“How can I balance my hormones?” is about the same thing as asking, “How many stars are in the night sky?” Yet it’s one of the most common questions I get asked as a fertility awareness instructor. In particular, women are often concerned with limiting their exposure to endocrine disruptors, so they can achieve an ideal, natural balance between the hormones estrogen and progesterone (the interplay of which gives us the menstrual cycle!). And with good reason.
Imbalanced hormones are associated with heavy (or missing) periods, infertility, anxiety, moodiness, bloating, fatigue, headaches, acne, and so many other symptoms. While many hormonal disorders (also known as endocrine disorders) are largely genetic and out of our control, there are still some really important environmental adjustments you can make today to limit your exposure to endocrine disruptors, and give your hormones every opportunity to work together smoothly.
1. For balanced hormones, filter your water to limit exposure to endocrine disruptors
Have you ever looked up a local report of where your water comes from? If you are receiving municipal water, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of what contaminants are found in your water. And you might be surprised to find that there are many! But it is actually the unregulated contaminants—that is, the ones that municipalities and state agencies are not required to test for, and therefore won’t show up on a water safety report—that might be the most harmful to your hormonal health.
Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are emerging, unregulated contaminants that do not readily degrade, and therefore remain in our bodies acting as xenoestrogens (think stranger estrogens), exacerbating hormonal imbalances. PFAS are endocrine disruptors that have been proven to decrease reproductive outcomes.
A recent study by the Yale Public School of Health found that maternal exposure to high levels of PFAS is significantly associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. Another compelling study completed in 2020 confirmed that PFAS exposure is linked with considerable increased risk to preterm labor and low birth weight. One theory on why PFAS have this effect is because they mimic estrogen in the body which makes women relatively progesterone deficient. Low levels of progesterone often correlate with preterm labor and so many other hormonal complications.
Unfortunately, the water we get from the tap is likely chock-full of endocrine disruptors that either initiate hormonal disorders or exacerbate existing ones. But where do all of these compounds come from, and how do they get into our water sources?
A 2019 “mini-review” from the journal Endocrinology explained: “Exposure to [Phthalates, bisphenol A, pesticides, and environmental contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins] occurs on a daily basis owing to these compounds being found in plastics, personal care products, and pesticides.”
Even more disturbingly, the mini-review also points out that: “Recently, studies have shown that these chemicals may cause transgenerational effects on reproduction in both males and females. This is of concern because exposure to these chemicals prenatally or during adult life can negatively impact the reproductive health of future generations.” That means exposure to endocrine disruptors in our water (as well as other sources like beauty products and food packaging) can have effects that last for centuries!
So if you are looking to balance your hormones, the first thing to consider is filtering your water where you drink water the most—your home. There are a myriad of filtration options, but there are a few points to consider when deciding which one to go with, such as cost, whether or not PFAS are filtered out, and your ability to install the filter or filtration system in your current setup (for example, if you rent, will your landlord let you install a whole-home or under-sink filter?). Of course you won’t exclusively eliminate your entire exposure to PFAS with a water filter, but you will certainly be able to limit your exposure by filtering the water you use and drink in your home. Even if you are renting your home, under-the-sink filters like Hydroviv install in 15 minutes and require only the most minimal of plumbing skills, and pitchers that filter your water and can go in your refrigerator are a great option, too.
Keeping beauty and hygiene routines as clean and chemical-free as possible will also help in limiting exposure to endocrine disruptors. Remember, we are saying limiting exposure because eliminating exposure is nearly impossible. Microplastics and phthalates have even been found in the crevices of the ocean floor as well as in the dust and dirt in our homes. But don’t let perfection be the enemy of good!
2. Balance your stress, balance your hormones
Managing stress is a monumental task and one that seemingly never ends. But there’s a reason we keep hearing about it—it’s really important. I tell clients all the time that lowering their stress levels is more important and more helpful in balancing hormones than any supplement or herbal concoction they’ll find on the shelf (although those can certainly be helpful too).
This 2020 review from the journal Neurobiology of Stress concludes that, “With chronic stress, the neurosteroids are depleted in serum and/or brain, HPA axis and CRF dysregulation ensue, GABAA receptor function is dysregulated, and markers of neuroinflammation are elevated. In addition, there may be tolerance to the effects of acute stress challenge on the production of allopregnanolone.”
