Tips and tricks to enjoy the festive season without wreaking havoc on your hormones.
Ahhh Christmas! It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
But for many of us it’s also the busiest, most stressful, emotionally charged and overindulgent time of the year.
And since moving to the Northern Hemisphere, I’ve realised that we Australian’s get our roast turkey served with an extra helping of stress, due to the fact that Christmas and all it entails coincides with the end of year wrap up of school, and the commencement of the Summer holidays.
All of this can wreak havoc on our hormones, and I don’t just mean our reproductive hormones.
Your hormones are like an orchestra. They need to function together in harmony because when they don't, the orchestra starts playing out of time and/or out of tune.
I've put together a list of things you can do to help ease the burden on your system during the festive season, and keep your hormones humming along happily.
(For those of you that need the quick version, each section has a TL;DR at the end with the cliff notes and key takeaways).
Did you know that lack of sleep messes with your hunger hormones?
You have two key hormones that control appetite - leptin and ghrelin.
Ghrelin makes you hungry and leptin tells you that you’re full. Researchers have found that when we don’t get enough sleep, our ghrelin levels elevate and our leptin levels fall - which results in us feeling hungrier, and needing more food to make us feel satisfied.
Lack of sleep can also affect your thyroid hormones, leading to a slowing of your metabolism.
With all the tasty treats around during Christmas, and many of them sweet and high in calories, it can be very easy to overindulge. We wind up with our blood sugar going up and down like a yo-yo and taking our hormone (and energy) levels with it.
I don’t tend to bang on about avoiding weight gain through the holidays, mostly because I don’t believe in shaming people for enjoying their life (within reason of course). But if you’re trying to manage your weight, Christmas can be a tricky time and it’s worth considering how your sleep may be impacting your efforts.
Getting enough sleep is also critical to regulate the levels of cortisol (stress hormone), estrogen and progesterone in your body. If you’re under-slept, your cortisol levels are going to be higher in the morning. This can disrupt the harmony between estrogen and progesterone (I’m sticking with this music metaphor).
Reasons for late nights abound during this time of year but they are the quickest way to ensure you wind up feeling like crap. Try and keep them to a minimum.
If (like me) you often get home after a party or gathering of some sort and find you’re tired but not sleepy, have a little wind down routine that works for you.
I usually take a hot shower to mimic the natural temperature drop we experience before falling asleep. After showering I put on some lavender essential oil, then drink a sleep blend herbal tea (like passionflower and chamomile) while listening to some relaxing music. Works like a charm every time. Avoid the temptation to watch TV.
(For more info on how to prepare yourself for good sleep not just at Christmas but anytime, you can download my ‘5 Steps to Better Sleep’ here).
TL;DR SLEEP: Not enough sleep messes with everything. Minimise late nights and if you’re attending parties, work functions or family gatherings and getting home later than usual, have a wind down routine to prepare yourself for sleep. A hot shower or bath, putting on some lavender essential oil, and drinking a sleep promoting tea (like passionflower and chamomile) while listening to some relaxing music is my personal go-to. Avoid the temptation to watch TV.
BALANCING BLOOD SUGAR 🍭
I will avoid launching into a mini endocrinology lecture and just say that everyone benefits from stable blood sugar, but it is extra important for women.
Insulin is the hormone that controls our blood sugar. When we eat, carbs are broken down into glucose, which is sent to the bloodstream to be used and stored for energy.
The more we eat, and the more carbs we eat, the higher the demand for insulin.
This spiking of our blood sugar can affect our reproductive hormones due to their connection to insulin (remember the orchestra).
High insulin levels can tell the ovaries to produce more testosterone, which can cause acne and facial hair. It can also lower your levels of SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin) resulting in more estrogen freely available in your system and driving symptoms like sore breasts, bloating, heavy and irregular periods, clots, fibroids, fatigue, mood changes and more.
During the silly season, keep your blood sugar stable by making sure you’re watching your intake of sugar and simple carbohydrates (like bread, cakes, pasta, sweets).
You can also try something called carb cycling - which just means eating protein and fats at breakfast and waiting until lunch to start eating carbs. Doing this improves insulin sensitivity, essentially tricking your body into thinking you’re still fasting from overnight, and can have a beneficial effect on blood sugar. The easiest breakfast to achieve this is eggs and/or meat.
If unstable blood sugar is an issue for you, you will need to make dietary changes, but you may also find a berberine supplement useful. Berberine has been shown in studies to help stabilise blood sugar*. On account of its potent antimicrobial action I don’t recommend that it be taken over the long term as overuse can have a negative effect on gut bacteria.
Christmas food can also be very rich and we’re notorious for eating things at this time of year that we know don’t agree with us (cheese board anyone?).
If this is the case for you, while it’s not a Get Out of Jail Free card, a digestive enzyme like Thorne Biogest can be taken with meals to assist the breakdown of foods.
As always, it’s best to work with a practitioner when choosing supplements that are right for you.
TL;DR BLOOD SUGAR: Stable blood sugar is important for hormone health. Don’t overdo sweets and simple carbohydrates like breads, cakes, biscuits and pasta. To help improve insulin sensitivity you can try carb cycling, which means eating a breakfast that contains protein and fats and leaving carbs for lunch or dinner time. The easiest breakfast to achieve this is eggs and/or meat. If you don’t have any contraindications, a berberine supplement and a digestive enzyme can be used short term to help with blood sugar regulation and digestion.
