Hormones, unfortunately, get a pretty bad rap. While of that reputation is earned (hello, menstrual mood swings and ho-hum sex drive), the truth is your hormones have a huge impact on your overall health, so keeping their function in tip-top shape is essential to your well-being.
“The endocrine system is a collection of glands that produce hormones that help regulate metabolism, development, sexual function, reproduction, sleep and even mood,” says Yasmin Akhunji, MD, an Arizona-based endocrinologist with Paloma Health. “When these glands are not producing the right amount of hormones, diseases can develop and affect many different aspects of your life.”
It’s true: Whether it is endocrine-disrupting chemicals (which can be found in everything ranging from food to the air to cosmetics) or a lack of sleep, the health of your hormones can be affected by a number of things. Which is why you’ll want to listen closely as Dr. Akhunji weighs in on the things she does every day to help promote a natural, healthy hormone balance.
1. Set sleep goals—and follow through on them
There’s a reason why practically every expert goes on and on about getting a good night’s sleep—it’s crucial for all aspects of your health, including the endocrine system. The release of hormones from your pituitary gland (the “master endocrine organ” in the brain), is “markedly” influenced by sleep, says Dr. Akhunji. “Several studies have been done that examine the impact of the hormone, metabolism, and immune function in chronic partial sleep deprivation.” That’s why she aims to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
Dr. Akhunji says that partial sleep loss has shown to increase early evening levels of the stress hormone cortisol. If sleep loss becomes a continuous issue, that could have big implications for long-term health. “Elevations of evening cortisol levels and chronic sleep deprivation are likely to promote the development of insulin resistance, which is a risk factor for both diabetes and its associated comorbidity obesity,” she explains.
Lack of sleep can also affect leptin, a hormone that is released by the body to signal satiety to the brain and suppress appetite—which could potentially make someone struggle to stick to healthy eating patterns. Dr. Akhunji references a landmark 2004 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism that showed cutting sleep from eight to four hours of sleep per night showed a marked decrease in leptin. In the same study (but with a different group of participants), researchers found that just two days of deceased sleep caused a significant increase (nearly 30 percent) in ghrelin, a hormone secreted by the stomach to stimulate appetite. “Clearly, sleep is not only for the brain but also for the rest of the body,” Dr. Akhunji says.
2. Find healthier ways to manage stress
Remember that pesky “stress hormone” cortisol Dr. Akhunji just mentioned? Yeah, it’s such an integral part of the endocrine system that she’s bringing it up again. A 2011 study showed that increased stress can lead to changes in your hormone levels, which over time can lead to an increased risk of endocrine disorders, adrenal dysfunction, thyroid conditions, and obesity.
“Modern life is stressful!” Dr. Akhunji says. “Whether it’s work stress, home life, kids, or bills, we’re all constantly on the go.” But she emphasizes that while she totally “gets” that finding ways to de-stress and blow off steam is a necessity, it’s important to find healthy coping mechanisms. “I find that spending 10 to 20 minutes every night on my skin-care routine and listening to some guided meditation on my phone is what I need to decompress before bed,” she says.
She also personally finds it helpful to visualize her goals every day to help manage stress and keep her in a positive state of mind. “I know this sounds very Californian-hokey of me, but define your daily and long term goals. Write them down and sign it like a contract you’re making with yourself.” If it helps keep you on pace, Dr. Akhunji recommends setting a timer and for those 20 minutes keep in mind that it’s about you and re-centering yourself. “I promise you, your outer —and inner — self will thank you for it,” she says.
3. Stick to a diet that nourishes your body
While there are lots of foods and diets out there that promise to balance hormones, Dr. Akhunji says that they’re not necessary for most healthy adults. Instead, she favors favoring mindful, intuitive eating.
“I think a lot of the problem with today’s modern diet is that we emphasize convenience and so this often results in higher fat, higher caloric foods that may not be all that nutritious,” she says. While she leans toward a Mediterranean diet, she recommends patients find a healthy eating plan that works for them.
“There are a lot of questions at my clinic regarding diets like the ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting, and the vegan diet, but honestly it’s mostly about finding [an eating plan] that works for you and what your ultimate goals are,” she says. She also always recommends seeking professional guidance from a dietitian.
4. Choose physical activities you enjoy
One of the most effective ways to manage stress (key for hormone health) is to exercise. But in Dr. Akhunji’s view, there’s no point in signing up for the hardest workout class you can find to work off some stress if you hate it. That’s why you’re more likely to see her at a dance class than running around the neighborhood. “Why would I torture myself by setting myself up for a marathon?” she says.
The point, of course, is that Dr. Akhunji believes in physical activity to stay healthy, but recommends choosing something you enjoy doing so that you’re more likely to stick with it (and thus reap all the benefits for your health and hormones). That said, you should also be a bit flexible when you can’t squeeze in your all-time favorite activity.
“Sometimes when life is hectic and I cannot get myself to a dance class, I incorporate things like spinning and weight lifting to mix it up,” she says, adding that approximately 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week is recommended by health professionals, including the Endocrine Society and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology. “Talk to your doctor about what is safe for you, and more importantly find an activity that is fun for you that gets your heart rate up and off of that couch.” Your stress levels (and your hormones) will thank you.
Looking for more expert advice? Here’s what a cardiologist does every day to keep their heart healthy, and here’s what a therapist says they do for better mental health.