Now let’s break that down into layman’s terms: You’ve heard of cortisol—it’s the stress hormone. The higher the cortisol, the lower the levels of allopregnanolone. Why is that important? Because allopregnanolone helps create progesterone, and progesterone is the most important hormone for balancing estrogen.
While you might feel that you’ll never have all of your stress fully managed, think of it as a journey, rather than a destination. The three things I’m always encouraging people to do (including myself) to manage stress are:
Lean on communities, neighbors, friends, family to take a little bit of the load off.
Do you ever want to scream, “I can’t do it all!!”? It’s because you can’t. Any time you can involve someone else with tackling something on your plate, it not only provides company in the task, but creates a feeling of community and relationship. Social support has been shown to improve stress resilience and lower cortisol levels.
Try single tasking.
We’re always multitasking—running errands, sending emails, meal planning, and thinking about the next thing before we’ve finished the first. This pace of life has become the norm—but it takes a toll on our hormones. Anytime you can practice doing one task at a time (I mean it! No cheating!) you can slow down the pace of your brain, and slow the pace of your cortisol.
Try reading a book, playing a game with a child at their speed, or gardening as one single task. Leave your phone in another room. It may feel jarring and anything but relaxing at first, but the more you do it, the more it will start to feel normal. And your brain will thank you.
Find a relaxing outlet or “tool” for managing stress.
Massage is my favorite tool to manage stress. It may not be yours. But find your own favorite tool! It could be acupuncture, or a mani/pedi, or a weekly bubble bath. (Even better if you can leave your phone out of the picture!)
And of course, sleep is the most important tool to giving your hormones the opportunity to heal and repair. Turn off the TV, the computer, and try to get eight hours of sleep a night.
3. Try to stabilize your blood sugar
You can read about a million different diets that all have different pros and cons—but no matter what type of diet you eat, for balanced hormones, you will benefit from eating wholesome, nutritious, minimally-processed foods, and keep your blood sugar as stable as possible.
Insulin resistance, a condition in which cells don’t respond well to insulin and can’t easily take up glucose from your blood, is associated with reproductive issues like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Insulin resistance has become an increasingly problematic issue for many women, and may even be associated with Insufficient Glandular tissue, a condition which makes it difficult for a woman to breastfeed.
Eating high fiber, low sugar, and nutrient-dense foods helps improve insulin sensitivity, therefore countering insulin resistance. Of course you can have a piece of cake at a birthday party or indulge in the pie at Thanksgiving. But on a daily basis, swap simple carbs like white bread or rice for whole wheat and brown rice, and always pair a carb with a little protein and/or fat. Peanut butter is my favorite protein pairing with carbs, but any nuts, meats, or beans can be wholesome, calorie-dense foods to pair well with something like crackers or toast (there’s a reason why avocado toast is so popular these days!).
I like the Women’s Dietician as a resource for eating intuitively, while also giving your blood sugar the support it needs to stay fairly constant without any wild fluctuations. She even focuses on PCOS and hormone balance, so the info is always pertinent to women’s reproductive issues!
To sum up: Drinking clean water, eating good food, and minimizing stress are the three most important things women can do to balance their hormones—which are also pretty great things to do to live a happy, healthy life! Of course genetic predisposition to hormonal disorders plays a big role, and I never like to blame a woman’s hormonal issues wholly on her personal choices. And while eating well and drinking clean water seem like easy choices for some, for those who live in areas where fresh produce is difficult to access or where water quality is especially poor, there might be fewer choices. But when we are able to make these important choices for ourselves, they are an excellent first-line intervention for mitigating exposure to endocrine disruptors, giving the nervous system a break, and increasing insulin sensitivity. All of these choices can help balance your hormones and manage any symptoms associated with hormonal imbalance.
Chart your cycle
Along your journey toward hormonal balance, charting your menstrual cycle can help you know more about your natural hormone levels based on biological signs your body gives you. We can gain a lot of information about our hormonal health from charting with what’s known in the medical community as Fertility Awareness-Based Methods, more informally called fertility awareness methods (FAM) or natural family planning (NFP). Having an instructor trained in FAM can help you on a journey of reading your body’s signs and understanding and any hormonal imbalances you may have. Doctors trained in fertility awareness can help treat imbalances without introducing synthetic hormones from birth control.
Wherever you are on your hormone-health journey, trying these tips can help you get closer to optimal health and balance.