HOR­MONES: IT’S TIME TO PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS

Mood, hunger, sex, sleep... Hor­mones in­flu­ence far more than you think. And as the well­ness in­dus­try be­comes more be­spoke, hor­monal health is the lat­est fron­tier. Hannah Nathanson gets a taste for this new era of medicine

ELLE (UK) - - Con­tents -

Hor­mones make good head­lines: ‘Can’t park the car? Blame your hor­mones!’, ‘Want to buy sexy clothes? It might be in your hor­mones’. It’s part of the rea­son I’ve al­ways known that hor­mones can dic­tate your mood but had never given much thought to how my own might be af­fect­ing my health. It’s also why, when it comes to hor­monal health, two mo­ments in a woman’s life stand out: PMT and menopause. Cue an­other shouty head­line: ‘Our house of hor­rid hor­mones: A mother on the night­mare of go­ing through menopause while her teenage daugh­ter hits pu­berty’.

But hor­mone health is far more nu­anced than such hy­per­bolic head­lines would have you think. To get the sci­ency bit out of the way, hor­mones are the body’s chem­i­cal mes­sen­gers pro­duced by glands; they trig­ger ac­tiv­ity in dif­fer­ent parts of the body and reg­u­late the func­tion of cells and or­gans. There are sex hor­mones, hunger hor­mones, love hor­mones, happy hor­mones and stress hor­mones (among oth­ers). If these are out of whack, they could cause any num­ber of mod­ern-day ail­ments, from in­som­nia to burnout and bloat­ing. And, as I’m slowly learn­ing, bal­ance is key.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr So­hère Roked, a hor­mone spe­cial­ist who sees a range of symp­toms in pa­tients, in­clud­ing ex­haus­tion, fer­til­ity is­sues and weight gain, ‘Hor­mones are re­ally the foun­da­tions to your body. If your hor­mones aren’t right, it doesn’t mat­ter what you’re do­ing with your diet and life­style, be­cause your foun­da­tions are shaky. So if we can get the foun­da­tions right, ev­ery­thing can flow much bet­ter.’

As a health-con­scious per­son who has guz­zled down the green juice Kool-Aid and lives by the mantra that what you put into your body 100% af­fects what you get out of it, I re­alise that I am spec­tac­u­larly un­aware of my own hor­mones. Up un­til now, I haven’t prop­erly ac­knowl­edged that, as a 31-year-old woman on the pill, my body is mak­ing ab­so­lutely none of its own oe­stro­gen and pro­ges­terone (the two main fe­male sex hor­mones). I’ve been on the pill for 10 years and I’m beginning to no­tice changes in my body and my mood that I don’t feel in con­trol of.

Of course, age plays a big part. It’s only since turn­ing 30 that I started notic­ing changes (weight gain around my mid­dle and mood swings that make my boyfriend hide in the pub). ‘Nat­u­rally, our hor­mones start to de­cline from about 27 on­wards,’ Dr Roked tells me when I go to see her for a con­sul­ta­tion at Om­niya, a health clinic in Knights­bridge. No won­der stud­ies show that 27 is the age of the quar­ter-life cri­sis.

‘When you ask women when they felt at their prime, most will say their late twen­ties,’ Dr Roked ex­plains. ‘Then, sud­denly, they’re like, “Oh God, I’m 30 now, I can’t drink as much, I need to ex­er­cise more…”.’ For men, the age at which their hor­mones start to de­crease is later, but Dr Roked em­pha­sises that women in their early twen­ties can still suf­fer ter­ri­bly from hor­monal health. ‘It is more com­pli­cated in women: too much pro­ges­terone and you feel moody, slug­gish and tired, but if you have too lit­tle, you feel the same as well – it’s about get­ting the op­ti­mum level.’

Dr Roked had sown the seed: I im­me­di­ately want to find my op­ti­mum level, so, after a blood test to mea­sure my testos­terone (im­por­tant for women’s mood, sex drive and mus­cle strength), I leave with an adrenal stress kit. Adrenals are glands that sit above your kid­neys and pro­duce the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol, which is the hor­mone linked to the body’s fight-or-flight re­sponse. Last year, a nu­tri­tion­ist ‘loosely’ di­ag­nosed me with adrenal fa­tigue – when your adrenal glands are func­tion­ing be­low their op­ti­mum level and caus­ing symp­toms such as tired­ness and an in­abil­ity to han­dle stress – but I never did a test for it. The kit con­sists of four saliva col­lec­tion tubes (gulp) and some very com­pli­cated in­struc­tions. I’m both in­trigued and ter­ri­fied of what the test re­sults will re­veal. Do I re­ally want to know?

