By: Marina O’Connor, CNP
Hormones are excreted by the endocrine glands in our bodies and naturally fluctuate during a woman’s menstrual cycle between the follicular and luteal phases. However, there is a difference between natural hormonal fluctuations which happen in a healthy person and hormonal imbalance due to a poor diet, lifestyle factors or toxin overload in the body which wreaks havoc on the whole bodily system.
Hormonal imbalance is a growing concern among women of all ages. It becomes recognized as a real health problem to women in the childbearing period of their lives, or more broadly speaking, ages 20-35, due to infertility. Infertility may be one of the main consequences of hormonal imbalance, but there are many other early symptoms associated with imbalanced hormones that are often undetected signs.
Some symptoms of imbalanced hormones include: persistent weight gain, low libido, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, depression, insomnia and poor sleep patterns, hot flashes and night sweats, cravings, persistent acne, memory fog, digestive problems, headaches and migraines, vaginal dryness, breast changes (tender/sore, lumps, cysts, fibroids), (Rocky Mountain Analytical, 2017).
Balancing hormones is a tricky matter, and natural protocols vary depending on individual cases. We are all different, as are our imbalances; this is why holistic practitioners utilize very individualized care. With this being said, there are still some preliminary considerations to reflect upon when evaluating imbalanced hormones.
- Diet and Digestion: Some would be surprised to know that healthy hormones begin with a healthy gut. An imbalanced gut due to compromised digestion and unhealthy food intake can cause an imbalance in neurotransmitters and hormones. Before considering any of the other items on this list, digestion must be looked at first. Controlling insulin sensitivity, and thus supporting the mechanisms of proper hormonal balance can be approached in part by these dietary measures: reducing the consumption of sugary foods and processed foods, eating more fermented foods, whole foods (unprocessed), and healthy fats. Eating a diet rich in whole foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds) is at the forefront of vibrancy and overall good health. The level in which our body functions depends on the quality of food we put into it. Including fermented foods into the diet ensures a decrease in intestinal dysbiosis (imbalance of good and bad bacteria). Fermented foods can contribute to balanced hormones by stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing insulin sensitivity. A high intake of sugary food results in increased fat cells (the excess sugar needs to be stored), which increases estrogen secretion, which may lead to imbalanced hormones. In addition, insulin spikes may disrupt ovulation, which in turn impacts the progesterone levels. Eating a sufficient amount of healthy fats such as omega 3 fatty acids helps to decrease inflammation down to the cellular level in the body. Saturated fat (such as coconut oil) is not only necessary for building healthy hormones, it also decreases insulin sensitivity, acts as a carrier for fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) required for mineral absorption and works as an anti-fungal (lauric acid).
- Sleep: Sleep is also an overlooked factor in good health. Societal norms have people working more and sleeping less. Not getting enough consistent sleep at night between the hours of 10pm and 6am affects our natural circadian rhythm and can contribute to imbalanced hormones. The regulation of cortisol (linked to stress) happens around midnight when the body is asleep. Those who stay up past midnight are at a risk of higher cortisol levels and higher stress levels which systemically affect hormone secretion within the body.
- Exercise: High intensity exercise is often not conducive for those on the road to balancing their hormones. This will only exasperate the adrenals (endocrine glands which have a role to play in hormonal balance) and lead to further imbalance. Gentle exercises are the most beneficial during this time; slow yoga, stretching, tai chi, walking, swimming, and dancing.
Supplements and Herbs: Vitamin D: This vitamin acts like a hormone, has an effect on the parathyroid hormones and pituitary gland, and helps to keep inflammation levels down.
Magnesium: Most people are deficient in this crucial mineral, which has hundreds of functions within the body. Some of which include detoxification of estrogen in the liver, lowering blood sugar, reducing cortisol, production of sex hormones, serotonin production (for sound sleep).
Probiotics: Helps to recolonize good bacteria in the gut, allow for the repair of gut lining, support conditions with leaky gut, and improve the production of hormones (insulin, ghrelin and leptin).
Evening Primrose Oil: A great source of Omega 6: LA and GLA. These healthy fatty acids assist with prostaglandin (similar to hormones; messengers) production, PMS, fertility, uterine health, and can increase cervical fluid production.
Adaptogens: Herbs that support the adrenals and help with stress response and consequently hormones (particularly for women in menopause when the adrenal glands take on a greater role in hormonal production) such as: ashwagandha, rhodiola, schisandra, holy basil, maca, medicinal mushrooms such as chaga, shiitake, lion’s mane, reishi, cordyceps, and turkey tail. Some of these herbs such as maca root have specifically been studied for their beneficial effects on fertility, PMS, and even men’s health (testosterone and sperm count).
- Chemicals and Xenoestrogens: Many chemicals act as xenoestrogens in the body. Xenoestrogens are compounds from foreign sources (other than our own body) that mimic estrogen. They can affect hormonal balance in addition to initiating many other dangerous consequences in the body. These can be found in: pesticides/herbicides, plastic, conventional cleaners (laundry, house cleaners), skin care, and cosmetics. To avoid these, use glass/stainless steel/wood containers, water bottles, straws and utensils, buy organic as much as possible, and find skin care and cosmetic products with more natural ingredients, and cleaners that are plant sourced and natural (or use natural cleaning products such as vinegar or baking soda for cleaning).