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How your hormones affect your health

Eating well, exercising and still struggling to slim down? If you have trouble shifting unwanted kilos or you're feeling low in energy, what you're eating might not be to blame. Nutritionist Tracy Morris explains the major hormonal conditions which can affect your health – and what you can do about them.

Put simply, hormones are chemical messengers. They are how our cells communicate with each other across the body. For example, when we eat a meal, the pancreas secretes its messenger – the hormone insulin – into the bloodstream to tell the muscle cells to 'open up' so they can 'refuel' with the blood sugar which is being delivered from the digested food.

Our bodies produce many hormones. Each one has its own purpose, from daily tasks like changing our mood and raising metabolism, to life-changing effects like initiating puberty or menopause.

Often you will hear the term 'endocrine' when talking about hormones. The endocrine system is made up of hormones and the organs or glands, such as the thyroid glands, pancreas, ovaries and the adrenal glands, which produce, store and secrete hormones. The pituitary gland is the 'control centre' responsible for coordinating the endocrine system and how much of a hormone the other glands or organs produce.

Hormonal disorders can be a result of a glitch in one or more of the processes along the message pathway. Any number of things can go wrong – the gland may be over-producing or under-producing a particular hormone, the hormone may not be reaching the required destination, or the target cell at the end of the pathway may not be able to receive the message. The side effects of this communication breakdown are numerous and can range from acne to infertility, to weight gain. So which condition could be affecting you?

Your symptoms

  • Drowsiness after a high-carbohydrate meal
  • Ravenous hunger
  • Overweight, mainly around the stomach
  • Dark patches of skin on your neck

What goes wrong?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas and is most commonly known for its role in controlling blood sugar levels and encouraging fat storage. When the actions of insulin don't happen, the pancreas produces more insulin to try and get its message across. The constant high level of insulin in the bloodstream results in fat breakdown being blocked, making it difficult to lose weight. Insulin resistance, if left untreated, can lead to pre-diabetes and diabetes.

What you can do

The good news is you can do something to counteract insulin resistance – and lifestyle changes are shown to be almost twice as effective as some medications! Try spacing your meals out evenly throughout the day and choose slow release, low-GI carbohydrates such as oats, whole grain breads and pasta. This will help your blood sugar levels even out and prevent your insulin levels from spiking. Unhealthy trans fats (found in oily takeaways, biscuits, cakes and pies) may worsen insulin sensitivity, so skip these and aim for insulin-sensitivity-improving omega-3 fats (found in oily fish, walnuts and linseeds).

You should also exercise – it has the incredible ability of making our cells much more receptive to the effects of insulin – and get some sun. Recent evidence has unearthed a link between insulin resistance and vitamin D deficiency, with several studies showing that vitamin D can reduce insulin resistance. Ask your doctor to do a blood test to check your vitamin D levels (see Science update: Vitamin D for how to safely get vitamin D.)

Your symptoms

  • Changes in menstrual cycle – longer, shorter, heavier or irregular periods
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Headaches
  • Itchy skin
  • Reduced sex drive

What goes wrong?

Menopause starts in a woman's late forties to early fifties, when the ovaries start to produce less hormones, specifically oestrogen. The change takes place gradually and during that time hormone levels may fluctuate wildly. These hormonal shifts, plus age-related loss of muscle mass, can often cause weight gain, particularly around the stomach.

What you can do

A healthy lifestyle is vital for menopausal and postmenopausal women to prevent weight gain. Resistance training which maintains muscle mass and boosts metabolism is strongly recommended. It's also important to consider that as we age, our energy needs decline, meaning we don't need to eat as much. You don't need to go hungry, just focus your choices on nutrient and fibre-rich foods that are low in fat and keep the kilojoule-rich foods to special occasions.

Your symptoms

  • Low energy levels
  • Slow heart rate
  • Intolerance to cold temperatures
  • Dry skin
  • Depression
  • Enlarged gland just below the voice box

What goes wrong?

The thyroid gland is a small gland found just below the voice box – which is responsible for producing the thyroid hormones. These hormones control how quickly the body burns kilojoules. When the thyroid gland (or the pituitary gland, which stimulates the thyroid gland) is underactive and unable to produce enough hormones, hypothyroidism occurs and your body 'slows down'. A slow metabolism generally leads to weight gain, fatigue and depression. Women are five times more likely than men to develop a thyroid condition because it can be triggered by other hormones involved in puberty, pregnancy and menopause. The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto's disease, which means that if it is written in your genes, it is difficult to prevent. Other causes include severe iodine deficiency and cancer.

What you can do

Hypothyroidism can often be diagnosed with a simple blood test and for most people, can be treated simply by taking a daily tablet which contains a synthetic form of thyroid hormones. You will feel better and energy levels will improve, making it easier to get back to the gym and lose those extra kilos.

As iodine is a key component in thyroid hormone production, you should also enjoy bread regularly – as all bread (excluding organic) must now be made with iodised salt in their preparation, reducing the likelihood of deficiency in future.

Your symptoms

  • Irregular, infrequent or heavy periods
  • Excess facial or body hair
  • Acne
  • Scalp hair loss
  • Struggling to fall pregnant

What goes wrong?

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common endocrine disorders, occurring in 5-10% of pre-menopausal women in New Zealand. PCOS is linked with a number of hormonal disturbances, including increased levels of insulin and the male hormone testosterone. As excess male hormones play a pivotal role in encouraging insulin resistance and, therefore, weight gain, more than half of women with PCOS gain weight.

What you can do

As with insulin resistance, diet and exercise can play an instrumental role in treating PCOS. With PCOS, however, there is the added factor of needing to 're-balance' the male hormone levels. A number of dietary approaches have been trialled to help this process, including low-GI diets and higher protein diets, but unfortunately, researchers remain inconclusive on a clear winner. So aim for a generally healthy diet: eat five to six small meals a day, include plenty of vegetables and fruit, legumes, low-GI carbohydrates, lean protein, low-fat dairy and healthy fats, and make sure you include lots of water.

Don't forget to exercise, either – it's vital in managing PCOS, as it not only improves insulin resistance but it can potentially lessen menstrual disturbances and infertility. See your doctor, too – who may be able to help with some medication to help restore hormone abnormalities and improve insulin sensitivity.

Think The Pill has made you gain weight?

You could be right. Research shows during the use of hormonal contraceptives, a woman's weight can fluctuate by about 3kg over six to 24 months. But The Pill has been shown to be effective in managing premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and the carbohydrate cravings that go with it. Talk to your GP if you think The Pill is causing you to gain weight.

First published: Dec 2009



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