We know that eating a nutritious diet rich in whole foods, healthy fats, whole grains and fibre, fruit and vegetables and other important vitamins and minerals is essential for hormone health and balance. However, there are also a number of lifestyle strategies you can implement with ease to help prevent hormonal imbalances and support your general wellbeing at the same time!
Read more about eating for healthy hormones here.
These lifestyle strategies have each been shown to support healthy hormone production and secretion, and keep your hormones in balance – whether that be your reproductive, blood sugar, sleep, hunger, thyroid hormones or so on. Introducing these strategies into your day-to-day routine should be sustainable and manageable, as they’re all designed to be incorporated as part of a healthy lifestyle over the long-term. By practising them consistently you’ll ensure you’re optimising the health of your hormones, and benefiting your physical and mental wellbeing simultaneously.
Exercising for hormone health is a balancing act. On one hand, physical activity has been shown to reduce any excess circulating sex hormones in your blood, including oestrogen, therefore improving the regularity and consistency of your menstrual cycle, and improving symptoms of PMS and other conditions associated with oestrogen dominance. For females with PCOS, exercise has been linked to improvements in hormone regulation and balance, and may reduce some symptoms of the condition. While oestrogen is essential for bone health, reproductive health and function, collagen production and more, excessive oestrogen can have negative effects on your health, impairing your performance in your workouts, increasing risk of some health conditions such as breast cancer, and causing hormonal imbalances in other reproductive hormones such as progesterone and testosterone.
However, aerobic exercise has been shown to improve oestrogen metabolism, therefore reducing breast cancer risk in premenopausal women. Aerobic, or cardio, training has been linked to reduced fat mass and improved fitness, both of which support the healthy metabolism of oestrogen and other hormones in women.
Similarly, resistance or strength training has been shown to facilitate healthy testosterone production in women and men (and no, you don’t have to lift super heavy to experience these benefits!). Given testosterone is essential for bone density, muscle tone, red blood cell production and cardiovascular health, amongst other functions, it’s important this hormone is produced sufficiently in both men and women. Strength training has been shown to improve the hormonal profile of males, reducing cortisol production and increasing testosterone levels. Resistance training has also been shown to decrease resting cortisol levels in women and support better sleep – which further aids in hormone health.
Exercise also helps to regulate blood glucose levels, making your body more sensitive to insulin for around 24 hours after a session. This allows your body to produce and utilise insulin more effectively, and stabilises your blood glucose levels within an optimal range, helping you to maintain a healthy weight. This has additional benefits too; if you’re of a healthy body weight, with plenty of lean muscle and without unhealthy amounts of excess fat, this further helps support healthy hormone production and balance. So the ability of exercise to help you achieve a healthy and sustainable bodyweight indirectly optimises hormone health, as well as its direct impacts on circulating reproductive hormone levels.
However, it’s important to note that there is a point at which exercise can wreak havoc on your hormones and actually exacerbate hormone imbalances. If you’re exercising too much, or too intensely, particularly without adequate rest, recovery and nutrition or energy intake, your hormones will suffer. Excessive exercise can lead to decreased production of important sex hormones including oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone, and increased production of your stress hormone cortisol. These changes may result in irregular or absent periods and ovulation in women, impaired fertility and reproductive health, and other unwanted health and hormone consequences. Similarly, training in a fasted state (where you haven’t eaten for around 4 hours or longer before exercising) can have negative effects on hormone health for women, again potentially increasing cortisol levels and compromising the production of other hormones and ovulation.
It’s important to note that, while regular and consistent exercise, both cardio and strength, is crucial for supporting balanced hormones, more is not always better. Make sure to fuel adequately before and after your sessions, allow adequate rest and recovery between workouts, and don’t push the intensity or volume of your sessions to excess. Move your body 3-5 times per week in a way that leaves you feeling energised and uplifted afterwards. Aim to eat before your workouts too – even if it’s a fast-digesting carbohydrate-rich snack such as honey on toast or a large banana. Your hormones will thank you for it!
2. Reduce Stress
Excessive or long-term stress can wreak havoc on your hormones, and is one of the most effective interventions to target if you’re looking to improve your hormone health and balance. Stress can cause changes in your production of so many different hormones, including growth hormones, immune-supporting hormones, “fight or flight” hormones and reproductive hormones. Often, long-term or chronic stress can lead to an elevated production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, preparing your body to respond to whatever stressor it’s encountering. In doing so, your body mobilises its energy sources and “pauses” less urgent functions such as digestion and absorption of nutrients. While, in some short-term high-stress scenarios, this fight-or-flight reaction is a healthy response (for example, if you’re fighting a lion, you want this response from your body!), your body actually can’t distinguish between perceived and real stress. For example, if you’re highly stressed about a deadline at work, or an argument in your personal life, your body responds to this in exactly the same way as it would if you were face-to-face with the lion.
