HORMONAL BALANCE & YOGA
There is a reason why we talk about hormones in Yoga, as in Yoga we embrace a holistic life and like to look at how everything is connected. In this post, we will have a look at how hormones work, and explain how the practice of yoga influences our hormones. You will also find a list of yoga practices you can do, and some diet tips to help you bring your hormones into harmonious balance in a simple and natural way.
Before diving into the effects of Yoga on our hormonal balance, let's recap some science about what hormones are, how they work, and why we need them.
Over the course of our lifetimes, our bodies undergo many a metamorphosis - we grow, experience puberty, become adults, women bear children, and as we age, the process continues. Behind the scenes, the endocrine system works constantly to orchestrate these changes. Alongside growth and sexual maturity, this system regulates everything from your sleep to the rhythm of your beating heart exerting its influence to each and everyone of your cells. The endocrine system relies on interactions between three features to do its job: glands, hormones, and trillions of cell receptors.
There are several hormone-producing glands: three in your brain, and seven in the rest of your body. To list them all and their functions briefly, these are: hypothalamus (mainly regulates body temperature, hunger, thirst, moods, sleep, sex drive, and the release of hormones from other glands), parathyroid (regulates the amount of calcium), thymus (influences the immune system and is responsible for the production of T-cells), pancreas (produces the insulin which controls blood sugar levels), thyroid (controls the way our cells use energy), adrenal (these glands control the production of hormones that regulate sex drive and stress [cortisol]), pituitary (controls other glands and produce hormones which trigger growth), pineal (produces serotonin by-products of melatonin, influencing sleep. *There is a large ongoing discourse about the relevance of this gland in the way we experience awakening and spiritual life - perhaps a topic for another post!*), ovaries (only found in women - secrete estrogen, testosterone and progesterone), and the testes (only found in men - produce testosterone and sperm).
We have cell receptors in our bodies that recognize specific hormones as they pass by, and bind to them. As this happens, this hormone-receptor combination triggers a range of effects that increase or decrease specific processes inside the cell to change the way that cell behaves. In this way, the endocrine system drives large scale changes across the body. Hormones show most of their visible and familiar effects during puberty (males start secreting testosterone from the testes; females start secreting estrogen from the ovaries, which stimulates the development of their womanly bodies). Men and women have estrogen and testosterone - just in different amounts. I could go deeper into the further technical aspects of these processes, however because the point of this blog is more to present you with how Yoga is beneficial for hormonal balance than to give you a biology class, the main idea to remember here is that the endocrine system mainly regulates our bodily processes.
Periods of hormonal change are related to fluctuations in mood. That is because hormones influence the production of certain chemicals in the brain (such as serotonin). When chemical levels shift, they make changes in mood as well. Although hormones are often viewed as the main directors of our behaviour, our behaviour is influenced by a myriad of other factors (such as the brain and its neurotransmitters, our environment, and all types of other social factors). Disease, stress, and diet can affect this regulatory function, altering the quantity of hormones that glands secrete by changing the way that cells respond.
One of the most common hormonal disorders are for instance diabetes (this is when the pancreas secretes too little insulin, the hormone that manages blood sugar levels), and hyper- or hypo- thyroidism (when the thyroid gland makes too little or too much thyroid hormone - resulting in a slow heart rate, fatigue and depression when there is too little; and weightloss, sleeplessness and irritability when there is too much of it). Most of the time, the endocrine system manages to keep our bodies in a state of balance through its constant regulation. The reason why hormones are so powerful is because a tiny amount can have a huge effect on our bodily functions. That is why even a slight hormonal imbalance can lead to health problems.
If you are experiencing some of the following symptoms, it could be an indication of a hormonal imbalance: headaches, joint pains, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings, weight gain/loss (jojo), hair loss, skin problems (acne, dryness), low sex drive, and accelerated aging. Address these symptoms in time before they end up manifesting in a disease! It is better to prevent than to have to heal something in retrospective.
HORMONES AND YOGA
Yoga decreases cortisol and adrenaline hormones, which tend to give you a "cranky" and anxious kind of feeling. With regular practice (after about three months), Yoga increases melatonin, which basically helps you sleep better. How Yoga postures work in this regard, is that they pressurize and depressurize specific hormone-producing glands. These gentle compressions and decompressions come to regulate more balanced hormonal secretions.
Moreover, as we age, some secretion of hormones decrease, which tend to speed up the aging process. However if we study yogic texts we can often see the claims that regular yoga helps to restore and maintain general endocrinological functions in the human body, resulting in more youthfulness and healthy aging.
The changes don't happen overnight. Regular practice is key! With consistent practice, you will inevitably start noticing the effects. You will sleep better, have a better memory, manage stress easier, have less intense mood swings, boost your libido, decrease depression and anxiety, balance your body, lose excess weight and more.
Some scientific research has been done in regards to changes in neurotransmitter and hormonal levels by means of yogic interventions to achieve improvements in the metabolisms of yoga practitioners, and although it has shown difficult to prove which exact yoga practices affect a particular hormonal secretion, the result of many has shown evidence that suggests that yoga helps to reduce stress, improves the metabolism, and supports the maintenance of a healthy hormonal balance. There is currently a lot of ongoing research on this topic!
As Yoga strengthens the mind-body connection, it will help you to become more aware of your natural cycles, and tendencies. Often when a certain issue comes into the field of our awareness, that in itself is a big first step and when we are able to really look at it and accept it, it begins to diffuse.
PRACTICES FOR HORMONAL BALANCE
Asanas & Pranayama
For those of you who are already familiar with Yoga asanas (postures), here is a list of a few that will help you to balance your hormones overall: gomukhasana (cow muzzle pose), garudasana (eagle pose), bhujangasana (cobra pose), virabhadrasana III (warrior pose III), ustrasana (came pose), sasangasana (rabbit pose) setubandhasana (bridge pose), chakrasana (wheel pose), sirsasana (headstand), child's pose (allow yourself to get comfortable and be in it a good 10 minutes in this posture to really let your beautiful self sink into it and enjoy the benefits of this relaxing pose). Nadi shodhana pranayama (the alternate nostril breathing) also works wonders on the overall balancing of not only your hormones - but your entire being!)
Enjoying a balanced diet will support your hormonal balance. Some things you can keep in mind are:
- Consume a balanced amount of macronutrients (carbs, proteins, fats)
- Reduce your intake of inflammatory foods (gluten, refined grains, hydrogenated oils, trans fats, sources of added sugars, and excesses/ some types of of dairy products)
- Eat some probiotic foods (fermented - yoghurt, kombucha, kefir, high fiber - legumes, fruits, whole grains, prebiotic - oats, banana, chicory root, onion)
- 25-30 gram of fiber per day (lentils, peas, avocados)
- Consume a sufficient amount of healthy fats (coconut/olive oil, nuts, seeds, organic dairy)
- Make sure you drink plenty of water
- Limit your intake of alcohol and coffee (moderation!)
Having said all this, it becomes clear that a consistent yoga will support you in gaining hormonal balance in a natural way. If we live balanced, healthy lives, we increase the chance of avoiding disease. With Yoga, in combination with a healthy diet and overall lifestyle, you can bring your hormones in balance in a natural way. Hormonal balance will help you deal with the stresses of life in a more harmonious way - something much needed in today's fast-paced society. When our hormones are in balance, our body is thriving, and it becomes easier to embody that inner and outer smile.
I hope you have had an insightful read that will motivate you to practice yoga everyday to bring your whole being into harmony and balance so that you can live a happy and healthy life!