Here at Byrdie HQ, our health—mental, sexual, reproductive, and the like—is always top of mind. That said, women’s health has historically been a topic either buried in controversy or ignored all together. So, this year, we’re taking Women’s Health Week as an opportunity to serve up helpful information, product recommendations, and science-backed tips to better understand the inner-workings of our bodies. Find anything from what to eat when you have your period to exactly what happens when you take the morning after pill (and much, much more).
Bio-hacking is something that billionaire techies in Silicon Valley have been fine-tuning for years. The goal is to find smart shortcuts that allow them to work harder and faster, while being able to supercharge their sleep and health markers at home—all without feeling stressed or overwhelmed. It's supposedly the ultimate way to work hard and play harder without getting burned out. Essentially, biohacking is a way to make mere mortals superhuman.
Of course, for a long time, it was an idea marketed at alpha males, but recently more and more women have wanted to experience the benefits of biohacking. In women, the monthly cycle of hormones is far more pronounced, and so biohacking focuses on "tricking" your hormones to look and feel your best all month long. We called on two hormone experts—Kay Ali, hormone expert and founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist, and Alisa Vitti, femtech founder of FLO Living, the modern hormone healthcare company, functional nutrition and women’s hormone expert, author of the period bible WomanCode, and creator of period app, MyFLO—to share their top tricks for biohacking your hormones.
Hormone Biohack #1: Audit Your Period
Okay, period blood isn't something women talk about much, but taking note of your flow is key. "The color of your bleed provides free hormone test results to you each month," says Vitti. Her handy online questionnaire, What is Your V-Sign?, can help you find the hidden messages in your flow.
It's well worth tracking your cycle. "You have got to see what symptoms and when in your cycle you are having them," says Vitti. Download the MyFLO app to get on top of your symptoms and to discover the foods that can help. "Once you've achieved hormonal balance, you need to support your hormones long-term by eating, exercising, and living in alignment with the four phases of your cycle," adds Vitti. For more details about how to do this, check out chapter 5 of WomanCode, or read up on what cyclical living is and how to do it.
Hormone Biohack #2: Reconsider Hormonal Birth Control Pills
Here's a thought: if you're really aiming to understand your hormone cycle, you may need to reconsider your birth control pills. "The pill only masks your symptoms, but does not cure your imbalance, and in addition, while you are lulled into thinking nothing is wrong with your period on this medication, it is robbing you of the very micronutrients you will need to restore hormonal balance long-term," warns Vitti. "It's not the best treatment for hormone issues when it only makes them worse."
Of course, this is just one perspective, through the lens of the end goal of balancing your hormones. Contraception is a choice and it's well worth educating yourself on the pros and cons of all the options. Here 10 different women share their birth control stories.
Hormone Biohack #3: Pay Attention to Plastics
"Reducing our plastic consumption is not only better for the environment, but for our hormones too," says Ali. "Many plastics are made up of compounds that are classified as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDC). These are chemicals that are able to hijack hormonal communication channels throwing things out of balance."
Ali notes that Bisphenol-A (BPA) is "the most researched toxic chemical found in bendable plastics such as cling film, cosmetic and cleaning product containers, drinking bottles and even till receipts."
But before you go on a BPA detox, not all BPA-free options are great either. "We’ve barely scratched the surface in understanding the long-term effects of plastic exposure to our hormones. Therefore, I recommend going plastic-free whenever possible."
Ali recommends you try to eliminate the following:
- Tea bags made from nylon, thermoplastic, PVC and even paper tea bags that are treated with epichlorophydrin.
- Teflon non-stick pans.
- Plastic dental floss.
- The plastic lining of pizza boxes and microwaveable popcorn bags.
"For happier hormones, opt for emailed receipts, loose tea leaves sold in glass or steel containers, tea bags made from cotton such as TWG, cast iron or copper pots and pans, and glass or steel airtight containers and drinking bottles," advises Ali.
Hormone Biohack #4: Seed Cycle
"Seed cycling is one of the best hormone-balancing tools we can all benefit from," says Ali. The good news is, it's pretty easy to do. Seed cycling is also great for helping to ease period pain.
"It involves eating one to two tablespoons of flaxseeds and raw pumpkin seeds daily at the start of your period through to day 14," she explains. "At the start of our period, our bodies gear up for the next cycle. This involves rising levels of estrogen to help mature a follicle in the ovary, which eventually releases an egg. Both pumpkin seeds and flaxseeds contain vital nutrients such as essential fatty acids, B6, folate, zinc and selenium that facilitate this process."
After two weeks of eating flaxseeds and raw pumpkin seeds, she says that you should follow by switching over to one to two tablespoons of sesame and sunflower seeds for two weeks until you start menstruating again.
"Once ovulation happens, progesterone starts to rise," she says. "This hormone is essential for reducing bloating, tender breasts, insomnia, low moods and even poor cognitive function. Both sesame and sunflower seeds are particularly high in vitamin E, B6 and magnesium, which have been shown to increase progesterone levels in some women."
Besides helping women with period pain, seed cycling can help regulate cycles in women coming off hormone contraceptives.
