I am a woman in my forties. I think about hormones a lot these days. I am constantly being told about the great ‘change’ to come. Hormones have a great affect on me, right? Actually, it turns out hormones have always had a great affect on me. On everyone. Always. Hormones run your body. They are the air traffic control system for major bodily functions like metabolism and growth and fertility.
With signals from your brain, hormones are secreted into the blood from your glands and give instructions to other systems in your body. They are specific in their task. Like a key to a door or a radio signal, they will only open certain doors or send messages on certain frequencies.
When people ask me why I eat organic food my answer is simple. Organic food is ultimately grown without the use of pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, simplified soil fertility enhancers (NPK fertilizers). Organic growth systems respect the living whole. Which means it respects processes already in the works in nature. Like the importance of bugs or fungi in our soils and other important elements besides just phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium. Like the way our bodies integrate whole foods.
Our bodies know what to do with our food long before we read a label or a chart about it. The science of nutrition captures only part of the story. The rest of it plays out inside your body.
When I learned in my herbal medicine courses that a certain herb can actually have opposing effects depending on what your body needs, I realized that the communication between our food (and medicine, same difference in my mind) and our bodies is a lot smarter than we give it credit for. I don’t believe you can introduce a long list of separate nutrients into your body and expect a whole and complete healthy result. I think the body can do its best with synthetic or extracted or isolated nutrients but at the end of the day it is looking for something more complex.
Back to hormones. I’m pretty certain that mine are all out of whack. I never enjoyed the comments throughout my nine months of very nauseous pregnancies that it was something I was doing or not doing that made it so. I am now beginning to believe that there might be some truth to that. I think just because we are women we can’t sign up for Hell with Hormones at any age. They have a lot of power, it is true. But what if there were things we could do that would help our body function in ways that made our lives easier.
I don’t have to tell you that hormones have a lot to say in our days (whether you are a man or woman you have surely been affected indirectly or directly by them). They affect our moods, our behaviour, our sleeping patterns, the ability of our bodies to function properly. Conversely, things like stress can affect how our hormones operate, which can ultimately affect your immune system and your overall health. For example, cortisol is released when we have too much stress and too much cortisol can affect your bones, your blood pressure, your ability to think straight, how the thyroid functions (including metabolism), blood glucose levels and degree of stomach fat storage which leads to other health problems like heart attacks or strokes.
I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist or a scientific researcher in any of these areas. The scribble above is my rudimentary knowledge of something far more complicated than I’m able to understand. But the only point I want to get across here is the part where I’ve started to realize how very, very, very important they are in our day-to-day functioning for any individual at any age of any gender. To assume this is a woman’s problem or particularly a menstruating, pregnant or menopausal woman’s situation is far too simple.
As I go forward into a different sort of work schedule that provides more pressures from the outside and less flexibility with how I manage it, I realize that it isn’t just the road ahead that I need to smooth out. It is the functioning of the vehicle as well. Who would embark on a long road trip without first checking their fluid levels, their filters, their temperature and circulation and tire pressure? Not ensuring that my body is running at optimal levels is attempting just that. And I have come to realize the important role that hormones are playing here. And that there are things I can actually do about facilitating their ability to function properly.
I also probably don’t need to tell you that exercise makes you feel better. It seems to be unclear exactly which chemical produced in the body is causing this ‘high’ – endorphins used to get all of the credit but now there is evidence suggesting other mechanisms are at work. Either way, things we do in a day control how our body responds. Chemically. In very real and tangible ways, whether we can explain it or not.
Now back to organic food. You may be familiar with the sweep of pesticides in use today that are called endocrine disruptors? They are called this because they have been shown to affect how our hormone systems operate. In a bad way. Now from everything I’ve put together so far, I don’t really want someone messing with my endocrine system. How angry would you be if someone put a tennis ball in your exhaust system? Or a hole in your radiator? Or water in your fuel line? Your car wouldn’t function properly and you couldn’t get where you wanted to go.
But somehow it has become acceptable (I know because I do it to myself all the time) to seriously affect how our bodies work because it tastes good, or is cheaper, or is easier to grow, or because only hippies concern themselves with environmental impacts. Some think paying more for organic food is a tax on the gullible (a former President of Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in fact).
