Keeping your hormones balanced as you age can have a huge impact on how active and healthy you are able to stay. Here Ana, one of our resident nutritional scientists, breaks down why this is the case and what you can do to maintain healthy hormone levels well into your golden years.
Last Updated: July 30, 2019
Have you been wondering if you should start doing something to balance your hormones as you age?
To be honest, I haven’t. I still have years ahead before I should start, hopefully. But, when I remember some of my bouts of PMS, crying and laughing and yelling at the same time, it makes me wonder what will happen when I reach menopause.
What other crazy stuff will I have to go through as my hormones go wild? Which they will. It’s inevitable. Nothing I can do about it.
Well, actually, maybe not!
In this article, we’re going to delve deeper into aging, hormones, and how you may be able to keep them in a healthy balance as you get older!
- What are Hormones?
- The Endocrine System
- How Does the Endocrine System Work?
- How Does Your Endocrine System Change as You Age?
- What Hormones are Most Important for Aging?
- How Do Hormone Levels Change as You Age?
- What Symptoms Do Hormone Imbalances Cause as You Age?
- The 15 Best Ways to Balance Your Hormones as You Age
- Take Home Message
What are Hormones?
Hormones are the chemical messengers of your body. They pass messages about changes in your body from one organ or tissue to all the other organs and tissues in your body.
When you’ve just finished a meal, for example, your digestive tract sends a hormone that tells your brain you’ve had plenty to eat. Or when you have an infection, your immune system sends hormones to your brain to tell it to raise your body temperature (give you a fever), which helps kill off bacterial invaders.
And there are thousands of other examples!
So, the main function of your hormones is to allow different organs and tissues to communicate with each other. But, of course, they can only do this if they have organs creating them in the first place.
These partners — the hormones and the organs that make them — are, therefore, often referred to as a single unit: your endocrine system.
The Endocrine System
What organs, specifically, make up your endocrine system? There are six of them! Let’s check them out!
The Pituitary Gland
Your pituitary gland is a pea-sized gland, located in the bottom of your brain, below your hypothalamus. This gland secretes lots of really important hormones and is perhaps your most important endocrine organ.
The Adrenal Glands
Your adrenal glands are two triangular-shaped organs located just above each of your kidneys. These two tiny glands are the tools your body uses to cope with stress (primarily via the production of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline which tell all the organs of your body that you are stressed).
Your liver is a large organ located under your right rib, below your diaphragm. It acts as a huge filter for your blood and body – everything you eat, drink or breathe has to be filtered through your liver. This includes your hormones.
Your liver filters hormones out of your blood, breaks them down, and gets them out of your body when you’re done using them. This means that any kind of disturbance in your liver function may cause hormonal imbalances.
These two oval-shaped organs lie on either side of the womb (uterus) against the wall of the pelvis. If you are a woman, your ovaries are responsible for your proper sexual development and help you produce female sex hormones.
The testes are the main reproductive male organs. Unlike all the other endocrine organs, the testes are located outside of your body. If you are a man, your testes are responsible for your sexual development, creating sperm cells and helping you produce the male sex hormone, testosterone.
This oblong organ is situated in the back of your abdomen, behind your stomach. Its main job is to regulate your digestion by producing the digestive juice and digestive enzymes. But your pancreas is also responsible for secreting important metabolic hormones such as insulin and glucagon that help regulate your blood sugar levels.
How Does the Endocrine System Work?
Okay, so we have the pituitary gland, the adrenal glands and a mishmash of other organs creating hormones and sending messages around your body.
But, how, exactly, does this work? How do hormones actually tell organs all the way at the other end of your body that something is happening in your stomach, or your brain, or your liver?
Once your endocrine organs recognize a change in your environment (a change in your blood sugar or your bedroom getting light as the sun rises, for example), they release the appropriate hormone into your bloodstream.
(Usually, hormones are sitting around in little pre-made packages that your endocrine organs can just dump out into your blood, all in one go as soon as they get the right signal).
Reaching the Right Cells and Organs
Once released, the hormones float through your bloodstream until they get to the organs or tissues they’re carrying messages for.
How do they know which organs to go to?
Well, the cells of your body are pre-marked to be targets for specific hormones. So, certain cells are marked to attract growth hormone, others insulin, and yet others cortisol.
The markers responsible for letting hormones know which cells and organs to stop at are called hormone receptors. Hormone receptors are special proteins that are tailor-made to catch and hold onto a single type of hormone.
When a hormone comes close to its matching hormone receptor, it slips into the pocket the way a key slips into a lock. This “unlocking” of the receptor sends a signal to the cell that the hormone has arrived.
