9 Things Every Woman Should Know About Hormones, Food And PMS

by Kara Dykert

Hormones. They’re messy and telling and can create either incredible balance or complete terror within our bodies. The word hormone is actually derived from the Greek word impetus—and hormones indeed have the power to either activate or inhibit our cells and organs. But just because something is powerful and often unpredictable, it doesn’t mean it can’t be controlled. Many things, like diet, impact our hormonal balance both positively and negatively.

I became all too familiar with the topic in grad school when my doctor diagnosed me with premenstrual dysfunction disorder (PMDD), which means my hormones go crazy during the seven to ten days before my period. Generally, I’m a positive, outgoing, sociable human. But I would find myself in a terrible state of pre-period irritability and irrational hunger. Basically, if I didn’t get a piece of pie, I was irate. One night after my third bowl of ice cream (which truthfully I didn’t even want), squirming with stomach pain and annoyance at myself, I decided to Google: How do hormones affect your hunger? The results spun me into a web of research and learning that has forever changed my life. Here are are ten quick things you should know about your hormones and their impact on your body.

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Balancing Act

Hormones are chemical messengers in your body. They're created in the endocrine glands and secreted into the blood for your tissue and organs. They affect every process of the body, including growth, mood, sex drive, reproduction, hunger, sleep, emotions and metabolism. They're like messengers telling the body how to function. When hormones are imbalanced, a slew of health problems can ensue.

We give hormones a bad rap, complaining about how terrible they can make us feel. But the truth is, we should embrace them. When our bodies are hormonally balanced, we function at our peak: speedy metabolism, deep sleep. Start by familiarizing yourself with how you feel—pay attention to mood and hunger changes—to learn the language of hormones. Drink plenty of water, get fiber in your diet, go to bed on time and make time for fun! All these things help balance your hormones and regulate your inner world.

Sometimes hunger may not be as simple as your body's physical need for food. And it isn't about your willpower (or lack thereof), either. According Sara Gottfried, MD, hormonal messages swirling in our bodies can cause cravings. Always need a dairy fix when PMS-ing? Turns out, dairy contains casomorphins, an opioid that keeps you addicted. By mindfully tracking how food makes you feel, you can recognize true hunger versus emotional cravings your brain is looking to satisfy. Try sitting with the craving for a moment. Ask your body, "Do I really want ice cream, or am I trying to cope with a feeling?" Sometimes you really do just want that bowl of cookie dough! But sometimes you'll identify a different need that a hug, a walk or something else can satisfy.

Our culture is inundated with cleanses, and sometimes it's great to give your body a reset, but balance comes from eating the right foods. Dr. Gottfried explains that clean, organic, vegetable-based diets help stabilize and maintain healthy hormone levels.

We're not here to knock those who like to indulge in a drink or three. But as much as we enjoy alcohol, our bodies need an occasional break. A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that booze can affect estrogen levels, blood sugar, hunger and bone density. According to the Global Healing Center, eating lean protein (eggs and fish are great) can also help eliminate unwanted estrogen and balance liver levels. Carrots, turmeric and grapefruit are also known liver boosters.

We can all agree sugar is terrible for us. Studies have shown that it's a drug, it's addictive and it generally leaves us feeling unsatisfied and lethargic. Insulin decides how to take energy from the foods we eat and what to do with that energy. In her book Younger, Dr. Gottfried explains that when we give our bodies too much sugar, insulin can turn from our fat-burning best friend to our fat-storing enemy. Unfortunately, sugar triggers reward centers in the brain and gives us little spikes of dopamine (that feel-good chemical). When we overdo it on sugar consistently, our bodies begin to crave more to get that same high, creating a hormone imbalance that can trigger overeating and in turn lead to shame and guilt. The reality may simply be a hormone imbalance.

Estrogen is the hormone we credit for making us women. We've found that it's the messenger that tells the female body to be female. But too much estrogen can cause weight gain, water retention and other health problems. One cause of excess estrogen? Red meat. Yup, it’s true. That burger, as delicious as it is, may be causing estrogen pollution in your body. Dr. Gottfried explains that in our current food system, meat is often packed with steroid hormones, which can drastically affect estrogen. In addition, diets high in meat are often lacking in fiber, which is a tool for stabilizing estrogen. The bacteria needed in the gut to digest large amounts of meat may be a culprit as well, as estrogen decreases in those with meatless diets. So if you're struggling with weight gain, bloating, mood swings or headaches, consider reducing the red meat in your diet.

Many of us turn to coffee as our daily upper, but caffeine also elevates cortisol, which happens to be a key hormone for storing fat. According to Dr. Gottfried, cortisol is sometimes referred to as the stress hormone, because when it is too high, it can rob you of joy, steal your sleep and take over your weight. If your stress levels are high, that cup of coffee is the last thing you should reach for. Sip on tea or water with lemon instead.

Make it a practice to listen to your body. Go as far as asking, "Stomach, why are you upset?" It may sound silly, but it'll slow you down enough to become mindful of what may be going on internally. And move! Dr. Gottfried says that exercise and even laughter are known to stabilize hormones and create more of those endorphins that keep us feeling great.