Hormones: they regulate periods, menopause, and adolescent growth and development. Plus, they’re always on call and available as a really solid scapegoat for a cranky mood or a bad temper: “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hormonal,” and all that. As it turns out, though, hormones do a lot more than give you chin zits and make you crampy (although those can definitely be symptoms that something is off!).

While hormones do affect reproduction, mood, and sexual development, they are also play a significant role in our metabolism, sexual function, and general growth. All of our endocrine glands produce hormones based on a signal from the brain. As women, we also produce hormones in our ovaries. Hormones drive not only our physical functions, but also our emotional responses and can regulate behavior and personality. Our brain sends out the signal, but it’s our hormones that carry forth the message and commit our body to action. Because of the significant role hormones play in nearly all of our bodily functions, from ensuring that our arms and legs grow at the same rate during childhood and adolescence to telling our body to process food and convert it to energy, it’s especially important to make sure our hormones are properly regulated.

Prior to having kids, my understanding and interest in hormones was strictly menstrual. It wasn’t until after giving birth for the first time that I realized how truly significant a hormone imbalance could be. In the last two and a half years, I’ve had two babies and countless hormone-related ailments: anxiety, insomnia, lactation struggles, and a 16-day cycle (yes, you read that right — two periods per month for six long months). I knew something had to change.

I knew something had to change.

In my quest to avoid plowing through 75 tampons per month (love them, but everything in moderation, you know?), I began meeting with a nutritionist. Not only did I learn a lot about how to regulate my hormones through diet and lifestyle changes, but I also learned that I wasn’t alone in these issues. According to Madeline Given, a certified nutrition consultant with the American Nutrition Association, most people in America have some form of hormone mis-regulation. She estimates that “the majority of both men and women deal with something called ‘estrogen dominance’ to one degree or another. Many of the toxins and chemicals in our everyday environments act as xenoestrogens in the body.” Rather than being a real hormone, xenoestrogen is a synthetic hormone found in chemicals, foods, and plants. It mimics the estrogen hormone our body naturally produces and then confuses natural estrogen regulation. When xenoestrogens enter the body (through skin care products, cleaning solutions, plastics, insecticides, and food) the disruption creates an estrogen dominance.

In order to achieve true hormone regulation, many need to make some significant lifestyle changes such as switching to all-natural skincare products, using toxin-free household cleaners, and avoiding pesticides in effort to eliminate exposure to xenoestrogens. A lifestyle overhaul is a long process, but we can all start somewhere. There are three simple changes that I made to my life that really made a big difference in my hormone regulation:

Eat the Fat. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to go all Joey Tribbiani and drink a cup of fat, but you do want to incorporate more healthy, natural fats into your diet. “Hormones are produced in a complex process, but depend on beneficial fats and cholesterol, so lack of these important dietary factors can cause hormone problems simply because the body doesn’t have the building blocks to make them.” When we think about hormone regulation first and foremost we need to focus on healthy fats: wild-caught salmon, avocado, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, pasture-raised organic eggs (with the yolks!), and other nutrient-dense proteins like organic organ meats (gross, but true).

While a more adventurous eater might jump at the chance to boil up some cow tongue, I’m a little more cautious. I’ve started asking the butcher in the meat department at the grocery store to include ground organic liver in my ground beef. I aim for a 2-1 ratio of beef to liver, and then use the ground beef as I normally would in burgers or a delicious meaty marinara. Additionally, I’ve taken to blending coconut oil into my coffee and cooking my eggs in butter.

Sleep. While I found incorporating healthy fat into my diet to be rather simple, sleep has actually been a challenge for me. With a baby, two preschoolers, and a to-do list as long as my right arm, coupled with the fact that I’m more of a night owl and my babies are early birds, I regularly struggle to get the amount of sleep my body needs. However, I’ve recently been striving to find more balance and more rest in my daily life. Sleep helps regulate our hormones, and in order for our bodies to produce the hormones that help us function best, we need to hit the hay. Madeline Given suggests that “for a healthy woman, 7-9 hours of sleep per night is the recommended amount. Up to 10 is recommended for women who are working to fix hormone issues and find balance and regulation.” If you’re laughing about the thought of squeezing 10 hours of sleep per night into your weekly schedule, I hear you. To start, try to aim for 7-9 and whenever you can, grab a few extra hours here and there.

Kick the Caffeine. On more than one occasion, I’ve referred to coffee as my lifeblood. I love coffee with almost as much fervor as I adore my children, but the truth is that my coffee intake affects my sleep. When I asked Madeline about curbing my coffee habit, she affirmed that “caffeine is not the devil, but you still need to keep it in check. It can easily disrupt your stress hormones and mess with adrenaline production. Stick to 1-2 small cups a day if possible.” Further research revealed that significant caffeine consumption causes the body to produce more epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, hormones that the body produces more of when it’s stressed — basically caffeine consumption pushes the body to create stress-like conditions. So far, this is a really easy life change, and reducing my overall coffee intake has inspired me to explore other delicious beverage options like matcha, Holy Basil tea (a great stress reliever), or a simple lemon water.

Our hormones are the output of everything we put into our bodies, and they’re a great barometer for overall health. Can we solve all of our problems with some homemade guacamole and a nap? Probably not, but these small and simple changes can pave the way to increased hormonal and overall health.

Anna Jordan is a writer, adjunct professor, and procrastinator of laundry living in Santa Barbara, CA with her husband and three small children. She attempts to maintain her sanity by reading, running, practicing yoga, and drinking too much coffee. She received her MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has been published at Verily Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Chicago Literati. She is a regular contributor to Coffee+Crumbs, a collaborative blog about motherhood.

www.annajordan.net