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The holidays and your hormones

Kathryn Matthews is a New York City-based lifestyles writer, editor and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She has written extensively about food, dining, nutrition, health and travel for numerous publications, including The New York Times...

Holiday hormones

As women, our hormones can take a beating over the holidays. It’s no easy task to stay centered and calm when you’re juggling work and family obligations, navigating the kids’ schedules, planning holiday gatherings and playing Santa! More than anything else, stress derails our hormones, affecting our mood, mind and weight. That’s why how we manage stress, and how we eat and move can make a big difference as to how much we actually enjoy the holidays.
Stressed woman during holidays

Holiday
Hormones

As women, our hormones can take a beating over the holidays. It’s no easy task to stay centered and calm when you’re juggling work and family obligations, navigating the kids’ schedules, planning holiday gatherings and playing Santa!

More than anything else, stress derails our hormones, affecting our mood, mind and weight. That’s why how we manage stress, and how we eat and move can make a big difference as to how much we actually enjoy the holidays.

The following are five stress-induced hormonal imbalances that you may "feel" over the holidays, and how best to prevent them (or hit the "reset" button).

1

Cortisol

Stressed woman during holidays

You’ve been up all night because of a sick child. Now you're at the office working overtime to meet a major project deadline. Plus, you’re involved in the kids’ school holiday fundraiser. Meanwhile you’ve promised to host a big family dinner and haven’t a clue what you’ll be serving. As for Christmas shopping, you’re hoping to conjure elves who can lend a helping hand.

Best known as the "stress" hormone, cortisol is produced in two grape-sized adrenal glands (one sitting on top of each kidney). Cortisol activates the "fight or flight" response, and can affect digestion, blood pressure, sleep-wake cycles and your overall ability to cope with stress. Cortisol also helps normalize blood sugar levels.

When the pressure is on, your cortisol levels can run high. Over time, continuously high cortisol levels lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), low sex drive and anxiety; it is also a contributing factor to heart disease.

Relaxing your body through diet and lifestyle is key to balancing cortisol.

Rx:

  • Limit coffee and alcohol. Unthinkable, especially during the holidays, you protest! But realize that both alcohol and caffeine raise cortisol levels, creating more physiological stress in an already stressed-out body.
  • Stabilize blood sugar. Keep sugar and refined carbohydrates to a minimum to avoid spikes in insulin. In other words, more Christmas goose and sauteed kale; less mashed potatoes and apple pie.
  • Deep breathing. Whether you do yoga, meditate or simply take a 20-minute time-out for yourself, deep breathing — into the lower and upper lungs — has a calming effect on your body. In a study of athletes who experienced an exercise-induced rise in cortisol levels, researchers found that deep breathing — slowly and deeply into the lungs and flexing the diaphragm (versus rib cage) — can lower cortisol levels and increase melatonin (which helps you sleep).
  • Reframe stress. How we react to stress depends on how threatening we perceive a particular stressor to be. Instead of automatically projecting the worst-case scenario, which immediately increases stress levels, take a step back and reframe: Shift your focus by viewing a potential stressor (person or situation) in a new way. By changing how you see something, you can lower your stress immediately. For example, rather than feeling angry and annoyed about hosting your cheap in-laws over the holidays, reframe. Consider it a gift that they’re cheap: Since you’re paying, you’re in control of what’s happening — and what’s not — during their visit!
  • Go "hands-on." Too many cooks in the holiday kitchen? Leave — and get a massage! A 2012 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that athletes who received a weekly Swedish massage had decreased cortisol levels and increased white blood cells, benefiting their immune system. A massage also increases the production of dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good hormones we release when doing something pleasurable.
2

Leptin

Tired woman

If you’re on the holiday party circuit and staying out past midnight, then awakening early for a go-go day, you’re setting yourself up for leptin dysfunction.

Leptin, a hormone released from your fat cells, decreases hunger. It helps us feel full by telling the brain that we have enough fat, and that it’s OK to stop eating. A natural weight-control mechanism, leptin regulates appetite, energy and the rate at which you burn fat. For example, when leptin levels rise, your appetite decreases and your metabolism increases — an ideal weight loss scenario. Conversely, when leptin levels are low, your appetite increases and your metabolism slows. Low leptin also increases cortisol, which stores fat and burns muscle.

How long you sleep affects your leptin levels and body mass index (BMI). When more than 1,000 volunteers participated in the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort study, those participants who experienced short-duration sleep (less than eight hours) had lower leptin levels and a higher BMI.

Over time, too high or too low levels of leptin can lead to hypertension, obesity, depression, anxiety and cardiovascular disease. Like insulin resistance, leptin resistance occurs when both the body and the brain have stopped "listening" to leptin; for example, studies have found that obese women have more fat under their skin, and thereby have higher leptin levels. They make plenty of leptin, but the brain and body react as if the body is in a famine state.

Getting enough sleep and limiting your sugar and refined carb intake promotes healthy leptin levels.

