Is the modern lifestyle destroying our hormonal balance?

Al-Sahawat Times - FHB Magazine - Stress causes hormonal imbalance

Hormonal imbalance may be the hidden cost of our modern life styles

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You’re about to introduce your partner to one of your colleagues. Except you can’t, for the life of you, remember this colleague’s name. You think it might start with a J… perhaps. Stop torturing yourself, because it could well be your hormones at fault.


The right balance of hormones in your brain is essential for cognitive function, and a drop in oestrogen for example can make you forgetful, among many other things.


We’re pretty au fait with how hormones affect half of us monthly, but that they affect all of us every minute of the day? That they could be responsible for your anxiety, worsening asthma, forgetfulness, low sex drive, memory problems, disorientation, frustration, depression or insomnia? That the proper functioning of them is vital to your health? Maybe not. “Hormones are imperative to life,” says Dr Marion Gluck of The Marion Gluck Clinic, which specialises in hormone therapies. “They regulate every single function in our body, from metabolism to brain function to movement and more. If your hormones are not balanced, your health will falter.”


In particular men very rarely ask their GP about the possibilities of a hormonal imbalance. A lot of women are familiar with the concept of a thyroid problem causing drastic hormonal imbalances, but are men? Are women or men aware that this can also affect men in the same way? At lest half of the GPs Al-Sahawat Times contacted for this story across the UK, France and Netherlands did not know that thyroid problems can also affect men. The GPs in the USA, Italy, Germany, Russia, UAE and Turkey were the most aware with an average of 78% of all GPs saying they would test males for the condition if symptoms presented. Compared with only 14% in the UK.


Hormones remain largely mysterious to most of us. The word wasn’t used until 1905 and endocrinology (the study of hormones) wasn’t even a science until shortly before the Second World War (party fact: British spies planned to end the war by smuggling oestrogen into Hitler’s food in an attempt to make him less aggressive). There are also many criminal cases in countries such as the UK, USA and Canada where women (only women) have been pardoned from crimes, including murder, due to “hormones”.  The word gets thrown around, but we’re only just beginning to understand the true extent of their impact and function.


What we do know: hormones are chemical messengers, secreted by glands into the bloodstream which then whisks them away to organs and tissues to carry out their function. They affect everything from reproductive health to sexual desire to appetite to personality. Our hormones are like an orchestra playing a symphony; we need them all to be playing at the perfect pitch for us to feel like we’re firing on all cylinders. The problem is, modern life is taking a heavy swing to ruin that harmony, explains Dr Jan Toledano of London Hormone Clinic.


Hormonal imbalances are one of the causes of mental illness. These can include psychotic episodes and personality disorders.


Ah yes, bloody ‘modern life’ again. It’s a catch-all term for the cities we live in, the jobs which see us out the door at 5am to an exercise class, fuelled by a flat white, before a high- stress day chased with a manic rush to complete the housework, bill payments and social and family obligations, before we head to bed in the early hours of the morning, exhausted, yet unable to sleep due to stress and a mountain of responsibilities all well past their dead lines zooming around our heads. And our hormones don’t agree with this life. At all.


“Our lives and our environment are making us hormonally unbalanced,” explains Dr Gluck. “For example, we’re more stressed than ever before. If you’re stressed you don’t sleep, if you don’t sleep you get anxious and fatigued. When this happens, hormones kick in to try and protect us at the cost of other hormones, which then leads to an imbalance. And it has a knock-on effect on every hormone level in your body, which can lead to all sorts of symptoms you wouldn’t necessarily link to hormones, like insomnia, anger issues or a lack of confidence.”


Ethnic minorities are most likely to suffer due to discrimination, police brutality and day to day racism, which means that stress level indicators can often be 2 or 3 times those of a native person.


The jobs with the highest stress levels are quite important too, CEOs have the most stressful life as you can imagine followed by investigative journalists, political activists, lawyers, military personnel, start up owners, farmers and traders.


The worst case scenario would therefor be if you were a: CEO of a Start up for a journalist company specialising in legal, financial and political content, and a member of an ethnic minority, lives alone and in a hyper-city. 