Hor­monal health is a grow­ing area of medicine and part of the well­ness trend for much more be­spoke treat­ments and ther­a­pies, not just a one-size-fits-all so­lu­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Dr Amalia An­narad­nam, who co-founded The Lon­don Hor­mone Clinic and pre­scribes bio-iden­ti­cal hor­mone re­place­ment ther­apy (us­ing bodyi­den­ti­cal hor­mones made from liv­ing or­gan­isms, such as Mex­i­can yams, to re­store bal­ance), ‘It’s a new era of medicine. There will be more com­ing out on hor­mones over the next year or two be­cause it’s such a big topic.’ Dr Roked, who also of­fers ge­netic test­ing to de­ter­mine how your health is af­fected by your DNA blue­print, agrees: ‘You can get your cheek swab done and find out the best diet for your body. You can also see how your body metabolises hor­mones, so you can use this in­for­ma­tion to your ad­van­tage. You might need to take sup­ple­ments to pro­mote or han­dle your hor­mone pro­duc­tion.’ She’s not too con­cerned that, at a cost of £900, tak­ing one of these tests isn’t ex­actly avail­able to the masses, ‘In 10 years’ time, it’s not go­ing to be so ex­pen­sive – ev­ery­body will be get­ting it done. Per­son­alised health­care is go­ing to be the way for­ward.’

After an evening de­ci­pher­ing the adrenal kit in­struc­tions, I wake up at 6am the next day to pre­pare my­self for the first sam­ple (one hour after wak­ing and after no food or drink other than wa­ter). Spit­ting into a vial is far from glam­orous, but find­ing a freezer at work to con­serve the sam­ples proves much more dif­fi­cult. Even­tu­ally, I find one on the ex­ec­u­tive floor and post the sam­ples to the lab at the end of the day. As I wait for

my re­sults, I start to re­search other ar­eas of health that are linked to hor­mones and learn that nutri­tion – and in par­tic­u­lar gut health – is huge.

Ac­cord­ing to nu­tri­tional ther­a­pist Eve Kalinik, 95% of sero­tonin, the key hor­mone that af­fects your mood, is pro­duced in your gut. ‘The gut is in­volved in many hor­mon­ally re­lated con­di­tions that might be felt very far from the gut it­self,’ she tells me. ‘We of­ten think of thy­roid hor­mones as be­ing in the thy­roid gland, but in fact 20% of our thy­roid hor­mones get con­verted in the gut, which has a mas­sive im­pact on our me­tab­o­lism.’ Eve has ded­i­cated an en­tire chap­ter to hor­mones in her re­cently pub­lished book Be Good to Your Gut, which ex­plores how sup­port­ing the gut, and all the tril­lions of micro­organ­isms in it, can help achieve a ‘happy hor­monal bal­ance’.

I ask whether there are any su­per­foods that help hor­mone health. ‘Bras­si­cas, such as broc­coli, cau­li­flower and kale. Broc­coli is a pin-up for health foods, but with good rea­son. These foods con­tain a com­pound that helps the body to metabolise oe­stro­gen.’ But Kalinik is quick to stress that you can’t just rely on adding broc­coli to your diet. ‘You need to have a healthy gut to get the ben­e­fits from it. Av­o­ca­dos are a re­ally good stress food as they con­tain good lev­els of the pan­tothenic acid our adrenals need, but it only works to a point.’

So my diet could help me man­age my stress lev­els, but I need to make sure I eat in a calmer en­vi­ron­ment and not at my desk. ‘If you shut your lap­top and don’t eat with your work around you, it’s amaz­ing how much bet­ter you feel. It even af­fects things like your hunger lev­els,’ says Kalinik. ‘Of­ten, we wolf down our food and still find our­selves hun­gry, or we need a cof­fee. We just haven’t al­lowed enough time for our hunger hor­mones to kick in and tell us we’ve had enough.’

But there are ways to in­flu­ence your hunger hor­mones that don’t in­volve food. Sleep is one of them, as is the time of day you ex­er­cise. Eve sug­gests work­ing out first thing in the morn­ing, as ‘this can help to sup­port glu­cose tol­er­ance for bet­ter and more bal­anced blood-sugar man­age­ment’. When it comes to ex­er­cise, the trend for HIIT classes and squeez­ing an in­tense ses­sion into 20 min­utes isn’t nec­es­sar­ily help­ing our hor­mone bal­ance. Ev­ery­one I speak to name checks yoga as the best way to min­imise stress. Ac­cord­ing to Dr An­narad­nam, ‘the peo­ple who need to do yoga most are the peo­ple who say, “Oh, I can’t re­lax in a yoga class, I can’t switch off.” That’s why you need to do it! If you can’t switch off for an hour, that’s a prob­lem.’

