Whether it be viral TikTok videos or Instagram infographics, hormones are a hot topic on the Internet at the moment, and for good reason…
The phrase ‘hormone hacking’ suggests that we hold the power to drastically change both how we feel and our body’s reaction to different scenarios, but what does it really mean to influence your hormones, and is it truly possible to change them in the long term?
We spoke to Functional Medicine Doctor and founder of the Lantern Clinic, Dr Margarita Kitova-John, and Marisa Peer, world-renowned therapist, best-selling author and developer of the therapeutic method Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT), to find out more…
What are hormones?
“Hormones are essentially chemical messengers in the body,” says Dr Margarita.
They travel around and affect different organs and tissues, working slowly and over time affecting various physiological processes including:
- Growth and development
- Metabolist: how the body gets nutrients and oxygen
- Sexual function and reproduction.
“Hormones are produced by endocrine organs, which are groups of specialised cells, situated in different locations across the body. The endocrine glands include the pituitary, pineal, thymus, thyroid, adrenal, pancreas and sexual organs such as testes in men and ovaries in women.
“Hormones are powerful substances! Even a small quantity of hormones can trigger a big reaction in cells across the body. For example, Insulin, produced by the pancreas is a response to food ingestion. It facilitates the digestive processes and controls the transfer of glucose from the bloodstream, into each human cell that needs it to function.”
So, is it really possible to control or alter our hormones?
“While technically hormones can’t be controlled, certain lifestyle choices can influence them strongly,” says Dr Margarita.
“For example, intermittent fasting has been scientifically proven to be an effective way to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, by reducing the release of insulin. A raw diet, higher in protein content and lower in processed carbohydrates, is also beneficial for lowering Insulin, as well as the stress hormone, cortisol.
“When cortisol and adrenaline are high due to stress, their levels can be brought down effectively by deep breathing, cold water immersion, laughter and meditation. These interventions activate the rest and digest mode via the parasympathetic nervous system.
“While attempting to influence individual hormones with specific foods or activities, we must remember that hormones typically rely upon and play off each other. Rarely can you influence one hormone in isolation, without having an impact on others, since they work in an orchestrated way. Imagine the domino effect!”
Whilst all hormones are necessary and helpful in our human experience, some undoubtedly feel nicer than others…
“Survival hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released when we are scared or in an intense situation, putting us in a “fight and flight mode”. Sweaty arms, butterflies in the stomach, high blood pressure and pulse and shallow breathing are all good signs that our body is getting a jolt of stress hormones. We are meant to experience these symptoms of “mobilisation” for short periods. In today’s 24/7 society, most of us function in a permanent fight and flight mode, leading to a multitude of biochemical changes, leading to diseases,” says Dr Margarita.
One group of hormones are nicknamed “the happy hormones”, because of the happy and sometimes euphoric feelings they produce in us. Introducing: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.
Marissa Peer, best-selling author of Tell Yourself a Better Lie and world-renowned therapist and relationship expert, has spent much of her career exploring the ways in which we can individually create positive emotions by stimulating the happiness and love chemicals.
So let’s break down what these so called happy hormones are, and the times in which our bodies create them…
Known as the love hormone, oxytocin is produced when we have physical contact not only with a partner but also when our skin is caressed or touched, such as during a massage. Oxytocin is also an important hormone linked to childbirth and breastfeeding. We also create oxytocin when we stroke a pet and it’s responsible for that warm fuzzy feeling that also helps to combat stress. It creates a sense of trust and bonding.
As well as helping with sleep, it also affects your mood, your digestion and your ability to learn. If your serotonin levels are low, you can feel anxious or depressed, have trouble sleeping or constant fatigue as well as potential problems with your digestion.
Known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone, dopamine is associated with your motivation, your reward for that motivation and self-affirmation. If you had promised yourself the last scoop of ice cream once you’d done your chores only to get to the freezer and find someone’s beaten you to it, that could lower your dopamine levels. Dopamine plays a role in all sorts of the body’s functions from your response to stress, how you process pain and even your heart and kidney function.
