Did you know that there are approximately 100 hormones in our bodies? I don’t want to overwhelm you so the main groups of hormones I’m focusing on today are sex, weight loss and stress hormones.
The main sex hormones are estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Many of the common sex hormones are originally derived from cholesterol which your body turns into pregnenolone, a “prehormone” which is converted into either progesterone or DHEA (which is a precursor to testosterone). It is really important to maintain a good balance among these hormones.
Progesterone and Estrogen
These lovely ladies are two sides of a see saw. Progesterone has many jobs including pregnancy and when it drops too low can cause severe PMS issues, rage, headaches, cysts, miserable periods and horrible sleep. You can become fat and moody, you’re more likely to develop endometriosis and have problems with uterine bleeding. Low progesterone results in estrogen dominance, which puts you at greater risk of infertility and endometrial cancer. A good balance between estrogen and progesterone is important for overall sense of well-being. It raises body temperature (think boost to metabolism) and helps your thyroid perform efficiently. Allo-pregnenolone (a derivative of progesterone) is the luxurious, soothing, mellowing daughter of progesterone. Without her, we are crabby. She is sedating, calming, easing, neutralizes stress, but as soon as she leaves we become irritable. Her sudden departure is the central story of PMS.
Progesterone’s counterpart Estrogen is the diva … responsible for breasts, hips and smooth skin. It is nature’s Prozac, adjusting the level of available serotonin which regulates your mood, sleep and appetite and acts as a general gatekeeper of other neurotransmitters in the brain. Estrogen lights your libido and gets you obsessing about babies until about age 45 (if you’re so inclined).
Two of the main reasons for estrogen dominance are excessive emotional stress and exposure to artificial estrogens. In order to maintain balance of estrogen, you need to break it down and eliminate it or it will build up in your blood and cause estrogen dominance. An inefficient liver may compromise your body’s ability to metabolize estrogen and remove it efficiently.
So what is causing this? BPA in plastics, phthalates, parabens, sodium lauryl sulfates, formaldehyde, fragrance and hydroquinone. These are found in shampoos, soaps, laundry detergent, lotions etc. By using more natural products that do not contain these ingredients you can reduce the toxic load on your body and help your liver eliminate estrogen more efficiently.
Yes, women have a low level of testosterone in their blood. We need it to feel confident and sexy. It promotes muscles (don’t worry … you have to have a lot of testosterone to produce bulky muscles and most women don’t), stronger bones, and increased immune function including bone-marrow manufacture of red blood cells. Side effects of too much testosterone range from excess facial and arm hair as well as PCOS in mild cases, insulin resistance, weight gain and PCOS in moderate cases and excess virilization, hirsutism (need to shave), clitoral enlargement and voice deepening in rare extreme cases.
Weight Loss Hormones
Weight loss hormones include your thyroid hormones, which are TSH, T3 and T4. TSH secretes T4 which converts to T3. When there is too little T3, TSH levels increase to produce more T4 to be converted to T3. One of the biggest challenges occurs when T4 doesn’t convert to T3. The body reads this as lack of T3 and therefore produces more TSH. When TSH levels become too high (over 2 on your bloodwork), you can become hypothyroid which decreases metabolism and results in weight gain, constipation and fatigue.
Insulin is critical in keeping blood sugar levels balanced. Insulin is produced in the pancreas and when we eat too much sugar, insulin floods our bloodstream to bring us back into balance. When the pancreas is overworked for too long, this can result in insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and increased difficulty losing weight.
Ghrelin and Leptin
These are lesser known hormones. Ghrelin stimulates the appetite. Do you ever experience periods where you can’t seem to get enough food? You’re so hungry even though you just ate an hour ago? Chances are that’s either increased ghrelin levels or you’re dehydrated. It also helps with the secretion of growth hormone from the pituitary gland. Leptin is essentially ghrelin’s counterpart. Leptin decreases appetite and increases metabolism. Keeping the two in balance helps us keep our hunger levels steady and therefore our food intake to a moderate level.
Melatonin helps to regulate the circadian rhythm of 24 hours and helps you sleep. Melatonin secretion starts at 9:00 p.m. and stops at 7:30 a.m. Unfortunately things like light, temperature levels and irregular sleep patterns can throw the circadian rhythm off. Sleep is extremely important to keeping all hormones balanced and our immune system strong. When you don’t get sufficient sleep you often wake up tired and hungry because ghrelin levels are too high or your blood sugar too low. So it’s important to develop a consistent sleep pattern, put the electronics away half an hour before bed, keep your room as quiet and dark as possible and have a glass of water about 30 minutes before bed. It will help keep you hydrated through the night. Also, do not go to sleep hungry as blood sugar levels drop through the night.
