She’s crazy. That guy is on a power trip. This is the limited view of hormones that many of us have: that they drive people to act, feel, and behave in a certain way, often in reference to sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. This is true to some extent – estrogen, for example, naturally rises at the start of every woman’s menstrual cycle, and it’s associated with empathy and nurturing. But how we live day to day, from maintaining a healthy diet to getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night, can affect how low or high hormone levels are.
At this point society is saturated with healthy tips and tricks for looking and feeling your best. What this conversation sometimes overlooks is how these choices make sure your hormones are nice and balanced; that’s what you have us for. Take a look below at what some of the sage lifestyle advice does behind the scenes.
Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, limited intake of red meat and other saturated fats – you know you got to do it. While it keeps your body running and energized, it also influences estrogen, testosterone, leptin, ghrelin, and insulin levels. Excess fat levels convert androgens to estrogen, and more estrogen can negatively affect lean muscle, Daily Burn reported; it essentially encourages more fat storage in both men and women. The same goes for insulin, a natural hormone produced by the pancreas that’s almost exclusively associated with diabetes. When we maintain a poor diet, we risk insulin sensitivity, which allows blood glucose (sugar) to build up in the blood as opposed to using it for energy.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found saturated and monounsaturated fat, as well as the protein-to-fat ratio, “were powerful predictors of testosterone levels,” Daily Burn reported. Monounsaturated fats are also considered “good fat” – that’s your avocado, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils like olive and sesame oil. Limiting soy may help keep estrogen balanced too. Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, Medical Director at Examine.com, told Daily Burn soy may “bind selectively to various estrogen receptors in the body, disrupting hormone balance.”
Cardio and strength training impact multiple hormones: estrogen, testosterone, human growth hormone, and cortisol. Strength training can naturally increase testosterone, in turn increasing lean muscle mass and bone density. HGH, on the other hand, helps regulate body composition, muscle and bone growth, and your metabolism.
The biggest sell on exercise, though, has to be its ability to reduce the stress hormone cortisol. Anyone who’s laced up to hit the pavement after a hard day of work or on a bike for a killer spin class can probably wax poetic about the stress-relieving powers of a good sweat session. But more importantly, keeping cortisol balanced helps the body manage sugar and fat intake too. When cortisol stays high, people are likely to develop chronic stress, which opens the door to potential health problems. Women’s Health reported “just three hours a week of cardio or weight training considerably reduces cortisol levels, especially if you keep your workouts short and sweaty.”
The body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, lets us know when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to go to bed, as light stimulates pathways to the brain so it can act accordingly. Melatonin, a natural hormone made by the body’s pineal gland, plays a role here too. When the sun goes down, the pineal turns on and starts to produce the hormone and releases it into the blood, ultimately inviting sleep, The National Sleep Foundation reported. So when we aren’t regularly getting sleep or when we’re exposing ourselves to light after, say, 9 p.m. (as smartphone users tend to do), we disrupt this production and trick our body into staying awake.
Sleep deprivation is no joke. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says effects can range from decreased motivation and productivity, to risks for more serious conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. One study found it negatively affects leptin and ghrelin, the hunger hormones that control cravings and satiety, respectively. In addition to getting to bed at a decent hour, try to make sure the bedroom is as dark as possible, and turn phones face down.
Also known as as the cuddle or love hormone, oxytocin is good for your relationships. It is released from the brain when you touch someone, either a lover or friend, and higher levels positively impact a person’s sex drive, sense of trust, and reduce stress and blood pressure, Women’s Health reported. Bonus: balanced estrogen levels enhance oxytocin’s effects, and in women especially can help them bond more intensely after sex. And Live Science reported that people testosterone-dominant personalities are more attracted to those with high estrogen and oxytocin levels.
Some studies have implicated low levels of the love hormone in cases of psychiatric disorders, but no definitive lines have been drawn. Psych Central cited a study that found low levels of oxytocin are linked to poorer social skills. So hugging, snuggling, and/or spooning with a friend, partner, or pet, should do the trick.
About Stephanie Castillo
Stephanie is currently covering women’s health for Medical Daily, a subsidiary site of Newsweek’s parent company IBT Media, and was previously an online assistant editor for Prevention.com. Some of her work has also been featured or appeared in Newsweek, Refinery29, and Well + Good NYC.