Weight gain, hot flushes, water retention, bloating, mood crashes, poor memory, brain fog, breast pain, acne… the list goes on and it’s a familiar list to most women. Have you ever suffered with any of these symptoms?
If you’re nodding vigorously right now and ticking off many of the symptoms above you might have been conditioned to associate the suffering with “hormones,” something we must endure as a result of simply being female.
We can either struggle through or explore medications like hormone therapy (the pill, HRT, Mirena coil), painkillers, diuretic pills or anti-depressants to treat the symptoms.
As women we often blame our hormones for a lot of health issues BUT it’s important to note that they falter due to a number of lifestyle habits and have nutrition related triggers. Understanding and undoing many of these can have a profound impact on our hormone health.
Before delving into some simple things you can do to support healthy hormone function (by the way there are clues throughout this article before the solutions paragraph) it’s important to have a brief understanding of how hormones operate as this allows you to see how basic things like your thought patterns, pace of life, nutritional choices and the environment you live in have the potential to impact hormonal balance.
Hormones: The Basics
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel around the body making things happen, I often think of them as the email system of the body. They’re produced by cells within glands or tissues, for example, estrogen is produced by the cells within the ovaries, adrenal glands or fat tissues (the latter is a clue to addressing estrogen dominance). There’s a hierarchy in production, largely governed by the hypothalamus gland in the brain.
The base of hormones can be peptides (amino acids) or cholesterol. The latter are referred to as steroid hormones and include the sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone), glucocorticoid hormones (cortisol, DHEA) and the hormones that are responsible for water balance and electrolyte regulation (known as mineralocorticoids).
Peptide hormones include insulin and glucagon that regulate energy production, fat burning, the metabolism of food and insulin is responsible for other essential functions like cell growth and differentiation. These have the ability to impact all the other hormones so balancing your blood sugar levels is a good place to start when considering hormone issues.
Where Does The Issue Occur?
The important thing to consider when you have a hormone issue is WHERE the problem lies, it could be any of the following:
You lack some of the ingredients (e.g. cholesterol) or cofactors (vitamins and minerals) needed to make the hormones or the cells within the glands that produce the hormones have become damaged or are being actively suppressed by the body.
Hormones require a number of vitamins and minerals to be converted into their active forms and this takes place inside cells, if you are deficient in nutrients or the cell is damaged inside the hormones can’t be converted.
Hormones influence one another and a hierarchy of importance exists, a dominance of one may override the action of another. A great example being that it’s more important to survive than it is to get fruity, so sex hormones plummet during a stress response.
Hormones need to be detoxified once produced, they‘re broken down and excreted via the liver and bowel. If these systems are not working correctly hormones can easily build up or get recycled, creating an excess or dominance, which leads to the problem in the last point.
Fuelling Healthy Hormone Factories
Hormones are not just produced and modified within cells, they travel to other cells and trigger some form of activity there. The steroid hormones travel into the cell, whilst peptide hormones work their magic by locking into mini satellite dishes sat on the cell surface referred to as the cell membrane.
The exception is thyroid hormones, technically they’re a peptide hormone but enter the cell and act directly on the nucleus (the cell’s head office of information). Healthy thyroid hormone signaling is vital because it governs the speed at which all your systems operate – it’s the accelerator and brakes of all function in the body.
Essentially a cell needs to be healthy inside out for hormone signaling to work optimally, dietary fat intake is a huge component of cell membrane health where hormonal messages are received. Cholesterol also provides the building blocks of hormones so medications like statins may impact hormone status.
Ensuring you consume a broad range of healthy fats below is important:
- Monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocados)
- Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids (oily fish, flaxseed, chia)
- Omega 6 Essential Fatty Acids (nuts, poultry)
- Saturated fats (eggs, coconut, red meat, butter)
- Phospholipids (eggs, liver and peanut butter)
Along with sufficient dietary antioxidants like vitamin A and E to help protect them.
Symptoms and Cell Dysfunction
Now that you know cells are important imagine if a cell is damaged, invaded by a virus or deprived of nutrients. It can’t do its job. Maybe that cell is a neuron responsible for producing brain chemicals that help you focus, smile, stay sane or convert short term memories into long term ones, if it can’t do it’s job you suffer the consequences.
