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For ages, men (and some women who get the eternal side eye) have implied that women are incapable of performing certain tasks or ascending to certain levels of leadership because we’re too hormonal. I.e., our hormones are so overpowering that they can impede the way we think and behave under certain conditions. But is this true? Are women really full of hormones that can affect the way we behave and feel?
But here’s a secret: so are men.
Both male and female bodies contain glands that make hormones, the chemical messengers that determine our wellbeing on a daily basis. And every individual can be impacted when their hormone levels become imbalanced.
So, what does it mean for a woman to be hormonal? And is there any way to keep our hormones in check and prevent them from causing our world to implode? Buckle in as we take a deep dive into some of the most important hormones responsible for your everyday function, and what happens when one of more of them gets out of whack.
The sex hormones: Estrogen and testosterone
Both men and women produce all of the sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone), which create women’s monthly cycles and affect the functioning of everyone’s libido, brain, skin, and other systems. As women, we produce a small amount of testosterone, but we’re especially controlled by estrogen. Estrogen is responsible for female physical features, puberty, reproduction, and menstruation. According to the Endocrine Society, estrogen can also keep cholesterol in check, protect bone health for men and women, and affect your mood, brain, skin, bones, joints, and other tissues.
Though estrogen is produced primarily by the ovaries, your adrenal glands and fat tissue also produce the hormone. As a result, you feel the effects of high and low estrogen all over your body. Symptoms of high estrogen in women include weight gain in the midsection and thighs, menstrual issues, fibroids, fatigue, loss of sex drive, and feelings of depression and anxiety. Low estrogen in women can come in the form of less frequent menstruation, hot flashes, dry and thinning vaginal walls, low sex drive, mood swings, and dry skin.
Menstruation, birth control, and menopause can all cause changes to your levels of estrogen throughout your life. Estrogen levels are highest at the middle of your menstrual cycle, then drop during your actual period. The biggest estrogen decrease in a woman’s life usually occurs during menopause.
If you feel like your estrogen levels may be imbalanced, your doctor can check your levels with a simple blood test.
The stress hormone: Cortisol
Stress is a normal element of life, but many of us are aware that we carry far too much of it around on a daily basis. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone,” because it’s released during stressful times, causing your heart to beat faster and increasing blood pressure, blood sugar, muscle tension, and how fast you breathe. However, this steroid hormone actually has even more power over the body, because most of our cells have cortisol receptors, meaning your level of cortisol can impact many areas of your body.
One major way cortisol can affect the body? Weight gain: “In modern day, even stressors like a school exam or getting cut off by a car raise your cortisol levels,” explains naturopathic medical doctor Alexandra Carswell Engle. “This then tells your body to store food as fat because our bodies think that when our survival is threatened we won’t have regular food available.” Ever find yourself reaching for sugary sweets more often when you’re stressed? “The elevated cortisol levels also drive us to crave simple sugars to keep our blood sugar up and fuel our body’s capacity to respond to those threats,” says Carswell Engle. “After five rounds of dieting did you notice that even when you were starving yourself, you were gaining weight? Your hormones are out of whack!”
Dr. Barry Sears, president of the non-profit Inflammation Research Foundation and author of the Zone Diet book series told Radiant Health that high cortisol levels can also lead to a depressed immune system (leaving your body more vulnerable to sickness) and a loss of cells in the hippocampus, an important area in the brain for memory. Yikes. If you ever needed a nudge to finally do something about your stress, this is it.
