Hormones affect all aspects of human function from enabling muscle contractions to stimulating fat burning and building muscle. They determine how the body responds to physical and psychological stress.
They enable world champion athletic performances, govern metabolic rate, and tell us when we’re hungry.
But hormones don’t exist in a vacuum. No single hormone can be classified as good or bad. Instead, hormone levels are constantly in flux, influencing each other and impacting different systems in the body.
It’s when hormones get out of balance and there is too much or too little of a hormone at certain times that causes problems. This makes understanding hormones and their interaction with your brain inherently complicated.
This guide solves that, giving you a rundown on what ten of the most important hormones do and how to balance them.
Released by the adrenal glands in response to both physical and psychological stress, cortisol frees energy stores to be burned. It is absolutely essential for survival, however, too much cortisol suppresses the immune system, leads to fat gain in the abdominal area, and inhibits sleep.
Balance It: There are two key areas of attack for healthy cortisol levels: First, choose a healthy, high-protein diet that includes a variety of vegetables and at frequent intervals in order to avoid hunger pangs. Second, adopt a stress management plan that prioritizes exercise, restful sleep, and living in the moment.
Often thought of as a masculine hormone, testosterone plays a pivotal role in health and body composition in both men and women. Involved in healthy reproductive function, testosterone’s biggest cellular target is lean tissue, facilitating the growth of muscle, bone, and connective tissue.
Improve It: Sleep, a healthy diet, strength training, and avoiding nutrient deficiencies are the most important factors for achieving healthy testosterone levels. Of note: Research shows that simply getting adequate magnesium and vitamin D will raise a male’s testosterone level into the “normal range.”
Often incorrectly thought of as a hormone that is the enemy of fat loss, estrogen is actually a key fat burning hormone when it is in balance with other hormones. Unfortunately, when estrogen levels are elevated, which is common due to an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, or exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, it can lead to increased body fat levels in both men and women.
Balance It: A tri-fold approach is necessary: First, avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals like they are the plague (BPA, parabens, and artificial scents). Second, eat a high-protein diet containing plenty of healthy fat and green leafy veggies. Third, train hard, using exercise modes that increase muscle like sprints and weight training.
#4: Thyroid Hormones
Thyroid hormone regulates metabolic rate and sufficient levels are necessary to prevent fat gain and avoid sluggishness and fatigue. T3 is known as the “active” form of thyroid hormone. It is the result of one of the more complicated hormonal cascades in the body: The hypothalamus releases TRH, which tells the pituitary to release TSH, which tells the thyroid to release T4, which is turned into T3 by the liver.
Improve It: Diet is a key target for raising thyroid hormone: Calorie restriction and low-carb diets lead to reduced thyroid. Also necessary is adequate iodine, sodium, and vitamin A. Finally, watch out for eating excessive amounts of anti-thyroid foods like soy, grains, and cruciferous veggies.
Leptin is by far one of the most interesting hormones, getting secreted from fat tissue once insulin levels return to normal after a meal. It travels to the brain and has an appetite suppressing affect, while also triggering the release of other hormones involved in metabolic rate.
Improve It: The biggest problem with leptin is that the brain can become resistant to leptin’s message to reduce hunger. This is most common in people who eat the majority of their calories at night, binge eat, or have a habit of dieting. Solving leptin resistance should start with frequent high-protein, vegetable filled meals that focus on mindful eating and listing to your body’s hunger cues.
Insulin is released in order to facilitate the entry of glucose into cells. When energy stores in muscle cells are depleted, insulin stores energy as glycogen. However, when glycogen is full, excess calories are stored as fat. With unhealthy diets high in processed foods and refined carbs, insulin levels become elevated. When this is combined with a sedentary lifestyle, diabetes risk increases.
Balance It: Exercise is your first line of defense for lowering insulin levels. Diet is also essential: High-quality protein (fish, eggs, lean meat), healthy fat (nuts, avocado, olive oil), and plants (veggies and fruits) are a “yes” whereas processed foods and refined carbs are a resounding “NO!”
Commonly called the adrenaline hormones, norepinephrine and epinephrine, stimulate the nervous system, affecting everything from heart rate to metabolism. Upon the start of exercise, they trigger the release of other fat burning hormones (T, GH, cortisol). The catecholamines also respond to fasting and calorie restriction. Over the short-term this is beneficial for fat loss, but over the long run it may lead to an overactive sympathetic nervous system and inhibited sleep.
Balance Them: Exercise has a potent effect on the catecholamines, improving fat burning, metabolism and heart function. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise increase the catecholamines, but intense exercise like sprinting and weight training appears to have the most profound effect.
Known as the “sleep hormone,” melatonin is released from the pineal gland in response to darkness. Besides inducing sleep, melatonin has antioxidant properties and plays an important role in the cascading effect of other hormones involved in appetite regulation and body composition.
Balance It: Restricting your exposure to bright light in the evening by avoiding screens and using amber lights will improve melatonin secretion. Getting bright light exposure in the morning may also promote a healthy circadian rhythm.
Ghrelin is released from cells in the GI tract, having a two-fold effect on appetite by directly stimulating hunger and affecting the limbic system, which is the reward center of the brain. The limbic system ensures that in addition to the physical hunger you experience, there is also a psychological driven, emotional hunger that motivates us to seek out pleasurable high-fat, high-carb foods.
Balance It: Enjoyment of food is key for balancing ghrelin. This is why it’s so important to embrace high-quality ingredients so that you can eat healthy meals that give you pleasure.
#10: Growth Hormone
Best known for it’s fat burning properties, growth hormone also facilitates protein synthesis, aiding in the recovery from exercise. Intense training triggers robust release of GH, which is why sprint training is recommended as your go-to exercise for reducing body fat.
Increase It: Three things will help optimize GH: 1) restful sleep, 2) brief, intense interval workouts lasting no more than 20 to 30 minutes, and 3) high-quality protein intake.