We’re finally waking up to the role hormones play with a surge of apps, books, hormone-influenced diets and research opening up the conversation. “It’s an exciting time in the hormone world. We are at the tipping point of understanding how much our health and wellbeing is affected by them,” says Angelique Panagos, nutritional therapist and author of The Balance Plan: Six Steps To Optimize Your Hormonal Health. Just as we’ve spent the last decade talking about work-life balance, it’s high time we paid attention to our hormone balance. A tricky one as we’re all genetically unique, meaning the things that affect my balance may have zero impact on yours. But here are the most prevalent modern-day issues which may be messing with all of our hormones.


The big sleep

Sleep is essential to our mental and physical wellbeing, yet we’re sleeping less than ever with 40% of us getting fewer than seven hours a night and CEOs averaging only 4 hours per night.  “We’re burning the candle at both ends and taking our electronic devices to bed instead of our partners,” says Panagos. “Blue light produced by those screens is having a knock-on effect on our hormones, causing stress on the body and increasing our cortisol levels [the stress hormone] and reducing melatonin [the sleep hormone]. Cortisol and melatonin work like a seesaw – a drop in one sees a rise in the other. Poor sleep reduces the amount of melatonin we naturally produce, which then increases the amount of cortisol we produce, making us too stressed to sleep.”


Over time, poor sleep has an affect not just on our cortisol levels, but on various other hormones like oxytocin, prolactin, ADH, growth hormone, ghrelin, lectin and even testosterone.


That’s right stress can cause growth problems. Scientists have been very interested in those born in 1980s Yugoslavia. During the Genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Balkans in the 1991-2001 Balkan War children were exposed to starvation, war, genocide, ethnic cleansing, chemical and radioactive weapons as well as a litany of horrors. What has fascinated scientists is that in the 1970’s the average hight of a Balkan person was very much in keeping with the rest of the Mediterranean and Middle-East, around 5ft 8 (172cm) for a healthy, adult male. As of 2017 however, the average hight was a staggering 6ft 4 (194cm), making them the tallest race on earth, overtaking the Dutch at 6ft 1, and Kenyan Maasai at 6ft 2 by a long way.


The result of stress-induced-hormonal-imbalance can be poor reproductive health, dry skin, anxiety, decreased muscle strength, weight gain, sugar cravings and a poor immune system. In other words, so much more than just tiredness. This is why it’s very common to see CEOs with bad skin, a little over weight and constantly eating sweets with the sniffles. This can also lead to heart failure and eyesight problems.


Further proof that hormone balance is as delicate as Brexit negotiations: poor sleep has
a negative effect on the hunger hormones lectin and ghrelin, which are responsible for regulating our appetites, making us hungrier and more likely to crave a doughnut or chocolate cake come 4pm. “This in turn leads to more belly and visceral fat, which then causes you to synthesise more oestrogen.” explains Panagos.


Solution: Improve your sleeping habits. It can not be stressed enough how important sleep is. Sleep can not be “caught up at the weekend” you need to priorities. Implement routine into your evening, making sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (including weekends) and switch your electronic device off at least an hour before you want to sleep to allow melatonin levels to naturally rise, read a book in bed if you need some form of entertainment, just make sure it’s paper and not a screen. Ensure your room is pitch black to help stimulate melatonin and don’t eat or drink too close to bedtime. Research has also found that just one week of camping with a complete electronics ban is enough to reset our biological clock and synchronise our melatonin hormones, helping you to sleep at regular times again.


The human body is more sensitive to electromagnetic fields than most people are aware of. Wifi, bluetooth, wireless charging, radio, 5G, 4G, Cell data, stand by and a plethora of other states that our devices radiate our bodies in are far from healthy.


Eat for (less) oestrogen

“Our diets were healthier after the war than they are today,” says Dr Gluck. The reason? We’ve become reliant on processed foods and sugar to fuel us quickly and (surprise, surprise) it is enraging our hormones.


