The Myths and Realities of Hormonal Imbalance (and Why Bio-Individuality Is Key)
Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor
Why hormonal balance is key to overall health.
There are over 200 hormones in the body. These hormones help our organs and glands carry out their necessary functions to keep us healthy and alive! In both men and women, if any hormones are imbalanced, it can create a cascade of health issues.
If you think you don’t have control over these hormones, think again! Our diet and lifestyle behaviors impact our hormonal health, but the extent to which they affect our hormone levels is bio-individual. Because of this unique function of hormones, there are myths that proliferate the health and wellness world that we’ll address so that you, as a bio-individual, can determine how to address your personal hormonal health.
Six major hormone myths explored.
1. Eating soy is not beneficial for hormonal health, especially in women.
Soy’s reputation in the health world hasn’t been the most positive, and that’s likely because of soy’s complicated behavior in the body. Studies have aimed to nail down the true effects of soy consumption on our health, but nutrition science often produces conflicting answers based on area of the body and gender.
In 1995, The New England Journal of Medicine published a meta-analysis that concluded that “consumption of soy protein rather than animal protein significantly decreased...total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.” Essentially, it found that consuming soy protein can be beneficial to your heart. Many food product companies took advantage of this news and labeled their soy-filled products “heart healthy.”
Since then, scores of studies have focused on different aspects of health, specifically the hormonal impact of eating soy because of its phytochemical content, especially its uniquely rich isoflavone content.
Soy isoflavones are phytoestrogens, which are chemically similar to estrogen and behave like hormones, though not as strong. The high isoflavone content plus high protein content of soy foods makes it a wonderful choice for vegans and vegetarians as well as those who may need the positive effects of estrogen but are otherwise deficient, such as those going through menopause.
However, soy isoflavone behavior is complicated. While it can mimic estrogen in some parts of the body, such as bones to protect bone loss, it can also have anti-estrogen effects. This means they’ll inhibit actual estrogen function by binding to those hormone receptors and blocking their activation, which can hinder processes that require estrogen. It’s important to note that the pro- or anti-estrogen effects are dependent upon existing estrogen levels in the body, so the extent to which these effects are felt are truly individual.
For men, estrogen plays a role in the proper forming and maintenance of the reproductive system. For women, estrogen plays a much larger role. It’s essential for regulating the menstrual cycle and maintaining the health of the reproductive and urinary tracts and musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems.
In an often-cited JAMA study, researchers in Shanghai followed 5,000 female breast cancer survivors for four years to assess cancer recurrence and total mortality. This study concluded that soy food intake – about 15 grams of soy protein a day (two servings of tofu or two cups of soy milk) – decreased both recurrence of breast cancer and risk of death. Many trials have been conducted to look at the relationship between soy consumption and menopausal symptom relief, but results have been mixed, indicating that it’s likely dependent upon each individual woman and her unique physiological needs (read: bio-individuality!).
Bottom line? Consuming soy is not thought to be harmful to your health if you’re eating this rich source of protein as part of a balanced diet. In fact, more studies have shown its positive rather than negative effects. As with other foods that seem to be good one day and bad the next – meat, eggs, and dairy, for example – it’s important to figure out what works best for you and your personal health needs.
2. You have no control over your hormones.
While there are definitely circumstances where medication is warranted to correct hormonal imbalance, there are non-medication routes to explore to achieve balance and great health as well.
Food has the power to heal – or harm – our bodies. Think about fast food – the high saturated fat, sodium, and sugar content in these foods contribute to the obesity epidemic around the globe. Now think about the opposite of fast food: foods in their whole form, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, eggs, etc. Every food we eat, healthy or not, has an impact on our hormonal health, including the levels of insulin, ghrelin, and leptin. These are hormones that modulate our blood sugar and hunger cues.
Insulin resistance – the blunted response to insulin production – occurs when our diet is so high in sugar that our body goes into overdrive to clear the sugar from the blood into our cells for fuel. Since the cells are saturated with sugar, it’s shuttled into our liver to be stored as fat. If this fat accumulation in the liver is left unchecked, it can lead to fatty liver disease and dramatically diminish the function of the liver, whose main role is detoxification.
In both women and men, insulin resistance is often associated with larger health issues, such as metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. For pregnant women, insulin resistance poses larger issues, such as reduced energy and nutrients being shared with the fetus. Those with PCOS are more likely to have insulin resistance, and those going through menopause are also more prone to developing insulin resistance due to increased accumulation of fat.
Leptin, the “satiety hormone,” is responsible for telling your brain when to stop eating. In overweight and obese individuals, leptin is elevated due to leptin resistance, preventing the correct message of fullness to the brain and motivating overeating. Ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” works in contrast to leptin by stimulating hunger. The levels of these hormones are directly affected by the foods you’re eating, which means if you’re eating high-inflammatory, high-sugar foods, you’re more likely to tip these hormones into imbalance.
Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is vital to our survival. From an evolutionary standpoint, cortisol helped us survive when our biggest threat was being chased by lions. Today, we’re plagued by chronic stress due to our modern lives filled with work, social media, relationships, etc., reducing our body’s ability to discern real danger. Our body shifts into survival mode: overeating and weight gain to store fat. We do have the ability to naturally lower our cortisol levels, however, through stress-management techniques as well as eating a well-balanced diet.
