The endocrine system comprises the body’s hormone-secreting glands and organs, responsible for regulating every other system of the body. If your hormone activity is out of balance your whole physiology, plus your emotions, can be affected.
Modern medical practice has created several anomalies in how we perceive what is ‘healthy’ and what is ‘disease’. Natural healthy states like menstruation, pregnancy and menopause are often treated as medical conditions with (sometimes) unnecessary interventions. In fact, some interventions create hormonal imbalances as a ‘side effect’.
On the other hand, some real indicators of an abnormal hormonal imbalance are often dismissed as “normal for your age”. Typical examples are extreme mood swings, loss of libido, memory loss, fatigue and ‘middle aged spread’ weight gain.
The naturopathic approach is to identify the factors impacting negatively on endocrine function, as part of a holistic view of health, and offer nutritional and lifestyle solutions. In today’s competitive marketplace large scale food production has reduced the nutritional quality of much of what we put into our bodies, while at the same time polluting our living environment. Modern labour saving technologies are another source of harmful toxins, while tempting us to exchange slower work or communication methods for more stressful, fast-paced productivity-driven behaviour.
It’s a complex world, and those complexities are mirrored in our health outcomes. Fortunately, we can still look to nature to provide balance and restore function to our all-important endocrine system.
How do you know when your hormones are out of balance?
It’s normal to have a range of emotional and physical responses to the events we encounter in everyday life. Sometimes life is stressful so feeling upset, shocked, sad, tired or insecure in response to unexpected change is part of the human experience.
When you notice you are reacting to the usual stressors more often, finding it difficult to regain your equilibrium and feeling out of control or overwhelmed, a hormonal imbalance might be an important part of the picture. As primary regulators of all our functioning, hormones directly influence our emotional state. Conversely, our emotional state also influences hormone secretion.
What symptoms are due to hormonal irregularities?
There are many ways a hormonal imbalance can manifest in women, and a continuum of effect from mild to severe. The long list of symptoms can commonly include:
- early onset of menstruation
- irregular bleeding
- premenstrual mood swings
- lowered blood pressure
- low libido
- memory loss
- water retention and bloating
- weight gain
- facial hair growth
- hair loss
- temperature dysregulation
- vaginal dryness
- hot flushes
- night sweats
- irregular periods
- either scanty or heavy and prolonged bleeding
- painful uterine cramping
- ovarian pain
- urinary tract infections
- infertility …and more…
Premenstrual syndrome, premature menopause, hypo- or hyper-thyroid dysfunction and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) are all caused by hormonal irregularities.
What influences our hormonal health?
Some of the lifestyle factors that affect our endocrine function include physical stress or injury, mental and emotional stress or trauma, deficient and devitalised nutrition, lack of or excessive exercise, and toxic environmental chemicals found in a range of products from cling wrap and cosmetics to pesticides and paints. Toxins are a major factor and the effect of xenoestrogens is discussed in more detail below.
Stress, adrenal function and the progesterone connection
After very prolonged periods of stress, the body can require more cortisol be secreted than it can produce. This eventual decline in cortisol production is the proper definition of fatigued adrenal glands and reduced adrenal hormone output affects the functioning of your whole body.
Reduced progesterone output is one outcome of exhausted adrenals, making stress an important contributing factor in estrogen dominance. (As well as being a precursor to estrogen production in the body, progesterone is also the hormonal precursor to other important hormones including cortisol and testosterone.)
Are there good and bad estrogens?
This gets a bit complicated, and the names are so similar they can be confusing. Women have three major naturally occurring estrogens – called estrones, estradiols, and estriols. Estradiols are the strongest and are most active during the reproductive stage of life. There are more estriols circulating during pregnancy, and after menopause, estrones are the predominant of the estrogens.
From these 3 main groups, some metabolites of the above-mentioned estrogens, 2-hydroxyestrone and 2-hydroxyestradiol are antioxidants that provide a protective role within the body. These are often described as ‘good estrogens’.