Here are the effects of stress on a few of your major hormones:
- Cortisol: Given cortisol is your stress hormone, its production increases significantly in times of stress. While short-term, acute cortisol production is healthy and normal, if it’s elevated for a long period of time this can result in subsequent hormone imbalances, menstrual cycle irregularities, weight changes, mood fluctuations, low libido and reproductive health complications.
- Sex hormones: In times of significant stress, your production of hormones such as GnRH and oestrogen are suppressed, often causing disruptions to a normal menstrual cycle and healthy reproductive function.
- Thyroid hormones: T3 and T4 are important thyroid hormones responsible for a healthy metabolism and conversion of food to energy, amongst other things. Stress decreases the production of these hormones.
- Insulin: Insulin production again is impaired during stress, which can have consequences on blood glucose levels, potentially contributing to hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) over a long period of time.
As you can see, stress interferes with the production of many of the most important hormones your body relies on to maintain optimal function and health. By reducing the stressors in your life, you can effectively support your hormone health and balance.
Consider the areas or people in your life which may cause you to feel excessive amounts of stress. Whether it be unhealthy relationship dynamics, a high-stress or demanding job, excessive exercise patterns, inadequate nutrition or energy intake, too much time spent on social media, or any of the other endless stressors life can entail, ask yourself: how can you take a step back from the offending stressors, or reduce the impact they have on your mental and physical health?
Remember, your body perceives all stresses to be of equal threat and importance, meaning you respond the same way as soon as your brain is aware something is causing you distress. Keep in mind stress isn’t just affecting your mental health – it’s also affecting your physical health and hormones. So take action to develop strategies to tolerate stress more effectively, or eliminate it from your life where possible.
3. Prioritise relaxation and mindfulness
An effective way to manage or mitigate any stress in your life is to prioritise relaxation, take time out for yourself, and develop a mindfulness practice. Though, even if you’re not experiencing stress, this is an excellent strategy to incorporate into your daily routine to prevent hormonal imbalances.
Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, have been shown to help reduce cortisol production and support hormonal balance. By bringing you completely into the present moment, mindfulness can help to eliminate feelings of anxiety and stress, therefore controlling cortisol levels and restoring them to normal levels, and allowing the production of your other hormones to be repaired too.
Meditation, in particular, can impact the action of your hormones and neurotransmitters. Studies show meditation:
- Facilitates increased production of serotonin, a “feel-good” chemical in your brain which helps to protect it from stress, and supports your mood.
- It also enhances production of DHEA, a “longevity hormone” which helps counteract the actions of cortisol and supports the healthy production of other important hormones.
- Meditation can also support production of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter helping to combat anxiety, stress and insomnia.
- It also increases production of melatonin, which is required for healthy and restful sleep. Sleep plays a crucial role in hormone health (more on this to come), meaning meditation has a two-pronged effect on hormone health via melatonin production.
Mindfulness and meditation effectively lower blood cortisol levels, helping to reduce stress and the associated consequences on hormones and disease risk. Implementing a mindfulness practice into your daily routine can help regulate your hormone production and keep your hormones in balance. Consider adding meditation, journaling, breathwork or another mindfulness practice into your day.
4. Limit alcohol consumption
Alcohol acts as a stress on your body, so there’s no wonder it can also impair healthy hormone production and balance. Essentially, alcohol is a toxin, interfering with your healthy body processes and functions while it’s in your system. Normally, hormones are chemical messengers, released at the exact right time and in the right amount to control the body’s functions, organs and tissues to elicit an accurate and desired response.
Yet alcohol can interfere with the release of various hormones, meaning the tissues that rely on hormones and their messages to function normally can be compromised. This can affect hormones (and tissues) involved in growth and development, blood pressure, the production and usage of energy, bone health, reproductive hormones and so on. By limiting your consumption of alcohol, you can support the health of your hormones and allow your body organs and tissues to function properly.