No matter what you believe will make you healthier, whether it is inundating your body with nutrient packed supplements or eating organic food, raw food, vegan food, purple food, it will always be true that your body will continue doing what it does with the food you give it no matter what you think. When the affects on my hormones are at stake, I now liken that to the potential for a complete system failure. Perhaps I am wrong. But for my family, that is not a chance I am willing to take.
Endocrine disruptors have been shown to cause cancerous growths, developmental issues, and learning disabilities including attention deficit disorders. Certain compounds have been found to be higher in children’s blood than in their mother’s who are living in the same home. It is controversial whether the levels are considered too high or whether they will have a negative effect. Again, I’m not taking my chances here.
Our exposure to these contaminants comes predominantly from our food. Other sources can be from house dust, plastics (eg. BPA in baby bottles), children’s toys, PCBs from wood finish, chemicals in household cleaners, PBDE flame retardants in our clothing etc.
The types of pesticides used in agriculture are becoming more and more restricted and applications are less frequent or applied in smaller volumes than in years gone by - though I'm guessing that the amount of agricultural production out there has gone up immensely in the past few decades. Yet there are still many unresolved questions as to their affects on the environment, the amount that makes it into our foods and how exposure affects the human body. Given the increases in allergies (and immune system function), learning disabilities and cancer rates, I again am afraid to take my chances.
I keep thinking about how people once thought the world was flat. How Coca cola used cocaine instead of caffeine in their sugary beverages. We are learning all of the time. There is always room for improvement. What will we know in 100 years that we don’t know now? What will we know in ten years that will change how we do things forever?
Here are some things I have learned can positively affect the way the hormones in your body function. I have decided to tweak some of my day to day activities in hopes of gaining a better control system.
1. Limit exposure to contaminants in food, household supplies and clothing. This basically means fewer bleached products (toilet paper), less plastic, less chemical cleaners and more vinegar, less cheap fabric made in far away places (make sure your dryer exhaust does not enter your home!).
2. Eat excellent sources of saturated fats and eat them in moderation (grass fed beef, eggs from pastured chickens (not the same as ‘free-range’), pastured pork, organic dairy products). Remember that endocrine disruptors usually find their home in fats.
3. Less refined carbohydrates (white flours, white pasta, sugar, alcohol) and more complex and whole grains (I have a 50/50 rule here where I try to make half my plate contain whole grains or vegetables/fruits - the rest can be protein, fats and other mixed nubbins). These keep your blood sugar levels more stable and require less hormonal surges to regulate imbalances. I also choose my beast and enjoy in moderation regularly without guilt, but never mindlessly and in excess in areas where alternatives are just as good.
4. Exercise regularly, but in moderation. Yup, that’s my new thing. In the past exercise has been an all or nothing feat for me. I think I was actually over-exercising recently causing free radicals to circulate in my body (lowering immune function), increased acidification and a constant starvation effect it seemed. I forgot to match my calorie burning and muscle building with INCREASED nutrition (a whole and complete diet). Too much exercise can cause bad effects. Just the right amount is absolutely essential for proper body functioning, supported by adequate (volume and quality) nutrition.
5. Drink the best water you can find. If you eat a lot of water-containing fruits and vegetables this is less urgent, but make sure you get enough water.
6. Be mindful of processed foods. They likely only have a portion of the nutrients that the real thing has so you can find yourself eating more to get the same nutritional benefit. Beware of foods that mimic estrogen - soy products, especially over-processed ones have been accused of affecting hormone-like processes in your body.
7. EAT when your hungry. Regular meals are better than binges and starvation as far as regulating your metabolism goes. Eat only when you are HUNGRY. My brother once said before we sat down for a buffet meal: "eat quickly because in 20 minutes your body will know its getting full!" You get the picture.
8. Do whatever you have to do to manage stress. Meditate, colour, read books, hum while walking through the forest, listen to music, cook, visit with the good people in your life.
9. Get enough sleep. (though my theory goes that if you can get your hormones in balance, and exercise the right amount, this will be the winning effect).
10. Use common sense. Though I do hear its not that common anymore, I have faith in us! Ask questions, follow your intuition and go towards the choices that make sense to you - especially given the vast amount of information available to us today. The parts may not all be perfect, but the system will function better as a whole.
That’s all for today. Just some thoughts on food and foods for thought.
Happy hormones make a happy life.