Hacking Your Hormones
No part of our physiology influences how we feel, look, and act more than our hormones. They wake us up in the morning, inform our emotions, help us recover and build muscle after a workout, and guide our sex drive. Sometimes they make us feel great and help us accomplish our goals. Other times they become too much, and distract us or diminish our productivity.
When our hormones act erratically, it can have a more profound effect on our bodies and minds that we would like. Thankfully, research conducted over the past few decades has given us a much better understanding of how we can naturally manipulate and use our hormones to our advantage.
Your adrenal glands begin releasing cortisol first thing every morning. This rush of cortisol boosts our metabolic power supply by signaling to the liver that it should start producing muscle-fueling glucose in preparation for the day ahead. Cortisol levels then remain high throughout most of the morning and fall beginning in the early afternoon until they subside just in time for bed. The next day, the patter repeats.
Most people know cortisol as the “stress hormone,” which often gives it a negative connotation. The thing is, cortisol actually comes in handy when a stressful situation arises, such as a fast-approaching deadline. Our adrenals begin to produce more cortisol as we push to complete our work, and this gives us an energy boost to get the job done. Cortisol is only unhealthy when it’s being produced at chronically high levels.
There’s a big difference between what we call “challenge stress” — using our physical and mental resources to deal with a short-term demand — versus “chronic stress,” when feeling overwhelmed is the norm. Challenge stress helps you rally your energy to focus on a particularly important task. Chronic stress causes habitually high levels of cortisol and the fight-or-flight adrenal hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which if experienced on a consistent bases will make you feel exhausted mentally and physically.
Schedule your most energy-demanding tasks in the morning, (unless you’re an evening person. Then you should flip that recommendation.)
Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal also advises that you change how you view stressful situations. A 2011 study followed nearly 30,000 people for eight years and found that those who said they thought stress wasn’t a harmful thing were, despite living high-stress lives, less likely to have died from any cause than those who led low-stress lives.
Insulin works together with cortisol to make sure your cells receive the energy they need. After cortisol signals your liver to start producing glucose as you’re waking up in the morning and glucose begins flooding your bloodstream, your pancreas starts releasing insulin to guide that glucose towards your cells. With proper diet, exercise, and sleep, all of this works together swimmingly. But, we run into problems the second one of these is thrown off.
For example, when you eat refined carbs such as bagels, sandwiches, and pastas, those carbs break down quickly in the gut. Sugar floods into the bloodstream, forcing the pancreas to pump out large amounts of insulin in order to try to clear it. Over time, the body becomes less sensitive to this rush of insulin, leading to insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is also linked to heart disease and cognitive decline.
Too much cortisol, like the kind generated from chronic stress, can also interrupt the proper balance of the system. Remember, cortisol tells the body it needs more energy to arm itself for physical/mental action, so it tells your body to dump extra glucose into the bloodstream. With too much cortisol, the muscles can’t burn all the sugar, and the insulin stores that sugar as fat.
Cut back on refined carbs and increase fiber-rich vegetables and legumes to limit your sugar supply, especially in times of excess stress.
Another key combatant: exercise. Muscle consumes sugar and having healthy muscles has been shown to lower your risk of diabetes and other metabolic conditions.
While you’re sleeping your body is producing anabolic hormones (testosterone via the testes and human growth hormone via the pituitary gland.) Testosterone boosts sex drive, elevates mood, and protects the immune system, heart, and brain. Both hormones help your body maintain and build muscle, testosterone by helping muscles grow bigger and human growth hormone by increasing muscle fibers.
The kicker: the lower your levels of cortisol and insulin, the better testosterone and human growth hormone work.
Lack of sleep is one of the worse contributors to low androgen levels. 80 percent of the body’s androgens are produced while we sleep, and unfortunately, it gets more difficult for our bodies to produce these hormones as we age.
Exercise, particularly high-intensity interval and strength training, directly stimulates human growth hormone production because as your muscles break down, the body has to build them back up to recover.
The second most important thing: diet. One of the worst testosterone killers is belly fat. Fat cells produce an enzyme called aromatase, which increases estrogen, and in turn, decreases testosterone. Cut back fat and you will naturally increase testosterone.
So you need to exercise, eat right, get the proper amount of sleep, and combat chronic stress. Anything else? Actually, your mindset plays a huge role.
Hormones respond to emotions and can create an avalanche of physiological changes depending on the signals your brain is sending. Whatever you need to do to get yourself into a more relaxed and positive feeling state is going to help balance out your entire hormonal system. Feeling stressed? Try meditating. Feeling sad? Go for a run to get your serotonin levels up. The better you become at managing your stress and outlook, the better your body will be able to take advantage of the healthy lifestyle you’re providing it utilizing the hacks we outlined here.