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Hormones gone haywire? Fix your mood with the right food

If you feel as though your mind and body are riding a roller coaster, follow our guide to finding harmony with your hormones.

Weight gain, fatigue and stress can all be influenced by hormonal imbalance. Happily, the right foods and lifestyle habits can take you from bloated to trim, tired to energised and stressed to relaxed.

The function of hormones

Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers. An imbalance of these substances can affect everything from our mood and appearance to our sex drive and temper, but what is surprising is the role food plays.

“Your diet definitely affects your hormones — and your hormones can affect your ability to gain or lose weight,” explains Amanda Salis, associate professor at The University of Sydney’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders.

Happily, there are simple and practical steps we can take to fix some common hormone-related problems.

I can’t lose weight

Telltale signs

You think you’re eating healthily but your jeans are still tight. What’s more, you sometimes gain weight for no obvious reason. What’s going on?

Hormones at work

  • Leptin
  • Ghrelin
  • Peptide YY (PYY)

Certain hormones can affect our appetite. Leptin, a hormone produced in the fat cells, tells the brain when we’re full. When leptin levels fall, our appetite intensifies and our metabolism slows so we gain weight. Other hormones that regulate our appetite include ghrelin, which stomach cells release when we’re hungry, and peptide YY (PYY), which helps increase and sustain satiety, so you eat less.

When our weight is steady, but we suddenly overeat for a few days or even weeks (such as over the Christmas period), our hormones shift to help manage this excess energy intake. Levels of ghrelin, the ‘hunger hormone’, drop, while PYY levels, which trigger feelings of fullness, rise. This clever combination helps you stop overeating thereby preventing weight gain.

It’s only when we repeatedly ignore these hormone signals and continue to overeat when we aren’t really hungry that we face problems. Over time, this problematic behaviour provokes other hormone changes: ghrelin, for example, surges, causing weight gain and making it much harder to lose weight.

Going on a very strict diet can throw these same hormones out of whack. Though you may lose weight at first, highly restrictive diets can trigger unwelcome hunger-hormone changes in some people. Experts think this is one of the main reasons dieters struggle to maintain their weight-loss, and when researchers put overweight and obese adults on an extremely low-kilojoule diet for 10 weeks, they saw these changes in action. Even though subjects lost an average of 13.5kg, their hunger hormones shifted, making them feel hungrier. On top of that, their hormones failed to return to the levels they were at the start of the study, even after a year.

Missing out on sleep makes matters even worse. Research links getting fewer than six hours’ sleep a night with increases in ghrelin and decreases in leptin. In other words, sleep-deprived people feel hungrier and need to eat more to feel full.

Find a balance

  • Manage kJ intake
  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat more protein

“It’s important to eat enough,” says Salis, “so if your body’s telling you that you’re hungry, allow yourself to eat.” Learn to listen to your body’s hunger cues. You could start by rating your hunger on a scale of one to 10, with one being ravenous, and 10 being uncomfortably stuffed. Aim to eat when you’re at three or four on the hunger scale, when you’re genuinely pretty hungry, but not so starving that you’re likely to overeat. Try to stop eating at six or seven, which is when you feel full but not overfull. The key is to make healthier food choices at meals and opt for snacks low in sugar and fat. This simply means including plenty of vegetables, along with low-GI wholegrain foods and lean meat or fish, and swapping those biscuits and cakes for fresh fruit or low-fat yoghurt.

Boosting the protein of each meal and in snacks can also encourage weight-loss. Protein-rich foods help us feel full and satisfied so we eat less. Increasing the amount of protein in the diet stimulates the body’s PYY, which increases satiety and reduces hunger.

Hunger scale

Use this guide to get to know your body’s hunger cues. Try not to get outside the 3-7 range.

10 Stuffed to bursting You feel rather ill
9 Very uncomfortably full It's time to unzip your jeans
8 Uncomfortably full Your belly swells
7 Full You probably didn't need that last bite
6 Perfectly comfortable You feel satisfied with your meal
5 Comfortable Your hunger has faded, but you could eat more
4 Slightly uncomfortable It's time to eat!
3 Uncomfortable Your stomach is growling
2 Very uncomfortable You feel pretty cranky
1 Weak and light-headed You need to eat ASAP!

I feel so depressed

Telltale signs

You have a persistent low mood or sadness, or both. Your everyday activities and hobbies lose their appeal, and you lack motivation. You may lose or gain weight and suffer from disturbed sleep and poor concentration. These symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Hormones at work

  • Leptin
  • Cortisol
  • Serotonin

As scientists explore depression and its many possible causes, they’re taking a closer look at the role of hormones. Although this research is ongoing, they suspect a link between elevated levels of the hormone cortisol and depression. In contrast, sufficient levels of the hormone leptin not only help reduce our appetite, but also appear to have antidepressant qualities. (People who generally have a low mood often have low levels of leptin.)

Depression can also result from hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland fails to produce enough hormones, resulting in abnormally low thyroid activity, which can be dangerous. The mood-related substance at work here is the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which many people call the ‘happy hormone’.

Find a balance

  • Limit sugar
  • Choose nutrient-rich carbs
  • Enjoy low-GI snacks

It is important to note that despite the media hype demonising carbohydrates, experts warn against skipping them altogether.

