3 Things Every Woman Should Know for Optimal Hormones (at Every Age)
by Dr. Lauryn Lax
“Hormones” are one of those “buzz” words in the health world that are often talked about, but poorly understood—especially amongst women, despite dealing with “hormone issues” throughout most of our lives.
In fact, hormones are often correlated to riding a “roller coaster” in women’s health, characterized by tons of ups and downs, twists and turns—often leaving us not feeling like ourselves.
Any of this sound familiar?
The Female Hormone Rollercoaster
Pre-Teen: Hello Puberty, and instances like: Getting your first period (the day you wore white pants to school); Standing 2 feet taller than the boys; Or wondering if you should stuff your training bra with toilet paper (since your hormones were lagging behind)…and not feeling like yourself.
Teens & 20's: An Estrogen Twister! You were told PMS, cramps and cravings were “normal” and to get used to it. Your period came or went—depending on your activity levels and if you were severely dieting. Your pediatrician may have also prescribed birth control to help with hormonal acne. You also didn’t always feel like yourself.
30’s & 40’s: Riding the Hormone Waves. Low energy, irregular periods, infertility or fertility difficulties, increased body fat or more difficulty “getting fit” or “toning up”, dreaded PMS (still), thyroid problems…and not feeling like yourself.
50’s: Menopause 101 (and all the “fun” it entails) including: Hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, sugar cravings…and not feeling like yourself.
60’s+: The Anti-Aging Quest. Bioidentical hormones, pressures to look younger and reverse aging, bone loss, thyroid meds…and not feeling like yourself.
Sense a theme here?
Unfortunately, despite hormones being a BIG part of our lives, women are offered very little education or guidance even from our healthcare professionals about what we can do to “optimize our hormones,” and actually feel good in the process (beyond taking a hormone pill)…Until now.
Although women’s hormones often carry a negative bias, it doesn’t mean that you are doomed to the “hormone rollercoaster”!
To help you understand how to optimize your hormones (at any age), two of your favorite Coaches, Carey Kepler and Lisa Thiel, and myself, a Functional Medicine Doctor, Occupational and Nutritionist with 20 years of clinical and personal experience, are here to share our insights and experiences with you!
Ladies, let’s have a heart-to-heart…
Table of Contents
What are Hormones
Why Hormones Are So Important
How Hormones Get Out of Whack
Optimize Your Hormones: 3 Essentials for Every Age
What Are Hormones
You have more than 50 hormones in your body.
Hormones are chemical messengers that tell specific tissues to behave in a certain way. They are like the symphony or orchestra of your body—playing the music to keep your bodily processes in sync, including:
Your drive and passions
Appetite & metabolism
Sex drive and libido
Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers that are responsible for stimulating the trillions of cells in your body and their metabolic processes into action.
For instance, your sex hormones—such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone—influence your behavior, mood and fertility. Your cortisol (stress hormone) influences your body’s fight or flight response. And ghrelin and leptin, your hunger and fullness hormones, tell you when it’s time to eat and when it’s time to put your fork down.
Why Hormones Are So Important
In short: Your hormones are the gateway to helping your cells do their job and keep your body balanced.
However, if your hormones are thrown off or out of balance due to STRESS, then “hormone imbalance” (the hormone roller coaster) is inevitable. Enter: Malfunctioning of your body’s cellular processes (and explanation why you may store extra body fat, experience mood swings, store extra body fat, feel tired despite sleeping, get bloated or constipated, or crave chocolate—all the time).
How Hormones Get Out of Whack
Stress is inevitable in life, but too much stress is the #1 force that wreaks havoc on your hormone balance.
Contrary to popular belief, “stress” goes far beyond mental stress—like work deadlines, an argument with your significant other or financial pressures. Physical stressors (like not sleeping enough, poor quality foods, sugar or artificial sweeteners, overtraining or sedentary lifestyles, and circadian rhythm disruption) equally take a toll on your hormones—particularly disrupting your gut microbiome!
Unhealthy Gut Bacteria = Hormone Imbalances!
Your gut microbiome—specifically your gut bacteria— is the “master system” for keeping your hormones balanced.
Your gut produces and stores over half of all your hormones (including estrogen) and is often referred to as an “endocrine” organ itself. Your liver—connected to your gut—is also responsible for clearing EXCESS estrogen and cortisol—two hormones related to symptoms like PMS, mood swings, low energy, menstrual irregularities and excess body fat if they are out of whack.
Hence, your hormones are like a symphony, and your gut microbiome is the conductor. Your gut directs and regulates your hormones.
When your gut microbiome is healthy, your hormones are healthy and keep the beat. But when your gut microbiome is unhealthy, it throws your hormones out of tune—causing all sorts of problems. Therefore, hormone imbalances are often actually signs of an underlying gut imbalance.
