When it comes to the human body, hormones affect everything. From sleep cycles, moods, and sex drive, to appetite and even mental health, hormones are involved in virtually all of our physical and mental activities.

Yet hormones are hardly a primary component of the national conversation about health. Alisa Vitti, a women’s health specialist, founder of FloLiving, and author of WomanCode, seeks to change that. We connected with Vitti to talk about hormones, health, and how you can change your health with food.

Paying Attention to Periods

How Monitoring Monthly Cycle Can Help Your Health

“For so long women have brushed aside and failed to take seriously the symptoms that we attribute to our hormones, such as PMS, cramps, and acne,” Vitti says. Yet strong evidence points to the fact that hormones areimportant—for both men and women—at every stage of our lives.

Some of the most convincing evidence comes from a 2009 study that was funded by the NIH. The study yielded two primary findings: One, that women who experienced untreated hormonal issues—such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and infertility—prior to menopause were more likely to develop diseases of inflammation (such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer) later in life. And two, that women can improve their hormonal balance with diet and lifestyle changes.

Armed with this knowledge, Vitti is on a mission to “turn women on to how powerful their bodies are.” Instead of joking about crankiness and chocolate cravings at a certain time of the month, Vitti wants women to get in touch with their menstrual cycles—to figure out what’s out of balance and how to make changes to improve overall health.

Getting Into the Flow

To that end, Vitti created the WomanCode System—an online platform designed to help women permanently balance their hormones via education, eating plans, personal counseling, and symptom tracking. (She also published a book by the same name.) The idea is to use the program to enhance standard medical care. “Every meal, every day, you need a system that’s going to help you succeed [in your health goals],” Vitti says.

The easiest way to learn about what’s going on with your body, according to Vitti, is simply to look before you flush. The color, consistency, flow, and timing of menstruation can all yield insight into your current state of health. Other markers of hormonal imbalances—many of which are considered par for the course for menstruating women—include breast tenderness, moodiness, acne, dandruff, constipation, eczema or rosacea, and changing energy levels.

Blocking Optimal Health

No surprise here, these issues are remarkably common. An estimated 85 percent of menstruating women experience at least one symptom of PMS each month, while approximately 10 percent of women in the U.S. struggle with infertility issues, and as many as one in 10 suffer from PCOS.

All told, Vitti says, more than 20 million women in the U.S. alone struggle with menstrual and other hormonal health issues. As Vitti sees it, these hormonal imbalances are caused by what she refers to as “flow blockers”—pesticides and chemicals in our foods, cosmetics, and home and work environments, which, according to some studies, have been linked to hormonal disruption.

Hormones are also affected by what we eat. “The primary function of the endocrine system [which relies on hormones for proper function] is to safeguard the transport of sugar throughout the body,” Vitti says. Thus she asserts it’s vital to maintain blood sugar stability. In some ways, the idea is nothing new: Experts have long advocated that people avoid blood sugar spikes and crashes, primarily by avoiding refined carbs. What’s unique about Vitti’s approach is the special emphasis she places on the connection between blood sugar and hormonal balance.

Of course, stress also plays a role in hormonal activity. And while we can’t always control external stressors, such as a job loss or family tragedy, Vitti is confident we cancontrol internal stressors, such as blood sugar, exposure to pesticides, and lack of micronutrients, simply by refining our food choices. These choices can, in turn, promote a healthier hormonal cycle—which Vitti sees as essential to overall wellness.

Creating Cyclical Lifestyles

In addition to dietary changes, Vitti advocates establishing a lifestyle that meshes with the hormonal cycle. “The four-week menstrual cycle is a creation cycle,” Vitti says. Indeed, some research supports the idea that hormonal cycles are tied to creativity. Vitti views the follicular phase as a highly creative, idea-generating phase; during ovulation, women may excel at communication skills; during the luteal (or, loosely, the premenstrual) phase, focus may improve, providing energy for administrative tasks (e.g., organizing a shoe closet or finishing a project); and menstruation is a time for “evaluation and course correction.”

Rather than fighting against or powering through these phases, Vitti says people should (quite literally) surrender to the flow. She points out that no person (of any gender) can act exactly the same way every single day but rather experiences cyclical shifts in energy and focus. By observing these patterns, people can create optimized schedules that sync up with our energy and needs.

“Let’s figure out how our body is communicating data to us in real time every day so that we can kick ass in every area of our lives,” Vitti says. “That, for me, is what it is for a woman to get in the flow.”

The views expressed here belong exclusively to Alisa Vitti and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or thoughts of Greatist.

Originally published April 2013. Updated March 2016.