Dr Judith Wurtman, a US-based expert whose research focuses on the relationship between food and brain chemistry, has found when you stop eating carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin, a chemical that lifts mood and dampens appetite — and the only thing that naturally stimulates serotonin production is carbohydrate consumption. But if you usually reach for sugary carbohydrate foods to feel energised, think again, because eating too much sugar suppresses serotonin production in the long run.

Choosing the right kinds of carbohydrates is vital to weight management, too. Rid your diet of processed white carbohydrates and stick to nutrient-rich low-GI wholegrains whole fruit and vegetables, and legumes (such as beans and lentils).

Many of us are all too familiar with the 4pm energy slump, and when such tiredness sets in, the urge to snack reaches an all-time high.

“Carbohydrate cravers experience a change in their mood, usually in the late afternoon or mid-evening,” says Dr Wurtman. “And this mood change comes with a yearning to eat something sweet or starchy.”

Instead of trying to boost flagging energy levels with sweet biscuits or chocolate, grab a low-GI snack, such as a slice of grainy toast with peanut butter or a small tub of low-fat yoghurt and fruit. Bananas, for instance, contain tryptophan, which the body needs to make feel-good serotonin.

I’m tired all the time

Telltale signs

You wake up tired, and your energy levels crash by midmorning. Extra sleep doesn’t help, and you can’t shake the persistent lethargy that stops you from living life to the full.

Hormones at work

  • Thyroxine
  • Oestrogen

A lot of people think that their tiredness is simply a sign that they are overdoing things and need more sleep. Though this can be the case, sometimes our hormones are to blame.

When the thyroid gland is underactive, it fails to produce enough hormones (thyroxine in particular), slowing metabolism and producing symptoms that include weight gain, depression and constant lethargy.

Fatigue may also be due to a lack of selenium, a mineral the body needs to make thyroid hormones. Just two Brazil nuts provide your recommended daily intake for selenium. Other good sources include sardines, prawns, eggs and lean red meat.

To keep producing healthy levels of thyroid hormones, we also need iodine. Low iodine deficiency has re-emerged for two main reasons: we’re eating less iodised salt, and our dairy industry’s milk-treatment methods have changed.

To combat this, all bread, except organic bread, is now fortified with iodine.

Women approaching or experiencing menopause and aren’t getting enough iodine can also have low levels of the hormone oestrogen, which can cause energy levels to plummet.

Find a balance

  • Increase iodine intake
  • Get more selenium

Make sure your diet includes good iodine sources such as fish, shellfish, bread and dairy products, along with sources of selenium.

I feel so stressed

Telltale signs

Stress can creep up on you or hit you like a brick wall. When work, family and everything in between get the better of you, the debilitating effects of stress can range from memory loss and lack of focus to constant worrying and anxiety.

Hormone at work

  • Cortisol

When we’re under physical or emotional stress, our body’s adrenal glands pump out the hormone cortisol. Constant stress forces the body to continually secrete cortisol, high levels of which can disrupt insulin control and promote fat storage, adding insult to injury. Over time, this relentless stress can cause weight gain, particularly around our middle.

Find a balance

  • Limit caffeine
  • Be more physically active
  • Avoid alcohol

When stress kicks in, some of us automatically reach for coffee to cope, but minimising or even eliminating caffeine can help alleviate anxiety, as this stimulant sparks cortisol secretion.

Spending some time outdoors enjoying fresh air, exercise and a little ‘me time’ can also help. Research links regular exercise with decreased bloodstream levels of cortisol, which result in feeling less stressed. Even better, studies show that when we work out at a high intensity for more than 30 minutes, our body starts secreting endorphins. These ‘happy hormones’ reduce appetite, ease anxiety and create an overall feeling of well-being. No wonder some people claim to be exercise addicts!

Many of us think we’re entitled to relax with a glass of wine at the end of a demanding day. But if you’re looking for a good solution to your struggle with stress and anxiety, alcohol is not the answer. In fact, alcohol only prolonged subjects’ stress-induced feelings of tension in a US study, and these heightened stress levels then diminished the pleasurable side effects of drinking. You could call this a lose-lose situation.

Your appetite and that time of the month

Many women crave specific foods at certain points in their cycle, but what triggers these urges? As oestrogen levels fluctuate during the monthly female cycle, so do levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And shifting cortisol levels can stimulate appetite and determine whether a woman craves certain foods at particular points in her cycle.

Also, serotonin levels usually drop just before menstruation. This drop can trigger a yearning for carbohydrate-rich foods, because the body needs carbs to make serotonin. The simple solution? Make sure you have healthy, low-kilojoule carbs (such as fruit and low-fat yoghurt) on hand to satisfy those cravings.

Hormone swings affect men, too!

Women aren’t alone in being vulnerable to see-sawing hormones. Men with low levels of testosterone can suffer from mood swings, loss of sex drive, weight gain and chronic exhaustion. After the age of 30, men experience a gradual decline in testosterone at a rate of roughly one per cent per year for the rest of their life. Studies suggest as many as one in five men over 50 has low testosterone levels.

Having a healthy diet can help. For example, regularly eating oily fish, such as fresh salmon, which is also high in vitamin D, may boost testosterone. In an Austrian study, researchers found men who had adequate levels of vitamin D in their blood had higher levels of testosterone than those with low blood levels of vitamin D.

First published: Aug 2014



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