Stylist explores how our high-stress, flat-white-fuelled lives are sending our bodies haywire.
You’re about to introduce your new boss to one of your colleagues. Except you can’t, for the life of you, remember this rather important person’s name. You think it starts with a P… perhaps. Stop torturing yourself, because it could well be your hormones at fault. The right balance of hormones in your brain is essential for cognitive function, and a drop in oestrogen can make you forgetful, among many other things.
We’re pretty au fait with how hormones affect us monthly, but that they affect us every minute of the day? That they could be responsible for your anxiety, worsening asthma, forgetfulness, low sex drive or insomnia? That the proper functioning of them is vital to your health? Maybe not. “Hormones are imperative to life,” says Dr Marion Gluck of The Marion Gluck Clinic, which specialises in hormone therapies. “They regulate every single function in our body, from metabolism to brain function to movement and more. If your hormones are not balanced, your health will falter.”
Hormones remain largely mysterious to most of us. The word wasn’t used until 1905 and endocrinology (the study of hormones) wasn’t even a science until shortly before the Second World War (party fact: British spies planned to end the war by smuggling oestrogen into Hitler’s food in an attempt to make him less aggressive). There’s also the fact that they have, at times, been used to reduce women – “Ugh, God, it must be her hormones.” The word gets thrown around, but we’re only just beginning to understand the true extent of their impact and function.
What we do know: hormones are chemical messengers, secreted by glands into the bloodstream which then whisks them away to organs and tissues to carry out their function. They affect everything from reproductive health to sexual desire to appetite to personality. Our hormones are like a symphony; we need them all to be playing at the perfect pitch for us to feel like we’re firing on all cylinders. The problem is, modern life is doing its damndest to ruin that harmony, explains Dr Jan Toledano of London Hormone Clinic.
Ah yes, bloody ‘modern life’ again. It’s a catch-all term for the cities we live in, the jobs which see us out the door at 6am to an exercise class, fuelled by a flat white, before a high- stress day chased with a glass of wine to take the edge off, before we turn in late, knackered, yet unable to sleep. And our hormones don’t agree with this life. At all.
“Our lives and our environment are making us hormonally unbalanced,” explains Dr Gluck. “For example, we’re more stressed than ever before. If you’re stressed you don’t sleep, if you don’t sleep you get anxious and fatigued. When this happens, hormones kick in to try and protect us at the cost of other hormones, which then leads to an imbalance. And it has a knock-on effect on every hormone level in your body, which can lead to all sorts of symptoms you wouldn’t necessarily link to hormones, like insomnia, anger issues or a lack of confidence.”
We’re finally waking up to the role hormones play with a surge of apps, books, hormone-influenced diets and research opening up the conversation. “It’s an exciting time in the hormone world. We are at the tipping point of understanding how much our health and wellbeing is affected by them,” says Angelique Panagos, nutritional therapist and author of The Balance Plan: Six Steps To Optimize Your Hormonal Health. Just as we’ve spent the last decade talking about work-life balance, it’s high time we paid attention to our hormone balance. A tricky one as we’re all genetically unique, meaning the things that affect my balance may have zero impact on yours. But here are the most prevalent modern-day issues which may be messing with all of our hormones.
The big sleep
Sleep is essential to our mental and physical wellbeing, yet we’re sleeping less than ever with 40% of us getting fewer than seven hours a night. “We’re burning the candle at both ends and taking our electronic devices to bed instead of our partners,” says Panagos. “Blue light produced by those screens is having a knock-on effect on our hormones, causing stress on the body and increasing our cortisol levels [the stress hormone] and reducing melatonin [the sleep hormone]. Cortisol and melatonin work like a seesaw – a drop in one sees a rise in the other. Poor sleep reduces the amount of melatonin we naturally produce, which then increases the amount of cortisol we produce, making us too stressed to sleep.”
Over time, poor sleep has an affect not just on our cortisol levels, but on various other hormones like oxytocin, prolactin, ADH, growth hormone, ghrelin, lectin and even testosterone. The result can be poor reproductive health, dry skin, anxiety, decreased muscle strength, weight gain, sugar cravings and a poor immune system. In other words, so much more than just tiredness.
Further proof that hormone balance is as delicate as Brexit negotiations: poor sleep has a negative effect on the hunger hormones lectin and ghrelin, which are responsible for regulating our appetites, making us hungrier and more likely to crave a doughnut or chocolate cake come 4pm. “This in turn leads to more belly and visceral fat, which then causes you to synthesise more oestrogen,” explains Panagos.
