Hormones are unique chemical messengers created by glands within the endocrine or hormonal system. When in proper balance, all the hormones in your body participate in a carefully orchestrated dance. When in sync, this dance is responsible for regulating hunger, sleep, metabolism, sexual function, and mood. When our hormones are imbalanced, or out of sync, it can lead to various significant health problems.
The hormone insulin, made in the pancreas, is a major player in not only regulating blood sugar, but also in maintaining balance throughout your endocrine system. It regulates blood sugar by acting as a “key” which is used to “unlock” the cell doors after meals, allowing sugar to enter and be used for energy. When insulin is working properly, and the cells receive the message, they are able to convert glucose (also known as blood sugar made from carbohydrates) from foods into immediate energy or store it for future use. Although this is its most important role, insulin also helps with the balance and maintenance of other hormones in the endocrine system.
Often referred to as the “fight or flight” hormone, cortisol is released in response to stress. Cortisol prepares the body for action by releasing sugar from storage to be used for immediate energy.
The “fight or flight” mechanism is often accompanied by a physical response, such as being attacked by a predator. But now times have changed as most people are faced with psychological stressors rather than physical ones, predators are not as much of a concern these days. The fast paced, modern world is now marked by various non-physical stressors including work, sleep deprivation, and family tensions. While at the end of a long stressful day it may feel as though you’ve ran a marathon, these everyday stressors typically do not result in vigorous physical activity to help lower blood sugar. Controlling the blood sugar elevations caused by cortisol is one major benefit of physical activity.
Under chronic stress, blood sugar can remain elevated which in turn, triggers the release of insulin. Research has shown that chronic elevated blood insulin levels can lead to several complications, including high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, elevated blood sugar, and obesity. Furthermore, when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, this can lead to a loss of muscle mass which in turn, can slow your metabolism. While managing psychological stress may be easier said than done, conducting simple breathing techniques in the face of emotional stress can remove your body from “flight or fight” mode leading to less cortisol build up in your system.
Did you have a good night’s sleep and feel well rested? You can thank the hormone melatonin for that. Coined “the hormone of darkness”, as it is produced in our bodies at night, melatonin is responsible for regulating our circadian rhythm or sleep cycles.
The connection between insulin and melatonin was discovered when researchers found that night shift workers had higher rates of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. This suggests that inadequate sleep prevents insulin from doing its job leading to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Another study showed that women getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes versus those who got 10 hours a night. If 10 hours seems daunting (or amazing), aiming for 7-8 hours each night would be a great starting point. When melatonin is not functioning properly, insulin is also unable to control blood sugar appropriately.
Often referred to as the female sex hormone, estrogen is a critical hormone for the sexual and reproductive development in women. From regulating the menstrual cycle to promoting bone formation, estrogen is found throughout the body including the brain, liver, and heart. In addition to its many roles in the female body, one of the most important is enhancing the action of insulin. Therefore, low estrogen may lead to diminished insulin action or increased insulin resistance.
In addition to hindering insulin action, low estrogen levels may also impede the secretion of insulin from the pancreas. Inadequate insulin causes the body to produce excess sugar which eventually winds up circulating in the bloodstream. Luckily, there are many ways to naturally balance estrogen levels in the body. Eating a diet rich in real, whole, unprocessed foods and avoiding hormones from meat or dairy will help to naturally balance estrogen levels. Stress management, getting adequate sleep, regular exercise, and reducing alcohol intake are all lifestyle changes to consider as well when trying to keep estrogen in balance.
Progesterone is the hormone that controls fertility and menstruation in women. Progesterone also plays an important role in regulating blood sugar. Many studies have concluded that progesterone can impair insulin sensitivity or how well your body responds to insulin and affect the regulation of blood sugar. Not enough progesterone impacts insulin and an excess of progesterone impacts insulin therefore, like all hormones, balance is the key.
Ways to naturally balance progesterone in your body include increasing fiber intake, preferably from whole vegetables, and reducing alcohol, caffeine, and refined sugar.
Testosterone is a hormone primarily produced by men but can be found in small quantities in the ovaries of women. Mainly responsible for one’s sex drive, testosterone also affects bone and muscle mass, fat storage, and red blood cell production.
Much like the hormones previously discussed, testosterone can also impact insulin levels. Studies have shown that men with low testosterone levels have elevated levels of insulin and higher blood sugar. In fact, supplementing testosterone in men with type 2 diabetes who are deficient in the hormone, improves their insulin sensitivity.
As mentioned, women produce a small amount of testosterone, but for women with polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, an excess amount is produced which is typically caused by an increase in insulin production.
The thyroid is a gland in your endocrine system that produces two main hormones: Triiodothyronine (T3) and Thyroxine (T4). The balance of these two hormones is critical as they circulate through your bloodstream to every cell in your body. In addition to regulating your heart rate, metabolism, and breathing, the thyroid hormones play a role in glucose (blood sugar) metabolism. Research has shown that when the hormones T3 and T4 are out of balance, blood sugar levels are affected which can lead to insulin resistance.
The connection between hormone balance and insulin is undeniable. Hormone imbalances are complicated but the underlying common denominator is managing insulin. Making steps to balance your blood sugar and insulin are the fastest way to improving your relationship with your other hormones.