Let’s Talk About Hormones (Is There Anything They don’t Do?)
A while back, I wrote an article about my increasing realization of how little I know about my body, particularly when it comes to menstrual health. There are plenty of reasons – limited sex education as well as the overall lack of funding for women’s health research and innovation, to name a few. But I also didn’t use to ask questions about my body like I do now.
As the saying goes, I didn’t know what I didn’t know and once I began to realize how much information I lacked, it piqued my curiosity to know more. I started reading books and listening to podcasts and following doctors on Instagram and as I did, I was surprised to see the topic of hormones come up again and again. Turns out, hormones do a lot more than give us acne during adolescence. In fact, scientists have identified more than 50 hormones in the human body that impact everything from sleep to sexual function to stress to metabolism.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with De’Nicea Hilton Harper, a doctor of Eastern Medicine and holistic well-being consultant. Having studied hormones extensively during her medical training, De’Nicea is well-versed in hormonal health and specializes in helping women find alignment between their body and mind. While I don’t typically write informational articles, I wanted to share some of the most interesting insights that came out of my conversation with De’Nicea. Plus, in case anyone reading this is questioning their own knowledge of hormones (trust me, you’re not alone), maybe this can help.
Hormones act together, not alone
Hormones are like tiny messengers that tell our body what to do, when to do it and how. However, one of the common misconceptions, De’Nicea says, is that hormones act individually when really they’re part of an integrated system. Just as there is with any messaging system, there is a sender, a receiver, and a creator of the message, which in this case is the hormone itself. When you address one, you affect them all, she said.
As an example, I read online after my conversation with De’Nicea that a lack of sleep can cause the body to produce higher levels of cortisol AKA the stress hormone, which would explain why I tend to be more stressed when I’m tired. Studies have also shown that heightened cortisol levels impact metabolism, causing the body to store more fat for energy, which may influence insulin and leptin…. Thus, the domino effect sets into motion.
While this notion of interconnectedness may seem complicated, De’Nicea says it can be freeing for people who struggle with hormone-related conditions. The misconception that hormones are lone messengers can sometimes cause people to hyper-focus on one as the cause of an uncomfortable symptom. If they’re not seeing improvements, broadening their perspective to see what other changes are happening can help identify a solution, she says.
Balance shouldn’t be the goal
I can’t say for certain when I first heard the phrase “hormonal imbalance” but up until recently, I thought this must mean something bad. However, De’Nicea says that biologically, hormones will never be balanced. In fact, they’re meant to fluctuate. The notion of hormonal imbalance being something that needs fixing is pure bullshit. (That last one’s me not De’Nicea but someone had to say it).
“A hormone’s job as a messenger is to read what is going on in the external and internal environment in order to send a message that something needs to happen,” De’Nicea says. “The goal isn’t to balance but to harmonize.” Further, for people who menstruate, De’Nicea says it’s natural for hormones to fluctuate as we enter different phases of our cycle. Therefore, it’s also natural for our sleep, energy, appetite, sexual desire and more to fluctuate as well.
These changes can be frustrating, especially when they come at what feels like the worst time and get in our way. But De’Nicea reminded me that these fluctuations are a sign of everything our body is constantly accomplishing. And when you think about it like that, it is damn impressive that we can do everything that we do while so much is happening inside us in the background. Honestly, some days I’m proud of myself just for functioning at all.
Normal and healthy aren’t the same thing
This last insight is one that can’t be said enough.
Growing up, De’Nicea says she remembers being told that symptoms like heavy bleeding and painful periods were normal. But while studying Eastern Medicine, she learned to instead view these symptoms as signs of pathology. “What’s normal and what’s healthy are two different things,” she says.
For many of us who menstruate, we know this false sense of normalcy all too well. From an early age, we’re often taught that things like cramping and nausea are normal because they’re common. Because of this, we don’t question why they happen and we learn to accept them without knowing the potential risk of doing so.
What’s more is that there is so much we don’t ask our bodies, De’Nicea says. We may go so far as to dissociate from our bodies or even gaslight ourselves or any sensations or pain we feel when actually, she says, these are the very signs that can tell us what we need to know.
I realize I’m just scratching the surface here. There’s so much more that I still have to learn about hormones and a million other things, but I’ll admit that I feel much more informed since my conversation with De’Nicea and satisfied to finally have answers to a few of my questions.
In wrapping up my conversation with De’Nicea, I asked what advice she has for those who want to better understand and harmonize their bodies. Her answer – observe your cycle and how it impacts you physically, mentally, and emotionally as you shift into its different phases. Look for patterns of when you feel most energetic or when you are craving certain foods. As tedious as this process is, it’s the best way to fully understand what’s happening and why she says. And it may just help you find the answer you’ve been looking for or maybe one you didn’t realize you needed.