Hormone balance is a delicate dance that starts in the brain, in a structure called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland, a pea-sized body at the base of the brain that is often considered the “master gland,” as it monitors and regulates the production and release of many hormones throughout the body, including our sex hormones.
We now know that there are many other factors that play a role in maintaining hormone balance. For example the liver, being the primary metabolizer of all hormones in the body, breaks down hormones to help keep the levels of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and more in balance. When it comes to gut health, we have the estrobolome, the population of estrogen-metabolizing bacteria that live in the gut that is largely responsible for regulating the levels of estrogen that are circulating in the body at any given time.1
When all is functioning well, the hypothalamus tells the pituitary gland to tell the ovaries to release the right amount of hormones at the right time, and the gut and the liver break down hormones to keep things in balance, and the cycle goes on. However, there are many ways in which these pathways can be disrupted, by backing up the breakdown of hormones, or by interfering with the communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries. You may be surprised to hear many common habits, some of which can seem like a healthy option, can actually be disrupting hormone balance.
Alcohol can disrupt our hormones in several ways. Drinking alcohol puts a burden on the liver, which is responsible for metabolizing and detoxifying alcohol and its byproducts. This can lead to a bit of a back up so to speak, reducing the effectiveness of the liver in metabolizing hormones. Alcohol can also create an imbalance in the bacteria of the gut microbiome, altering the activity of the estrobolome, as well as contributing to systemic inflammation which is a driving factor in virtually all disease processes, and is a common underlying cause in hormone imbalances.2 What’s more, while a night cap may help you get to sleep more easily, alcohol significantly reduces sleep quality, which is essential for healthy hormones, not to mention overall energy and wellbeing.
The CDC recommends limiting alcohol to no more than two units per day for men, and no more than one unit per day for women. However, recent studies have shown that even one unit (one 12oz beer, one shot of liquor, or one 5oz glass of wine) of alcohol can significantly impact sleep quality.3 If you’re going to drink alcohol, a good rule of thumb is to limit alcohol consumption to weekends or special occasions, to cut yourself off at least three hours before bed time, and to drink water along with your beverage of choice. If you’re using alcohol to help induce sleep or reduce stress, talk to your healthcare provider about alternative and holistic ways to get down to the root of the issue, so you won’t need to use alcohol as a bandaid, and can save it for celebrations.
We all know that regular exercise is an important part of a healthy routine to stay strong and mobile, improve our balance, support detoxification and metabolism, as well as our mental health. However, over-exercising can do more harm than good, by creating too much of a stress on the body, driving cortisol and inflammation. Both cortisol and inflammation can disrupt the pathway of communication between the brain and the ovaries, leading to a hormone imbalance. In fact, over-exercising is one of the more common causes of hypothalamic amenorrhea, or the absence of a menstrual period for several months at a time.
So how do you know if you’re over-exercising? If you feel exhausted, rather than invigorated after a workout, or are exercising to the point where you feel sore daily, you may be overdoing it. A good rule of thumb is to move your body for at least 30 minutes daily. This can include walking, biking, dancing, yoga, pilates, strength training and more. It’s great to include some more intense cardio and weight training once or twice a week to build up endurance and strength, but this level of intensity needs to be met with intentional rest and nutritional support, to allow for proper recovery and integration.
The fragrance industry is highly unregulated, and over 80% of chemicals in health and beauty products aren’t tested for human safety. When you see the word “fragrance” listed as an ingredient in any product ranging from perfume, personal care products, household cleaners, candles and more, you can assume that there is a plethora of harmful chemicals in that product. In fact, a single scent may contain anywhere from 50 - 300 distinct chemicals that are not required to be listed individually on the label. Among these chemicals, one of the most common toxins found in any fragrance are phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors, affecting thyroid health, menstruation and fertility. In fact, most IVF labs have now instituted a ban on the use of perfumes and other fragrances, to protect the safety of the embryos.4
If you’re someone who uses a lot of scented products, you may want to consider swapping them out for unscented, nontoxic alternatives. I recommend starting with your most commonly used personal care products and cleaning products, and slowly replacing other items as you run out. If you really want a bit of a scent (say, in your deodorant!), opt for products that use natural plant extracts and essential oils in small quantities.
So you’ve made a commitment to eating healthy, and you’ve found some fun prepackaged snacks at the health food store that seem like a decent choice. Having a couple packaged items to grab and go can really simplify your day, and can certainly be healthy in moderation! However, I encourage you to take a look at the ingredient list, as many items are “green washed” – made to look healthy while containing some sneaky ingredients that can be quite harmful. Inflammatory oils, such as sunflower seed oil and safflower oil are common ingredients in a lot of the snack foods that are packaged as healthier alternatives. These oils can create a lot of inflammation in the body, which is disruptive to hormone balance. Opt for whole food snacks such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds as much as possible. When looking for a pre-packaged option, look for items that use avocado or coconut oil, and whose ingredient lists are short, recognizable, and easy to read.
Obviously screen time is a part of our modern lifestyle that isn’t going anywhere any time soon. I can’t pretend to lecture you about screen time as I sit typing up this post on my laptop. However, the harmful effects of excess screen time are hard to deny! Staring at our screens causes eye strain, can be hard on our bodies (posture check!), and can disrupt the circadian rhythm, that 24 hour hormone cycle that regulates much more than just our sleep patterns. The blue light that is emitted by our screens activates cortisol production in the brain, leading to disrupted sleep patterns, hormone imbalances, and increased stress. A good place to start would be to set some boundaries for yourself around screen time. If you’re working all day on your computer, take a 10-15 minute break every 90 minutes. Set a time limit on your social media apps, and try to avoid screens for at least one hour before bed. Consider investing in some blue-light blocking glasses to wear while doing computer work, and/or install an app such as Flux, which helps to filter the light waves emitted by your computer screen.
There is no such thing as perfect, and moderation is key when it comes to these habits. Don’t beat yourself up if you want to have a weekly movie night with a glass of wine and a bag of chips – the fun factor is good for you as well! Most importantly, strive for balance, tune in, and take note of how certain lifestyle choices make you feel, so that you can do what is best for you.
- Baker JM, Al-Nakkash L, Herbst-Kralovetz MM. Estrogen-gut microbiome axis: Physiological and clinical implications. Maturitas. 2017 Sep;103:45-53. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.06.025. Epub 2017 Jun 23. PMID: 28778332.
- Engen PA, Green SJ, Voigt RM, Forsyth CB, Keshavarzian A. The Gastrointestinal Microbiome: Alcohol Effects on the Composition of Intestinal Microbiota. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):223-36. PMID: 26695747; PMCID: PMC4590619.
- Thakkar MM, Sharma R, Sahota P. Alcohol disrupts sleep homeostasis. Alcohol. 2015 Jun;49(4):299-310. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2014.07.019. Epub 2014 Nov 11. PMID: 25499829; PMCID: PMC4427543.
- Wdowiak A, Wdowiak E, Bojar I. Improving the safety of the embryo and the patient during in vitro fertilization procedures. Wideochir Inne Tech Maloinwazyjne. 2016;11(3):137-143. doi:10.5114/wiitm.2016.61940