Common Gut Imbalances
Common “gut imbalances” that can lead to hormone imbalances include:
SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
Yeast & fungal overgrowth
Lack of healthy gut bacteria
Parasitic or bacterial infections
Leaky gut or intestinal permeability
Undiagnosed food intolerances
Stress Hormones (Cortisol) ALSO Drive Hormone Imbalances
Your hormones (particularly cortisol—your “stress hormone”) can also affect your gut health and total hormone balance—leading to a vicious cycle that then prevents your gut from creating and balancing your hormones like it should in an ideal world.
For example, elevated cortisol hormones may lead to gut inflammation, triggering PMS symptoms, hypothyroidism, insatiable or suppressed appetite cues and infertility. Elevated estrogen levels can also trigger elevated cortisol and conditions and symptoms like SIBO, hypothyroidism, dysbiosis and constipation.
The Bottom Line: It is vital to understand that if you have “hormone problems,” there is often a gut connection and vice versa: if you have “gut problems,” chances are you have some sort of hormone connection.
Ok, now that’s all settled, what can you do to “optimize” your hormones? Simply put, optimize your gut and the lifestyle factors that impact both your gut and your hormones in every season of life!
Here’s the scoop from Carey Kepler, Lisa Thiel, and yours truly to write a new story in your “Hormone Rollercoaster” journey (Hint: This roller coaster will actually be fun).
Optimize Your Hormones: 3 Essentials for Every Age
Note: Although these essentials are divided into ages, every age can benefit from all of them!
Essential 1: Eat Enough
In my work with clients, inadequate calorie and carbohydrate intake might be the most common contributor to a dysfunctional menstrual cycle. Caloric intake and energy balance are the most important factors affecting the development of hypothalamic amenorrhea. In fact, calorie intake is an even greater predictor of menstrual cycle function than a woman’s body fat percentage. Both food restriction and “accidental” dieting or under-eating lead to unhappy hormones.
Use a baseline calorie calculator to estimate your daily calorie needs based on your current activity levels. You may be surprised to find that you’re eating much less than your body needs, which could be negatively affecting your hormones. In addition, for many women, a moderate carbohydrate intake is important for regular menstrual function (read: carbs are not the enemy). A range of 20 to 50 percent of calories from carbs is ideal for improving hormone balance. Incorporate at least 2 to 3 servings daily of real-food, prebiotic carbs like: cooked and cooled sweet potatoes or fingerling potatoes, cooked and cooled white rice, winter squash, jicama, rutabagas, green plantains, turnips, cassava, radishes and fresh fruit—along with plenty of greens and non-starchy veggies.
Essential 2: Learn How to Track Your Cycle without the Pill
Birth control may be effective for suppressing PMS symptoms or acne, but it is often a band-aid for the root cause underlying issues behind hormone imbalances. Additionally, birth control can wreak havoc on your gut health and hormone balance for years—even after you stop taking it. The pill supplies your body with 2 to 3 times more estrogen then what your body actually produces—leading to cortisol imbalances and gut bacteria imbalances. Check out this article on 5 Things Every Woman Should Know About the Pill and How to Heal from Long Term Birth Control Use (including insights on how to track your own ovulation and avoid stressing over whether or not you may get pregnant).
Essential 3: No Perfection
The diet mentality is exhausting and often leads to the opposite extreme the longer we keep it up—such as binging or obsessing over food if you’ve been restricting; a rebound in weight gain after extreme weight loss; or burnout and overtraining. View working out and nutrition as a “long game” with a “no perfection” mentality. Aim to move and eat well most days, while realizing when you’re in Rome, eat the pasta, or if a beach vacation comes up, it doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to your same gym schedule. Train and eat well to live your life outside the gym and kitchen.
What I’d Tell My 20 Year Old Self
Carey: Keep things 80/20 (balanced) and have fun with exploring more about yourself, connecting and meeting people, and engaging in experiences.
Lisa: You don’t have to workout like crazy to burn off calories, or binge and purge to feel good. Workout and eat to nourish your body—not hate on it.
Dr. Lauryn: Your body is a vessel for doing the amazing things in life you were created to do—treat it like so.
Essential 1: Exercise Appropriately.
Exercise is important for fertility and hormone optimization, but the trick is to develop a workout schedule that allows for enough, but not too much, movement. General exercise guidelines for women are 30 to 60 minutes of any type of activity per day. A combination of strength training and aerobic activity works best for improving the hormonal balance. CrossFit fits perfectly in here—with most workouts lasting anywhere from 20-40 minutes. Don’t fall into the rut of overtraining or feeling like more CrossFit each day must be better though. Compliment your high intensity workouts (3-4 days per week) with low intensity, moderate-heavy strength training for stronger bones and appropriate muscle mass, and plenty of mobility, flexibility and lifestyle play and movement (hiking, walking, swimming, recreational sports, biking, etc.).