“When we have too much sugar it can really affect our hormones, causing a rise in blood sugar which causes our insulin levels to spike,” says Panagos. “Over time, these blood sugar spikes and subsequent insulin spikes stimulate more testosterone to be produced in the ovaries, which can be seen in the body through acne, hair loss, aggression, weight gain, tearfulness and even polycystic ovary syndrome.”


We rely on fast food, fast to make, fast to eat, fast to energise our exhausted minds and bodies.


We’re also eating foods which are covered in pesticides and more soya than ever before. All of these things have a real effect. “Soya in its purest form is actually helpful,” says Dr Gluck. “But it’s usually modified, which tends deplete testosterone and stimulate oestrogen in the wrong way leading to us becoming oestrogen dominant.” This is particularly noticeable in men. It’s elevated oestrogen levels which tend to be the biggest issue for women in their 20s and 30s also. Dr Jan Toledano of London Hormone Clinic says that the majority of young women who visit her clinic are oestrogen dominant and are experiencing symptoms such as irregular periods, irritability, weight gain, weepiness and problem skin because of it. It’s not just physical symptoms – oestrogen overload can affect our moods too.


“Cognitive function is massively affected by hormonal balance,” says Dr Toledano. “For example, if someone has severe PMS (which is worsened by low progesterone levels) they are much clumsier, more forgetful, more negative and angrier. Hormones can completely override your personality.” The oestrogen imbalance can lead to a very irrational personality.


Solution: “We’re very attached to what we eat so it’s hard to change our diets,” admits Panagos. “But here are some easy wins: make sure you’re having enough good fats and proteins (the building blocks of hormones), enough dark green leafy veg, try to stick to complex carbs only (avoid the white, sweet and fluffy), cut out refined sugars and try having a cup of greens a day. You should also aim to only buy organic fruit and vegetables, or if that’s not an option, make sure to peel your fruit or wash it thoroughly. And really try to only use organic meat*. Broccoli has been shown to detoxify oestrogen in the body, so make sure that’s in your diet.”


*Plant based diets are far healthier than meat based diets. If you eat flesh then fish is healthiest, although you have to be conscious of mercury, chemical and plastic poisoning of regional waters which can in themselves cause very serious health problems. With meat, moderation is definitely key. Organic meat is hard to find in some countries, as a general rule of thumb Halal meat is either organic and free range, or as close to organic and free range as it can be due to religious rules on providing the animals with a good quality of life before slaughter.


Beware of the photocopier

There are many benefits to living in a city: restaurants, museums, and career opportunities to name but a few. The compromise is insane house prices, commuter life and, perhaps more surprisingly, the fact that we’re constantly exposed to synthetic chemicals everywhere we go. And many experts believe that these synthetic chemicals are seriously messing with our hormones.


“There’s a group of chemicals called xenoestrogens which are found in a variety of everyday objects. The list is endless, but things like plastic containers, make-up, nail varnish, fruit and vegetable pesticides, red dye in food, building supplies, clingfilm, and noxious gases from printers and photocopiers are all basically endocrine disrupters,” says Dr Toledano.


“What this means is that they function like hormones because they attach themselves to hormone receptors which can then mimic the natural hormones we produce. They tend to have oestrogen-like effects which can result in the body becoming oestrogen dominant, which can lead to many different symptoms. There is also an indication that the build-up of xenoestrogens in tissues can cause testicular cancer, miscarriage and infertility, among other things.”


Dr Gluck agrees that our environments are having a huge impact on our hormones. “So many women come to see me about extreme PMS – they have a really hard time the week before their period when they become moody, depressed, angry and out of control. They’re also incredibly bloated, tired, hungry, have headaches and tender breasts. And in many cases it’s hormone disrupters in the environment which are exaggerating these symptoms because they’re leading to imbalanced levels of oestrogen and progesterone.”


The other big issue Dr Gluck believes is tied to environmental toxins and their effect on our hormones is the rise in depression and anxiety. Mental health issues are extremely complicated and affected by many different factors but some experts, including Dr Gluck, believe hormones could be one of them.


