How to look after your hormones
Our new series unravels the fascinating world of endocrinology and the huge role hormones play in helping us feel our best. Here GP and menopause expert Dr Louise Newson kicks things off with a look at some of the amazing ways these chemical messengers influence our body’s everyday functions, and explains how nurturing them with good habits can help us avoid storing up problems for the future.
When we say ‘hormones’, our thoughts typically turn to PMS (premenstrual syndrome) or the menopause, and we might think of hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone or testosterone. However, the human body actually contains more than 100 different hormones, all of which are an essential part of life, from helping us digest food to regulating our breathing. Without them, we wouldn’t survive.
Put simply, hormones are part of our body’s internal communication system, known as the endocrine system, in which they act as messengers. Produced in glands in one part of our body, they are transported by our bloodstream to other parts of the body, where they trigger cells to act in a certain way.
It’s easy to take our bodies for granted and just focus on what’s going on externally, but these chemical reactions are occurring internally all the time. The more we know about them, the more we can appreciate how amazing our bodies are, and learn how to protect them. Because while hormones are a life-force, problems with our endocrine system can also lead to the development of various diseases and health conditions.
Tune in to your thyroid
Hormones are complicated, and our understanding of them is still growing. But we do know that they work very closely together, often in cycles. For instance, the pituitary gland in our brain secretes thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). This gathers feedback on how our thyroid gland is performing, and controls the amount of hormones released by our thyroid gland. The thyroid gland produces thyroxine and triiodothyronine.
Thyroxine is considered to be one of the most important thyroid hormones, since it influences almost all of our body’s systems, including the heart, metabolism, digestion and brain. Correct levels of thyroxine are crucial for good health, which is why GPs will treat them if they’re out of balance.
High levels of thyroid hormones can cause symptoms such as palpitations, weight loss, irritability and difficulty sleeping, while those with low levels might experience tiredness, weight gain, feeling depressed and being sensitive to the cold. A recent study suggested that women who suffer with migraines are more likely to develop hypothyroidism (low levels of thyroid hormones); however it is not known how the two conditions are associated with one another.
If you suspect an issue with your thyroid, your GP can perform a thyroid function test (a blood test) to check whether your levels are as they should be. Thyroid problems are unlikely to be caused by our day-to-day lifestyle. A lack of dietary iodine can be linked to an underactive thyroid; however, iodine deficiency is uncommon in the UK.
There are other hormones, however, such as insulin and cortisol (produced by our pancreas and adrenal glands respectively), that are certainly affected by our behaviour and lifestyle choices.
While hormones are a life-force, problems with the endocrine system can lead to the development of various health condition.
The best advice when it comes to eating for healthy and happy hormones, particularly insulin, has stood the test of time. Cook from scratch as much as you can, eat seasonally, and be careful about what you drink and snack on. Eating snacks such dried fruit and nuts is much healthier for our hormones (especially insulin) than sweets and biscuits.
Foods that rank highly on the glycaemic index (GI) – which tells us how quickly a food raises blood glucose levels – trigger a big surge of insulin. Following such a surge, insulin levels then drop quickly. Research links this behaviour with insulin resistance. Those with insulin resistance are more likely to develop diabetes, which can go hand in hand with being overweight and, ultimately, heart disease.
Managing stress also helps hormonal health. Stress raises cortisol levels, which can affect blood sugar levels and metabolism. If there’s a lot of cortisol in our bodies, we find it harder to sleep and are more likely to have anxiety. There have also been studies linking raised cortisol levels with abdominal fat, which is an independent marker for cardiovascular disease.
Exercise, specifically any type of exercise you enjoy, will benefit your hormones, including cortisol. Although it’s true that the more extreme forms of workout can actually increase cortisol levels, exercise also releases endorphins that make you feel happy and less stressed. Some types of exercise, such as yoga, result in less cortisol being produced than high-intensity exercise.
To a great extent, hormonal health is in our hands. Whether it’s by paying a visit to our GP because we suspect a problem with our thyroid, or adapting to a more insulin-friendly diet, we can decrease our risk of developing all sorts of conditions, from diabetes to cardiovascular disease, by nurturing these tiny, vital unsung heroes.