What if the cell’s job is to produce estrogen, keep in mind post menopause you have less cells doing this job due to the ovaries closing for business. If that cell is compromised estrogen levels will decline which leads to memory issues, vaginal atrophy/dryness and may impact bone density, it will also leave a higher ratio of testosterone to estrogen which often contributes to weight gain around the middle and acne.
The following all have potential to damage cells and therefore cause or exacerbate hormone issues:
The stress response is highly energetic, it quickly creates a vicious cycle of hormone imbalances and nutrient deficiencies by shutting down digestion and reproduction function in order to focus on survival.
Free Radicals Damage
Free radicals are a natural byproduct of physiological processes in the body, they potentially become more harmful with age without sufficient antioxidant defenses to quench them. Cell membranes are particularly vulnerable to free radical damage. Stress, infection, burnt foods, smoking, excessive exercise, ageing and lack of dietary antioxidants all increase free radical damage in the body.
Common nutrient insufficiencies I observe with clients are magnesium, zinc, selenium, omega 3’s, vitamin D, B12 and folate. Many of these are required for a cell to fuel itself because they’re involved in ATP production (ATP is the energy currency of the cell). If you want to geek out, the nutrients labelled in green below are all required for ATP production.
When considering nutrient intake, it’s important not only to consider your consumption but factors that may cause deficiencies including alcohol, caffeine, smoking, stress and medications as these all deplete B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and antioxidants. If any of these are a regular feature in your lifestyle it’s no wonder you’re tired! Many people have multiple nutrient insufficiencies for years and never realise.
It’s imperative that gut health is addressed when considering hormones, not only because this is where you absorb all the micronutrients, essential fats and proteins needed for hormonal function but also due to the fact the gastrointestinal tract is where your main security system exists including a physical barrier with spy’s (immune cells that sit behind the lining of the gut) security guards (beneficial bacteria that stand in front of the barrier) and even barbed wire in the form of mucous to help keep out invaders.
If this barrier breaks down (known as leaky gut) the body becomes infiltrated by multiple invaders and your army of bacteria can’t control the situation so it recruits the immune system as back up. An alarm sounding from the gut triggers an inflammatory cascade as the immune system kicks into action you experience bloating, pain, brain fog and fatigue as your immune defences get to work.
Hormones are hugely altered by chronic inflammation especially those that govern blood sugars like insulin and cortisol, the sex hormones are also affected negatively.
Furthermore, hormones are also eliminated via the bowel so for optimal balance you need to be pooping daily and have plenty of beneficial bacteria, promoted by probiotics, fibre intake and fermented foods. Beneficial bacteria act like the bouncers of the bowel they help to march excess estrogen and other toxins right to the exit, ensuring they get turfed out and prevent recycling.
The first step in rebalancing hormones is to begin by reducing or eliminate the factors that have a negative impact on hormone production, function and detoxification. The most common hormone hijackers are stress, sleep deprivation, alcohol, smoking, refined carbohydrates and excess sugar, digestive health issues and nutrient deficiencies.
This isn’t an overnight process but a good place to start is choosing your meals based upon nutrients and implementing some dietary eliminations to support blood sugar regulation and digestive function. Finding steps and strategies to improve your mental health is also essential. You can find more information, recipes and ideas for all these across www.fitterfood.com.
Sometimes support from quality supplement interventions is required too but ideally work with a qualified practitioner to establish your personal needs.
You can also head along to our Women’s Health, Hormones and Happiness event on Saturday 24 February in Bedfordshire.
I’ll be speaking in-depth about the processes above and how you can establish the causes of your hormone issues and help you put an action plan in place to address them.
I’ve teamed up with Lucy Rocca, founder of Soberistas, a social network for people who want to kick out the booze, she’ll be discussing the role of self esteem and developing a healthy mindset, a key component of positive change that must be considered when it comes to reversing some of the habits that lead to hormonal complications.
We’re down to our final few spots so head here if you want to join us for a life changing day out – head HERE to book.