“The increase in depression is absolutely linked to hormonal balance,” says Dr Gluck, who is currently writing a book on the topic, It’s Not My Head, It’s My Hormones. “Progesterone plays such an important role in our mood and wellbeing and is actually an antidepressant. It tells the brain to be less anxious and to calm down. [When] we produce too much oestrogen because of our environments, it leads to unbalanced progesterone levels, hence rising depression and anxiety issues.”


Solution: It is evident that we have destroyed our planet, the environment, oceans, air and soil. We have filled it with chemicals, radiation, toxins and stress. Can this be reversed, probably, will it be reversed, almost certainly not. Why not? Greed, money is the simple and short answer. As such it’s impossible to avoid all of these ‘disruptors’ so you have to take a reasonable approach to reducing your use of them as much as possible. Avoid plastic bottles, clingfilm and containers wherever possible, and never heat a plastic item up in the microwave. Try to use cleaner products on your skin (avoid anything containing parabens – many products now class themselves paraben-free but check the label) and all-natural sunscreen. Keep it natural with household products too – try cleaning products from Method, Ecover and Kinn Living.


Of course, you are in contact with more xenoestrogens in the city than you would be in a rural area, but it’s worth noting that in the countryside you will be more exposed to pesticides and farming gases. There is a rise in homes being built using non-toxic materials but this is very much in its infancy. At work, try adding more plants to your office to help clean the air and be aware of chemicals from copiers and printers by printing less.


Under pressure

Are you stressed? A recent study found that 81% of women in Europe felt overwhelmed or unable to cope in the past year. This figure compares to 84% of men, which is raised to 97% when we look at CEOs.


It’s no surprise, when you realise what a profound effect stress has on your hormonal balance. “Put simply, when our body receives a message of stress, that message overrides every other message in your body because your body believes there is an immediate threat to you,” says Panagos.


“Not only does this prevent your body from performing functions which it deems less important during a life-threatening event – such as digestion, hair growth, sleep, menstruation and conception – it also causes our bodies to produce cortisol (along with adrenalin and noradrenaline) which, over time, can have various consequences. Along with insomnia, one of the effects of chronic over-exposure to cortisol is that it can affect the frontal cortex in your brain, which can in turn affect your memory and ability to learn. It also means your immune system is constantly, unnecessarily active which can cause chronic low-level inflammation, which is at the root of countless illnesses from allergies to autoimmune diseases to asthma and depression.”


And there’s more: “DHEA is an adrenal hormone,” says Dr Toledano. “It’s a hormone which naturally declines with age but if you’re very stressed it can also be depleted and will have an impact on your energy, vitality and general get-up-and-go. An individual working at a certain level could easily use these levels up and notice symptoms such as tiredness, low mood, less confidence and low libido. Same goes for testosterone, which is really important for mood, confidence, energy and libido. It’s not difficult to use these reserves up when we’re stressed.”


In short stress increased the rate of ageing speeding up biological perceptions of time. Ultimately shortening life expectancy. The UK is the first non-war-torn country int he world to have a downward facing life expectancy curve with life expectancy declining at an alarming rate. When we look at London, which is home to around 1 in 4 Brits (including the Greater London area) which has the highest stress levels in the world, and the highest wage to cost of living disproportion in the world, the highest murder rates in the western world, then it is not surprising to see life expectancies dropping by as much as 26 years in lower income districts of the city over the past decade.


Solution: Put simply: less stress. Your body is perfectly capable of dealing with irregular bouts of stress but long-term stress can have more serious consequences. There are various ways to deal with stress, including meditation, rest, moderate exercise, sleep and, if needed, a trip to your GP to explore your options and a chat with your boss to discuss your workload.

The most stressful cities to live in are not always the biggest cities, inequality, high taxes, heavy police presence, pollution, high crime rates and high costs of living all contribute, factors that London is almost always the gold medal winner in. Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Lagos, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Moscow, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Cairo, Delhi and Mumbai are all cities very high on the stressful lifestyle list.

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About the Author

Nur al-Shahid
• Celebrity Biographer • Author • Journalist • Travel Photographer