Balancing hormones naturally
Hormone” means in Greek, “to set in motion.” Hormones are chemical communicators produced by glands and tissues. They are released into the blood where they travel to other tissues, sending signals and initiating various activities in the body and brain. Hormones affect how we think and feel and keeping them in balance will profoundly affect our health and wellbeing. In this article, I am going to talk about balancing hormones naturally.
Maintaining the correct levels of hormones is a complex and delicate balancing act taking place continuously in our bodies. Many factors affect hormone production and even slight imbalances (which may not show up in conventional hormone tests) can cause symptoms. Conditions involving hormone imbalance include pre-menstrual syndrome, an irregular cycle, lack of periods, menstrual pain, PCOS, endometriosis, infertility, abnormal cells on the cervix, premature bone loss, fibroids, inability to lose weight, auto immune diseases, poor circulation, digestive problems, dry eyes and skin, insulin resistance and diabetes.
The hormonal orchestra
The sex hormones, oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are probably the most well know hormones and they control sexual development and reproduction. Other examples are the thyroid hormones that are responsible for growth and metabolism, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenals and blood sugar balancing hormones such as insulin made by the pancreas.
The various different hormone (endocrine) glands work in an interconnected way, rather like an orchestra. The conductor of the hormonal orchestra is the pituitary gland in the brain. Each gland needs to be in tune with the others and if one becomes over or underactive it will upset the balance of the others.
Blood sugar balance
One very direct way in which nutrition influences hormone balance is through blood sugar control. Insulin is the principle blood sugar balancing hormone and it can become less efficient if constantly stimulated by a diet high in refined sugar. This can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the hormonal system. Women suffering from the hormonal disorder Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, understand the connection well as they can get very severe cravings for sweet foods. The drug metformin is often prescribed in these cases as it treats the blood sugar imbalance. However, following the right diet is a highly effective means of keeping your blood sugar balanced. By doing this you will benefit your entire hormonal system.
Whilst in the menopausal phase, oestrogen is on the wane, too much oestrogen in relation to progesterone may be a problem during a woman’s reproductive years. This can be because there is actually too high a level of oestrogen or it can be the result of progesterone being too low which means the ratio is imbalanced. Some factors to consider are:
- Being overweight: Oestrogen is produced by fat cells so it will increase in proportion to body fat. Aromatase is the enzyme in fat tissue that triggers oestrogen production.
- Inflammation stimulates oestrogen production. Oestrogen is pro- inflammatory when there is too much of it so the cycle continues. This activity can be taking place in the ovaries, breast and joints which act as local oestrogen factories.
- Insulin resistance caused by a diet high in refined sugar creates increased oestrogen production.
- An unhealthy liver: Poor oestrogen metabolism is a major contributor to oestrogen dominance. Oestrogen has to be broken down by the liver which must be kept in good health. The conventional liver test available via your doctor, checks for abnormalities in certain liver enzymes and other substances. More often than not however, such a test will show normal results unless there is advanced damage in the liver. The right nutrition can be very supportive to healthy liver function.
- Folic acid deficiency: Methylation is the principle way in which oestrogen is deactivated and for this process, folic acid is essential. It is thought that as many as 30 % of women have a functional folic acid deficiency.
- Unhealthy gut flora: Oestrogen may be reabsorbed into the gut leading to too much of it. After being broken down by the liver, oestrogen leaves the body through the stool. Unhealthy gut bacteria produce an enzyme, Beta glucuronidase which will interrupt the process by reactivating the oestrogen in the bile, so that it is then released as free oestrogen and is reabsorbed into the bowel. Production of this enzyme will be increased by a diet high in saturated fat.
- Poor digestion leads to inefficient excretion of oestrogen metabolites.
- Stress if prolonged over a period of time, will disrupt hormone balance.
So as you can see, achieving optimal hormone balance requires a multi faceted approach. All the above factors are amenable to nutritional interventions.
As well as putting the good stuff into your body, it’s important to be aware of potentially negative substances in the environment. In the last 50 years a huge number of synthetic chemicals have been introduced into the environment. For example vehicle pollution, plastics, pesticides, industrial waste, household cleaning fluids and carpeting are just a few sources. These environmental chemicals contain xenooestrogens which are very disruptive to hormone health. A rather alarming illustration of this is that some fish from polluted water have been found to have both male and female sex organs.
Such “foreign” oestrogens mimic the action of regular oestrogen and are taken up by the oestrogen receptors in the cells, causing the formation of cysts and the development of disease. The positive news is that dietary factors will influence the balance of “good” and “bad” oestrogens in the body.
Saliva hormone testing
Oestrogen has to be very carefully balanced and managed in the body. The tiniest increase in oestrogen can have a significant effect. Excess oestrogen in women is associated with conditions such as endometriosis, fibroids, fibrocystic breasts and cervical dysplasia (abnormal cell growth on the cervix). In men, too much oestrogen can lower sperm count.
A standard hormone test via your GP will involve measuring levels of bound sex hormones such as testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone, in the blood. Unless a hormone imbalance is pronounced, the results of such a test will often come back normal. Much hormone imbalance is more subtle than this and is outside the scope of a blood test. A more sensitive means of testing is to use saliva which measures free circulating hormones rather than bound ones. Multiple samples can be taken at different times of the day and month. This makes it possible to track the hormonal pattern over an entire cycle rather than simply spot checking on a certain day as is the case with conventional blood tests. The accuracy of saliva testing is well documented by specialists in the field of steroid hormones (see footnote) but it is not used by the NHS currently. You can have these tests done privately through a nutritional therapist.