16α-hydroxyestrone and 4-hydroxyestrone are known as a ‘bad estrogens’ due to their association with cancer. These two estrogen metabolites are associated with unwanted weight gain and hormone related cancers such as breast and uterine cancers.
For optimal health, the ratio between the 2-hydroxyestrone and 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone are important to have in balance.
Causes of high or low estrogen
Low estrogen is usually related to women reaching or after menopause, when ovarian hormone output decreases. Another cause is surgical intervention such as hysterectomy.
In younger women, low estrogen levels may be due to over exercising, eating disorders and/or having very little body fat. These can all delay female development and menstruation. If low estrogen levels in younger women are not addressed, the ability to conceive and maintain a pregnancy is compromised.
High estrogen is one of the primary causes of hormonal dysregulation in women. Maintaining the balance of progesterone to estrogen is essential for healthy menstrual cycles and all the associated symptoms of this. Increasingly women are experiencing a ratio of estrogen to progesterone that is excessive. It is in this context that we talk about estrogen dominance.
What everyday products could be disrupting our hormones?
Xenoestrogens, or phthalates are the chemicals that mimic natural estrogen, and bind to its receptor sites in the body. The body is tricked into responding as if there is estrogen present. The result is an oversupply of estrogens circulating in the body, which can overload the liver as it tries to metabolise them. Xenoestrogens occur in the following everyday household products:
- Bisphenol A (BPA) in cling wrap, plastic bags, drink bottles, take-away containers
- Car interiors, toys, vinyl flooring, shower curtains
- Medications such as the birth control pill, hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
- cigarettes, paints, plastics
- parabens in cosmetics and skincare
- dioxins from chemicals used in sanitary products, skin care, fragrances
- PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) in pesticides
- organochlorines in insecticides, fungicides and herbicides
What do these xenoestrogens do in the body?
Xenoestrogens flood the body’s estrogen receptor sites, and often have a stronger estrogenic response than some of the body-made estrogen. This leads to estrogen dominance where the ratio of estrogen to progesterone is too high, a major factor in many women’s health issues.
The excess hormones need to be eliminated by the liver, and so circulate around the body until they can be metabolised and excreted. Reproductive health issues can be worsened when there is high estrogen, because it can stimulate the growth of fibroids and cysts.
Other factors that contribute to high estrogen
Obesity, anabolic steroids, hormones in meat and dairy, exposure to pesticides, and a poor diet are also major contributors to high estrogen and its related disorders in men and women.
The dangers of high estrogen
Prolonged exposure to excess estrogen can be detrimental to health, and can be a driver for some very common modern diseases.
How do I know if I am estrogen dominant or deficient?
There are specific blood tests and saliva tests that can be completed and should be worked through with a health professional. As a basic guide for the symptoms to look for:
Symptoms of high estrogen can include:
- Weight gain, particularly around the abdomen
- decreased libido
- hair loss
- irregular or abnormal menstrual periods
- bloating (water retention)
- trouble sleeping
- fibrocystic breasts
- mood swings (often irritability and depression)
- foggy brain
Low estrogen symptoms can include:
- hot flushes and night sweats
- vaginal dryness
- urinary tract infections
- facial hair
- breast tenderness
- low mood
- joint pain and headaches.
What can you do to balance your body’s hormone activity?
Progesterone is the precursor to estrogen, as well as its antagonist. There are different ways to increase progesterone through your lifestyle, including:
- reducing stress – cortisol competes with progesterone
- make sure cholesterol is within healthy levels. If it is too low, it can be hard for the body to produce sex hormones
- address poor sleep patterns – if the circadian rhythms are healthy, there is better hormone production
- Support liver function to enhance the normal detoxification pathways.