Rx:

  • Sleep! (and lose weight): This should be your top priority! Not getting at least eight hours of sleep has been linked to low leptin levels, making you susceptible to weight gain.
  • Be mindful of your sugar intake: Regular consumption of sugar can lead to leptin resistance. This includes sugar in all its forms: table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, glucose and artificial sweeteners (many of which are derived from fructose). Studies have shown that regular fructose consumption — in soft drinks and processed foods — contributes to leptin resistance.
  • Take fish oil: Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids which you can get from eating fatty fish, like salmon, or supplementing with fish oil, are linked to decreased hunger and may help fight leptin resistance.
3

Insulin

Holiay cookies

From breads, pastries and home-baked Christmas cookies to eggnog, wine and beer, the holidays are a celebration of sugary food and drink. How much and how frequently you eat refined sugar and starchy foods will affect your insulin levels.

A hormone produced in the pancreas, insulin helps "unlock" the body’s cells so that sugar (glucose) from the foods we eat can be used by the cells for energy; it also regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body. Insulin helps cells in the liver, muscles and fat tissue absorb glucose from the blood. This glucose is then stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. In fat cells, glucose is stored as triglycerides.

Insulin resistance is a condition when the brain and cells of the body increasingly become desensitized to the effects of insulin (its main job is lowering blood sugar), resulting in high levels of glucose in the bloodstream which, over time, can be toxic. Insulin resistance is linked to diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and polycystic ovary syndrome.

To reduce or eliminate insulin resistance, eat in a way that balances your blood sugar and reduces inflammation.

Rx:

  • Eat more protein: Eat high-quality protein at every meal, especially at breakfast. Good sources are free-range eggs, pastured meats and nut butters.
  • Eat more fat:  Eating healthy, quality fats promotes satiety and stabilizes blood sugar. Contrary to popular belief, eating fat does not make you fat! Good sources of fat include organic virgin raw coconut oil, grass-fed butter, extra-virgin olive oil, grass-fed ghee, duck fat and other pastured animal fats, like tallow, as well as nuts and avocados.
  • Reduce refined sugars and starches: What! Over the holidays? It’s your choice. But know that frequent nibbling on refined sugars (cookies, pie, cocktails) and starches (like bread, pasta and pizza) is the fastest way to gain weight because our cells simply can’t handle large amounts of glucose at one time. And glucose that isn’t used gets stored — as fat.
  • Exercise: You don’t have to run a marathon or do Crossfit. Basic movement, such as walking for 30 to 60 minutes daily can have a positive effect on insulin resistance.
4

Thyroid hormones

Stressed woman during holidays

During the holidays, stress can take on many forms: spending way over your allotted budget on gifts, busy schedules spent shopping, cooking and baking, and dealing with "eccentric" family members, like Uncle Alan whose idea of scintillating conversation is telling dirty jokes in mixed company. Stress also affects your thyroid.

Ideally, your thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat, makes just the right amount of thyroid hormones that tell the cells in your body how fast to burn energy. When your thyroid is working properly, your metabolism is balanced and you have energy, just-right body temperature (not too hot or cold) and your weight is stable.

If, however, you’re chronically exhausted, always have cold hands and feet, seem unable to lose weight and experience brain fog, you may have hypothyroidism (low thyroid). Proper thyroid function is closely intertwined with the health of your adrenal glands, which produce hormones that respond to stress.

The adrenal glands and thyroid are highly sensitive gatekeepers to your body’s hormone-producing system. The adrenals, which produce cortisol, are very reactive to stress. Unrelenting stress weakens the adrenal glands. This leads to a slowing down of the thyroid, which you’ll feel as fatigue, sluggishness and persistent weight gain.

Eating quality protein and limiting stimulating food and drink (caffeine, sugar, refined starches), as well as your gluten and wheat consumption, can go a long way to optimizing thyroid health. Especially under stress.

Rx:

  • Eat the highest-quality protein possible (pastured chicken, turkey, beef, lamb or eggs) at every meal. The thyroid can’t function properly without adequate protein.
  • Go easy on caffeine: Drinking caffeinated beverages when you’re already run down stresses the adrenals.
  • Limit gluten and wheat: If you suspect a low thyroid condition, avoid or limit eating wheat and gluten-containing grains. Most people who have an issue with gluten don’t know they do. Approximately one in three Americans have a gluten sensitivity, where some kind of immune reaction occurs in the presence of gluten.
5

Progesterone

Stressed woman during holidays

Progesterone is made in the ovaries and also produced (in smaller amounts) in the adrenal glands. Progesterone is the pre-hormone of cortisol, the stress hormone. This means that if you experience chronic stress, you’ll need more cortisol than your body can produce, forcing it to "steal" from cortisol’s pre-hormones — pregnenolone and progesterone — leaving you with low progesterone.

It’s not a fun scenario. Low progesterone can cause anxiety, night sweats, poor sleep, irregular menstrual cycles and mood swings.

Aim to manage stress, since elevated levels of cortisol (see above) can deplete progesterone.

Rx:

  • Vitamin C: Not only will vitamin C boost your immunity, Vitamin C at a dose of 750 mg a day has been shown to raise progesterone levels in women.
  • Limit intake of caffeinated beverages. While caffeine doesn’t directly lower progesterone, it does raise your cortisol levels, and high levels of cortisol can block progesterone receptors; the net effect is that you experience symptoms of low progesterone.
  • Limit alcohol: Again, alcohol raises cortisol (stress hormone) levels. If you’re already stressed out, alcohol takes a further toll on the body, exacerbating anxiety, low mood and headaches. Plus alcohol is stored as belly fat.

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