Hormones and fertility

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.

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.

Other causes of imbalanced hormones

  • 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 foods and juices can have a cleansing effect on a “sluggish” liver.
  • 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. An excellent way of checking for functional folic acid deficiency is to do a live blood microscopy. If there is a marked increase in nuclear segmentation of the neutrophils this is a good indicator of impaired folic acid metabolism.
  • 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.

Synthetic oestrogens

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.

Polycystic ovary syndrome

Many women who consult me have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) a condition which is caused by a hormonal imbalance. It is characterized by a cluster of cysts on the ovaries. These cysts are thought to be partially developed follicles which fail to mature enough to produce an egg.

Maureen’s story

Take my client Maureen for example. She had been diagnosed with PCOS at age 32, after not having a period for eight months. When she came to see me, progesterone from her GP had kick-started her cycle again but it was irregular and she was suffering from painful periods. She also had other typical symptoms associated with PCOS such as abdominal bloating, cravings for sweet foods, skin problems and frequent mood swings. She had also been told by her specialist that she had a less than 10 percent chance of conceiving naturally and had been advised to do assisted fertility treatment.

Since Maureen had a history of sever constipation, my first priority was to improve her bowel function because the accumulation of waste products in a sluggish bowel can affect the reproductive area. We also worked on hormone balance with a blend of herbs including agnus castus. This herb is believed to stimulate the production of luteinizing hormone which in turn regulates the production of progesterone.

When Maureen came to see me a few weeks later, she reported increased frequency of bowel function and a corresponding improvement in the texture and appearance of her skin. According to naturopathic medicine, the two are often connected. The bloating was much better too and her sugar cravings were under control.

The results of a test showed that her mercury levels were slightly high so I added to her programme some nutrients which are known to help the body expel heavy metals from the tissues. Six weeks later Maureen informed me that she and her partner had been to the fertility clinic and had been told that their chances of a natural conception were less than 10 percent.

Maureen decided to continue with the diet anyway as she had got used to it by now but decided that she would also look into assisted fertility treatment. In fact she never needed it as, two months later she called me, delighted to report that she had conceived naturally. The story doesn’t end there either! After giving birth to healthy twins, she fell pregnant again very soon afterwards and had another healthy baby.

These case studies show success with individuals clients. It is important to remember that we are all unique and an individually tailored eating and supplement programme is recommended to ensure an effective outcome.

Premenstrual syndrome

In 1981 a woman killed her boyfriend after an argument by running him over with her car. The woman was given a conditional discharge for 12 months and banned from driving for the same period. The reason for the light sentence was that the verdict was diminished responsibility due to PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome).

This is an extreme example of the effects of PMS. However, many women experience monthly mental and physical symptoms ranging from mild to life disrupting. Some of the common ones include:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Excess gas
  • Wind pains
  • Constipation
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Weepiness
  • Clumsiness
  • Poor concentration
  • Feeling “spaced out”
  • Weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Food cravings especially for sweet foods

To be classified as PMS the symptoms must occur after ovulation (i.e. the middle of the month) and disappear around the time your period starts. Recording your symptoms in a diary can be helpful. If the symptoms occur throughout the whole month then PMS is unlikely to be the cause.

There has been quite a lot of research into the cause of PMS, so far without any conclusive results. Most of the conventional treatments on offer consist of giving drugs such as synthetic hormones, diuretics or anti-depressants. None of these treatments addresses the underlying cause of PMS and they have side effects.

The nutritional approach is to maximise nutrient intake by following the right eating plan, especially paying attention to balancing blood sugar levels, and use additional supplements of herbs or nutrients to correct any deficiencies and imbalances.

A client of mine, Karen, complained of abdominal bloating, severe mood swings, sugar cravings and pain and spotting before the start of her period. All the symptoms except for the bloating would disappear as soon as her period started. We changed her diet quite radically and she took mineral supplements, an active form of B6 and a herbal blend containing herbs to balance her progesterone levels. After 6 weeks her symptoms were much reduced and after 12 weeks, virtually gone. Her reason for consulting me was infertility and once the PMS was sorted out she did go on to conceive 6 months later.

Flower power

It is also very important to address causes of persistent stress in your life as stress has a known affect on hormone balance. Yoga is particularly beneficial for relaxing both mind and body. Meditation has a calming effect on the hormonal system. I find the

Australian Bush Flower Essences very effective for addressing emotional issues linked to PMS. Take 7 drops of any of the essences below, on their own or in a blend, on waking and before sleeping.

CROWEA is for excessive worry and tension and difficulty in relaxing. Often the tension is felt in the abdominal area and there may be digestive problems as a result.

PEACH FLOWERED TEA TREE helps balance the pancreas which controls blood sugar levels. It is good for mood swings, lack of confidence and feeling emotionally unbalanced.

SHE OAK helps fluid retention, regulates the hormones and balances the ovaries.

DAGGER HAKEA is good if you experience a lot of pre-menstrual anger.

Australian Bush Flower Essences are available mail order from Archturus 01592 620 865 or in good independent health food shops. Archturus will blend several different essences up for you in a single bottle.

These case studies show success with individuals clients. It is important to remember that we are all unique and an individually tailored eating and supplement programme is recommended to ensure an effective outcome.

Copyright © Penny Crowther (London Nutritionist)
Tel: 07761 768 754 | Email: penny@nutritionistlondon.co.uk

Footnote: Riad-Fahamy D, Read GF, Walker RF. Salivary steroid assays for assessing variation in endocrine activity. J Steroid Biochem. Jul:19 (1A):265–72. 1983.