Natasha Turner remembers the year she graduated from university. It was 1993 and, at age 22, she started gaining weight even though she ate healthily and exercised regularly. She had irregular periods, was losing hair, and was exhausted to the point of confusion. She chalked it all up to stress.
Years later, after becoming a naturopathic doctor, the Toronto resident found herself craving sweets and feeling perpetually pooped.
Along the way she learned she was dealing with not one but two metabolic conditions: hypothyroidism and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Turner began taking various types of medication, some of which she still takes to this day. But given her belief and background in naturopathy, she wanted to incorporate other, more natural ways to stay healthy.
“I found what I was really dealing with was an imbalance,” Turner says in an interview at a hotel in Vancouver, where she recently made a book-tour stop for The Hormone Diet: Lose Fat. Gain Strength. Live Younger Longer (Random House, $32.95). “We need to recognize the subtle signs and symptoms our body gives us when we’re imbalanced. I began researching hormones and was fascinated by how they were all interconnected and how many bodily functions they influence.”
If the word hormones makes you think of women with their periods or the stuff they put in nonorganic chickens, think again.
“Everything you do, think, and feel influences your hormones,” Turner says. “And your hormones influence so many aspects of your health, whether you’re male or female. Hormones control everything.”
For proof, consider that hormones, which Turner describes as “tiny chemical messengers”, affect everything from your mood to your appetite to your sex drive (or lack thereof). Hormonal imbalances can lead to migraines, depression, weight gain, and scores of other health problems.
Turner argues that all too often people treat those symptoms instead of the underlying problem of wonky hormone levels. The consequences can be dire: an increased risk of such illnesses as cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
Keeping hormones in check is all a great balancing act.
Too much estrogen can cause heavy periods, irritability, allergies, and spider veins, while too little might cause hair loss, painful sex, hot flashes, and mood swings, Turner explains in The Hormone Diet.
Low testosterone can contribute to heart disease in men, loss of muscle tone, and difficulty making decisions, while an excess can lead to shrinking breasts in women, prostate enlargement in men, and acne.
Warning signs of excess insulin include cellulite, fatigue, and loss of libido. Low dopamine can lead to depression, fatigue, poor memory, binge eating, and the need for stimulation or excitement (in such forms as gambling or sex). When serotonin is lacking, a person might be prone to low self-esteem, headaches, high alcohol consumption, cravings for sweets, irritable-bowel syndrome, and loss of motivation.
There’s much people can do to avoid hormonal havoc, Turner suggests. And despite her book’s title, a healthy diet alone isn’t enough to achieve hormonal harmony.
Turner advises everything from opening your blinds immediately upon waking in the morning (which she says will boost serotonin and reduce melatonin) to deep breathing on the way to work (which will decrease cortisol and increase serotonin) to strength training (which will lower cortisol and insulin and increase DHEA, testosterone, dopamine, and serotonin).
Sometimes supplements can help. There’s also the power of visualization, meditation, and positive thinking.
Oh, and then there’s sex. Turner encourages lots of it (which she claims will decrease cortisol and boost oxytocin, testosterone, DHEA, and progesterone).
“Men are very intrigued by this point,” she notes. “I encourage sex three times a week.”¦Sex is essential for hormonal balance. It’s a massive hormonal balancer.”
But the bulk of her interest—and her book’s subject matter—lies in how hormonal balance can lead to fat loss.
Her “three-step plan” starts with a 14-day detox. The “anti-inflammatory” diet involves removing certain foods, like dairy products, gluten, sugar, red meat, and most citrus fruit.
The second step is developing nutritional habits that maintain hormonal balance. Consuming healthy foods is just one part of the equation.
“What’s important isn’t just what we eat but how and when we eat,” Turner explains. “The timing of meals has very specific effects on your hormones.” Eating late at night, for example, raises insulin and prevents the release of melatonin. And if you skip breakfast, your metabolism loses the stimulating benefits of eating.
The third step includes regular exercise—strength training, in particular. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom that people should get cardiovascular exercise most days of the week, Turner recommends it only weekly. “Cardio can increase stress hormones,” she says.
Jerrilynn Prior, a Vancouver endocrinologist and founder of the Centre of Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research, concurs that healthy eating is but one vital means to enhancing hormonal health. However, she cautions that dieting can cause its own problems.
“Sometimes the focus on watching what you eat so you won’t gain weight is in itself a stress producer,” Prior says in a phone interview. “Research has shown that being overly conscious all the time of what you are going to eat is associated with stress,” and in women, that can lead to reproductive problems. And reproductive disturbances can cause bone loss, says Prior, who coauthored with Susan Baxter the new book The Estrogen Errors: Why Progesterone Is Better for Women’s Health (Praeger, $58.63)
“It’s a very complex relationship, so you can’t focus on some magical diet,” she says.