food and Health Issues

Year of publication: 

With over 200 hormones in the body doing hundreds of different jobs, it’s important to keep them in balance. Joyce Walter looks at what you can do to maintain healthy levels.

Oh how we love to blame our hormones! And why not? Virtually every activity in our bodies is controlled by a cocktail of them. They dictate our drive, growth, looks, digestion – and are largely responsible for how much we weigh, how lively we feel and how much sex we want.

The word “hormone” means “to excite”, and that’s exactly what hormones do. They are chemical messengers secreted into the bloodstream by endocrine glands and other tissues to affect their target cells. We have around 200 different hormones doing many different jobs – most hormones are great “multi-taskers”, says Gale Maleskey, author of The Hormone Connection (Rodale, £15.99). “When things go well – as they usually do – you go about your day totally unaware that your hormones are doing their job. When things go wrong, any one of those 200 hormones could be out of balance,” she says.

Thyroid Hormone
To keep you energetic

Energy, appetite, mood, weight and body temperature are all governed by hormones produced by the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck. These hormones are also responsible for the health of your skin, hair and nails.

What can go wrong?

Since thyroid hormone affects metabolism, an imbalance can produce a wide variety of symptoms, often resulting in a misdiagnosis. An underactive thyroid can cause weight gain and make you feel sluggish and cold all the time. It can also cause dry, brittle hair and nails. An overactive thyroid can lead to weight loss, mood changes, bulging eyes and light or absent periods.

Happy hormone tips

Smoking significantly increases the severity of thyroid problems – so if you’re still puffing away, make this your reason to quit.
Eat less junk and more vegetables, protein and a moderate intake of whole grains for a healthier thyroid gland.
Consider taking daily C, E, and B complex vitamins, along with kelp supplements, which Dr Ann Walker, a senior lecturer in human nutrition at the University of Reading, recommends to improve the overall function of the thyroid gland.

To keep you happy and rested

The sleep hormone melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain during hours of darkness and is switched off at dawn by the bright light of day. It helps you to sleep and regulates your body clock.

What can go wrong?

If you ignore your natural biological day/night rhythms by staying up very late, jetting across time zones, or working night shifts, you may pay the price with an out-of-synch body clock. Fatigue, lack of energy, lapses in memory and concentration are typical symptoms.

Happy hormone tips

If your body clock is struggling because of jet lag or broken sleep, set an alarm, suggests Professor Jim Horne, Director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. “The most important way to correct your body clock is to have a regular wake up time, even if you’ve had a late night. A constant bedtime is not nearly as important as your wake up time.”
Use window coverings which allow some of the dawn light to filter into your bedroom to help signal a natural stop to melatonin production. Or try using a dawn simulator, such as the Lumie Bodyclock, (£59.95, 01954 780500) to wake you up with gradual light.
Eat more foods containing vitamin B6, such as chicken, pork, chickpeas, cereals, brown rice, potatoes and bananas – or take a 100 mg supplement, suggests Marie-Annette Brown, author of When Your Body Gets the Blues (Rodale, £10.99). Her research suggests that vitamin B6 boosts melatonin levels and can improve mood in women who are depressed.

To keep you a well woman

Oestrogen is produced by the ovaries and is best known for orchestrating puberty, reproduction and menopause. It also helps to keep your bones and joints strong, your memory sharp, your skin moist and your blood vessels elastic.

What can go wrong?

An oestrogen imbalance can bring on irregular periods, painful breasts, weight gain, infertility, a low sex drive, depression, memory lapses and fatigue. Once the ovaries shut down at menopause, the classic symptoms of oestrogen deficiency kick in, including hot flushes, night sweats and vaginal dryness. Oestrogen helps bones absorb calcium, so lower levels can lead to osteoporosis, where bones gradually lose minerals, making them brittle.

Happy hormone tips

Go out for a brisk walk every day in natural light. At least 20 minutes will encourage your pituitary gland to produce helpful levels of ovary- stimulating hormones, and daily exercise will help to raise bone density in your legs, hips and spine.
Dr Walker recommends taking black cohosh, sage leaf and St John’s wort to help balance hormones during the menopause, and agnus castus for menstrual problems.
Don’t aim to get too thin. A healthy bit of padding helps oestrogen production.

To keep sugar levels balanced

Insulin is the body’s sugar regulator, released from the pancreas within moments of detecting glucose in the blood. Its job is to help muscles and other tissues take up the glucose they need for energy and to help store the excess safely.

What can go wrong?

If you don’t produce enough insulin or it’s not efficient enough, glucose will spill over into the urine – a classic sign of diabetes. Go down a rung or two in severity from diabetes and you come to the condition of insulin resistance or Syndrome X. This problem may affect at least one in five of us, according to nutritional therapist Antony Haynes, author of The Insulin Factor (Thorsons, £10.99). “It can make you fat, tired, affect your concentration and increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease. It also causes cell damage and hastens the ageing process,” he says.