Endorphins help boost happiness as well as acting as a natural pain reliever and means to cope with stress. They work in a similar way to opioid drugs and a reduction in endorphins can cause depression.
“You may think you can never have too much of a good thing but like life generally, maintaining a balance is always the best thing and the same is true of hormones. Your body is like a finely-tuned instrument so too little or too much of any hormone can have a negative impact on you,” says Marisa.
“Doing things to support the production of your happy hormones and trying to avoid stress or, being realistic, learning coping techniques, is the healthy way to approach life.”
So what can you do to positively support your body’s hormone production?
Exercise – aerobic exercise that gently increases your heart rate is a great mood enhancer, especially if it involves getting out into the fresh air and letting Mother Nature lift your mood. Swimming, dancing, group exercise classes and yoga are all great ways to contribute to a feeling of well-being.
Eating – pack plenty of healthy protein into your diet including oily fish like salmon and mackerel, nuts and white meat. Fresh fruit and vegetables are also good but especially dark leafy greens. Fermented foods are another good way of boosting your body including kombucha, homemade ginger beer and kimchi.
Laughing – laughter is one of the best ways there is to produce happy hormones. It lowers your blood pressure, strengthens your abs, boosts special immune cells called T-cells and reduces stress hormones. Swap out gruesome true crime shows for something funny and make time for laughter at work with your colleagues.
Sex – as well as being great aerobic exercise, it will give your body a boost of oxytocin. “I call orgasms nature’s face cream as it helps women combat ageing as well as making them feel good,” says Marissa. 10/10 advice if we ever did see it.
Sleep – when we’re asleep our body produces less cortisol, the stress hormone. However, our bodies also work in sync with the amount of light we’re exposed to which is known as our circadian rhythm and functions over a 24-hour period. Our bodies like consistency so unless we get a regular night’s sleep at roughly the same time every night, it can knock our endocrine system out of balance.
Pets – once the stressful part of pet ownership is over (particularly the demands of puppies or kittens), they can support our mental well-being simply by their presence. When we stroke an animal or engage with them, we produce oxytocin.
Massage – whilst massage is a great way to relieve aches and pains as well as get our lymphatic system moving, the very fact of being touched by another human is one of its greatest benefits. It releases oxytocin and endorphins which is the reason we feel relaxed after a massage.
Get creative – whether it’s listening to music and having a dance or trying your hand at something new, letting go or challenging yourself in a different way will see your happy hormones dancing along with you.
Dealing with the downers
Focused breathing – when we’re feeling stressed, a great way to get those feelings under control is through focusing on our breathing. This will help reduce cortisol levels. Box breathing is one such approach where you breathe in for a count of four, hold for four, breathe out for four and then hold for a further four before beginning the exercise again. Make sure you breathe deeply into your diaphragm but don’t overdo it otherwise you risk hyperventilating. Breathing like this helps to turn your focus away from the stressor and create space to let go of the flight or fight instinct and look at a problem in a more considered way.
Natural light – getting out into the natural light, but especially sunlight, makes us feel good as it helps in the production of dopamine. Obviously it is important to adhere to the guidelines when we’re in direct sunlight. Come autumn and winter, many of us are noticeably aware that our mood alters when there is less sunlight. Getting outside whatever the weather will help but it’s also worth considering a specific light to help tackle SAD.
“There is plenty we can do to affect both the happy hormones and the ones that make us feel stressed. However, it’s probably better to try getting your happy hormones working harder for you as that way you’re making less room for stress to get in your way. Having said that, don’t expect miracles if you try something once and it doesn’t work for you – incorporate these positive approaches in your daily life for at least a month until they become habits. This will certainly bring the most benefit,” says Marissa.
The bottom line
“Hormones are involved in every aspect of human health and well-being and the body requires very specific amounts of them to function optimally. Hormone imbalance may increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health conditions. While the factors that affect the hormonal balance are beyond our control, we can take several steps to help manage the hormonal levels. Consuming nutritious foods, exercising regularly, and engaging in other health-promoting behaviours such as meditating may go a long way toward improving our hormonal health,” says Marissa.
Happy hormone hacking!