7 Things That Wreak Hormone Havoc

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Think you’re working a lot these days? That's nothing compared to your hormones' schedules. These super-busy biochemicals have quite the to-do list of processes they need to regulate. Think: appetite, mood, movement, sleep, sex drive, digestion, immunity, stress, growth — need we say more? They’re tough cookies but they can also be easily swayed. Stress and junk food are the obvious offenders, but there are a few other sneaky culprits that could be tampering with your hormones as well. We’ve tapped the experts and latest research to reveal who — or what — is guilty of hormone bullying. Read on so you can get those trusty hormones back on track.
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Birth Control
Since it was introduced in the 1960s, hormonal birth control has empowered women to plan (and avoid) pregnancies. Additionally, its hormonal side effects help reduce breakouts, painful periods, and cramps for some users. But, hormonal contraception affects every woman differently, and all varieties come with potential negative side effects. "Birth control pills suppress hormone production, meaning taking them, 20-year-olds will have hormonal levels of menopausal women. Their estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels would be similar to a 50-year-old," says New York City-based physician Erika Schwartz, MD.

She also warns that women may experience a low sex drive, pain during sex, mood swings, and depression (since low estrogen is associated with low serotonin in the brain) when operating with these altered hormone levels. "Not everyone will feel the effects, but I've seen that a lot of women stopped suffering from mood swings, anxiety attacks, and depression as soon as they got off the pill." Changing the type of hormonal contraception you use (for example, going from an estrogen-progestin combination pill to a progestin-only pill) can also be helpful. For some, it’s as easy as finding the right balance. Others experience unwanted side effects with all hormonal forms of contraception so they opt for hormone-free IUDs, condoms, diaphragms, or other methods of protecting against pregnancy.

Every body is different, so this doesn't mean that birth control will mess with you. Still, it's good to take extra measures if you're on it. "It's key to add a vitamin B complex, since the pill depletes vitamin B1, B2, and B6, which are crucial to keeping your mental health up," says Sara Gottfried, MD, an OB-GYN in Berkeley, California. Also, pay attention to your body when you begin a new pill — and work with your gynecologist to find a method that works for you.
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Poor Sleep Habits
Yeah, sleep is important, you know that. But, it's not just to keep dark circles at bay and avoid accidental office nod-offs. Logging a good seven to eight hours can also keep you slimmer around the middle. "Cortisol, the hormone typically associated with stress, also controls fat and sugar metabolism. It peaks in the morning, once again around dinner time, and then falls around 11 p.m. to 12 a.m.," says Ava Port, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "If you're not getting enough sleep, you will delay the fall of cortisol, meaning it will reach its peak later in the evening, increasing appetite and cravings for sweets and fats."

Recent research has found that a sleep-deprived brain responds more strongly to junk food, registering those salty chips as extra tasty, and even changing neural activity in a way that makes it harder to say no to things you know you should avoid.

What's more, shorter bouts of snoozing mean you're less likely to fall into the deep sleep stage, a crucial time for growth hormone release. "This hormone repairs tissues that have been stressed out and is really important for balancing metabolism," says Dr. Port. The good news is getting enough shut-eye will stabilize hormones levels, even after only a couple nights of solid sleep.

Having trouble drifting off? That nocturnal Candy Crush habit could be tricking your brain into thinking it's daytime. "Even just a little light stimulus from devices lowers melatonin, a hormone made in the brain that increases at night but drops off during the morning when we sense more light," says Dr. Port. Try putting away smartphones, laptops, and iPads 30 minutes before bed.
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Too Much Sugar
We've been battling this sweet demon for a while, but here's one more good reason to cut back on consumption. "When sugar enters the bloodstream, it stimulates the pancreas to make insulin, the hormone that helps take the sugar out and into other organs, so it can be used for energy," says Toronto-based naturopathic physician Natasha Turner, ND. "But, if you are constantly overloading the body with sugar, your body releases more insulin to keep up, and, over time, loses the ability to react to it.”

Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body loses the ability to properly utilize insulin. Unlike those with type 1 diabetes — an unpreventable condition where the body’s own immune system kills the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, resulting in episodes of low blood sugar — people with type 2 diabetes produce insulin, but their bodies no longer recognize it. Instead of being transported to other cells for energy, sugar builds up in the bloodstream and can contribute to nerve damage, artery hardening, and heart attack. Fortunately, most cases of type 2 can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a clean diet, hitting the gym on the regular, and watching sugar intake.

Keeping an eye on sugar intake is key for all of us, but it's not just candy bars and white bread that are full of the stuff. There are quite a few sneaky sugar sources out there, including marinara sauce, smoothies, whole-wheat bread, and salad dressing. Be sure to read labels carefully to suss out any offenders.