Delivering the Message
Since hormones are sent in response to a specific change in your body, having the hormone “unlock” their receptor tells the cell — no matter how far away it is from the original change — exactly what change has taken place in your body.
This is a really handy system because it means your cells and organs can have pre-programmed “action plans” for any given change in your body.
As soon as a hormone “knocks”, the cell knows what to do — it turns a predetermined set of enzymes on and another set off and it turns a preset group of genes on and another group off.
These changes, in turn, change what the cell is doing.
For example, if the hormone that “unlocks” its receptor is insulin, it brings the message “there’s plenty of sugar in your blood”. This makes the cell open up a channel that lets the sugar flow in so it can be burned for energy.
This elegant (if slightly complex) system allows your whole body to “respond” to the “messages” carried by your hormones.
How Does Your Endocrine System Change as You Age?
As you age, the tissues and glands of your endocrine system become less able to produce hormones. This, of course, also causes hormone levels to change.
Interestingly, it’s not just a simple drop off in all your hormone levels like you might think. This is because of tons of tightly interconnected links between all the hormones and organs of your endocrine system.
A change in one organ or hormone and you can see all kinds of changes in other organs and hormones!
These imbalances in your hormone levels as you age can have sweeping effects on how all your organs work, not just those in your endocrine system. And once lots of your organs start functioning differently, you can see huge changes in the health of your entire body.
What Hormones are Most Important for Aging?
While essentially all your hormones experience changes when you age, there are four key players that researchers believe have the biggest impact on the symptoms of aging.
Let’s take a look at what these four types of hormones do in the body and why they are so important for aging!
1. The Stress Hormone
When you encounter stress, the hormone cortisol takes action!
Stress triggers the adrenal glands to turn cholesterol into the hormone cortisol and release it into the blood. As blood cortisol levels go up, the levels of hormones sending “stressed” signals to your brain go down.
2. The Growth Hormones
Based on their name alone, it is pretty easy to guess the main function of your growth hormones! They, naturally, regulate the growth of the cells and tissues of your body.
You have two main growth hormones.
One is called human growth hormone (HGH) and is produced in your pituitary gland. The other is called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and it is produced in your liver.
These hormones share many metabolic pathways and work together to help your cells and body grow.
3. The Blood Sugar Hormone
Insulin is responsible for keeping your blood sugar levels steady.
Insulin is produced by the pancreas. It lowers blood glucose levels when they go up after you eat a meal. It does this by telling your cells to insert a specific transporter molecule into their membrane so that glucose can enter the cells to be used for energy.
4. The Sex Hormones
Estrogen is the main sex hormone in women. The ovaries produce the most of the estrogen in a woman’s body, though several other organs produce it as well (including fat and breast tissues).
Testosterone is the main sex hormone in men. The testicles produce the majority of testosterone in men’s bodies.
The main role of these hormones in your body is the development of your reproductive system.
They are the reason why girls and boys go through all the major changes during puberty, such as:
- the growth of the male sex organ
- the increased muscle strength (in men)
- the growth of body and facial hair (in men)
- the widening of the hips (in women)
- the production of more fat tissue in the buttocks, hips, breasts (in women).
They also coordinate the menstrual cycle and menopause in women and adrenopause in men.
How Do Hormone Levels Change as You Age?
Clearly, imbalances in hormones can have serious health consequences!
But what consequences, exactly, can you expect to experience from the hormone imbalances that come with aging?
As you can imagine, this depends entirely on the exact changes in hormone levels you experience.
Of course, your genes and your baseline hormone levels will certainly play a role in the exact levels your hormones, ultimately, land on as you get older. But there are several broad changes you can expect.
What you can definitely expect is that your sex hormones, IGF-1, HGH, and insulin will gradually go down as you age. And your cortisol levels will go up.
What Symptoms Do Hormone Imbalances Cause as You Age?
So, what symptoms are triggered by the constellation of hormonal changes that typically come with aging? The six biggies are:
1. Muscle Weakness
As your HGH levels drop off as you age, the loss of muscle collagen can lead to a decrease in muscle strength.
2. Weaker Bones
For women, weaker bones as you age may also be a result of lower levels of estrogen. Estrogen prevents special cells, called osteoclasts, from breaking down your bones. When your estrogen levels drop too low, these cells can go to town breaking down bone mass.
Related Reading: The Effects of Aging on Your Bone Health
3. Weight Gain
These hormones all play a role in regulating your metabolism and how your body stores fat. So, changes in their levels can cause you to store calories instead of burning them.
4. Loss of Libido
The loss of sex drive as you get older is mainly the result of lower levels of sex hormones.
The exact mechanisms by which the sex hormones activate the sex drive pathways in men and women are not fully understood.
