Think hormones take over your life once a month -- the cramps, cravings, bloat, and mood swings that make so many of us miserable? That's giving these natural chemicals far too little credit. The reality is that our bodies produce dozens of hormones that control virtually everything we do: from how we think, eat, sleep, and cope with stress to how clear our complexions and how fit our figures are. And when levels of just one hormone fluctuate, the shift can have serious consequences for your mental, emotional, and physical health. Here, six signs your hormones may have gone awry, and what you can do to help restore a healthy balance.
Nearly half of women suffer embarrassing breakouts during the week before their period thanks to normal hormone shifts. But if you've got acne all month long -- the deep, cystic kind that no over-the-counter cream can conquer -- androgens (male hormones such as testosterone) may be to blame. "A lot of people think acne comes only from diet or lack of hygiene, but it's essentially hormonal, and testosterone is always at the root of it," says endocrinologist Geoffrey Redmond, M.D., author ofThe Hormonally Vulnerable Woman. Testosterone stimulates excess production of sebum, or oil, that gets trapped beneath the skin's surface and mixes with acne-causing bacteria and dead skin cells, Redmond explains. The result: clogged pores and ugly blemishes. And the higher a woman's testosterone levels -- or the greater her sensitivity to the hormone -- the more severe her breakouts.
To restore balance:
If you're not already taking birth control pills, consider starting. "Oral contraceptives lower levels of free testosterone -- the type that's floating around in your blood and causing blemishes -- by 50 percent," says Redmond. If you're on the Pill and it's not helping your skin, it may be the formulation. Redmond's top complexion-clearing picks: Ortho Tri-Cyclen and Yasmin, both of which have higher levels of estrogen and lower levels of androgen than certain other pills. Also, avoid any made with levonorgestrel, such as Alesse and Levlite. This synthetic form of progesterone mimics testosterone's effects and may cause breakouts.
If you'd rather not take oral contraceptives at all, spironolactone (marketed as Aldactone) may be your best bet. This drug was shown to safely clear up women's skin by blocking testosterone receptors, thus inhibiting the hormone's activity, according to research at the University of Toronto and elsewhere. Spironolactone has been approved by the FDA only for treating hypertension -- not for acne -- which means you'll need to find a doctor who will prescribe it off-label. (Note: You can't take it during pregnancy.)
Can't remember where you just set down your cell phone? Or what time you told your guy you'd meet him for dinner? You're too young to forget all this stuff...aren't you? Not necessarily. If you're under any amount of long-term stress -- dealing daily with a micromanaging boss, staying up nights with a colicky infant, taking care of a sick loved one -- your body is constantly pumping out stress hormones such as cortisol. And studies suggest that consistently high levels of cortisol can hamper your ability to learn new things and remember them later. In fact, it could permanently damage brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, where information is tagged for long-term memory.
To restore balance:
You'll like this advice: Think of your favorite healthy hobbies -- solving Sudoku, walking with your pup, munching on raspberries from your garden -- and simply do them more often. In a recent study, people who practiced lifestyle changes like these that were intended to help reduce stress, boost memory skills, and encourage healthy eating and physical fitness had greater powers of recall after just two weeks, possibly due to lower stress hormone levels, says lead author Gary Small, M.D., a psychiatry professor at UCLA and author ofThe Longevity Bible. More ways to mellow out: Try meditation, yoga, or any moderately intense aerobic exercise; express your spirituality or religious devotion (join a choir, use your rosaries, say a prayer); or simply sleep 20 minutes later in the morning -- all of which have been proved to kick down cortisol. Small also recommends taking frequent relaxation breaks during the day: Just close your eyes and focus on breathing slowly and deeply for two to five minutes.
If you struggle to fall or stay asleep, particularly just before your period, it may be due to the sharp drop in the hormone progesterone that immediately precedes menstruation, according to Joyce Walsleben, Ph.D., associate professor in the Sleep Disorders Center at the New York University School of Medicine. Progesterone is a relaxant, so when levels plummet -- as they do just before your period or after giving birth -- you may feel restless and unable to sleep. (Breast tenderness, bloating, and cramps -- also side effects of rapidly shifting hormones -- don't help.)
To restore balance:
Preventing the monthly seesaw of hormones requires actually banishing your period. Fortunately, that doesn't mean holding out for menopause, thanks to Seasonale, a form of extended-use birth control that reduces period frequency from 13 times a year to just four. If you're looking for a more natural approach, Walsleben offers this multiprong attack for reducing the side effects of hormonal swings: Drink plenty of fluids to minimize bloating, avoid caffeine after noon, and take ibuprofen before going to bed on nights you're likely to have cramps. And an hour or two before you hit the sheets, try sipping a glass of warm milk, or snack on a few slices of turkey or a handful of nuts. These foods are rich in tryptophan, a building block for the brain chemical serotonin, which helps control sleep. If you still find yourself staring at the ceiling, talk to your doctor about a prescription sleep aid. Lunesta, a new drug proved to safely summon the sandman, isn't supposed to be habit-forming -- but the jury is still out, so consider taking it for no longer than a few weeks.
