Can you control your hormones?

Wellness | Aging Well | December 12, 2018
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7 tips for working WITH your hormones for good overall health

When you hear the word “hormone,” you might think of teenagers or women in menopause, but all of us—at every age—have hormones coursing through our bodies every day.

Do you ever wonder why you feel what you do? Hungry? Sleepy? Grumpy? Sweaty palms?  Pull back the curtain...hormones may be responsible for those feelings.

“Hormones control a host of our bodies’ functions,” says Troy Dillard, MD, a PeaceHealth endocrinologist in Bellingham, Washington.

“They are molecules that exert an effect on almost every cell in the body,” he notes. Hormones regulate everything from heart rate, metabolism, appetite, mood, reproduction, growth and development, sleep cycles and more.

Your endocrine system—it's complicated

Your hormones are generated by your endocrine system, which is made up of glands and other parts of your body that make and release various hormones.

There are over 35 unique hormones and science knows much about these hormones and their actions, but we are still discovering so many things related to hormones.  For example, we are still avidly researching the way our environment impacts our hormones, from substances in plastics (like BPA), to flame retardants that are everywhere, in furniture, curtains, and carpets, says Dr. Dillard. 

There can be many hormonal “disruptors” in our environment. Some hormones play more than one role, like players on a baseball team with assigned roles that back each other up in various situations. 

Hormones, their interactions with cells, each other and our environment are complex and endocrinologists are hard at work researching and trying understand this complexity and how it impacts our health, he says. You might also compare hormones to instruments in an orchestra, playing different parts of a complicated piece, ideally in sync.

So, if hormones control so much, is there anything you can do to control your hormones?

Yes, no and it depends, says Dr. Dillard.

What's within our control?

Some hormones aren’t at all within our control. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do—or not do—to alter some of them.  Sometimes that’s good—since many have to do with growth, development and large life changes.  At other times, that’s bad. For example, in type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can no longer make insulin and patients with diabetes have to inject it daily.

However, there are a lot of things we do every day that trigger our hormones.

“Technically, we can’t ‘control’ hormones, but we can certainly do things to influence them,” he notes. “Foods we choose to eat or drink can cause our hormone levels to go up or down. Extra weight can also have a significant impact on the way hormones work.”

Here are examples of how the level of some common hormones can make you feel and what you might do to change them:

  • Sweaty palms, shallow breathing, high blood pressure and anxiety are good signs that you’re getting a jolt of stress-induced hormones, cortisol or adrenaline (or ephinephrine). It happens when you’re scared or in tense situations that give you a “fight or flight” feeling. To bring those levels down, try deep breathing. Laughter, exercise and meditation can also positively counteract these hormones.  Sometimes, more evaluation and blood testing is required by your physician to be sure these aren’t excessively elevated due to endocrine conditions that can lead to sustained elevations.
  • When your stomach growls, that’s the ghrelin talking—the hormone that tells us we’re hungry. Eating, of course, tames the rumble, but be sure to choose foods that will satisfy for longer periods of time.
  • Some women and, less commonly, men, have problems with thyroid hormones that regulate body temperature, metabolism and energy levels, among other things. If you have thyroid issues, your doctor will recommend treatment and may encourage you to be cautious about certain foods such as kelp, seaweed, kale, broccoli and spinach, depending on your condition.

What's normal and what's not?

Like any other part of the body, things can go wrong with hormones. If your hormones are out of balance, you might notice different symptoms, depending on which hormone or hormones are affected, says Bhavini Bhavsar, MD, a PeaceHealth endocrinologist in Vancouver, Washington. Discuss this with your doctor so that the right testing can be done.

“It’s also important to remember that it will be normal for hormone levels to fluctuate at different times in your life,” she notes.

While you can try to affect specific hormones with certain foods or activities, remember that hormones typically rely on and play off of each other. Rarely can you affect just one hormone without having an impact on others since they work in concert with each other. If you want to effect a positive change in your hormones, it’s best to choose actions that help them all.

Steps you can take to support hormone health

Here are seven things you can try to keep some of your key hormones in healthy ranges:

  1. Drink water. This keeps everything smoothly flowing throughout your entire system—getting rid of bad stuff and delivering vital nutrients.

  2. Breathe. Your cells love oxygen. Breathing draws in the oxygen. It also helps calm your nerves to promote a feeling of well-being. Mindfulness-based stress reduction can teach you to harness breathing to reduce levels of those stress hormones!

  3. Get good quality sleep or rest. There’s no substitute for revitalizing all aspects of your mind and body, including your hormone system. Sleep deprivation and sleep apnea have been shown to adversely affect many hormones.
  4. Exercise. All kinds of exercise—strength, stretching and aerobic—help reduce stress hormone levels and provides needed cardiovascular protection. Always check with your doctor before engaging in a new exercise program, especially if you have problems with your heart or lungs.
  5. Eat lean protein, healthy fats, fiber and veggies. Not only do these make you feel fuller, they also satisfy your cravings for nutrients that properly fuel your system.
  6. Avoid sugary and processed foods. Food and drinks high in sugar aren’t just “empty” calories, they’re negative because they create spikes and crashes in your energy levels that can leave you hungrier than before.
  7. Eat when you’re hungry and try to avoid overeating. Stay in tune with what your body is asking for and give your system a break. Digestion-related hormones can lose their effectiveness if they’re constantly being overworked. Eat slowly and mindfully to aid in not over-eating.

Hormones can get a bad rap—especially at certain stages in our lives. But the more we understand our hormones and what we can do to work with them, the better chance we have of making them work in our favor.

Hungry for more on hormones? Explore hormone topics.