Feeling stressed, anxious or constantly angry? You are not alone! More than a year of worrying brought on by restricted mobility, financial worries, the fear of contracting the virus and the collective grief over those who have lost their lives, has led to most of us battling anxiety and stress on an everyday basis.
People are suffering from mood swings, depression, anxiety, weight gain or loss, changes in menstrual cycles or even missing their periods. A major reason for this is that the stress over the pandemic, and the actual virus itself, is affecting our hormones and causing hormonal imbalance.
While stress and anxiety during these times are inevitable, there are ways in which we can reduce the impact and improve our hormonal health through proper diet and care.
What is hormonal imbalance?
Hormones are chemical messengers, produced by the endocrine system that send messages to various parts of the body. They travel through the bloodstream, to the tissues and organs, regulate our body’s processes, including metabolism, mood and stress levels, blood pressure, hunger and sex drive.
Hormonal imbalance happens when there is too little or too much of a certain hormone in our body. And since hormones play such a vital role, even a small change in their balance can affect us deeply. While women are more likely to experience imbalances in their oestrogen and progesterone levels, imbalances in the testosterone levels for men can affect their mental and physical health, as well.
A study conducted last year found that the Coronavirus can damage the endocrine system, which is responsible for producing these hormones.
How hormonal imbalance affects our mental health
According to Dr Vikki Petersen, Certified Clinical Nutritionist, Chiropractor and Functional Medicine doctor, every cell in our brain has receptor sites for sex hormones. This means that brain function depends on optimal hormonal levels. When these sex hormones become imbalanced, it can cause mood changes and symptoms such as brain fog, memory loss and general cognitive decline along with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Progesterone in women is the “mellow feel-good” hormone. This is the hormone that can fall dramatically prior to a woman getting her period. Feeling weepy, irritable, angry, moody, anxious or depressed can all be due to hormonal imbalance. The delicate balance of the sex hormones is crucial for mental stability and mood and can cause depression, loss of libido, insomnia, and lethargy (fatigue),” Dr Petersen explains.
She adds that men with decreased testosterone can suffer fatigue, depression, and loss of libido. Excess hormone levels are similarly destabilising.
Tips for ensuring good hormonal health
According to Dr Petersen, you can make changes to your diet and lifestyle to mitigate the effects of hormonal imbalance:
Avoid GMO foods: Avoid GMO foods and packaged, pre-prepared foods. Your hormonal system is delicately balanced and the chemicals, preservatives and genetic modification are known hormone disruptors that can create imbalances in a variety of ways, depending on the individual.
Avoid refined sugar: Sugar is the devil... sad but true. Sugar raises your stress hormone, cortisol, and increases insulin, which in turn leads to a potential excess of oestrogen and testosterone. Progesterone, diminishes in the face of sugar excess, leaving you cranky, irritable and with a tendency to gain weight around your belly.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables: Eat 7 servings of fresh, organic vegetables and fruits each day. I like my patients to get 4 to 5 vegetables and 2 to 3 fruits. The cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and kale) are especially good for balancing oestrogen levels.
Carrots, beets and other root vegetables can assist in removing any excessive levels of oestrogen from your body. Avocado, a fruit, is excellent at reducing the stress hormone cortisol and reducing any excessive oestrogen present while increasing progesterone levels.
Get your proteins: Protein is incredibly important for manufacturing adequate amounts of hormones. Unfortunately, many of our animal-based proteins, such as dairy products and chicken, are laden with hormone disruptors. High-quality fatty fish and plant-based foods rich in non-inflammatory protein is a better choice when trying to maintain hormonal balance.
Help your digestive system: Water and fibre together keep your colon moving well, which maintains a positive balance of gut bacteria and prevents constipation. An unhealthy gut creates hormonal imbalance. Hydration is key for bowel health and to help flush toxins and hormonal by-products from your body. Eight glasses is a good level to maintain.
Ensure proper sleep: Sleep is very important to maintain hormonal balance. This is a time of repair and regeneration and a good 8 hours of sleep is required every night. You will lower your stress hormones and enjoy greater calm and stability if you keep a disciplined sleep schedule.
Get moving: Maintaining a stable exercise routine will help balance your sex hormones. For fat loss, consider exercising first thing in the morning. If you have trouble sleeping, try not to exercise past the early afternoon hours.
While there are tons of diet plans out there, each one promising to better than the others, Dr Petersen recommends the Mediterranean diet for good hormonal balance. “Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and olive oil is wonderful for longevity and hormonal balance. It's naturally anti-inflammatory which helps to create good hormonal balance regardless of your age or sex,” she explains.
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Hormonal imbalance and menopause
As women near menopause, the ovaries make less of the female sex hormone oestrogen. As this happens, the body and mind go through various changes and symptoms, some of which can cause physical and mental distress.
Dr Petersen advises reducing stress levels by creating a 30-to-60-minute window daily to unwind and relax. Sleep and exercise are also critical to maintaining a healthy menopause transition.
“In addition to the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, the ‘don’t’ foods are equally important. Sugar is very depleting to hormones, as is smoking, excess alcohol (a glass of wine is typically fine), and junk food,” she explains. Further, she adds, working to lose excess weight, especially around the belly can assist in hormonal balance.