I'm a nutritional therapist – the surprising reasons you can't lose weight or sleep, and how to fix it

It’s a phrase we often use to excuse mood swings that leave us seething with rage one minute and sobbing the next — but there could be more to it than just “feeling hormonal”.

According to nutritional therapist Gail Madalena, hormones are vital chemical messengers that signal information between our cells and organs.

“They’re needed for all our body’s systems to function,” she says.

So you can imagine how important it is for them to be in top condition.

What if we were to tell you those mood swings might be signalling a hormonal imbalance?

If you’re eating healthily, exercising, getting enough sleep and still feel off, you may need help.

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When to get tested

If you’re experiencing any symptoms or are worried about your hormone health, speak to your GP.

They may send you for a blood test, or a test to see how well your thyroid gland – which makes and stores hormones — is functioning, to give an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

If you’re perimenopausal or menopausal, ask about HRT.

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Home kits for testing progesterone, testosterone and thyroid are available online and offer peace of mind fast, though they can be expensive. Try Superdrug Online Doctor’s Thyroid Function Test Kit, £60. 

Weight gain

If you’ve got lower belly weight that won’t shift even with regular exercise and a balanced diet, hormonal imbalance may be to blame.

“An underactive thyroid results in the slowing down of many bodily functions, including metabolism and digestion. A common side-effect of this is weight gain, particularly in the stomach,” says Gail.

Too much of the stress hormone cortisol can put the body into survival mode, triggering it to store even more fat.

Hungry for more

Feeling ravenous 24/7? Your sex hormones could be out of sync.

“Low oestrogen can make you feel constantly hungry, even after eating, because oestrogen has a direct impact on leptin,” says Gail.

“Leptin is released by fat cells and regulates how many calories we burn and how much we eat, which in turn dictates how much fat tissue the body stores.

“The more we produce, the more excess fat we tend to store.”

An underactive thyroid results in the slowing down of many bodily functions, including metabolism and digestion. A common side-effect of this is weight gain, particularly in the stomach.

Feeling down

Mood swings can really disrupt your life, and they happen to the best of us.

But if your mood is low and you can’t work out why, you might be short on the happy hormone serotonin.

“Around the time that we ovulate, levels of oestrogen and progesterone drop, leading to both physical and emotional symptoms.

“This dip in hormones can also influence the production of serotonin, which regulates mood, sleep and appetite,” says Gail.

Losing your locks

When the thyroid is working sub-optimally, it can reduce the rate at which our hair regrows, as well as making it dry, brittle and weak.

“A key hormone for hair production is DHT, a by-product of testosterone. When we produce too much, it can shrink follicles and cause the hair to fall out,” says Gail.

“A drop in oestrogen and progesterone can also affect your hairline and hair thickness.” 

Hitting snooze

If every day feels like a drag, even with plenty of sleep, you might have a hormonal imbalance rather than chronic tiredness.

“Having too much or too little progesterone can sap your energy, as can elevated levels of oestrogen and having an underactive thyroid.

“Too much cortisol can also impact sleep cycles and lead to ongoing fatigue,” says Gail. 

A key hormone for hair production is DHT, a by-product of testosterone. When we produce too much, it can shrink follicles and cause the hair to fall out.

Fainting

Feeling your head spinning, weak knees and blurry vision are all signs something is wrong.

“Low levels of oestrogen trigger fluctuations in blood flow,” says Gail.

“This can cause light-headedness and dizziness.

“Hormonal imbalances can also have a direct impact on our blood sugar metabolism and blood pressure, as well as problems connected to our inner ear, which all cause dizziness.”

Brain fog

“The thyroid helps regulate neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin.

“When it is out of balance, this can inhibit brain activity, leading to fogginess and low mood,” says Gail.

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“Healthy levels of progesterone and oestrogen promote calmer emotions and aid sleep, whereas if they’re deregulated, this can impact short-term memory, cognitive function and irritability.”

Chronic stress (meaning raised cortisol) can overwhelm the body and contribute to mental-health issues.

Simple tweaks for healthier hormones

Hormonal imbalance can be caused by anything from genetics and lifestyle to polycystic ovary syndrome, and if diagnosed, your GP will talk you through treatment options.

But even if you don’t have an imbalance, simple tweaks can boost your hormone health in just one month, says Gail.

Reduce exposure to environmental toxins 

Toxins in plastics, cosmetics and household cleaning products can impact hormone levels.

Use natural, plant-based cosmetics and make your own household cleaning solution: one part water, one part white vinegar and some lemon rind.

Switch up your diet

Prioritise antioxidant-rich organic fruits, veg, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and rye. Increase your intake of fatty acids and omega-3.

Try hemp, flax, chia and sunflower seeds if you’re not a fan of oily fish, and add phytoestrogens like tofu and oats.

Aim to drink two litres of fluid a day to flush out unwanted toxins and hormones. But skip caffeine and alcohol, as they disrupt communication between your nervous, immune and endocrine systems. 

Work out wisely

Being overly active can negatively affect our hormones and menstrual cycle through excessive cortisol production.

But being sedentary can lead to weight gain and elevated insulin.

Try walking, jogging, dynamic yoga, swimming and strength training. Download the Gentler Streak app — it encourages taking rest days and helps you to learn to listen and respond to your body.

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