“Last year, I started to gain weight really quickly, even though I thought I was doing all the right things”, says Bailey Brown, an American fitness influencer. In a TikTok video posted in April, titled “How I lost 30lb and balanced my hormones”, Brown shares how she “completely overhauled” her lifestyle after undergoing a series of tests meant to measure hormone balances.
Brown’s story is a common narrative for this increasingly popular wellness trend, which says balancing your hormones is key to everything from weight loss to clear skin.
There is no definable set of behaviours meant to balance hormone levels. But common advice shared on TikTok includes increasing your protein intake, swapping high intensity exercise for low intensity exercise, reducing stress, syncing your diet and exercise to your menstrual cycle and, randomly, eating a lot of carrots.
Is there such a thing as ‘hormone balance’?
Susan Davis, an endocrinologist and the director of Monash University’s Women’s Health Program, says our endocrine system is far more complex than proponents of this trend would have us believe.
The human body has more than 50 hormones, which manage everything from mood to metabolism.
“There’s no single set of symptoms [of hormone imbalance] and there’s no single diet that’s going to balance this whole smorgasbord of hormones,” says Davis.
Dr Arianne Sweeting, a senior lecturer in endocrinology at the University of Sydney, says it’s “important to reassure individuals that the hormone system self-regulates extremely effectively through various negative hormone feedback loops independent of day-to-day diet or exercise variability”.
What impact do lifestyle changes have on hormone health?
Dr Emily Burch, an accredited dietitian, lecturer and researcher at Southern Cross University, agrees that this trend provides far too simplistic an explanation of how hormones work in our body. But she also says that some nutrients can help our body produce specific hormones.
“Thyroid hormones, for example, are involved in metabolism and growth, and they need iodine to be made, which is found in foods like seaweed, fish and eggs.”
Cortisol, which can affect things like inflammation, fat and our sex hormones, is the hormone most affected by our lifestyle according to Larkin. If someone is trying to fall pregnant, for example, high cortisol levels can affect their ability to conceive. So, anything that reduces stress, including sleep hygiene, socialising and maintaining good mental health, are important.
But Davis says the results people on TikTok are flaunting, like weight loss, likely boil down to the simple fact they are living healthier lives – not because they have managed to balance their hormones.
“This idea of hormone balancing is naive. Adapting a healthy pattern of eating and a healthy active lifestyle with sufficient sleep is going to have salutary effects.”
What about cycle syncing?
Hormone balancing, which is largely targeted at women, also advocates for cycle syncing – the idea that the foods you eat and exercises you do should be tailored to each stage of your menstrual cycle.
Sweeton says that throughout their cycle, women’s energy levels do change, and things like bloating and premenstrual symptoms can arise. With this in mind, it can be valuable for people who get their period to listen to their bodies and adjust their lifestyle accordingly.
For some people, this might include eating more and doing lower intensity exercise in the lead up to and during menstruation, when they’re more likely to experience sluggishness and low mood. “I think the underlying message of being intuitive is very important,” she says.
However, Sweeton says there is no evidence for taking a prescriptive approach to diet and exercise according to your cycle.
Should we be worried about this trend?
If none of the health and wellness advice being shared is really new, why is the idea of hormone balancing so alluring?
Davis believes its appeal comes down to the way healthy habits are packaged. “The doctors tell you that you’re doing something wrong, whereas these people are giving you something you can do right.”
According to Burch, the simplicity of the advice being shared is also part of the trend’s appeal. “Like everything that’s on social media and TikTok related to health – everyone wants a quick fix,” she says.
For the most part, taking the advice of these influencers probably won’t harm your health. Eating whole foods, exercising regularly and reducing stress levels are all elements of a healthy lifestyle.
But Davis says that hormone balancing offers an easy solution that might give people false hope. “Guilt comes out and then anger and frustration if you change your behaviour and don’t get the results people on TikTok have promised you.”
Burch says that while there are lifestyle changes people can make to address things like acne and difficulty losing weight, there are non-modifiable factors like genetics, age, autoimmune conditions and gender that can come into play.
“You can have the healthiest diet and exercise regime in the world that follows all these specific rules and still have acne, skin problems or hair loss,” she stresses.
People should also be wary that influencers are often trying to make money off the hormone balancing narrative. Many are hormone coaches who sell their services, while others recommend a bevvy of vitamins, powders and tinctures that supposedly help balance hormones.
“The best way to get enough of a nutrient is by eating foods that are rich in them,” says Burch, as the way the body absorbs nutrients from whole foods is very different to supplements.
Make the most of your health, relationships, fitness and nutrition with our Live Well newsletter. Get it in your inbox every Monday.