Essential 2: Avoid Toxins
We live in a toxic world—we are exposed to over 80,000 chemicals in our foods, hygiene products, cosmetics, medications, supplements, cleaning supplies, and water, many of which are “endocrine disruptors” (hormone disruptors). These endocrine disruptors are known to have significant effects on your risk of not only PCOS and menstrual dysfunction, but also thyroid disorders, obesity, and cancer. No, we can’t live in a toxin-free bubble, but we can make more mindful choices to avoid unnecessary exposure to these hormone disruptors. Here are some ideas:
Buy fluoride-free, chemical-free toothpaste; sulfate and paraben-free shampoo and conditioner; and other chemical-free hygiene supplies. The Dirt, Primal Life Organics, Life Root Botanicals and Fat Co. have wonderful options.
Toss out the plastic tupperware and replace it with glassware containers—free of plastics that leech chemicals.
Bonus: Use the Environmental Working Group’s guide to cosmetics to choose toxin-free body care products, their water filter guide to choose the best water filter, and their food scores guide to avoid eating toxins.
Essential 3: Love Your Gut
Excess hormones are eliminated through our poop, so having regular bowel movements and a healthy digestive system is crucial to good hormonal function. Not surprisingly, there’s a bi-directional relationship between hormonal balance and gut function. Your ability to eliminate excess hormones through your poo will affect your hormonal profile, and fluctuations in hormones can affect your digestive function too.
To “love” your gut, increase your consumption of fermented foods and veggies of all kinds. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, fermented veggies and kombucha provide live gut bugs that can help boost the diversity of your gut flora. And both starchy and non-starchy veggies contain pre-biotics that help feed beneficial gut flora.
Additionally, consider taking a daily “symbiotic” (a probiotic-prebiotic blend: like this one) and using digestive enzymes with meals if bloating and constipation are regular occurrences.
What I’d Tell My 30 Year Old Self
Carey: Cherish these moments—whether it’s babies or your career—it will not be like this ever again. Also, self development is key right now, continue to build and explore your options.
Lisa: Continue to focus more on how you feel—not how you look. (I stopped overexercising, stressing over food and diets, and stopped birth control. My period came back, my anxiety went away, I began to poo daily again, and I felt so much better).
Dr. Lauryn: Stop striving so hard. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Enjoy the journey—you are right where you should be.
Essential 1: Eat a Healthy Diet That Controls Blood Sugar
For improved hormonal function, the goal should be to keep blood sugar as steady as possible.
A “real food” diet made primarily from whole foods is ideal, with limited amounts of highly refined grains and sugars. Excess sugar from excess carbohydrates in the diet feeds unhealthy gut bacteria and drives the hormone rollercoaster with fluctuations in cortisol levels as blood sugar levels rise and fall. (Note: The word “sugar” doesn’t just mean candy bars. Excess sugar can come from too much carbohydrate in the diet—from cereals and oatmeal to sandwich bread, pasta, potatoes, starchy veggies, or more then 1 to 2 fruit servings in a day). The key is balance.
High-quality protein and healthy fats should be consumed at every meal and snack, and plant foods like vegetables and fruit should make up the bulk of the volume of the diet. Healthy fats should be consumed at each meal as well. A higher fiber intake from plant foods can help with the excretion of extra hormones in the stool. For general wellness: Aim for 1 to 2 starchy tubers or root veggies per day, 1 to 2 fruits per day, and lots of non starchy veggies.
Essential 2: Be a Sleeping Beauty
Unfortunately, sleep and sleep disturbances are increasingly recognized as key drivers of hormone imbalances.
Our hormones, metabolic function and gut health all recover and restore during sleep. Sleep is also when detoxification happens—the clearing of excess hormones as well as complete digestion of foods we ate during the day.
To fix this, sleep on a schedule. Aim to sleep at least 7 to 9 hours per night in a pitch black, cool room (about 68 degrees or below)—and tuck in before midnight. To get your circadian rhythms on a normal pattern, avoid bright and artificial light at night and get plenty of sunshine during the day. If you’re dealing with insomnia, check out these tips for improving your sleep.