Solution: Improve your sleeping habits. Implement routine into your evening, making sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (including weekends) and switch your electronic device off at least an hour before you want to sleep to allow melatonin levels to naturally rise. Ensure your room is pitch black to help stimulate melatonin and don’t eat or drink too close to bedtime. Research has also found that just one week of camping with a complete electronics ban is enough to reset our biological clock and synchronise our melatonin hormones, helping you to sleep at regular times again.
Eat for (less) oestrogen
“Our diets were healthier after the war than they are today,” says Dr Gluck. The reason? We’ve become reliant on processed foods and sugar to fuel us quickly and (surprise, surprise) it is enraging our hormones. “When we have too much sugar it can really affect our hormones, causing a rise in blood sugar which causes our insulin levels to spike,” says Panagos. “Over time, these blood sugar spikes and subsequent insulin spikes stimulate more testosterone to be produced in the ovaries, which can be seen in the body through acne, hair loss, aggression, weight gain, tearfulness and even polycystic ovary syndrome.”
We’re also eating foods which are covered in pesticides and more soya than ever before. All of these things have a real effect. “Soya in its purest form is actually helpful,” says Dr Gluck. “But it’s usually modified, which tends to stimulate oestrogen in the wrong way leading to us becoming oestrogen dominant.” And it’s elevated oestrogen levels which tend to be the biggest issue for women in their 20s and 30s. Dr Jan Toledano of London Hormone Clinic says that the majority of young women who visit her clinic are oestrogen dominant and are experiencing symptoms such as irregular periods, irritability, weight gain, weepiness and problem skin because of it. It’s not just physical symptoms – oestrogen overload can affect our moods too.
“Cognitive function is massively affected by hormonal balance,” says Dr Toledano. “For example, if someone has severe PMS (which is worsened by low progesterone levels) they are much clumsier, more forgetful, more negative and angrier. Hormones can completely override your personality.”
Solution: “We’re very attached to what we eat so it’s hard to change our diets,” admits Panagos. “But here are some easy wins: make sure you’re having enough good fats and proteins (the building blocks of hormones), enough dark green leafy veg, try to stick to complex carbs only (avoid the white, sweet and fluffy), cut out refined sugars and try having a cup of greens a day. You should also aim to only buy organic fruit and vegetables, or if that’s not an option, make sure to peel your fruit or wash it thoroughly. And really try to only use organic meat. Broccoli has been shown to detoxify oestrogen in the body, so make sure that’s in your diet.”
Beware of the photocopier
There are many benefits to living in a city: restaurants, museums, and career opportunities to name but a few. The compromise is insane house prices, commuter life and, perhaps more surprisingly, the fact that we’re constantly exposed to synthetic chemicals everywhere we go. And many experts believe that these synthetic chemicals are seriously messing with our hormones.
“There’s a group of chemicals called xenoestrogens which are found in a variety of everyday objects. The list is endless, but things like plastic containers, make-up, nail varnish, fruit and vegetable pesticides, red dye in food, building supplies, clingfilm, and noxious gases from printers and photocopiers are all basically endocrine disrupters,” says Dr Toledano.
“What this means is that they function like hormones because they attach themselves to hormone receptors which can then mimic the natural hormones we produce. They tend to have oestrogen-like effects which can result in the body becoming oestrogen dominant, which can lead to many different symptoms. There is also an indication that the build-up of xenoestrogens in tissues can cause testicular cancer, miscarriage and infertility, among other things.”
Dr Gluck agrees that our environments are having a huge impact on our hormones. “So many women come to see me about extreme PMS – they have a really hard time the week before their period when they become moody, depressed, angry and out of control. They’re also incredibly bloated, tired, hungry, have headaches and tender breasts. And in many cases it’s hormone disrupters in the environment which are exaggerating these symptoms because they’re leading to imbalanced levels of oestrogen and progesterone.”
The other big issue Dr Gluck believes is tied to environmental toxins and their effect on our hormones is the rise in depression and anxiety. Mental health issues are extremely complicated and affected by many different factors but some experts, including Dr Gluck, believe hormones could be one of them.