"And while this is a great natural way to help regulate our monthly cycles, the truth is it is just as brilliant for postmenopausal women too," she explains. "Most seeds contain lignans, which have a mild estrogenic effect, this can be useful during menopause where the ovaries no longer produce estrogen."
Even if you don't have periods, you can still benefit. "Rather than peg the seed cycle to menstruation, women experiencing amenorrhea, i.e. no periods, should peg seed cycling to the moon cycle," she adds. "This involves eating flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds at the start of the new moon and switching over to sesame and sunflower seeds at the site of the full moon." You can read about what happened when one editor started living her life by the moon cycle here.
Hormone Biohack #5: Don't Cut Carbs
"We’re amidst a ketogenic revolution, so it might be shocking to hear that going zero carbs might disturb your hormonal harmony," notes Ali. "It’s important to realize that most of the scientific evidence backing the health benefits of a low carbohydrate diet were carried out on men, not women."
Ali agrees that high protein and good fats (especially choline) are great for supporting ovulation, but she says that post-ovulation, carbohydrates are essential. "That’s because after ovulation, we need our estrogen levels to drop," she explains. "This requires optimal detoxification. Breaking down estrogen is a pretty complex process." Here's how it works. "Various genes transcribe enzymes that help move estrogen along and out of our bodies," says Ali. "One gene in particular, UGT1A1, helps to make estrogen water soluble so that we can eliminate it in our sweat, urine and stools." She explains that this process is called glucuronidation; as the name suggests, it requires glucose a.k.a sugar.
"However, if you have a genetic variation on this gene, you don’t produce enough of the glucose-containing enzyme that helps give unwanted estrogen a boot," says. "This can lead to symptoms associated with estrogen dominance such as difficulty losing weight, tender breasts, water retention and heavy periods."
Eating carbohydrates might help this. "Carriers of this genetic variation almost always report during the consultation that they experience intense cravings for carbohydrates post ovulation," Ali says. "I always encourage women to listen to their bodies and opt for at least one fist of wholesome carbs, such as beetroots, sweet potato, squash, chickpeas, lentils, beans and brown or black rice with each meal."
While we don't want dominant estrogen, we do need it since it has a bearing on our moods. "Estrogen is instrumental in serotonin production, our happy hormone," explains Ali. "Low estrogen levels can often lead to low moods, anxiety and depression. As a result, neuroscientists have observed that our serotonin levels rise and fall according to the peaks and troughs of estrogen throughout our monthly cycle. Thus, if estrogen is chronically low, such as during menopause, this can hinder the amount of serotonin we make, predisposing us to depression.
She goes onto explain that about 90% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, aided by beneficial microbes. Therefore, eating carbohydrates high in fibre may help to support healthy gut flora and indirectly serotonin production, too.
Hormone Biohack #6 Practice Sleep Hypnosis
Stress and sleep are two important factors tied to happy hormones. In fact, Ali goes as far as to say that if you’re suffering from long term stress, there’s very little you can do to support your hormones without addressing this first. "This is because when we’re stressed we almost immediately produce a hormone, cortisol, which can throw things out of balance," she explains. "Its primary role is to prioritize energy for our body systems that can help us respond to stress efficiently. Sadly, this means shutting down systems that are deemed 'unnecessary.' At the top of the list is our entire hormone making factory; our endocrine system.
After all, the last thing a stressed-out body needs is to make baby."
As we know, cortisol is also linked to inflammation. These inflammatory chemicals can disrupt hormone communication from one cell to another and cause all sorts of problems, from skin flareups to digestion issues.
To reduce feelings of stress (and get better sleep), she recommends sleep hypnosis. "All you have to do is play a positive and calming guided meditation while you sleep," she says. (Try one of these meditation apps.) "Research grounded in quantum physics has shown that hypnosis can help to fire new neurons in the brain, rewiring your usual and subconscious response to perceived stress. Research has shown that daily practice of sleep hypnosis for at least 30 days yields the best results."
Hormone Biohack #7: Go Natural
We've discussed this in-depth on Byrdie, but there are toxic chemicals in beauty products that can negatively affect your hormones and throw them off balance. "An independent study carried out by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in late 2018 found that 99 out of 338 fragrance chemicals detected in the personal care and household cleaning products they tested have known health concerns including hormonal disruptions," notes Ali.
Ali suggests you look out for:
- Triclosan: This ingredient is found in toothpaste, facial wipes and deodorants. It may increase risk of hormonal imbalance. Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent that has been linked to reducing ovarian reserve in women, as well as poor thyroid function.
- Phthalates: Another endocrine disrupter, phthalates can lead to a slew of hormonal health problems. Banned in the EU, this ingredient has been linked to developmental defects, fertility issues, and obesity.
- Click here to find out what other toxic ingredients could be lurking in your beauty products.
Other ways to go natural: switch from paraffin-based fragranced candles to essential oil diffusers, adorn your home with plants that purify the air (Ali suggests peace lilies, chrysanthemum, and English ivy, and switch to natural household cleaning products (we love the line Love Beauty & Planet—it's affordable, too).