Happy hormone tips

Move more. Exercise reduces the need for insulin and the fitter you are, the more effective insulin tends to be.
Eat more often to keep blood sugar levels steady, but keep portions on the small and healthy side. Protein such as poultry, fish and beans, and complex carbohydrates like oats and brown rice are good sugar regulators. Cut down on processed and sugary foods – the closer the food is to its natural state, the better.
Consider taking 200 ug of chromium a day, as research shows that a sufficient level of this essential trace mineral can help the body use insulin more effectively.


To keep sex drive going strong

Testosterone, the male sex hormone, is also produced in smaller amounts in the ovaries and adrenal glands of women and fuels sexual desire, in both men and women.

What can go wrong?

In women it is normal for testosterone to fluctuate during the monthly cycle, peaking at ovulation. Less is produced with age, and women whose ovaries are removed before the menopause may experience as much as a 50 per cent drop in the hormone, resulting in reduced libido.

Women can also experience raised testosterone levels due to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which affects five to 10 per cent of women of reproductive age. Symptoms include irregular periods, excess body hair,
acne, frontal hair loss, skin tags and weight gain.

Happy hormone tips

Sleep disturbances can decrease the release of testosterone by almost half, so make sure you get your nightly quota.
Have some fun in the sun as the sun triggers the pineal gland to turn on hormones, which promote sexual desire.
Depression is linked to low testosterone levels so if you are feeling down, try to work out the cause.
Studies have shown that when women with PCOS lose weight, testosterone levels fall and excess body hair is lessened. Nutritional therapist Dr Marilyn Glenville says women with this condition should “focus on losing weight by eating a healthy diet and avoid sugar, refined carbohydrates and caffeine, as all these cause blood sugar fluctuations and the release of excess insulin. Insulin can target the ovaries and make them produce more testosterone.”
Foods rich in phyto-oestrogens like chickpeas, soya, and lentils also help balance testosterone as they help to stimulate the production of a substance called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which binds testosterone and prevents excess levels circulating in the blood.

Growth Hormone and DHEA
To keep you younger

Growth hormone promotes growth in children and is associated with thicker skin, bone strength and vigour. Levels peak in our teens and 20s and gradually decline after the age of 30. Another hormone connected with youth and vitality is DHEA, a close chemical cousin of testosterone and oestrogen. Like growth hormone, its production peaks in early adulthood and declines with age. Thus, many diseases which correlate with age also correlate with low levels of DHEA production. Healthy levels are said to help us live longer.

What can go wrong?

Levels of both of these youth hormones gradually decline as we age, reducing by as much as 80 per cent by our mid-seventies.

Happy hormone tips

Research has shown that the trace mineral indium stimulates hormone production, particularly growth hormone, to youthful levels. For further information read Indium: The Age-Reversing Trace Element by Dr Morton Walker (New Health Press, £4.99).
Get active. Regular aerobic exercise triggers the release of growth hormone.
Pump iron! Strength work causes spurts of growth hormone to be released from the pituitary gland. Studies at Tufts University in Boston show that regular strength training reverses the course of ageing by 15 to 20 years in elderly women.

To help keep you trim and your digestion healthy

Cholecystokinin (CCK) is a hormone produced by the small intestine which stimulates the production of digestive enzymes and helps to control appetite.

What can go wrong?

Researchers believe that the CCK appetite mechanism is faulty in some people. This can cause you to overeat and play havoc with your digestion.

Happy hormone tips

Never bolt your food. Chew slowly to give CCK a chance to kick in and stop you from feeling hungry.
Don’t ever feel you have to finish everything on your plate just to be polite.
Don’t ignore hunger signals. Think of your body as a machine that automatically alerts you when it needs fuel. Eat as soon as stomach rumblings start, and before your metabolism stages a sit-down.

Stress Hormones
To keep you motivated

The stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline often get the rap for the havoc they can cause when they kick in hard or stay for too long due to chronic stress. But we really do need our stress hormones to prime our bodies for activity in the morning and to keep us motivated as the day wears on. Chemically, they are our driving force. In fact, without their assistance, your blood pressure would be so low you’d probably faint when getting up in the morning.

What can go wrong?

Continual high levels can wear your body down, threaten your immunity and heart health, and shorten your life. Undergoing a major life crisis, such as a divorce, can throw stress hormones out of whack, causing fatigue, memory problems and a weakened immune system.

Happy hormone tips

Eat a wholefood diet and avoid stimulants such as caffeine, which raise levels of stress hormones.
The key is balance. Recognise when stress is out of control and take positive moves to lower it, such as deep breathing exercises, a soak in the tub, or regular exercise.
Take a noise break. Turn off computers, radios, TVs, clocks and telephones, close windows, and enjoy the silence.
A positive outlook is one of the most powerful stress controllers. Foster optimism by refusing to tolerate prolonged boredom or unhappiness.

Joyce Walter has been a journalist for the past 17 years and specialises in health and women’s issues. She is currently freelance, writing for women’s magazines and the national press. She lives in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.



MEN'S/WOMEN'S HEALTH, hormonal balance, hormones, thyroid hormone, melatonin, oestrogen, insulin, testosterone, DHEA
The Institute for Optimum Nutrition is an independent educational charity.
Registered company number 2724405, registered charity number 1013084