Eating foods high in natural magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6 will help increase your body’s progesterone production. In addition to counter high estrogen you need to reduce the burden of xenoestrogens on your body. The first important stage in treating a hormone imbalance is to remove any external factors contributing to the problem. The xenoestrogenic products listed previously is a good place to start. Choose eco-friendly cleaners, eat organic food and reduce your use of plastics, especially for food and drink storage. In this way, you significantly reduce the number of toxins you ingest and absorb from your everyday environment.
Dealing effectively with problematic issues or situations that are stressful for you is important. To reduce the load on your adrenal glands you need to reduce your burdens and improve your quality of life. Regular exercise, relaxation techniques and self-nurturing practices all positively affect your endocrine function.
How can food help?
The next stage is to focus on your internal physical environment and support your body to normalise hormonal activity. Your liver is responsible for the breakdown of excess hormones in the body, so working on optimising liver function is central to hormonal health. Reduce your intake of foods that are hard on the liver: excess animal protein, cheese, cream and ice cream; alcohol, sugar, chocolate, and any highly processed foods.
Wheat germ, kelp, walnuts, turmeric, thyme and oregano are good examples of progesterone promoting foods to include in meals. Cruciferous vegetables (a.k.a. brassicas) like broccoli, kale, cress, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and others from this plant family are great estrogen inhibitors and liver supporters. They contain Di-indolylmethane (DIM), which has been shown in research studies to support the immune system and balance estrogens in the body. Maca root is another cruciferous plant known for its hormone regulating action.
The cleansing properties of onions and garlic, bitters like raw rocket, dandelion leaves, and mesclun help to stimulate the liver. Fibrous nuts, seeds and wholegrains, such as linseeds and almonds help bind metabolic waste and increase elimination via the bowel. They’re also rich sources of omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Green ‘super foods’ such as chlorella or spirulina and organic vegetable juices are some other good liver supporting foods.
What herbs and nutritional supplements can help?
The function of herbal medicine is to support and nourish the body to regain harmony and balance. There are many herbs that have a specific balancing effect on the endocrine system. Some familiar herbs prescribed for women’s hormonal health are listed below, and these are generally more effective in combination with other well indicated herbs. Your local herbalist or naturopath can advise you on a combination that suits your individual symptom picture.
Chaste tree has a specific effect on the pituitary gland – the master gland of the endocrine system. It is a progesterone promoter and best known for its hormone regulating and balancing action.
Wild yam is another progesterone promoter and it is also adaptogenic, as are Dong Quai, Liquorice, Sarsaparilla root and the Ginsengs. Adaptogens respond to the needs of the individual and influence the endocrine system accordingly. In this way, they may either promote or inhibit estrogen activity, as needed.
Black cohosh is an estrogen promoter, so only indicated when estrogen levels are low, as per menopause. It is most famous for its use in formulations for reducing hot flushes. Black cohosh should not be taken if you have breast cancer, and it is also contraindicated in pregnancy.
Prolonged use of any herbal formula is not recommended without the guidance of a qualified herbalist.
Some specific vitamins and minerals are needed for healthy endocrine function.
- Vitamin E is involved in increasing progesterone secretion.
- Zinc helps to balance testosterone and copper. High copper raises estrogen.
- Vitamin B6 is well indicated for improving hormonal health, having a direct role in production of many hormones and neurotransmitters.
- Magnesium is also important for maintaining the right progesterone/estrogen ratio and is usually deficient in cases of estrogen dominance. Both B6 and magnesium are needed by the liver to metabolise estrogen, and magnesium is critical for calcium to function well in the body.
- Vitamin C and bioflavonoids are important factors in adrenal and thyroid function as well as boosting immune health.
- If depression, mood swings, fatigue, memory loss and insomnia are your symptoms then vitamin D may be low. The active form of vitamin D is a hormone so it is an integral component of the endocrine system. Regular healthy exposure to sunlight is your best source, and if you’re missing out on the sun’s rays a vitamin D supplement might be useful.
-The HealthPost Naturopaths
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