Worried that your cortisol levels are out of whack? Activities such as meditation, yoga, physical exercise, and spending time with loved ones may lower your stress amounts. If you’re experiencing symptoms and believe something might be seriously wrong, the Endocrine Society suggests you ask the following questions to your doctor:
The metabolism hormone: Thyroxine
Cortisol and the thyroid team up to cause a large number of the health issues women deal with. The thyroid is a tiny, butterfly-shaped organ that sits by your throat, but it packs a mighty punch. Thyroxine is the most important hormone secreted by the thyroid, and can impact everything from weight, to fertility, to fatigue, to body temperature, and so much more. “The thyroid gland is the master regulator of our metabolism,” says Carswell Engle. “Hypothyroidism, low thyroid levels, affect a very large percentage of women and causes weight gain and a whole slew of other uncomfortable symptoms.” When low levels of thyroxine cause our metabolism to slow, we feel sluggish and fatigued and may experience weight gain that has little to do with how much we’re eating. According to the Endocrine Society, thyroxine also “plays a crucial role in heart and digestive function, brain development, bone health, and muscle control.” It’s vital for health. Because far more women than men experience hypothyroidism, and its sister, hyperthyroidism, this is definitely a hormone you should keep an eye on.
The sugar hormone: Insulin
You might believe that insulin is a hormone that only those with diabetes have to think about. If that’s the case, you may be surprised to learn that unbalanced levels of insulin in the body can cause a wide range of negative side effects, including weight gain (by affecting how fat is stored), low energy, and a lack of focus, in addition to diabetes.
This is because insulin is critical to how your body uses and stores glucose, the body’s main source of energy. In the presence of a high fat, high carbohydrate, or high sugar diet, the pancreas produces more and more insulin to regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Eventually the body may become insulin resistant, meaning your cells no longer react to the insulin and fail to absorb the glucose in your blood for energy, causing glucose to build up in the blood and be stored as fat. This can lead to a host of problems, including type two diabetes, weight gain, and a lack of energy. Some dieticians believe insulin resistance can also make it harder to lose weight.
What can you do to lower your levels of insulin and prevent insulin resistance? Replace foods high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates, which promote excess insulin production, with foods that have a low glycemic index (GI), meaning they are digested slowly and don’t cause spikes in blood sugar. Low GI foods include whole grain breads, rolled oats, vegetables such as carrots and broccoli, legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans, and grains such as quinoa and couscous. Physical exercise has also been shown to improve how the body uses insulin and prevent resistance.
Many products in our everyday lives are considered endocrine disrupters, meaning they alter the normal functioning of our hormones. When chemicals enter our body and mimic our natural hormones, they can negatively affect organs that are particularly sensitive to hormones, including the uterus and breast, our immune and neurological systems, and reproductive development. “A lot of personal care products contain substances that mimic estrogen, or xenoestrogens,” explains Carswell Engle. Xenoestrogens can cause an excess of estrogen in the body and are linked to cancers of the breast, prostate, and testis, as well as endometriosis, early puberty, miscarriages, and diabetes. Everyday items that may contain xenoestrogens include pesticides, plastic containers, nail polish, and makeup. Parabens are a very common class of xenoestrogens you likely encounter every day. “Parabens are found in most conventional products on grocery store or pharmacy shelves,” says Carswell Engle. “These breast cancer-causing substances are also found in a lot of common shampoos, conditioners, face creams, and deodorants.” While improper product labeling and the widespread use of these chemicals make them hard to avoid, being a careful consumer by looking for products that explicitly don’t contain known endocrine disruptors could be your best bet at limiting your exposure.
This can include:
What else can we do keep our hormones in balance?
First and foremost, it’s important to get to know your body intimately, to recognize when something’s off that might be hormonal. “If you feel fatigued, irritable, have difficulty concentrating, have irregular menstrual cycles, or other feelings of feeling ‘off,’ more than likely your hormones are out of balance,” says Carswell Engle. Don’t be afraid to voice your concerns with your doctor; with the number of stressors, contaminants, and chemicals we encounter every day, hormone imbalances are very common and nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. So, the next time someone calls you hormonal, you can confidently reply, “I know you are, and so am I.”
Radiant is a bi-annual print and digital health magazine dedicated to the discerning African woman and her journey to wellness through health, beauty and culture. Available at Barnes & Noble stores and other retailers (see stockists) and online. Ships worldwide. Subscribe to our newsletter and get a free digital copy of issue No.06.
Article reviewed and approved by Dr. Didi Emokpare
Content provided in partnership with Radiant Health Magazine