5. Poorer Eyesight
Changes in IGF-1 levels can lead to trouble with your eyesight as you age. IGF-1 is involved in the shaping of nerves that transmit signals from your eyes to your brain. Studies show that restoring IGF-1 in older animals, at least, can restore eyesight.
Read More: Eye Problems in Aging Adults
6. Memory Loss
Scientific evidence suggests that a gradual increase in cortisol levels leads to a gradual loss of synapses (the connections that allow you to recall information). This tends to happen most in the region of the brain that is responsible for short-term memory, leading to difficulty in remembering day-to-day things.
The 15 Best Ways to Balance Your Hormones as You Age
Is there anything you can do to prevent this host of symptoms from creeping up on you as you age? The answer is – YES! And the great thing is that you can do it in a natural way.
Here are 15 natural tips that will help you balance your hormones as you age.
1. Eat More Fiber
Eating more fiber can help you prevent undesirable hormonal changes as you age, particularly to levels of insulin and estrogen.
One study investigated how higher fiber consumption affected the health of overweight men.
The men swapped refined grains (which have much of their fiber removed) for whole grains (which still have all their fiber) for 8 weeks. Researchers found that adding fiber back to the men’s diets caused positive changes to their insulin levels and, in turn, their blood glucose levels.
A fiber-rich diet may also help premenopausal women maintain optimal estrogen metabolism. Two months of eating wheat-bran (about 30 g of fiber per day) was shown to improve estrogen levels in young women.
One of the most effective ways to increase your fiber intake is to replace refined carbohydrates with whole-grain products. You can even skip products altogether and eat the whole grains directly!
Cooking up a batch of your favorite whole grain (be it wheat, buckwheat, rye, oats, or something even more exotic) and mixing in your favorite spices and a cold-pressed oil makes for a delicious, high-fiber treat!
And of course, you can also eat as many fruits and veggies you can get onto your plate. They are the best fiber source ever!
Explore a bit! Have fun with new recipes and get all kinds of fruits and veggies in your diet, every day!
2. Increase Your Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D has hormone-like effects on your body. One of these effects is regulating the levels of other hormones in your body, particularly testosterone and insulin.
Vitamin D can regulate testosterone levels, keeping them high and healthy. The relationship between vitamin D and testosterone was first hinted at by an observational study which found that men who had insufficient levels of vitamin D tended to have low levels of testosterone as well.
An intervention study then confirmed an actual cause-and-effect relationship between this vitamin and the male sex hormone. Around 50 overweight men with a vitamin D deficiency took an extra 83 µg/day of vitamin D for one year and saw their testosterone levels significantly improve.
Vitamin D has strong effects on insulin activity, as well. A large meta-analysis confirmed that adequate vitamin D intake can improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels.
You can increase your vitamin D intake with supplements, vitamin-D-rich foods (fish, egg yolk, mushrooms), or by simply going out and enjoying the sun.
3. Replace Fatty Food with Plant-Based Foods
You have probably heard a lot about the negative health effects of eating too much fat. You can gain a lot of health and hormonal benefits by replacing fat with healthy carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Replacing high-fat foods with naturally low-fat plant-based foods can improve insulin function, testosterone metabolism, and estrogen metabolism.
Take small steps at the beginning if you find it hard to avoid fatty foods. Start eating less red meat. Put more veggies and whole grains on your plate at every meal. Opt for fruit instead of cake for dessert when you can.
Over time, these little changes can add up to a big drop in the amount of unhealthy fat you eat each day.
4. Choose the Healthier Types of Fats
In addition to reducing the total amount of fat in your diet, you should also pay attention to replacing unhealthy fats with healthier fats.
A large meta-analysis found a link between a higher intake of polyunsaturated fats (like those found in olive oil, walnuts, avocados, and fish) and improved insulin function.
Greater intake of polyunsaturated fats may be good for sex hormone levels, as well. Studies show that women who consume more omega-3 fatty acids (a specific type of polyunsaturated fat that is present large quantities in fish, algae, flax seeds, and nuts) have healthier estrogen levels.
How can you increase your healthy fat intake?
Replace refined oils with olive oil. Decrease how often you eat red and processed meat. Make nuts and avocados regular foods in your diet. And try to build more of your meals around fish.
5. Take Care of Your Gut
How can you ensure that you have healthy gut bacteria? Probiotic supplements can help make sure you have all the right bacteria buddies your digestive system needs, as can probiotic-rich fermented foods (such as sauerkraut or other fermented veggies).
6. Limit Your Added Sugar
Consuming too much added sugar can be really bad news for your insulin levels. One observational study confirmed this in around 500 youngsters. And it seems that women who eat more added sugar tend to have higher levels of estradiol as well.
Importantly, it looks like sugary drinks are more dangerous than solid sugars for your hormone levels. Replace them with natural fresh juices or avoid drinking calorie-rich beverages altogether.