Essential 3: Supplement Smart
There are TONS of supplements on the market claiming to be the “panacea” for everything from fat burning to detoxification to energy, however, buyer beware: not all supplements are created equal. Generally speaking, most supplements you’d find at HEB, Target or Walgreens are a waste of money, and you may as well flush them down the toilet. Pharmaceutical grade supplements—made without additives, fillers or indigestible ingredients—are recommended, and for a proper prescription for your individual needs, it’s best to work with a skilled practitioner who can point you in the right direction. That said, a few basics most every woman can benefit from for overall health include:
Extra Virgin Cod Liver Oil (or eating 1 lb. fatty fish per week)
Digestive Enzymes with meals
Organ Meats or Grass-fed Liver Capsules for liver and detoxification support (Bonus: use code Dr.Lauren for 10% off)
For better libido and energy, I also like to recommend Evitalize and Adaptogen Recovery by Vital Plan. As always, consult with your healthcare provider for your unique needs. Carey and Lisa are also big believers in Advocare products, and would be happy to share the products that have worked best for them over the years.
What I’d Tell My 40 Year Old Self
Carey: Be present and take time for your creative self. Share what you’ve learned. Also, be intentional—teach yourself something new and uncomfortable.
Lisa: Be present as well. Enjoy your time with your family and being a mom. Continue your self care practices, without having to be perfect. Ultimately, continue focusing on feeling good above all.
Dr. Lauryn: Soak up the moments and invest in the people—friends and family in your life.
Essential 1: Lift Weights
Maintain and prevent bone and muscle mass decline now more than ever. As estrogen levels decline with menopause, you must work to maintain bone density to last you a lifetime. Women tend to experience minimal change in total bone mass between age 30 and menopause. But in the first few years after menopause, most women go through rapid bone loss, a “withdrawal” from the bone bank account, which then slows but continues throughout the postmenopausal years.
The hormone estrogen has an effect on peak bone mass. For example, women who had their first menstrual cycle at an early age often have high bone mineral density. In contrast, young women whose menstrual periods stop because of extremely low body weight or excessive exercise, for example, may lose significant amounts of bone density, which may not be recovered even after their periods return. The same thing goes for menopause and the loss of your cycle.
A focus on weight and strength training in your routine with a class or personal training with a coach like Carey or Lisa can help you age younger and prevent the downfall of bone mass spurred on by hormonal changes.
Bonus: In addition to boosting bone mass, regular exercise can also help counter menopausal symptoms. Studies have found that menopausal women who regularly exercise experience greater vitality and mental health compared to sedentary women (Dabrowska et al, 2016).
Essential 2: Recover
Recovery is where “real” gains are made—in the 23 hours outside your gym time. It’s during recovery that your muscles adapt in a way that makes them larger or stronger, as well as your energy systems restore to sustain your endurance and cardio-metabolic training. Recovery tactics like foam rolling, bodywork, acupuncture, hot-cold therapy (“fire and ice”), yoga, low intensity movement (walking, hiking) and eating nutrient-dense superfoods can take your workouts from “good” to “great”—particularly in your 50’s and 60’s—when you feel the positive effects the most.
Limited research and anecdotal reports suggest that with increasing age, muscles tend to recover more slowly after a bout of exercise, whether it is strength or endurance training. Strenuous exercise causes muscle damage, and it takes time for muscles to adapt and remodel—at any age. Inadequate recovery can blunt the training effect on muscles as well as increase the risk of injury during a subsequent workout. In short: optimize your recovery outside the gym to feel your best and boost your energy levels that your hormones of your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s were there in abundance to help you do.
Essential 3: Eat Traditional Superfoods
Foods your Great Grandmother ate still do a body good, including:
Liver & organ meats (organic)
Pastured egg yolks
Skin-on pastured chicken & grass-fed, grass-finished meats
Traditional fats: duck fat, lard, tallow, ghee
Cod liver oil
Bone broth & meat broth
Better than any multi-vitamin you can find on a shelf, boost energy levels, absorption and balance by consuming the essential micro-nutrients and minerals in whole-food form.
What I’d Tell My 50 Year Old Self
Carey: You’ve still got it. It’s also your game—there’s no need to try to keep up with someone else’s plan. Lastly, the sky is the limit! We are just getting started. Your dreams can become your reality if you believe it.
Lisa: By this season, you can really tell a difference in those who eat well, move and supplement. Keep up the daily self-care practices—they make a huge difference.
Dr. Lauryn: Never say “never”; and we are only as old as we think and feel…continue your self care routine to feel amazing and engaging fully in life.
Hormone issues and women’s health go hand-in-hand in our modern day society, however, just because something is common does not mean it is normal.
Just like eating a Big Mac cheeseburger is common in American society (but not actually a “normal” food for humans to eat to thrive), hormone issues may be common amongst womankind, but that does not mean “hormone issues" have to be your normal—especially when you understand how to optimize your hormones at every stage!