When I was in my thirties, I was working hard. I won’t tell you that I was working too hard, but I was working without sufficient balance.
My day job was as a doctor at a Health Maintenance Organization, which I regard as my years in McMedicine. It meant seeing dozens of patients every day, never stopping for a lunch break and squeezing extra-extra hours of paperwork into the week whenever possible. I felt like I worked on an assembly line, and rarely had the luxury of connecting with my patients the way I most wanted. I was often stressed out, angry, and resentful.
I was mother to two young girls who needed help with homework, school lunches, and field trip forms.
I was married to a man busy redefining the way the world looked at sustainable building.
I worked out constantly to relieve stress—running, spinning, boot camp, weights—but it wasn’t giving my body the relief or joy that it craved.
I was 25 pounds overweight, and thought PMS stood for “Pass My Shotgun.” I prefered a glass of wine to sex with my husband, didn’t spend enough time with my girlfriends, was chronically low in oxytocin (the hormone of love, bonding, and social affiliation), and I can tell you that many modern women (and men) feel this way.
I had never been more unhealthy in my life.
And then I found yoga. Rather, I re-discovered yoga, because it was in my genes.
Yoga had been part of my world before, but it took some serious overwhelm before I embraced it. Turns out, it was the perfect prescription to my stressed-out life.
Mud, Miracle Great-Granny
Here’s a little background: Growing up, I had an eccentric great-grandmother nicknamed Mud (my grandfather couldn’t say the full German name for “mother,” and the nickname stuck).
Mud was a whole-foodist. She never touched alcohol (“I love wine, but it doesn’t love me”), she slept on a board (“good for the posture, my dear”), and she was a dedicated yogi decades before it was fashionable. She looked decades younger that her peers and lived a vigorous, joyful life until she died peacefully in her sleep at age 97. Mud planted the seed early on in my mind that perfect health could be achieved through lifestyle and exercise, without a single pill or prescription.
When I started researching natural strategies for how to solve my stress, my weight gain, and my feelings of “meh,” a world of hormone imbalances (and their amazingly simple preventative strategies) opened up before me. The most effective treatment that I found is an absolute powerhouse when it comes to reducing stress, losing weight, revving up metabolism, and increasing longevity.
Oh yes: I’m talking about yoga.
I didn’t just adopt a regular yoga practice (that’s not how this doctor rolls)—I became a certified yoga teacher and now share yoga’s health benefits with anyone who will listen. Luckily, when the yoga talk is backed by hard scientific data, you can hold the attention of even the most cynical doctors and frazzled patients.
After decades of balancing the hormones of thousands of women and men, I can confidently tell you that chronic stress and, as a result, elevated cortisol levels, is wreaking havoc on the weight, memory, mood, and sex drive of millions. Our modern lifestyle has turned us into stress-cases who would rather go on Facebook than have sex with our partners. The worst part is that cortisol has the power to throw the other main hormones—estrogen, testosterone, thyroid—out of whack.
Here’s how yoga changed my chaotic life, beyond teaching me how to balance with one leg behind my head:
1. Ruinous Running
Unlike high-impact running which increases cortisol, your main stress hormone, yoga lowers it. I’ve been a runner my entire life but after adding to yoga to my routine, I lost weight, gained energy, and actually felt rejuvenated instead of depleted after my workouts. For stressed-out people, yoga provides a form of exercise that prevents hormones from going haywire and keeps cortisol in check.
2. Soothing Serotonin
Yoga has been shown to raise your serotonin, the happy brain chemical responsible for mood, sleep, and appetite. Women have 52 percent less serotonin than men, according to my friend, Daniel Amen, so that may be just one of the reasons we see fewer dudes on the mat—women need yoga to balance our serotonin, feel buoyant, sleep soundly, and put down the fork.
3. Beautiful Breath
The focus on breath and the meditative aspect of yoga also helps change the way your mind interprets stress, leading to lowered cortisol levels and a calmer day-to-day. Yoga can be a serious workout, yes, but it can also be a quiet moment to yourself. Taking time, even just 15 minutes, to concentrate on what you need will help lower cortisol levels and remind your family that you are not always at their beck and call. Ahhh-ommmm.
4. Nicer Neighborhood
Disease is the result of inflammation, and one of the best ways to cool inflammation is yoga. Yoga has been shown to lower IL-6, a biomarker of how inflamed you are. We know that you can change 50–80 percent of how your DNA is expressed with how you eat, move, think, and supplement—consider how yoga helps you create a good neighborhood, not a bad neighborhood.
5. Stretch for Success
Lastly, the twisting, bending, and micro-adjustments of yoga keep your spine and joints strong and supple. Iyengar told us that it squeezes your organs like a sponge, removing the stale blood so fresh oxygenated blood may rush in when you release your twist. Maintaining your energy, flexibility and strength keeps exercise an option long into old age. Regular exercise also prevents sugar cravings and keeps your metabolism humming, which in turn keep you other hormones on healthy and regular cycles.
Today, I use yoga to live longer, love better, laugh louder, to keep my mind clear, and to prevent the most common health concerns that I know we all face. Yoga provides me the balance of work and play, of mindfulness and escape, and of relaxation and challenge. Whether it’s yoga, meditation, or just a few moments of deep breathing every morning, I prescribe to everyone a practice that will help them keep their hormones—and their tree pose—in balance.
Sara Gottfried, M.D. teaches women how to balance their hormones naturally so they can rock their mission. For the past 20 years, Dr. Gottfried has been dedicated to practicing and helping women feel at home in their bodies. She is a Harvard-educated physician, keynote speaker and author of The Hormone Cure: Reclaim Balance, Sleep, Sex Drive and Vitality Naturally with The Gottfried Protocol (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2013). She is board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and is regularly featured in magazines such as O Magazine, Glamour, and Yoga Journal, and TV including The Ricki Lake Show and 20/20. She is the leading medical expert featured in the award-winning film, YogaWoman.