Alcohol interferes with the hormones responsible for regulating your blood sugar levels, including insulin and glucagon, potentially leading to low blood glucose and impairing your body’s ability to utilise glucose as energy while you’re drinking. Instead of metabolising glucose (or the energy obtained from carbohydrates) as normal, your body prioritises the metabolism of alcohol when it’s in your system, meaning you’re temporarily inhibiting glucose production and utilisation. Over time, chronic heavy drinking can lead to high blood glucose levels or glucose intolerance, reducing your responsiveness to insulin, further impacting your blood sugar regulating hormones, and potentially worsening your risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
Alcohol also affects reproductive function in both men and women. Heavy drinking has been shown to potentially impair the function of the testes in males and ovaries in women, resulting in hormonal deficiencies and imbalances, infertility and sexual dysfunction. In men, excessive alcohol consumption can change normal sperm structure, impair sexual function, increase male breast size and alter testosterone production. In women, chronic heavy drinking has been linked to loss of menstrual periods or irregular cycles, early menopause, loss of ovulation and increased risk of abortion. As you can see, too much alcohol can wreak havoc on vital reproductive hormones and health. Aim to reduce your drinking to one or a few nights per week, and stick to 1-2 standard drinks on the nights you are consuming alcohol. Or, if you’re considering trying for a baby in the next 3 months, ideally you want to abstain from drinking altogether, as eggs and sperm take 3 months to fully develop – so any decisions you make today will go on to affect the long-term health of your future child.
5. Limit caffeine
While some caffeine is completely healthy and normal to consume, if you’re drinking excessive amounts regularly you may be unknowingly interfering with your hormone health. Various human studies have demonstrated the impact of caffeine on increasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, therefore sending your body into a “fight-or-flight” state and acting as a stress on your body. As we’ve covered, this physical state and response is not optimal for your hormones, and has flow-on effects for the production of various other hormones.
Too much caffeine can increase oestrogen production and impair its metabolism in premenopausal women, potentially worsening your risk of oestrogen-related disorders such as osteoporosis, endometriosis, and endometrial, breast or ovarian cancers if unaddressed long-term. While there appears to be minimal short-term impacts on women of childbearing age, and males are relatively unharmed by these effects, premenopausal women are recommended to limit their consumption of caffeine and coffee to around 200 mg per day, or roughly the equivalent of two cups of coffee, to support hormone health.
6. Prioritise sleep
Sleep is the unsung hero of hormone health. It is responsible for regulating the production and secretion of many important hormones, and indirectly maintaining a state of balance or “homeostasis” in your body, which further supports hormone health and prevents imbalances.
Sleep is highly correlated with various hormones including growth hormone, melatonin, cortisol, leptin and ghrelin, so any interruptions or lack of sleep has undesirable consequences for the production of each of these hormones. Sleep disturbance has been linked to increased risk of obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, and changes to your appetite.
Poor sleep quality or inadequate sleep duration increases your production of cortisol, and leaves you feeling hungrier and less in control of your food and eating choices. It also impacts energy expenditure and metabolism, as well as glucose intolerance and insulin sensitivity. So there’s no surprise that lack of sleep has been associated with obesity and diabetes risk. It’s important to note that, even when the duration of sleep stays the same, these effects can be felt even if sleep quality alone is affected.
Impaired sleep has been shown to have negative consequences on reproductive hormones too, particularly in women, with hormonal pathways responsible for hormone secretion, ovulation, fertilisation, implantation and menstruation all affected. Ongoing sleep problems have been linked to irregular menstrual cycles, PCOS, sub- or infertility, early pregnancy loss and early ovarian insufficiency. When sleep quality or quantity is altered, the resulting impaired reproductive hormone health and function can have serious effects on reproductive outcomes.
On the other hand, good-quality and sufficient sleep nourishes and supports hormone health and balance. For most people, 7-9 hours each night is optimal, with even one night of sleep debt throwing various hormones off-balance. To improve your sleep quality, consider the following:
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
- Establish a consistent nighttime routine, whatever that looks like for you. When you begin this routine, your brain will recognise it’s time to begin winding down for the evening.
- Turn off all screens around an hour before bed.
- Sleep in a very dark, cool environment.
- Expose yourself to natural light as soon as you wake up. Your body naturally operates on a circadian clock, so you’ll begin to feel tired around 16 hours after your first sunlight exposure – ideally in time for bed!
There you have it, six highly effective lifestyle tweaks and strategies that will have a profound impact on hormone health and prevent hormonal imbalances when implemented consistently. While none of the above strategies are demanding, or require significant investment of time, effort or energy, they all undoubtedly contribute to healthy production and secretion of crucial hormones, and support optimal health at the same time. Remember, all hormones exist on a finely balanced see-saw, so a disruption to one hormone will have flow-on effects for many others. Yet by implementing these strategies consistently, you’ll help restore and maintain hormonal balance, and prevent anything throwing off the “see-saw” that is your hormone production.