"Sorry—I'm hormonal." It's a default excuse for moodiness and misbehavior—usually for women and usually when we're PMS-ing or pregnant, right?
Well, what if we told you that it's your favorite cosmetics that are actually throwing you out of whack? Or your Spinning obsession? The truth is that we're surrounded by hormonal disruptors—something that has only worsened with our modern industrial world.
"Weight gain, infertility, chronic stress—all of these can be driven by environmental exposures," says Sara Gottfried, MD, New York Times best-selling author of The Hormone Reset Diet ($17). These can range from the more obvious (like lack of exercise) to the seemingly innocuous (your sofa—seriously) and, when working in tandem, can really make a mess of your hormones.
"They may be wreaking havoc on your body without you even realizing it," says Gottfried. "So even if you're doing all the right things for your health, exposure to environmental toxins, as well as hormones in our food supply, can damage the body's inherent weight-control mechanisms. Like a computer that's been corrupted, it may still function, but its ability to function optimally has been compromised."
So what do we do short of locking ourselves in a room and never emerging? (This, incidentally, would mess with your hormones as well.) "We can't avoid these environmental toxins entirely—they permeate our world," says Gottfried. "But we can minimize exposure to them." The first step is getting to know those random culprits.
Your 4 p.m. sugar craving
"Overloading on sugary foods can lead to insulin resistance, where your cells become numb to insulin," says Gottfried. Insulin is the chemical that regulates how your body uses energy from the food you eat. When you eat too much glucose (sugar), your body simply doesn't have room to break it down into glycogen, which is used for energy. In these cases, the liver converts the excess glucose into fat—which, of course, leads to a cycle of weight gain and sugar addiction.
One bad night of sleep
You know that weird feeling after a really late night where you're exhausted but also a little loopy? Blame your hormones. "One bad night of sleep also raises cortisol levels, leaving you both wired and tired, and creates a vicious cycle of one bad night of sleep after another," says Gottfried. "Lack of sleep can also affect your hunger hormones by increasing ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and decreasing leptin (the satiety hormone)." Growth hormones and insulin are also thrown out of whack—which is why a lack of sleep is associated with weight gain and a higher percentage of body fat.
Your nail polish
File this under depressing news of the year: A landmark study released in October 2015 showed that most nail lacquers contain a chemical called triphenyl phosphate, which has a scary, immediate impact on hormones. (It can even lead to reproductive issues and weight gain.)
"TPHP isn't the only potential toxin in nail polish," adds Gottfried. "The other 'toxic trio' found in many nail colors consists of the chemicals formaldehyde, a known carcinogen also used to harden polish, plus the known teratogens toluene, to evenly coat with color, and dibutyl phthalate, a plasticizer that adds flexibility and shine. Phthalates have recently been shown to affect a woman's egg quality and risk of miscarriage, decreasing the odds among women undergoing IVF to have normal implantation and live birth." All for a manicure?
But not all hope is lost—there are a (very select) few brands that check out. Zoya is a fave of ours, and we think the mauve-gray Leah ($10) might just be our color of the season.
Not enough time with friends
"Lack of socializing may add stress to your life and raise cortisol levels," says Gottfried. If you've been hibernating a little lately (we get it—we're still getting over those lingering winter blues too), schedule some time with friends ASAP.
Too much exercise
Gym rats, take note: More isn't always more when it comes to fitness. "While exercise is an essential part of managing health and balancing your hormones, it can also throw them further out of whack if not managed properly," says Gottfried. "Some exercises place so much stress on the body that cortisol shoots sky high, such as running and Spinning." Since cortisol is your fat-storing hormone, chances are you're actually negating your goals.
Furthermore, if you've whittled your body fat percentage down to a very small amount, you could be disrupting your estrogen and progesterone levels—in turn altering your mood, hunger levels, and even stopping your menstrual cycle. "My advice is to stop exercising so hard in an obsessive desire to burn calories, and start exercising smarter," says Gottfried. This means taking dedicated rest days and swapping out more hard-core routines for practices that are a little more low-key, like yoga.
Another interesting thing to note? High-intensity interval training actually doesn't mess with cortisol levels like sustained cardio does, so consider switching that into your routine as well.
Not enough exercise
On the flip side, a sedentary lifestyle doesn't do your hormones any favors either. Aside from the known stress reduction that a healthy amount of exercise can provide, not breaking a sweat enough can also impact your thyroid, which helps regulate your hormones and metabolism.
Too much hand-washing
No, we're not suggesting you eliminate cleanliness altogether—just don't take it too far. "As we've learned in the nutrition world, bacteria is beneficial to our health—necessary, actually," says Gottfried. Average use of soap and water is generally okay, but hand sanitizer is another story, thanks to its high levels of triclosan, a chemical that virtually kills all traces of bacteria upon contact. Studies have shown that this in turn impacts thyroid function.
Wait… What?! This one is tricky since the culprit here is a compound used to make couches fire retardant. Many of these chemicals have been directly associated with endocrine disruption and have even been shown to impact thyroid function in pregnant women.
Yet another reason to unplug: "Screens after 7 p.m. can lower your melatonin and disrupt sleep," Gottfried reveals. Follow Arianna Huffington's lead and get in the habit of making your bedroom a device-free zone.
If it contains parabens, that is. "Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology published a study [in 1998] that revealed parabens as being estrogenic, meaning they compete with estrogen for binding sites in the body, potentially affecting hormonal balance," Gottfried explains. (A scary follow-up to this study showed that parabens were found in 19 out of 20 human breast tumors.) "While correlation does not mean causation, these studies raise concern about the link between parabens and adverse estrogenism in the body," she says.
Your makeup and skin products
It seems as though paraben content in haircare gets the most buzz, but they could be hiding in the rest of your cosmetics as well. And it's not just parabens that are to blame, either. "The average woman applies 515 synthetic chemicals to her skin daily," Gottfried reveals, adding that these can have a variety adverse effects on your thyroid, depending on the compound. Fortunately, it's easier than ever to find brands and products that are paraben-free: Just check labels and do your research to be sure.
Next, learn about the foods that can help keep your hormones in balance.