Willpower, schmillpower. Yes, it's important to maintain healthy habits, but a growing body of research is fingering a handful of hormones for the relentless hunger and overeating that makes some people feel that it's impossible to lose weight. A few under investigation: ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and leptin and oxyntomodulin, which suppress it. In one study, volunteers who were deprived of sleep saw their levels of ghrelin soar -- making them ravenous -- while their levels of leptin plummeted. This may explain why people who are chronically sleep-deprived (snoozing less than seven hours nightly) tend to be more overweight than those who get plenty of z's. "Leptin normally signals the brain that your fat stores are large enough, so when levels of the hormone are low, the brain assumes you need more fat and triggers cravings for high-calorie food," says sleep and obesity researcher Gregor Hasler, M.D.
To restore balance:
Getting seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night instead of scraping by on just six has been shown to lower your risk of overeating and obesity by 23 percent, in part by restoring your leptin levels. Even just one extra hour of slumber can make a difference. You should also avoid fatty foods, and not just because they're chock-full of calories! Though researchers don't yet understand why, they've found that calorie for calorie, carbohydrates and proteins are significantly more effective at suppressing appetite -- and tummy rumbles -- than fats. So whenever possible, swap high-fat foods for those loaded with protein and complex carbs such as oatmeal, fresh veggies, and whole grains.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Some of us get headaches during stressful times, or feel just plain cranky and irritable. But if you carry stress in your stomach instead of your head, it could be because many of the same hormones and neurons are at work in both places -- a fact that's led some doctors to dub the gut the body's "second brain." Take serotonin, for example. It's best known as the brain chemical that impacts mood. But 95 percent of the serotonin we produce is actually manufactured in the gut, where it plays a role in digestion. Recent studies suggest that abnormal levels of serotonin may be one cause of irritable bowel syndrome, a condition that causes chronic abdominal pain, cramping, and diarrhea and/or constipation for millions of Americans. "And since up to 90 percent of sufferers are women, some whose IBS symptoms get worse around menstruation, the flux of estrogen and progesterone may also play a role," says gastroenterologist George Arnold, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
To restore balance:
Paxil, a drug designed to treat anxiety and depression by upping serotonin levels in the brain, can also help relieve IBS for patients with tough-to-treat symptoms -- even when they're not depressed, according to a study of 110 IBS sufferers conducted by Arnold. "Considering the amount of serotonin being produced in the intestine, we think Paxil must be doing something to the nerves in the gastrointestinal tract," he says. More than 60 percent of Paxil-takers in his study had fewer IBS symptoms -- and a brighter outlook on life -- compared with 26 percent of placebo-takers.
But before you call your doctor for a prescription, try increasing the fiber in your diet. In phase one of Arnold's study, one in four IBS sufferers reduced pain and bloating and felt much better after simply eating 25 grams of fiber a day, which is the USDA-recommended dose. Although fiber may or may not influence the hormones in the gut (no one knows for sure), it does help expand the diameter of the large and small intestines, which eases painful muscle contractions, according to Arnold. Try adding oatmeal and other whole grains, plus raw fruits and vegetables, to your daily diet.
Sure, we all have those days when we'd give anything for a midday nap -- even if it meant crawling under our desks. But if you struggle daily with feeling sluggish and having zero energy -- particularly if you've gained 10 to 20 pounds that you just can't shake no matter how little you eat -- you could be suffering from a lack of thyroid hormone, a condition called hypothyroidism. Thyroid hormones control the body's metabolism, and when supplies are short, all systems slow down, including heart rate, mental functioning, and digestion. That's why hypothyroidism can leave a person feeling exhausted, drained, mentally foggy, even constipated. It's thought to affect at least 15 million adults nationwide, targeting 10 times more women than men, according to psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, M.D., director of the Women's and Teen Girl's Mood & Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco. And up to two thirds of cases go undiagnosed for several years because the symptoms are often dismissed as a side effect of stress.
To restore balance:
Ask your doctor about getting your thyroid hormone levels checked, and be proactive about getting thyroid hormone replacement therapy if you need it. "There is some disagreement among doctors about treating subclinical hypothyroidism, since in past generations thyroid hormone was overprescribed, and too much of it can aggravate any underlying heart conditions," says Brizendine. "But in my experience, if you have symptoms of fatigue, depression, and anxiety that coincide with abnormal thyroid levels, you should seek treatment." Finding a doctor who will take these (and any other) mysterious symptoms seriously can deliver much-deserved relief.
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