Of course, the best bet for the health of your insulin levels would be to cut artificially sweetened products from your diet altogether – liquid or solid.
7. Eat Enough Protein
Eating enough protein may stimulate favorable changes in some of your hormone levels, particularly IGF-1.
Individuals with diabetes who ate optimal amounts of protein for 5 weeks had a better IGF-1 function than those who ate less.
8. Get More Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a famous micronutrient that can provide you with many health benefits. One rarely discussed benefit of healthy vitamin C intake is healthy HGH secretion. If you consume more vitamin-C-rich food, you are more likely to have healthier hormone growth levels. So, dig into those lemons and oranges!
9. Drink Alcohol in Moderation
I suppose that you’ve heard a glass of wine won’t do you any harm. And it won’t! The problem is that people usually don’t stop after the first glass. They keep on drinking.
If you fall into this “usual” group, you may be harming your hormone levels.
So, if you drink, keep it moderate. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans define moderate alcohol consumption as having up to one drink per day for women and up to tw drinks per day for men.
10. Eat More Polyphenols
Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants that can help reduce oxidative stress (damage to your cells and tissues from oxidants).
Polyphenols are found in high concentrations in berries and are thought to be the active factor in berries’ ability to improve insulin balance. In fact, berries have been clinically shown to improve insulin resistance in just 6 weeks.
Apart from berries, you can find polyphenols in many foods – apples, citrus fruits, and green tea are good examples.
Wanna stick with the tried and true berry method? Give our summer blueberry smoothie recipe a go! I’m sure you’re gonna like it!
11. Get a Good Night Sleep
The metabolism of many of your hormones depends on your body’s circadian rhythm. This rhythm, or “body clock’’, determines the function of every organ system in your body, including your endocrine system.
Messing up your circadian rhythm by not sleeping properly at night can, therefore, mess with your hormone levels. Indeed, lack of sleep has been shown to lead to lower testosterone levels and mess with your growth hormone metabolism.
So, making sure you’re getting a full 7-9 hours of sleep each night (or at least most nights) can help you balance your hormones as you age.
Have trouble sleeping?
Try avoiding coffee, cigarettes and heavy meals late in the evening, leaving at least 2-3 hours between your last coffee/cigarette/meal and turning in for the night. And try to avoid using your cell phone in bed, since the light can mess with your ability to fall asleep.
12. Avoid Stress
It seems that high-stress levels are one of the best ways to mess up your hormone balance.
In addition to the unsurprising changes in your stress hormone levels, it seems the male sex hormones react to stress as well.
One study examined the testosterone levels of young men who were undergoing their residency training and compared them to the testosterone levels of the other men working in the hospital who weren’t being exposed to such intense stress. The men in their residency had lower testosterone levels than their non-training colleagues.
Find a way to combat stress, and figure out what suits you best. Maybe some mental or breathing exercises will calm you down. Maybe meditation will work best for you, or yoga, or cross-country running.
Find what it is that lets you de-stress and be vigilant about working it into your everyday life.
13. Exercise, Exercise, and Exercise!
Researchers believe exercise is one of the most effective ways to balance your hormones as you age.
Obese men can increase testosterone levels by getting more than 200 minutes/week of aerobic exercise. And women can gain advantages from exercise as well. Even regular walking or easy jogging can help you maintain optimal levels of IGF-1.
If you’re not in shape, start with walking and continue, gradually, to increase the pace and length of your workouts.
14. Create a Yoga and Meditation Routine
I decided to put yoga together with meditation, rather than exercise, because these two activities — yoga and meditation — are a stress-relieving match made in heaven, working together to reduce tension and anxiety.
And they are effective! Just 8 weeks of yoga practice managed to reduce stress in older people. They even had lower cortisol levels to prove it.
Yoga and meditation may also be able to help women balance their hormones as they age, with studies showing a regular yoga and meditation practice was able to ease menopause symptoms (such as hot flashes and fatigue).
You may try practicing yoga in a group, with a teacher. Or you can try a yoga and meditation app. Find the way to practice that works best for you!
15. And Finally – Laugh!
There is even a difference between the types of laughter. It seems that spontaneous laughing (like when you watch comedies) has more favorable and longer-lasting effects on your cortisol levels than simulated laughter (from laughter yoga).
Take Home Message
The secret word for hormonal balance as you age is — balance! We all know that we feel the best when we put things in their own place, when we do not go beyond the boundaries. And that is something we should keep in mind, especially when we start facing those first back pains, grey hairs and signs of worsening eyesight!
If you start implementing these 15 easy, natural tips to balance your hormones as you age, you may prolong the health of your hormones well into your golden years.