Which is how I find my­self switch­ing off with one of the most switched-on yoga teach­ers I’ve ever met. An ex-drug ad­dict and al­co­holic, Carolyn Cowan has been a kun­dalini yoga teacher for 20 years and is fas­ci­nated by hor­mones. ‘Do you want a dopamine hit?’ she asks dur­ing our ses­sion at Chelsea’s Triyoga, where she’ll be run­ning a work­shop on how yoga can re­bal­ance your hor­mones in Novem­ber. I say yes, ob­vi­ously, and then follow her into a cross-legged seated pose that in­volves stretch­ing up, let­ting my head fall, in­hal­ing and open­ing my mouth wide while stick­ing my tongue out as far out as I can. I feel stupid, but then I get the hit. ‘A large num­ber of dopamine re­cep­tors are in the mouth, which is why eat­ing com­forts us,’ she says as I re­lease my arms and gig­gle at my light-headed buzz.

Cen­tral to Cowan’s prac­tice is our abil­ity to ‘land in the present, where you’re not guarded, not pre­tend­ing, not wor­ried – you’re still.’ Through a se­ries of gen­tle pos­tures, breath­ing and stretch­ing, Carolyn shows me how to do just this. She ex­plains that when peo­ple come into her classes, their bod­ies are filled with adren­a­line, testos­terone and cor­ti­sol. What she does is try to al­low peo­ple to tune in, bal­ance them­selves and stim­u­late happy hor­mones such as dopamine and sero­tonin, our body’s nat­u­ral an­tide­pres­sants that ‘eat’ our stress hor­mones.

I like the idea of my stress hor­mones be­ing eaten and, think­ing back to the adrenal test I took and the pend­ing re­sults, I want to find more ways to achieve this state of calm and switch off for an hour. It turns out that one of the best ways is through sound ther­apy. As a com­mit­ted yogi, hor­mone yoga didn’t seem too alien, but a sound bath might be a step too far into hippy-dippy-dom. I speak to sound ther­a­pist Louise Shiels be­fore one of her ses­sions and she as­sures me: ‘I get a lot of peo­ple who have never tried it be­fore and they are con­verted ev­ery time.’ I am one of those peo­ple.

Sound ther­apy works by in­duc­ing calm brain waves that put your body in re­pair mode. ‘We’re nor­mally in beta mode – the ac­tive mind. When we slow down we go into al­pha, and we go into theta brain waves when we are drift­ing off to sleep. When these are ac­ti­vated, the parasyn­thetic ner­vous sys­tem is switched on, which is re­spon­si­ble for con­trol­ling all the body’s sys­tems.’ Dur­ing the hour-long ses­sion in a white­washed stu­dio in east Lon­don, we lie un­der blan­kets while Louise plays the gongs. At one point I open my eyes to see what’s go­ing on, and it’s like an in­tense game of sleep­ing lions – ev­ery­one is com­pletely still and very zen. There’s a crescendo to­wards the end be­fore Louise plays chimes to break the gong fre­quen­cies and we’re brought back to earth. It’s one of the best hours I’ve spent all week and makes me feel calm about the test re­sults – which I’ve been un­duly anx­ious about.

It turns out I could do with a lot more gong baths in my life. Dr Roked tells me my cor­ti­sol lev­els are el­e­vated in three out of the four sam­ples, and off the scale in the morn­ing: ‘High cor­ti­sol lev­els can­not be sus­tained and are of­ten a pre­cur­sor to adrenal fa­tigue,’ the re­sult sheet says. So my ‘loose’ di­ag­no­sis last year wasn’t com­pletely un­founded. In con­trast, my testos­terone lev­els are low, which Dr Roked ex­plains could be due to the pill and high cor­ti­sol lev­els. ‘To treat this, it’s good to find the cause and re­solve it. Do­ing things like in­ter­mit­tent fast­ing, strength train­ing and mak­ing sure your diet has good lev­els of fat and pro­tein are go­ing to help your body make testos­terone, which is very im­por­tant for women – it gives you a bit of spark and get up and go.’

It takes a while for it all to sink in, but I de­cide not to get stressed about be­ing of­fi­cially stressed and some­thing clicks. I’m much more in con­trol, es­pe­cially of life­style fac­tors, than I think I am. Dr Roked sug­gests stress-bust­ing sup­ple­ments called adap­to­gens, which I soon dis­cover are the break-out star on the well­ness scene. Known as ‘mag­i­cal plants’, be­cause they grow in harsh con­di­tions and bring some of that har­di­ness to your own body, they help lower stress and pro­mote bal­ance. But mostly I’m glad I found out more about my hor­mone lev­els. It’s made me think of hor­monal health in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way, as well as un­der­stand­ing that it will change as I get older and dif­fer­ent decades will bring dif­fer­ent symp­toms. I def­i­nitely won’t take any no­tice of the shouty head­lines from now on. I’ll be too busy tak­ing sound baths and get­ting my yoga-in­duced dopamine hits. Oh, and the pill? I’m com­ing off it.

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