Recently, hormone expert and speaker Nicki Williams visited Amchara Gozo to talk to us about hormone health.
A registered Nutritional Therapist, with a diploma from the Institute of Optimum Nutrition, Nicki is a mother and wife who has had her fair share of hormonal issues. These led her to study nutrition and focus on hormonal health. Nicki established Happy Hormones For Life, which provides information as well as programmes for women to balance their hormones naturally.
Nicki’s message is that there is no need for fad diets or extensive fitness routines. In her practice, she frequently encounters women who hit a certain age and find their usual strategies for maintaining their weight and health just don’t work any longer. Nicki believes this is caused by hormone imbalance.
Many women think that the symptoms brought on by fluctuating hormones are an inevitable part of getting older – something Nicki simply does not believe in. In her practice, she emphasises that by regaining hormone balance, women can restore their potential, lose that weight and get their energy back. She sees great results when women focus on balancing their hormones – as this balance is integral to feeling great.
Nicki concentrates on what she calls the ‘Feisty Four’ hormones.
We produce over one hundred hormones in our body, but there are four main hormones which can become unbalanced once women reach their forties and beyond. These hormones affect every cell in your body. Once they’re out of balance, they can influence weight, sleep, stress, skin and sex drive and more. Meet the Feisty Four:
This is your stress hormone. Stress affects all of us in different ways, but when we perceive something to be a stressor, our body releases cortisol. This hormone regulates bodily functions that help our fight against stress.
Cortisol also regulates our blood sugar, water balance and blood pressure. It helps to balance our immune system and in tiny amount acts as an anti-inflammatory to help the repair of damaged tissue. Almost every cell of the body contains cortisol receptors.
While cortisol is incredibly important for our proper response to stress, if it is released for too long or its level climbs too high, our immune system can suffer and our blood pressure may increase along with our blood sugar, leading to weight gain. Practically speaking this can lead to mood swings, low libido, food cravings, anxiety, and increased belly fat. It can also leave you feeling tired, emotional and irritable.
Insulin can be called your fat storage hormone. Insulin helps control blood sugar level, and it is released by the body when sugar levels in the blood climb too high. If you eat food containing sugar, or refined carbohydrates which are broken down quickly to sugar, the body will react by releasing a surge of insulin. If your levels of insulin are out of balance, you can feel sleepy in the afternoon, suffer from headaches, brain fog and poor concentration. Often you’ll have the jitters after several hours without food and experience sugar and carbohydrate cravings. Your body will also tend to store away fat and will be resistant to burning it off again.
Together these regulate your metabolism. The thyroid gland controls how efficiently your metabolism is working. If it isn’t functioning well, your metabolism will literally slow down, burn energy less efficiently and become sluggish. This makes it almost impossible to lose weight and often causes fatigue, brain fogginess and low libido. You’ll tend to feel the cold, have dry skin and hair, poor circulation and constipation.
Bring on one of your two sex hormones. Its counterpart is progesterone. In most of us, oestrogen is a bit of a bully. It tends to creep too high and causes progesterone to be too low – a condition known as ‘oestrogen dominance’. When oestrogen fluctuates and progesterone decreases the result can be PMS, hot flushes, mode swings, weight gain and fatigue. Women can experience fluctuating oestrogen levels from any age, but they become more pronounced in the years leading up to the menopause, which is known as the peri-menopause.
The feisty four don’t operate in isolation – the balance of each one affects the others. Nicki believes that there are common hormone disruptors that need to be avoided. This means being aware of them and changing your lifestyle to support your hormones. She has developed a happy hormone code, which involves the following four steps – eat, rest, cleanse and move.
The nutrients you put into your body are essential for hormone health. High quality, nutrient dense food provides the best fuel to make your hormones. Some foods we eat can directly adversely affect our hormone balance. Sugar is a massive hormone disruptor, so avoiding it will make for happier hormones. This means avoiding not just sugar, but also refined carbohydrates as they will break down into sugar when metabolised.
You may have heard of Omega 3 & 6 oils, which aren't called 'essential fatty acids' for nothing. We must have them in our diet, and they’re essential for hormone balance, too. We tend to be most deficient in Omega 3 fats, and a bit like hormones, it’s the balance between these two fats which is so crucial.
Omega 3 fats are found in flax oil and hemp oil, Omega 6 in many other vegetable oils commonly used for cooking, like sunflower oil. Unfortunately, these fats are unstable, especially if they are heated, so they are easily destroyed by cooking. Nicki recommends avoiding cooking with vegetable oils.
Nicki also advises avoiding dangerous trans fats. Trans fats are created in the chemical process when vegetable oil is hydrogenated to make it solid at room temperature. Commercially processed foods, especially margarine, and many baked goods tend to be laden with these damaged oils. They can put the body into stress mode and cause inflammation, says Nicki. She stresses the importance of eating good quality vegetables, protein, good fats, unrefined carbohydrates and plenty of still water to stay hydrated.
Stress and Sleep
When we're stressed, our body releases cortisol, which as mentioned above, can cause us to feel emotional and irritable, tired and gain weight. When we’re stressed, we tend to reach for comforting, sugary snacks. These may make us feel better in the short term but can wreak havoc over time. It’s impossible to avoid stress in today’s world but being aware of what is causing you stress can help greatly.
Nicki advises find your own way of relaxing - everyone’s will be different. Try daily meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises and spending time in nature to decrease stress levels.
Too much stress interferes with sleep, and many of us experience sleep problems – whether too little sleep or a lack of quality sleep – night after night after night. Poor sleep can knock out our hormone levels, so it’s incredibly important to ensure you get enough sleep. Sleep during the valuable hours before midnight is especially important – it seems that earlier in the night, we sleep more of the restorative type of sleep. Going to bed late won’t leave us as refreshed in the morning, regardless of the total hours of sleep we have.
We are constantly exposed to toxins, more so now than ever before. Our environment is overloaded with chemicals capable of disrupting our hormones. These chemicals appear to be able to attach to our body’s oestrogen receptor sites where they mimic its effects and disrupt the balance between progesterone and oestrogen. They also make extra work for the liver, so they tend to be stored in our fat cells.
Most of these chemicals originate from industrial and agricultural processes, medications, pesticides, cleaning products and solvents. Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in plastic and is also often used to line food and drink cans. It is known to leach from the plastic into the food or liquid.
Chemicals called phthalates are everywhere, used in everything from household cleaners and fragrance to personal care products and plastic food packaging. They are also endocrine disrupting chemicals. The result of us living in this sea of chemicals is that our oestrogen levels can rise, pushing our progesterone levels too low. It’s best to use natural toiletries and cosmetics and eco-friendly household cleaning products, which are free from artificial chemicals. Use glass containers and water bottles or choose BPA-free plastic ones.
Lifestyle and Exercise
Sitting for too long and lack of exercise are key contributors to hormonal imbalances. Exercise is great to help us to deal with stress, regulate our blood sugar balance, and even improve thyroid function.
Nicki believes in finding an exercise you enjoy, making it more likely that you will stick to it and won’t find excuses not to do it. On the other hand, too much exercise can also disrupt our hormones, so she advises avoiding overdoing it by focusing on quality rather the quantity. Nicki has had great results when clients take up regular walking, yoga, weights or high intensity interval training.
For more information on Happy Hormones visit Nicki’s website. Nicki is a full member of BANT (British Association of Nutritional Therapists) and the CNHC (Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council).
Cathy Robinson BScDipNutMed