Health-related anxiety has never been higher. Unsurprisingly right now, we are hypervigilant about our health and avoiding negatively impacting our own and others' wellbeing. While coronavirus will dominate our priorities health-wise for the foreseeable, adverts continue to remind us not to neglect other aspects of our health. According to these adverts, the cure for what ails you comes in a convenient supplement.
Supplements that claim to help you 'balance your hormones' have a firm foothold in the market: products like anatomē’s Daily Wellbeing + Hormonal Support, the Organic Shatavari Booster from Mauli Rituals and Wild Nutrition's Food-Grown Balance Multi Nutrient. Some are adaptogens, others focus on vitamins and minerals and many are targeted specifically at menopausal women.
It may seem trivial right now but according to Professor Franklin Joseph, a leading UK-based endocrinologist, understanding and balancing your hormonal health is key to a happy, healthy and functioning existence. "Hormones have a vital role in keeping many bodily functions and processes in working order," he told Refinery29, "including helping to regulate metabolism, body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, energy levels, mood, sleep cycles, sexual and reproductive function." The endocrine system (which is the collection of glands that release and regulate hormones) affects the entire body, releasing specific hormones from various glands to tell each body part what to do and when to do it. "If hormones aren’t regulated or are out of balance even slightly, this can have a huge effect on how the body functions and a person’s overall health and wellbeing," he added.
Natural and normal hormone fluctuations and imbalances happen throughout the course of life, such as when oestrogen production ceases during menopause. But there are also various medical conditions that affect the endocrine glands, causing abnormalities in hormone production and resulting in a hormonal imbalance. "The glands can simply malfunction, be affected by medications or can be damaged by benign or cancerous growths," notes Professor Joseph, resulting in either an under- or overproduction of hormones. This kind of hormonal imbalance can have a range of impacts: "Symptoms and conditions such as diabetes (an imbalance or absence of insulin produced in the pancreas), Cushing's syndrome (overproduction of the steroid cortisol from the adrenal gland), an underactive or overactive thyroid and polycystic ovary syndrome in women."
Several symptoms may indicate a hormone imbalance. "These include unexplained weight gain or weight loss, excessive fatigue, depression, infertility, reduced sex drive, and pains, aches or stiffness in the muscles and joints." Professor Joseph points out that the physical and emotional impact of certain symptoms (weight fluctuations, fatigue, infertility and depression in particular) is distressing for many people, which could lead them to conclude that a hormonal imbalance is the cause and supplements are the cure. However these symptoms in themselves are not a guaranteed indicator of a hormone imbalance; the only way it can be confirmed is by consulting a doctor who, depending on your symptoms, may pursue various avenues, including a blood test.
It’s understandable that people might turn to supplements that indicate they can alleviate these symptoms without any testing or wait times. And there is evidence that certain minerals and vitamins have an important role in the endocrine system. Magnesium, for example, is often touted as a remedy for hormonal imbalance. It is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and plays an important role in many bodily functions. "Deficiency of magnesium is associated with increased risk of various hormone-related conditions including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, thyroid dysfunction and osteoporosis (bone thinning)," says Professor Joseph. "Magnesium supplements will be necessary if you have a health condition that causes a deficiency in this mineral, and sufficient levels of magnesium will help with symptoms that occur due to deficiency and potentially avoid the development of hormonal imbalances."
However it is best to try and balance your hormones naturally, turning to supplements only when advised by a medical professional, says Professor Joseph. Happily, following the general guidelines for a healthy lifestyle – a varied and nutritionally diverse diet, regular exercise, managing stress and getting quality sleep – should be enough to keep your hormones in check. Sleep is particularly important, he says. "Getting consistent, quality sleep is the best thing you can do to keep your endocrine system in working order and your hormones balanced. Sleep has an effect on so many vital hormones such as the pituitary and pituitary controlled hormones including cortisol, thyroid-stimulating hormone, growth hormones and hormones that affect energy metabolism. A lack of sleep can seriously impact the balance of these hormones and have long-term health consequences."
So can hormone supplements actually help? Sure, but only if you have a confirmed health condition that results in vitamin or mineral deficiencies and those deficiencies are causing symptoms or impacting your hormones. But supplements alone are not the treatment required for a hormonal condition. "We should be getting most vitamins and minerals naturally through food sources," says Professor Joseph.
In other words, supplements should not be the first port of call. "Supplements should be taken under medical supervision as it’s likely you’ll need to be checked intermittently to ensure these supplements are having the desired effect and your condition is improving."