Bottom line? What’s at the end of your fork can help or hinder your health. Despite the need for certain people to utilize medication, embracing a healthy diet is an important part of the equation. A Health Coach helps clients reach their health goals, including improving their diet to see positive health outcomes.
3. People don’t have to worry about menopause until they’re over 50.
The average age that a person experiences menopause is 51, but some may experience it much younger or older. Menopause is confirmed when a person has missed their period for 12 consecutive months with no other obvious causes, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hysterectomy.
Many physiological processes are at play for a person to lose their menstrual cycle for a year. Perimenopause, the transition phase before menopause, can occur four to eight years before the final menstrual period. During this time, estrogen levels decrease and can contribute to a host of health issues, such as heart disease, osteoporosis, decreased sexual function, and urinary incontinence. The decrease in estrogen contributes to many of these issues, especially heart disease, as estrogen plays an important role in maintaining function of vessel walls.
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet, combined with working with your doctor or healthcare practitioner, can help you navigate this hormonal transition with ease and reduced stress.
Bottom line? Menopause occurs in most people later rather than earlier, but the transition into menopause begins long before the onset of menopause. Taking care of your body in preparation for, and especially during, this transition can be beneficial for your physical, mental, and emotional health.
4. Men don’t have to worry about their hormone function.
Testosterone is the male sex hormone, and estrogen is the female sex hormone, but both men and women have both hormones active in their bodies at varying levels. In men, testosterone is the major sex hormone and plays a role in sperm production, sex drive, bone growth and strength, muscle size and strength, facial hair growth, and more.
Too much or too little testosterone in men can cause many health risks and outcomes. Too much testosterone can cause heart damage, liver disease, high blood pressure, and mood swings. Too little can result in reduced body and facial hair, low sex drive, irritability or depression, and increased risk of bone fracture. However, one upside to lower testosterone is decreased risk of prostate cancer in men, due to testosterone stimulating the growth of the prostate gland.
While women experience a relatively short time of decreased estrogen levels, men may experience this hormonal change over a longer stretch of time as they age. It’s believed that testosterone levels gradually decline throughout adulthood, starting at about 30 years of age.
Bottom line? Men can experience a variety of symptoms related to hormonal imbalances, from neurological to physical. Even if they’re not as obvious in a short amount of time, hormonal imbalances can create health issues that men should be aware of and proactively take care of to offset severe symptoms.
5. “Adrenal fatigue” is a catch-all term for someone experiencing burnout.
Small glands located above each kidney, our adrenal glands are responsible for producing hormones that maintain metabolism, blood pressure, and stress response. Key hormones include cortisol (main stress hormone), aldosterone (regulates blood pressure), and adrenaline and norepinephrine (control heart rate and blood pressure).
The concept of “adrenal fatigue” is that our adrenals become so taxed that they don’t work efficiently. Common symptoms include difficulty waking up, brain fog, lack of motivation, daily fatigue, salty food cravings, and trouble sleeping.
Adrenal fatigue isn’t a recognized diagnosis, but for many people, this seems to be a catch-all for the spectrum of symptoms they’re experiencing. The unfortunate truth is that our lives have become inundated with daily stressors that keep our cortisol and other stress hormones elevated throughout the day, which we’re not physically conditioned to handle. These symptoms of stress and perhaps burnout are very real, but research has yet to indicate that fatigued adrenals are the cause.
Bottom line? There is adrenal insufficiency, which can be caused by Addison’s disease (a disorder of the pituitary gland), but if test results show no indication of the disorder, it’s important to take a more holistic look at what you can do (body, mind, and spirit) to relieve your stress and its symptoms.
6. PMS is normal and we simply have to endure it.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a collection of symptoms that people experience up to 1–2 weeks before the onset of their menstrual period. PMS symptoms can be both physical – cramping, bloating, breast tenderness, fatigue, headaches, and food cravings – and emotional – mood swings, irritability, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and changes in sex drive.
These symptoms can range in severity, and for some whose symptoms are so severe that they impact their day-to-day life, it can be extremely debilitating and isolating. PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, may be diagnosed if these symptoms are severe enough to disrupt a normal routine and require medication.
There are studies that show that supplementation and certain foods can help alleviate symptoms of PMS. Vitamin B6 can help with cognitive function as well as improve moodiness and irritability common during PMS. Foods with vitamin B6 include poultry, fish, and starchy vegetables, such as potatoes. Magnesium can help with cramps and headaches as it promotes muscle relaxation in the body. Foods with magnesium include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and some dairy products.
Bottom line? While hormonal changes before a menstrual period can impact how a person feels physically and mentally, the severity may be reduced with diet, supplements, and alternative medicines. There’s little research available to conclude that alternative medicine is effective in PMS treatment, but it’s the responsibility of every person to explore their bio-individual needs when it comes to food, supplements, and self-care methods.
Health Coaches can help support your journey to hormonal balance.
So, now what? You’ve read these hormone myths and decided that you want to explore further because you’ve been dealing with hormonal imbalance. Have you ever thought about working with a Health Coach?
Health Coaches are supportive guides who provide a safe space for you to explore what diet and lifestyle changes you could make to improve your health. Balancing your hormones, from stress to menstrual cycle and beyond, requires proper dietary and lifestyle behaviors. With their coaching and nutrition education, Health Coaches can help you make decisions based on your bio-individual needs and set you on the track to achieve better health.