“The increase in depression is absolutely linked to hormonal balance,” says Dr Gluck, who is currently writing a book on the topic, It’s Not My Head, It’s My Hormones. “Progesterone plays such an important role in our mood and wellbeing and is actually an antidepressant. It tells the brain to be less anxious and to calm down. [When] we produce too much oestrogen because of our environments, it leads to unbalanced progesterone levels, hence rising depression and anxiety issues.”
Solution: It’s impossible to avoid all of these ‘disruptors’ so you have to take a reasonable approach to reducing your use of them as much as possible. Avoid plastic bottles, clingfilm and containers wherever possible, and never heat a plastic item up in the microwave. Try to use cleaner products on your skin (avoid anything containing parabens – many products now class themselves paraben-free but check the label) and all-natural sunscreen. Keep it natural with household products too – try cleaning products from Method, Ecover and Kinn Living.
Of course, you are in contact with more xenoestrogens in the city than you would be in a rural area, but it’s worth noting that in the countryside you will be more exposed to pesticides and farming gases. There is a rise in homes being built using non-toxic materials but this is very much in its infancy. At work, try adding more plants to your office to help clean the air and be aware of chemicals from copiers and printers by printing less.
Are you stressed? A recent study found that 81% of women felt overwhelmed or unable to cope in the past year. It’s no surprise, when you realise what a profound effect stress has on your hormonal balance. “Put simply, when our body receives a message of stress, that message overrides every other message in your body because your body believes there is an immediate threat to you,” says Panagos.
“Not only does this prevent your body from performing functions which it deems less important during a life-threatening event – such as digestion, hair growth, sleep, menstruation and conception – it also causes our bodies to produce cortisol (along with adrenalin and noradrenaline) which, over time, can have various consequences. Along with insomnia, one of the effects of chronic over-exposure to cortisol is that it can affect the frontal cortex in your brain, which can in turn affect your memory and ability to learn. It also means your immune system is constantly, unnecessarily active which can cause chronic low-level inflammation, which is at the root of countless illnesses from allergies to autoimmune diseases to asthma and depression.”
And there’s more: “DHEA is an adrenal hormone,” says Dr Toledano. “It’s a hormone which naturally declines with age but if you’re very stressed it can also be depleted and will have an impact on your energy, vitality and general get-up-and-go. A woman working at a certain level could easily use these levels up and notice symptoms such as tiredness, low mood, less confidence and low libido. Same goes for testosterone, which is really important for mood, confidence, energy and libido. It’s not difficult to use these reserves up when we’re stressed.”
Solution: Put simply: less stress. Your body is perfectly capable of dealing with irregular bouts of stress but long-term stress can have more serious consequences. There are various ways to deal with stress, including meditation, rest, moderate exercise, sleep and, if needed, a trip to your GP to explore your options and a chat with your boss to discuss your workload.
“Hormone tracking gave me answers”
Moya Crockett, Stylist’s digital women’s editor, 26, has used the Hormone Horoscope app since August
“For years, I genuinely believed that I didn’t suffer from PMT. When friends moaned about experiencing hormone- related swings of exhaustion, weepiness and rage, I felt sympathetic but relieved that I didn’t go through similar cycles. Then I downloaded Hormone Horoscope, and guess what?
Turns out I do get PMT. I’d just never previously been able to connect my menstrual cycle with my mood in any tangible way. Things I’d assumed were simply part of my personality – sleepiness, anxiety, seesawing from extroversion to desperately needing to be alone – are actually firmly linked to hormones. As far as trackers go, Hormone Horoscope isn’t the most slick – Clue and Moody Month win here – but I’ve grown attached to it. You tap in your period’s start date and it pings you
a forecast as to how your hormones could affect your emotions on any given day (plus tips on how to utilise a good mood or cope with a bad one). I don’t like starting the day knowing my hormones are going haywire, so
I check it at night, when its predictions retrospectively explain how I felt. (Was I especially absent-minded at work? Could be due to plunging oestrogen.) It’s taught me a lot about myself and the female body.
The overall message to ensure our hormone balance? Sleep more, eat mindfully, stress less and avoid environmental toxins as much as possible. Of course, that’s an incredibly simplistic list, but being aware of what the hormone stressors are and the changes you can make can only help.
But most importantly, understand that your hormones may well be at the root of so many issues that on the face of it seem completely unrelated. If you suspect this may be the case, visit your GP or an endocrinologist who will be able to test all of your hormone levels.
If we’re going to be labelled hormonal, let’s do it properly.