Choosing carbs or dessert once in a while won't kill you, but, remember: The effects are cumulative. The World Health Organization recently released new recommendations for sugar intake: 23 grams a day for adults. That may sound like a lot, but it's only one single-serving frozen fruit sorbet.
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Over-Exercising
We're big proponents of moving. It's basically free medicine: You'll score clearer skin, a lower risk for disease, a boosted mood, even an improved sex life. But, hitting the gym like crazy can rebound on your body. "You will be overproducing adrenaline and endorphins," says Dr. Schwartz. "Having just enough of these hormones gives us that perked-up feeling after working out, but too much and they'll go overboard, acting like extreme painkillers, which can make you prone to ignoring injuries."

Stick to the CDC-recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week; if you find you're spending hours a day breaking a sweat, it might be time to scale back.
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Processed Soy
Soy is the Jennifer Aniston of food; it has its devout fans among us as well as plenty of haters. Studies have linked soy consumption with irregular periods, gastrointestinal problems, and even increased risk of breast cancer in some women — issues stemming from the fact that soy is structurally similar to estrogen and can potentially interfere with the endocrine system. But, most experts agree it depends on what kind of soy you're chowing down. "Asian studies of women who eat whole and fermented soy show reduced symptoms of low estrogen, such as fewer hot flashes and lower rates of osteoporosis and breast cancer," Dr. Gottfried says. She goes on to add that "studies of soy intake in Western women have shown conflicting results. Scientists hypothesize that the paradox relates to Asian women’s higher consumption of whole soy."

So, skip processed soy bars, soy burgers, and other "Frankensoy" products (such as soy hot dogs, soy cheese, or "Tofurkey") and stick to fermented, organic soy in the form of miso, tempeh, and tofu. If you're a soy latte enthusiast, at least make sure the milk is unsweetened, since sweetened soy milk can contain 10 grams of sugar per cup.
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Skipping Meals
Deadlines, meetings, Buzzfeed quizzes...there are a ton of things that can cause us to delay meal time or forget it all together. It's no biggie if you skip a meal once in a while. But, if you make a regular habit of ditching breakfast or pushing lunch back to 4 p.m., Dr. Port would urge you to reconsider. "You'll be messing with your appetite hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which control fullness and hunger, respectively," she says. "If this happens over time, your body won't be able to register its hunger and fullness signals properly.

And, the whole starving-one-day-to-pig-out-the-next excuse doesn't work, either. "We can only take in so much energy at a time, so if you eat one 1,000-calorie meal, your body will only use a little bit of it and store the rest as fat and sugar, which over time begins to accumulate in the liver and abdomen," she adds. Unless you're a lumberjack or something equally active, this method of eating will not bode well for your health (or your waistline). Since most of us are office-bound, it's better to have a more consistent pattern. Stick to four or five smaller meals or three larger ones with two snacks to keep your appetite and fat-burning metabolism in check.
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A Toxic Environment
If you've been in tune with the health buzz lately, you've probably heard that toxins are practically everywhere: BPA in some water bottles, added hormones in dairy and livestock, and possible additives (such as parabens and phthalates) in your favorite mascara or shampoo. These chemicals alone aren't necessary lethal, but even in small doses they do make a difference. "These compounds are endocrine disruptors and also considered xenoestrogens, because they act like estrogen when they're in the body," says Dr. Turner. Ingestion, contact, or even airborne exposure (depending on the product) can cause the "endocrine disruptors to either mimic the hormone, block its function, or interfere with the gland production of hormones," Dr. Port adds.

Science has shown some scary effects of this imbalance; studies have found that even low BPA exposure can disrupt fertility in both men and women and could be the culprit behind behavioral problems in children, as well as polycystic ovarian syndrome. And, research from Brigham and Women's Hospital found that phthalates in personal care products may increase one's risk for diabetes, since the chemical is associated with insulin resistance.

To reduce exposure, sip out of glass or stainless-steel containers (even plastics labeled BPA-free aren't completely off the hook), avoid re-heating food in plastic Tupperware, and look for products that are paraben- and phthalate-free. It might be a tad melodramatic to think that everything around you is poison, but the effects are cumulative. Drinking out of a plastic water bottle isn't a death sentence, but if you're also zapping your takeout containers, choosing non-organic dairy, and lathering up with the wrong shampoo, it can all add up.

It’s easy to take our hormones for granted, but once you recognize their hefty résumé you’ll want to cut them some slack. Simple things like eating a clean diet, hitting the sack on schedule, and being aware of endocrine disrupters will ensure they’re running smoothly — so you can, too.