Do you run on a full battery most days, with plenty of energy to do the things you want to do? Or do you find yourself fatigued, drained and relying on coffee or energy drinks to power you through your days? Maintaining high energy levels and a healthy weight is about much more than calories in versus calories out. There are many hormones that affect our weight, health and energy levels. In this post, I will focus on the main drivers of healthy weight and energy: Insulin, cortisol, thyroid, estrogen and testosterone.
First let’s look at what these hormones do:
Insulin: Released by the pancreas, insulin is used to escort sugar into cells to be used. Think of insulin as the key that opens the door to the cell, to allow glucose to enter and be used as fuel. If your muscles do not need sugar while it is circulating in the bloodstream, it turns to the liver to store excess glucose in the form of glycogen. The liver can store about 100 grams of glycogen. After the liver, if there is still excess sugar to store, insulin transports it to fat cells. Fat cells can store an almost unlimited supply of sugar, in the form of fat.
Cortisol: Secreted by the adrenal gland, cortisol is known as the stress hormone. In a healthy individual, cortisol spikes in the morning to help us wake up and gradually declines throughout the day, with its lowest levels occurring in the evening when melatonin kicks in to help us sleep. (Read about the many critical function melatonin preforms in this post.) When we face an acute stress, cortisol is secreted in large amounts and suppresses digestion and the action of insulin so that blood sugar can be used by our muscles. Long term chronic stress leads to on-going over-production of cortisol, leading to insulin resistance, sugar cravings and insomnia, as well as accumulation of belly fat. High cortisol can lead to high blood pressure. Cortisol causes the body to retain sodium and excrete potassium, and also causes blood vessels to constrict. So if you have high blood pressure, managing your cortisol levels is always a good starting point.
Thyroid: Secreted by the thyroid gland, thyroid hormone is considered the master regulator of metabolism. (Side note: there is much talk about “sluggish” or “slow” metabolism as a cause of weight gain. This implies that we want a “fast” metabolism. A fast metabolism can be just as problematic as a slow one. Ideally, we want an efficient metabolism.) Stress and endocrine disruptors from our food and environment are the biggest disruptors of the thyroid gland. Symptoms of low thyroid include fatigue, brain fog, weight gain and depression.
Estrogen: Excess estrogen can lead to weight gain in both men and women, while low estrogen can stimulate appetite. Xenoestrogens in the environment from plastics and certain foods (soy is the primary culprit) can lead to estrogen imbalance. Because xenoestrogens do not decrease estrogen production, blood tests of circulating estrogen are not reliable markers of estrogen levels. Signs of estrogen imbalance in women include breast tenderness, fluid retention, PMS, fibroids and heavy menstrual bleeding. In men, symptoms include loss of body hair on chest, arms and legs, beer belly and “man boobs”.
Testosterone: Like imbalanced estrogen, imbalanced testosterone is a problem for both men and women. Low testosterone in both sexes has similar symptoms: low libido, loss of muscle mass and fat gain, fatigue, and loss of bone mass that can lead to osteopenia or osteoporosis. Additionally for women, low T can lead to sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety and irregular periods.
So what can you do to keep your hormones balanced and your energy going strong?
Here are some tips to get your hormones running smooth:
- Insulin: As mentioned above, our bodies can’t handle large amounts of sugar coming in at one time.If you are in the middle of a triathlon or other intense physical activity, sugar may be used as fuel and not stored as fat. For most of us, however, insulin (also known as the fat storage hormone) is released to get the sugar out of the blood stream. Sugar is actually very damaging to our bodies, so there is good incentive to clear it as quickly as possible and store whatever is not immediately needed as fat. To minimize the release of insulin, minimize the amount of sugar you consume. Sounds easy enough, right? Keep in mind that sugar hides in just about every refined, denatured, “stripped” food that lines store shelves these days. And refined carbohydrates that make up most of the industrially processed food-like substances quickly turn to sugar in the body and give just as much of an insulin spike as straight sugar. Eat real, nutrient-dense food. What is that? Food that looks like it comes from nature, not something that has a list of ingredients created in a bubbling beaker in a laboratory.
2) Cortisol: minimize stress, and get enough rest and sleep. Learn a simple meditation technique, and use it! Take a hot bath, go for a walk, have tea with a friend, get some exercise every day. Do something you love. We put a lot of emphasis on what we “should” do, and not enough on what we “want” to do.
3) Thyroid: Cortisol can stimulate too much thyroid hormone production, or hyperthyroidism. Lowering cortisol in that case (see above) will help balance thyroid hormone. If you have hypothyroidism, avoid eating raw cruciferous vegetables, which are goitrogenic and damage the thyroid. Eating wild-caught fish and seaweed are excellent ways to get enough iodine, which is important for thyroid health. Low thyroid can also be caused by zinc-deficiency, so eating brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds (soaked and dried for best absorption) is helpful; chlorine and especially fluoride exposure can lead to low thyroid so be sure to use a water filter for drinking and bathing.
4) Estrogen and Testosterone: Too much sugar, alcohol and stripped carbohydrates lowers estrogen in both sexes. All sex hormones are made from cholesterol, so eating cholesterol and healthy fats and avoiding use of statin drugs are important steps in being able to make sufficient sex hormones. Eat plenty of fermented foods to keep your gut healthy. (Read about the many benefits of fermented foods in this post.) A healthy gut helps to regulate estrogen, whereas constipation or leaky gut compromises waste excretion which can spike estrogen. Eliminate environmental toxins, such as pesticides, herbicides, most household cleaning products, most personal care products and plastics.
*Eat nutrient dense foods. I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but truly, a nutrient dense diet is the starting point for greater vitality, boundless energy and lasting health. Read this post for a more detailed explanation of what nutrient dense foods are. In a nutshell: avoid industrially produced, refined, denatured, stripped, edible food-like substances. Eat organic and local vegetables (when possible), pastured meats and eggs, and ...
*Eat plenty of healthy fats. Avoid vegetable oils, which are rancid and contain large amounts of pro-inflammatory Omega 6 fatty acids. Imbalance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids is a major contributor to inflammation and its related diseases. The proper ratio is about 1:1, but thanks to the Standard American Diet (SAD) most of us eat the ratio is closer to 15 or 20:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3.
*Eat lots of fresh vegetables, both cooked and some raw, if tolerated. Include ample fermented veggies. These promote a healthy gut which promotes overall good health.
*Get plenty of sleep, meditate (even five minutes a day makes a big difference), and relax.
*Get at least 20 - 30 minutes of exercise every day. Walking, yoga, pilates, or, try high intensity interval training (HIIT) if you feel more ambitious. (HIIT exercise should be performed no more than 2 - 3 times per week, with other exercise in between HIIT days.) You must move your body to keep it healthy.
*Avoid toxic chemicals in your food (see the first bullet point above, and choose organic), household cleaning products and personal care products. Check www.ewg.org/skindeep for a comprehensive list of safe products and products to avoid.
*Search this blog for lots of articles that go more in depth about specific foods to eat, how to incorporate healthy habits, get more sleep, and more tips for abundant energy.
*Check out my e course “Six Weeks to Abundant Energy” for a step-by-step, 6 week plan to transform your nutrition, movement, lifestyle and mindset habits for best health and vitality of your life!