7 Myths About Hormones We Should Debunk Right Now

Photo: Kayla Snell

Amy Shah, M.D., is a nationally renowned functional medicine doctor and trained Ayurvedic practitioner. She’s also one of the lauded instructors in our first-of-its-kind Advanced Functional Nutrition Program, where we bring the best minds in nutrition together to dive deep into the healing power of food. You can find out more about Dr. Shah, the rest of the faculty (including groundbreaking doctors like Mark Hyman and Frank Lipman), and this revolutionary training here.

Hormones are the chemical messengers in your body that determine the health of your metabolism, how you maintain your weight, your stress levels, your body temperature, your mood, your energy, and your muscle growth. And those are just a few of the many bodily systems your hormones have control over!

Recently, we've been hearing a lot more about hormones—and for good reason. But with all the information coming out at lightning speed, it's easy for misinformation to slip into the mix. Here are six common myths about hormones we can debunk right now, in honor of our endocrine system and the crucial role it plays in our health:

1. Hormones can be easily replaced.

Hormone replacement is risky and can lead to health complications, so in my eyes it should be a last resort. Recently, I was speaking to a very well-known oncologist who says they no longer include any hormone replacement patients in their breast cancer prevention studies because it’s such a heavy risk factor. This has been seen in various studies, including one large research project called "the Million Woman" study and the nurses health study, which showed a connection to breast cancer and also an increased risk of heart disease and stroke in women using hormone replacement therapy. This could be a whole article on its own, but in short, I always counsel patients when they get on any types of hormone therapy—including oral contraceptive birth control. Instead, I recommend a combination of adaptogens and vitamins that includes ashwagandha, rhodiola, vitamin D, and B vitamins.

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2. Hormones can be easily measured.

So many of my patients arrive thinking we can simply measure their hormones levels, but unfortunately, it’s very difficult to accurately and precisely measure levels of hormones because they’re always fluctuating—especially in the blood. Although salivary and more advanced techniques are better, there is still a lot of work before these hormone assays are standardized and proven to be repeatable. The take-home here is that the best way to fix your hormone issues is based on your symptoms and working with a practitioner. Do not rely too much on test results—especially when they don't match up with your symptoms.

3. Hormones in our food supply do not affect our health.

This is a very divisive area of research, which I talk about in more detail in the functional nutrition course. But for now I will say that when the foremost nutrition expert in the world—Dr. Walter Willett from Harvard—was asked what he would do about hormones in food, he responded that he avoids meat and dairy altogether. So while there isn't an official recommendation, my strong opinion is to reduce meat and dairy consumption in honor of your health.

4. Stress has nothing to do with hormones.

So maybe you’ve never said this out loud, but you may have been assuming it for years. And I get it; when I was battling my own hormone issues I wanted a medical solution; I wanted a pill or treatment that would set my hormones straight so I didn't have to think about it anymore. It took me a long time to recognize that the tools were already in my hands. I needed to work on my food and my stress levels instead of looking for a pill. For example, too much cortisol leads to a lot of the most common hormonal disturbances, and once you balance cortisol, the other problems are often solved as well. Decreasing both emotional and physical stress (like exercise and food triggers) has a huge impact on hormone balance.

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5. Fatigue is a sign of "aging" and has nothing to do with hormones.

It's sad to think about, but most people don't ever get the chance to experience how good their bodies can actually feel! And fatigue is one of the major players in feeling less than optimal on a daily basis, whether the result of an underactive thyroid, low testosterone, unbalanced estrogen and progesterone, or high cortisol. The good news is that if you change your relationship to food by eating less sugar and more whole foods and plants, you can balance your hormones for a big boost of energy.

6. Hormones have nothing to do with why I’m getting sick.

As a trained immunologist I can say that "stress" and other hormonal disturbances have a HUGE impact on your immune system. In fact, when patients ask me natural ways to boost their immune system, I recommend stress control. Cortisol has a direct effect on suppressing your NK cells (a part of your innate immune system).

OK, now that we have dispelled some of the more common myths—I would love for you to dive deeper with mbg's Advanced Functional Nutrition Training. We'll talk about how certain foods affect your hormone balance in positive and negative ways.

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