I think my hormones hate me
Knowing who’s in the driver’s seat can help you take back control
My body is not a wonderland, more like a khoi bag. Filled to the brim with anxiety, lumpy cellulite, acne scars, stretch marks and many more consequences of my vices. Now late into my 20s, I assumed the wave of teenage hormones — the surprise stuffing in the piñata — would have been over by now. The acne, the moodiness, random hairs sprouting in strange places and a growth spurt that had me towering over the rest of my classmates… none of it had been easy. There was a year in between where my hair and skin were oilier than my school lunch.
Hormones acting up isn’t restricted to milestones in our biological growth – adolescence, pregnancy and menopause. Like ginger in masala chai, they’re an intrinsic part of our body’s functioning. Hormones influence pretty much every aspect of our life.
We think of a hormonal imbalance as having cataclysmic effects on our bodies but with the number of triggers that surge through our system, even a slight shift off-kilter can cause everyday ailments. From sleep and sex to weight fluctuations – our hormones affect every aspect of our functioning, at any age.
A hormonal imbalance can happen because of poor lifestyle choices, dietary restrictions, diseases, age and even side effects of medications. Too much or too little of these chemical messengers being produced by our endocrine glands can disrupt how our organs and tissues function.
A lot of women come to holistic wellness coach Luke Coutinho with issues related to a hormonal imbalance. “I’d say 98% are caused by a poor lifestyle but the beauty is that if it’s caused by a poor lifestyle, then it can also be made better by changing that lifestyle,” he says.
With a better understanding of which hormones influence which part of our daily functioning, we can better bring that disruptive aspect back into our control. Improving our overall wellness with knowledge about what’s going on just beneath the surface.
Hormones that influence weight function and appetite
Endocrinologist Dr Samudrika Patil, of Vedicure Healthcare and Wellness, explains that thyroid hormones are mainly known for their effect on our metabolism. “Low secretion can cause weight gain, and excess amounts lead to weight loss.” People with hyperthyroidism can be severely underweight, whereas hypothyroidism slows down our metabolic rate, leading to obesity.
Insulin, produced by the beta cells of our pancreas, keeps blood sugar in check. “It also controls the storage of fat. That’s why insulin resistance causes you to gain weight,” says Patil.
Leptin and ghrelin may sound like Hobbits but they’re the ones running our appetites. Leptin, the satiety hormone produced by our fat cells, tells the brain you’re full. “Leptin deficiency can lead to obesity because you won’t know when to stop binging.” (Look Ma, I told you I wasn’t just greedy.)
Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, functions in the opposite manner. “Ghrelin levels go down when you eat a meal, as signals are sent to your brain to reduce the secretion of the hormone so that you know you are full.”
How our hormones impact hair and skin
Hormones can wreak havoc on our hair and skin. There’s always that one monstrous pimple that throbs on your face right before your period. Don’t even get me started on post-pregnancy hair loss and skin dryness caused by menopause. But it’s not just on those momentous occasions that our sex hormones affect our skin and hair.
“The right amount of oestrogens and androgens can positively influence your skin but the wrong amount can have adverse effects,” says Patil. The perfect balance can have you glowing like the setting sun, but few of us are that lucky.
Hormonal imbalances manifest as severe acne and hair loss caused by excess androgens, says Patil. The specific cause of hair and skin ailments can be difficult to identify sometimes. Hair loss can be caused by hormones, medications, severe vitamin deficiencies, and more. Skin can also break out because of different reasons.
This is why Patil says to consult an expert instead of indulging in self-diagnosis. Especially in the case of hair loss. Hormonal acne, on the other hand, can be easier to identify. It pops up as painful cysts usually on and along the chin and jawline.
The hormone that controls our sleep cycle
If you identify with a zombie more than you relate to a human being, you might want to look into the hormones affecting your sleep cycle. Coutinho says it manifests as being unable to sleep, and when you do manage to get some shut-eye, you still wake up tired and dazed.
Our sleep cycle is heavily dependent on the hormone melatonin. Stress, age, smoking and even bright lights can disrupt the body’s natural secretion of our PM buddy. Leading to restlessness, an inability to sleep through the night, or sleep at all. It’s produced by our pineal gland at night, or as the body reacts to darkness. “The right level of melatonin can help improve your sleep-wake cycle and set your circadian rhythm in place,” says Patil.
Your late-night Netflix binge and the screen light emanating from the phone can hamper the body’s natural reaction to the dark which helps our sleep.
“Melatonin supplements have become quite popular amongst some of us nocturnal insomniacs and are quite helpful. Besides supplements, hitting the bed at a decent hour with all your lights off and putting that phone away will help your pineal gland secrete enough melatonin to put you to sleep.”
When it comes to our plates, a study found that cherries contain a significant amount of melatonin. Warm milk is a traditional sleep aid for a reason, with a good amount of naturally occurring melatonin as well.
Sex hormones that control our libido
Desire can be driven by a lot of factors – physical attraction, those chemicals in our brain that make the butterflies in our stomach. In the driver’s seat of our sexual desire are testosterone and oestrogen.
“Testosterone deficiency leading to lowering libido is more common than we believe,” says Patil. Exercise can help release more testosterone in the body. Not all exercises are equal when it comes to increasing levels of testosterone. Multiple studies have found that working out, namely, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and resistance training have the best impact on increasing testosterone release.
Faltering levels of oestrogen can cause several female sexual dysfunctions. Patil says that it can also be the result of ageing and factors like drug use, alcohol and smoking. “A healthy lifestyle is crucial to regulate your hormones. Hormone replacement therapy can at times prove useful and testosterone therapy can be considered. “
Hormones which affect our concentration and attention span
Dopamine is the MVP of hormones, a superstar whose secretion you may have heard helps us stay happy, creative and attentive through the day. Oestrogen too has a strong influence on our cognitive and brain function.
“Oestrogen helps strengthen the connection in our brains which makes processes like memory and mood and other cognition work well. We women have a hard time concentrating during every menstrual cycle when there is a hormonal imbalance in oestrogen and have a hard time concentrating.”
Our concentration and attentiveness can be hampered by deficiencies in other hormones as well. High levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, activates our body’s fight or flight response. The long-term activation of the body’s stress response and overexposure to cortisol can increase our risk of many health problems, including impairing our memory and concentration.
But Patil says not to worry, backing up Coutinho’s earlier statement that a hormonal imbalance is usually reversible imbalances. Minor lifestyle modifications and dietary changes can help level these out. There’s no singular dish or ingredient to zap our brain fog away but including brain-boosting ingredients can improve brain health.
Add more leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and berries to your plates if you feel like you need a brain boost. And your mum was right about walnuts. The brain-shaped food helping brain health isn’t a complete myth after all.