Cortisol governs blood sugar, blood pressure and the immune system by modulating inflammation. Inflammation is at the root of many diseases, including anything ending in “itis”, such as arthritis or pancreatitis.
The best way for me to explain what happens with cortisol is to share what happened to me. Two years ago after I had just finished school, I had a massive allergic reaction which took a couple of months to get under control. I had been stressed out for 2 years … the second year being by far the worse of the two … and when that constant stress stopped, my body rebelled with an allergic reaction. And that led to another 15 months of massive stress. I was going full tilt at work, my father in law was dying, we were dealing with an alcoholic member of our family and some of my relationships suffered. The fact that I was gaining weight back after having worked so hard to lose it did not help. After all … I’m a nutritionist. This isn’t supposed to happen to me. I beat myself up so badly … it just compounded all of my problems. In the beginning I would fly off the handle at nothing, cry over nothing and everything and just felt like I was strung so tight I was going to break. That was out of control high cortisol. The problem was that it burned itself out. Cortisol and thyroid and both do that. Then I became quiet, moody, miserable and mildly depressed. It was so evident at work that my boss asked me if I was ok and reminded me that we had access to help if needed. That’s when I knew there was something really wrong and I desperately needed to take care of it. I realized I needed help and turned to another, far more experienced nutritionist than I. And that was the beginning of my healing.
DHEA helps with stress, is made primarily by the ovaries and adrenal gland and is the most abundant circulating hormone. It provides protection against the effects of physical stress and inflammation.
It can also increase libido and sexual arousal, improves motivation, a sense of well-being, decreases pain and enhances immune system function.
DHEA facilitates the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, enhances memory, and assists in maintaining normal cholesterol levels. DHEA can be converted into estrogen and testosterone through fat, muscle, bone and liver.
- High cortisol causes you to feel tired but wired and prompts your body to store fuel as fat in places where it can be used easily, such as at your waist.
- Low cortisol makes you feel exhausted and drained (think of trying to drive your car with an empty gas tank).
- Low pregnenolone causes loss of memory. Low levels are linked to ADD, anxiety, mild depression, brain fog, chronic depression and social phobia.
- Low progesterone causes infertility, night sweats, sleeplessness and irregular menstrual cycles.
- High estrogen makes you more likely to develop breast tenderness, cysts, fibroids, endometriosis and breast cancer.
- Low estrogen causes your mood and libido to tank and makes your vagina less moist, joints less flexible, mental state less focused and alive.
- High androgen such as testosterone are the top reason for infertility, rogue hairs on the chin and elsewhere and acne.
- Low thyroid causes decreased mental acuity, fatigue, weight gain and constipation; long term low levels are associated with delayed reflexes and a greater risk of Alzheimers.
Common Combinations of Imbalances
- Dysregulated cortisol (too high or too low) and low thyroid.
- Dysregulated cortisol with dysregulated female sex hormones
- Low progesterone and high androgens can make it difficult to get pregnant
- Perimenopause can result in low progesterone starting around 35 and low estrogen during the last year of your period. Low progesterone can result in anxiety, sleep disruption, night sweats and shortened menstrual cycles – then you fret over work and field trip permission slips in the middle of the night. Low estrogen may add mild depression to the mix.
- Women in menopause commonly have low cortisol during the day (makes you feel very tired) and high cortisol at night (can cause you to worry about everything) which is the opposite of what should be happening.
Causes of Hormone Imbalance
- Poor nutrition and/or inadequate “precursors” to make hormones
- Environmental exposure to toxins
- Excess stress
- Lifestyle choices
So what can you to do help balance your hormones? Eat as much organic food (including beef) as possible, but if you can’t afford or find all of your produce as organic then at least aim for getting the “Dirty Dozen” as organics. Use meat as a condiment. Instead of a 12 oz. steak, have 3 oz. and fill the rest of your plate with vegetables.
What are the “Dirty Dozen”? These are the foods with the highest number and concentration of pesticides and herbicides used to grow them by commercial growers. Produce obtained at local farmers markets are normally not quite as “dirty” as those you find in supermarkets and they taste a lot more flavourful. Of course growing your own food is the ideal solution so you can control just what goes on them. The 2016 Dirty Dozen List (this changes slightly from year to year) is:
- Bell Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
There are supplements that you can take, depending on your symptoms that will help ease the “pain”. You can check out my other blog posts to discover my recommendations. You can also contact me directly for a one-on-one consultation so I can provide you with a more personalized program.