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You stock your fridge with healthy foods, try to be as active as possible, and only indulge on special occasions—so why can’t you push past a weight plateau? According to Sara Gottfried, MD, author of The Hormone Cure and Younger, the answer could be your hormones.
“When it comes to burning more calories than you consume, this so-called weight-loss equation only applies to perfect hormonal specimens; people who have their cortisol, thyroid, insulin, estrogen, and testosterone in perfect balance,” she says. Yes, sky-high cortisol levels or an under-active thyroid could wreak havoc on your overall well-being—even if you lead a perfectly healthy lifestyle.
Women are particularly high risk. “Unfortunately, it is very common,” Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, tells MyDomaine. “Estimates on the number of women who have a hormonal imbalance are as high as 80%.”
Thankfully, there is a way to improve your health without resorting to synthetic treatments. “I live by the philosophy that food is medicine, and the good news is that some relatively simple dietary changes and lifestyle factors can go a long way in correcting hormone imbalances,” he says.
Don't forgo treatments for medically-diagnosed hormone imbalances. Instead, simultaneously incorporate some of these natural solutions to dramatically augment your health.
We asked Gottfried and Axe to talk us through this surprisingly common health issue and give their expert advice on how to combat it.
What are the most common signs of hormone imbalance?
SARA GOTTFRIED: When your hormones are in balance, neither too high nor too low, you look and feel your best. But when they are imbalanced, you may feel miserable, with a range of symptoms, including fatigue, sugar cravings, weight-loss resistance, bloating, belly fat, trouble sleeping, anxiety or irritability, and constant stress. You won’t truly know if your hormones are to blame for your symptoms until you get some basic blood work done. Record your symptoms and check in with your physician.
JOSH AXE: Symptoms of hormonal imbalances can range drastically depending on what type of disorder or illness they cause. Some specific problems associated with some of the most common hormonal imbalances include:
- Estrogen dominance: changes in sleep patterns, changes in weight and appetite, higher perceived stress, and slowed metabolism
- Adrenal fatigue: fatigue, muscle aches and pains, anxiety and depression, trouble sleeping, brain fog, and reproductive problems
- Hypothyroidism: slowed metabolism, weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, digestive issues, and irregular periods
How do the products we use each day—plastic bottles, stainless steel cookware, etc.—influence our hormones?
JA: These products leach chemicals into our bodies that act as hormone disruptors, and they do exactly that: They can disrupt or interfere with hormonal processes.
In the context of an article on hormonal imbalances, it’s easy to think that hormones are bad. But they’re not. They are a very natural part of our body. When foreign chemicals are allowed to enter the body through plastic bottles, etc., those chemicals confuse our body’s natural hormones and disrupt those normal functions.
What are the most common causes of hormone imbalances in women?
SG: In my experience as a practitioner of functional medicine, the main culprits for haywire hormones include:
- Nutrient deficiencies: For instance, not enough vitamin C can lower your progesterone. Progesterone is nature’s Xanax, so that makes you feel overwhelmed and anxious.
- Stress: I put myself in this category. Again, the root cause is that the alarm system in the body doesn’t turn off, and you make too much cortisol at the expense of other hormones.
- Alcohol: Alcohol raises estrogen and cortisol levels, robs you of deep sleep, and lowers metabolism by more than 70%. I suggest getting off alcohol completely for a minimum of two weeks, twice per year, to give your liver a break.
When should we seek out natural ways to rebalance our hormones instead of synthetic therapies? What natural remedies do you recommend?
JA: Pharmaceuticals are designed to treat symptoms only—not the actual cause of the condition—and because of that, seeking a synthetic treatment could cause you to depend on drugs.
Adaptogen herbs are special plants that have been used for thousands of years in ancient Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. [They] help recharge the adrenals and keep stress-related hormones like cortisol in check, which is very important in maintaining overall health and wellness. The good news is that adaptogens like ashwagandha, holy basil, and ginseng are widely available in health food stores and online.
Do you recommend taking vitamins and supplements to help balance hormones?
SG: Typically, I recommend a “food first” philosophy, meaning get what you can from what you eat, and only if you can’t, rely on supplements. Some of my favorite natural foods to balance hormones are brazil nuts, oysters, and [foods with] omega-3. Brazil nuts provide 100% of your recommended daily allowance of selenium, which you need to keep your thyroid happy; [oysters] get you the copper you need to boost your thyroid and testosterone levels; and wild-caught fish or fish oil supplements can lower cortisol levels.
JA: Yes. I recommend omega-3 fish oil supplements [which] help with the inflammatory response that is common among those with hormone imbalances.
I also recommend vitamin D3, which acts as another anti-inflammatory in the body and also mimics hormone activity. Sunshine is the best source of vitamin D, which explains why, during the winter months, people often feel blue. Adequate levels of vitamin D can balance the hormones that make us feel sad, lonely, or depressed.
What is the easiest, quickest way to reduce your cortisol levels?
SG: Master your sleep! Only 6% of the population does well on less than eight hours of sleep.
Another solution is to address the way you exercise. While exercise is an essential part of managing health and balancing your hormones, it can also throw them further out of whack if not managed properly. Some forms of exercise, like running, place so much stress on the body that cortisol shoots up.
My advice is to stop exercising so hard in an obsessive desire to burn calories and start exercising smarter. Practice yoga or go to barre class. Add burst training, also known as high-intensity interval training, to your routine. It’s incredibly efficient and comes without the persistent cortisol-raising side effect of a long run.
When should readers turn to a professional for advice?
SG: Turn to a professional if your symptoms are serious, causing disability, or don’t improve in two weeks—you may need additional diagnostic testing and detective work.
Liao LY, He YF, Li L, et al. A Preliminary Review of Studies on Adaptogens: Comparison of Their Bioactivity in TCM with That of Ginseng-Like Herbs Used Worldwide. Chin Med. 2018;13:57.
National Institutes of Health: office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Updated October 9, 2020.