I could write an entire essay about alcohol alone. It’s a complex topic. But the fact is that the more we learn about alcohol consumption the more it seems that the safest level of alcohol to consume is none.
Still, I find it fascinating that in spite of all our differences humans from around the world have, without exception, the following in common:
Percussion, music and dance, and…
From mezcal in Merida to sake in Sapporo, beer in Brussels and vodka in Vladivostok humans have been crafting their brewing techniques for a long, long time.
We’ve known for a while that over the longer term alcohol in excess is not good for us, but we’re now finding out that even moderate alcohol consumption can be linked to increased risk of developing breast cancer, heart disease, bone loss, and can shrink the brain contributing to cognitive decline.
I find most people don’t set out to drink too much, it just happens. So it helps to set yourself a personal limit. Mine is called the 2 drinks+1 limit and works like this:
I have a two drink limit when I go out. I sometimes go one over though, hence the +1.
My two drinks might be two standard drinks, or it might be two cocktails. This allows me some flexibility around the size of night I can have. For example, if I’m out for dinner I’ll have a couple of glasses of wine. If I’m at a party I can have two cocktails. And if I have an extra drink sometimes… the +1 means I’m not beating myself up for being a terrible human - this kind of self flagellation doesn’t do anyone any good.
A self induced limit is a really good way to be able to enjoy a drink while knowing it’s not going to go completely pear shaped.
Often (and particularly in Australia) there is a lot of social pressure to drink. If you find yourself on the receiving end of this type of behaviour you can try telling the person giving you a hard time that you’re driving home from the event and that’s why you’re not drinking.
I’ve also often found that a glass of mineral water with ice and a wedge of lime or lemon masquerades well as a G&T or vodka soda. We shouldn’t have to employ such childish tactics, but the fact is that sometimes we do.
In reality, many if not most of us are going to drink more than we normally do during the holidays. Try and have some alcohol free days each week. Make sure you drink plenty of filtered water, and you can give your liver some extra love by taking a milk thistle supplement and NAC.
NAC (N-acetylcysteine) is what we call a glutathione precursor. Glutathione is your body’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxing heavy hitter. NAC has been shown to reduce oxidative stress in the liver and kidneys. (And, interestingly, recent research shows that it may actually help with impulse control specifically around alcohol consumption**).
TL;DR ALCOHOL: Avoid excessive alcohol intake. Set yourself a personal limit of the number of drinks you have when you go out. I have a two drink limit which can be two standard drinks, or two cocktails. This gives me some flexibility but means I adhere to boundaries. If people are giving you a hard time about not drinking at parties or functions (this is very common in Australia) tell them you’re driving home and can’t drink. Mineral water with ice and a wedge of lime or lemon masquerades well as a G&T or vodka soda, keep one of those in your hand so when someone offers you a drink you can say thanks, but you already have one. Drink plenty of filtered water, try and have some alcohol free days each week, and consider a milk thistle supplement and NAC to support liver function.
STRESS MINIMISATION 🧘🏻♀️
When I had my physical acupuncture clinic in Australia, I noticed that there were two types of patients in December - those who rang to cancel their appointment because they were too busy, and those who adhered to their December appointment knowing they needed it more than ever!
Prevention is better than cure, so now is the time to look at your schedule and book in some self care. A massage, an acupuncture appointment, a yoga class… whatever floats your relaxation boat. Put it in your diary and keep the appointment.
I teach anyone who will listen the 4-7-8 breathing technique to help manage stress. It’s a modification of a yogic breathing exercise that is taught to military special operations forces to help them keep calm during the many stressful situations they find themselves in.
It’s performed by inhaling for a count of 4, holding your breath for a count of 7 and then exhaling audibly through the mouth (making a haaaaa sound by lightly constricting the back of the throat) for a count of 8. If you’re new to breathwork you might find it easier to do what I call 4-4-4+, which is inhale for 4, hold for 4, and then exhale for a count of 4 or more if you can.
Like all breathwork, it’s most powerful if you develop a daily practice. But it can be used in acute situations. If you’re at a family gathering, for example, and finding it’s all getting a bit triggering, you can go to the bathroom and do 3-4 rounds of this breathing exercise and you will feel instantly calmer.
TL;DR STRESS MINIMISATION: Prevention is better than cure. Check your diary now and book a massage, an acupuncture appointment, a yoga class… something you know helps you deal with stress. Do not cancel this appointment. Take some time to learn a breathing technique like 4-7-8 breathing that you can practice daily and use during situations of acute stress. 4-7-8 breathing is performed by inhaling for a count of 4, holding your breath for a count of 7 and then exhaling audibly through the mouth (making a haaaaa sound by lightly constricting the back of the throat) for a count of 8. If you’re new to breathwork you might find it easier to do what I call 4-4-4+, which is inhale for 4, hold for 4, and then exhale for a count of 4 or more if you can.
I’ve left exercise until the end because co-incidentally, it helps with sleep, balancing blood sugar, supporting liver detoxification, and stress minimisation. Exercise is critical not just for our hormones, but every aspect of our health.
You should be exercising as if your life depends on it. Because it does.
So, there you have it. It's by no means an exhaustive list but in my opinion, they're the big players in hormone disruption through December. I hope that this information helps you to enjoy a hormone happy holiday season!
If you're looking to get a handle on your hormonal health for 2024, I'm taking new online patients again. Click here to learn more about working with me.
As always, thank you so much for reading 💛 and please share this Holiday Hormone Guide with anyone you think it may help!