Q: How can I balance my hormones as I enter mid-life?
A: If you have difficulty falling asleep, managing food cravings, feel like you’re at the mercy of mood swings, are noticing muscle loss, have excessive sweating, low energy or libido, can’t seem to lose belly fat, or have unusual weight loss or gain, your hormones may be out of balance. Hormones are little chemical messengers that initiate and maintain all the systems in our body. For survival, we’ve been blessed (rather unfortunately) with an override system—a giant red panic button of sorts—that is triggered when we’re stressed or notice we’re in danger. You’ve probably heard of it—it’s our flight, fight, or freeze response—and when faced with a stressor, such as a mountain lion—or an irate client or teenage son or daughter—our sympathetic nervous systems cause a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (a.k.a adrenaline), as well as various endorphins, to be released, giving us a magic jolt of power to either high tail it out of there, stand our ground and fight off the stressor, or rev up to take action (freeze). This cocktail of survival hormones is akin to downing a case of Red Bull. It ramps up energy, but at the same time, it shuts down digestion and immune functions, as these are not critical for survival at that exact moment. There’s the catch—this response is meant only for that exact moment—a finite one-time event.
Cue up today’s norm, when we have ongoing, relentless stressors bombarding us, both emotional and physical. Since these stressors are not finite, one-time events, our stress hormones have no chance of neutralizing. Herein lies the problem…
In a natural circadian day, the stress hormone cortisol rises to help us wake up and focus, allowing us to go work to bring home the calories necessary to survive (and the money to pay the mortgage). Cortisol levels naturally lower as atmospheric light changes in the afternoon, and are eventually replaced by our sleep beckoning hormone, melatonin. Without proper hormone balance, we don’t sleep correctly, and our immune system doesn’t perform well at its key tasks; fighting viruses, bacteria, cancers, and repairing damaged tissue. Sound important? You betcha.
During this same day, a series of thyroid hormones control our metabolism, while our blood sugar is managed by the hormones insulin and glucagon. The effects of these being out of balance? obesity, diabetes, fatigue, irritability, to just name a few.
Meanwhile, our sex hormones, estrogen (primarily estrone, estradiol, and estriol), progesterone, and testosterone are all being created from our youth hormone DHEA. And if our sex hormones are out of balance, the side effects are numerous, the worse case being cancer.
If we are under continuous stress (“chronic stress”), our youth hormone, DHEA—which, don’t forget, is the precursor to our sex hormones—takes a back seat to cortisol production, as cortisol is technically more important to survival—we have to survive first, so we can reproduce second! Ultimately, if we want to balance our sleep, sex, and metabolic hormones we need to manage our chronic stress. Only once we’ve lowered our cortisol levels throughout the day do our other critical hormones have the chance to balance out.
Since all of our various hormones are created from the building blocks of our nutrition, eating a balanced diet—with an emphasis on the plant kingdom—is essential to keeping our hormone production up as we age. Exercise is also critical—especially strength training to momentary muscular failure (the point at which no more reps can be performed with perfect form)—and will help slow the decline of human growth hormone production, a natural process occurring from middle-age onward, but one that we should attempt to counteract.
As we enter midlife, it’s critical to monitor our hormone levels so we can effectively manage our energy, moods, sleep, and body composition. The endocrine system is amazingly complex, so we recommend getting a thorough baseline measurement from your doctor of all of your hormones and their precursors. Since our hormones naturally fluctuate throughout the day and night, we recommend a test that takes multiple samples over a 24-hour period in order to properly map the rise and fall.
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