Our hormones govern every aspect of our physical and mental health, quietly going about their roles until our lifestyle habits throw them off balance. “Your hormones will do their best to maintain equilibrium within your body, but if you are challenging them with too many extreme diet or detrimental lifestyle habits, then you are making their roles impossible,” says Dr Nicky Keay an honorary clinical lecturer at University College London’s school of medicine and author of Hormones, Health and Human Potential.
“Tiny lifestyle changes could be the tipping point to improved health and longevity.”
Here are 10 ways to improve your hormone health:
There are certain times of the day more hormonally suited to rigorous workouts than others. “In theory, the morning release of the stress hormone cortisol might be expected to help with exercise,” she says. “Although intense exercise later in the evening has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns which has a negative effect on hormone secretion patterns at night.”
Studies have found that athletes tend to perform best during the early evening. However, Keay says there might also be subtle differences in hormonal responses to exercise for men and women.
“In one recent study that looked at the effects of exercise timing, it seemed that, for women, exercising in the morning helped to prevent the dumping of fat in the abdominal area, while early evening exercise was more beneficial for improvements in muscular strength.”
From middle age onwards, muscle mass starts to decline, a process known as sarcopenia. “It happens because of a gradual drop in sex steroid hormones and growth hormones,” Keay says. “The good news is that even as we get older, muscle remains responsive to mechanical stimulus in the form of resistance exercise, so we can slow these losses.”
To compensate for lower hormone levels in your mid-40s onwards you will need to be diligent with resistance training — for example, weights and Pilates — and do it three times a week.
Hormones rely on the regularity of meals to remain in equilibrium. And alternate day fasting or the 5:2 approach has the potential to cause hormonal disarray. “Any kind of stop-start diet or extremes of eating really confuse the hormones and their biological clocks,” Keay says. “Fasting on some days but eating normally on others causes the circadian mis-alignment that is just very bad for our hormones as they struggle to adapt and maintain some sort of balance.”
While a sedentary lifestyle is bad news for hormone health, extreme exercise habits — lots of lengthy cycles, swims or runs — without adequate recovery and refuelling will take their toll on male hormones. “In men who obsessively maintain a high training load that is not balanced by sufficient sleep and good nutrition, there can be suppression of the control centre of the male hormone network,” Keay says. “In an attempt to ‘save energy’, the body shuts down processes that are less essential, including reproduction and fertility.”
Sleep and recovery are important parts of an exercise routine.
Our gut microbiome plays an important role in hormonal health. And the foods we eat determine the diversity of our beneficial gut bacteria. The first step to prepare the gut for prime hormonal health is to eat prebiotic fibrous food.
Dark green leafy vegetables and fermentable fibre found in fruit and vegetables, for example, garlic, onion, leeks, chickpeas, beans, lentils, artichoke and asparagus are important.
“The cellulose, found in the cell walls of many of these plants, can’t be fermented, but does help to keep the gut moving and prevent ‘unfriendly’ gut microbiota from proliferating,” says Keay.
Inulin, found in wheat, onion and bananas, is also particularly effective as a prebiotic. “Once you’ve been eating these prebiotic foods for a few weeks, it’s time to ‘fertilise’ your gut bacteria with probiotics found in fermented foods such as sourdough bread, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha,” Keay says.
“The greater variety of these foods, the better the outcome for hormonal health.”
Bone is an active tissue — about 10% of the skeleton is replaced every year – and its strength is dependent on a nurturing cocktail of hormone cocktails. And the effect exercise has on strengthening bones is reinforced by growth hormones that flood through the body when we are active. Activities that involve changes in direction and some resistance are ideal.
“Dance is great as are sports like tennis, rugby and football, while running is good for strengthening leg and hip bones and rowing for strengthening the legs and spine,” Keay says.
“Remember that too much of any exercise is not good for the hormones that support bone health and more is not better.”
Refuelling after resistance or strength training or any intense or prolonged workout is important. “Combining some protein with complex carbohydrate is a good strategy to replenish glycogen stores and provide some of the nutritional building blocks for hormone-driven muscle repair and synthesis,” Keay says. “A banana milkshake or smoothie is a great way of combining the elements you need.”
Growth hormones produced when you sleep are important for muscle and bone repair, as well as metabolism. Provided you have been active and have eaten well during the day, you can literally get fitter while you are asleep and you can further support this hormone-driven repair process by taking on some protein before bed. “A glass of milk is ideal because it contains casein — a protein for providing the building blocks of the hormone-driven process of muscle repair — and tryptophan, a precursor molecule for making the sleep hormone melatonin,” Keay says. “From middle age onwards I would recommend taking a small amount of milk or yoghurt every evening.”
Dropping light levels at dusk are detected by the body’s central circadian clock, called the supra chiasmic nucleus (SCN), which is located in the hypothalamus part of the brain. Keay says when this happens, the SCN prompts the pineal gland located deep in the brain to release the hormone melatonin, which prepares us for sleep by lowering body temperature and blood pressure. Looking at the screens of any electronic devices late in the evening, but particularly just before bed, sends false signals to the SCN to delay melatonin release which is why so many people find it difficult to fall asleep after reading their phone or tablet in bed.
Good sleep patterns allow hormone networks to stimulate health benefits. “If you were to push me on the single most important thing you can do for hormonal health, I would have to say it is sleep well,” Keay says. “It’s when you are sleeping that your hormones work their magic of supporting health.”
In men and women, sleep is one of the key stimuli for the release of hormones such as growth hormone and the pulsatile release of luteinising hormone which increases overnight to support the production of the sex steroids oestradiol and testosterone. “There’s also an increase in leptin, the satiety hormone, during sleep which prevents you from waking up ravenously hungry,” she says.
“Studies have shown that going to bed after midnight increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and you also risk missing out on the benefits of the nocturnal secretion of growth hormone which strengthens muscle and bone if you go to bed too late.”
- Hormones, Health and Human Potential by Dr Nicky Keay is published by Sequoia Books.
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