By Maureen McDonnell, RN
Now that I’m in my 50’s, I seem to be missing a few! Actually, it was in my early 40’s (about the time when my once regular mid-cycle ovulation process started to sputter) that I began losing my body’s mood stabilizing supply of progesterone. And when estrogen becomes unopposed (because of this decline) all hell can break loose!
But enough about me! There is more to the missing or imbalanced hormone story than this natural decline that occurs in pre-menopause and menopause. According to Dr. Michael Borkin a naturopathic medical doctor (NMD) the imbalance can start at a much younger age. “People tend to think of women’s ‘hormone problems’ as starting in mid-life with the onset of menopause. In fact, a dysfunctional pattern can begin during adolescent years or even before birth. The severity of hormonal problems may increase with age, but it is not aging per se that is the root of declining health.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are a type of protein referred to as steroids that play many important roles in the body. They are involved in reproduction, sexual desire and function, stress, how we metabolize minerals and regulate fluids. The glands that produce hormones make up the endocrine system and in women include: the pituitary gland, hypothalamus, thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, adrenal cortex and ovaries.
When hormones are in balance we feel good, have lots of energy, sleep well are able to fight off infections, our digestion is good and we have a healthy sex drive. When the hormonal system is out of whack, we can experience symptoms that range from: depression, anxiety, PMS, fibrocystic breasts, facial hair, fluid retention, lack of concentration, mood swings, infertility, hot flashes, thyroid problems, weight gain, low libido, insomnia, adrenal exhaustion, irregular cycles, increased breast cancer risk, polycystic ovary syndrome PCOS and poor digestion.
Why do hormones become imbalanced?
1. Stress: In addition to the decreased production and or loss of certain hormones as a result of the natural aging process, stress plays a major role in causing hormone imbalance.
As Dr. Mary James, a naturopathic physician explained during her excellent lecture at the Time for Our Power, Women Bringing Change to the World conference in Asheville a couple years back, stress causes the body to produce more cortisol at the expense of other necessary sex hormones. When this happens, the normal production of estrogen, progesterone, Aldosterone, DHEA etc, is diminished and the adrenal glands (where cortisol is produced) become overworked, depleted and in some cases exhausted!
Both physical and emotional stress (too much work, problems with our relationships, financial stress, poor diet, processed foods, illness, inflammation, toxic overload etc.) lead to the overproduction of cortisol. Besides compromising our much needed downstream sex hormones, cortisol also raises blood sugar, causes deposits of fat in our lower abdomen, raises cholesterol, increases blood pressure, and because one of the building blocks for cortisol is progesterone, an overproduction of cortisol leads to unopposed estrogen or “estrogen dominance,” yet another culprit in the hormone imbalance story.
2. Estrogen Dominance: In a normal menstrual cycle scenario, estrogen (a growth stimulating hormone) dominates the first 2 weeks leading up to ovulation. During the second half, progesterone comes on board to balance out the estrogen. When our progesterone production slows down as we head toward menopause (mid 40’s), estrogen can go unopposed causing an array of symptoms and leading to “estrogen dominance.” In addition to the natural decline in progesterone, over 87,000 chemicals have been created since the first World War, and although some may have made our lives more convenient (plastics, weed killers, pesticides, additives to prolong the shelf life of food), many of these chemicals have estrogenic activityin the body making it more prone to ill health, hormonal imbalance leading to what some call l “estrogen dominance.”
Growth hormones (synthetic estrogens) fed to cows, farm raised fish and non-organic chicken and turkey, for instance, may make the cow or chicken get fat faster (increasing the farmer’s profit margin), but for us women, those estrogen- mimicking chemicals attach themselves to sites on our cell walls that were designed for our body’s own estrogens (not these toxic imitators) and well, you can imagine the havoc they wreak on our health.
Many believe these estrogen disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are not only involved in the current 7%-10% rate of infertility, early onset of puberty, and PMS, but they may also play a leading role in the massive increase in breast cancer.
In addition to growth hormones fed to our livestock, EDCs are found in pesticides, organophosphate compounds, phthalates (in plastics and most nail polish), Bisephenol A (lining canned food and coating ATM and gas station receipts, plastic water bottles, plastic containers, plastic wrap, chlorine bleached products, FD&C Red #3, BHA (food preservative), non-organic and hormone-fed beef and weed killers.
3. Synthetic hormones including the birth control pill in our waterways: Compounds from birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy and all forms of hormone disrupting chemicals that we use and ingest via our food supply, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals make their way into our waterways and are not being completely broken down by our current water treatment systems. Therefore they too are negatively impacting our hormone balance. According to Deidre Imus author of The Essential Green You “All that waste water cycles back into our environment so scientists are now finding common ingredients from personal care products contaminating rivers and streams around the world.” One 2010 study discussed by Deanna Osbornne MD showed 80% of the male fish in the Potomac River have now been “feminized” and are producing eggs. Additional effects of these ubiquitous sources of synthetic hormones show up in girls as young as 7 years of age developing breasts (precocious puberty) and young females menstruation at age 11 and earlier (as opposed to starting at age 15 or 16 as they did 50 years ago).
After the Women’s Initiative Study (involving over 16,000 menopausalwomen) revealed synthetic hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was responsible for an increase in breast cancer, heart disease and stroke, many women wisely stopped taking them immediately. Unfortunately, when this information hit the airwaves, we “threw the baby out with the bath water” failing to make the distinction between synthetic hormones and the safer, more natural bio-identical hormones such as natural progesterone made from wild yams that actually have protective health and hormone balancing effects.
It All Starts with Lifestyle Changes
Regardless of the symptoms a woman might experience as a result of hormonal imbalance (ranging from PMS, irregular cycles, infertility, hot flashes, anxiety, weight gain, depression, belly fat etc.), common sense dictates that before adding hormone replacement therapy of any type (even the bio-identical kind), it makes sense to first get rid of the hormone disrupting toxins in your food, personal care products and environment, and give the body the nutrient support it needs to achieve hormonal balance.
Natural Ways to Get Your Hormones Back in Balance:
Decrease stress: since stress interferes with the production of sex hormones, weakens the adrenals and can lead to estrogen dominance, minimize it as much as possible. Take a step back from your life and identify your priorities. Consider including stress reducing activities such as meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, walking, hiking etc. Creating small changes add up to big differences over time.
Green your life as much as possible: avoid exposure to pesticides, plastics, weed killers, cosmetics and other personal care products that contain chemical estrogen disrupting compounds. Purchase non GMO, organic food as much as possible. Don’t smoke, limit alcohol, use no VOC paints, limit exposure to electro magnetic fields, keep cell phones in purse (not in pockets), drink filtered water from stainless steel bottles instead of plastic ones etc.
Maintain a good weight paying close attention to the belly fat which can be a result of too much stress (cortisol), hypothyroidism and or a high sugar diet. Excess body fat is considered > 28%. Surprisingly, being too thin or taking cholesterol lowering drugs can also throw hormones out of whack as cholesterol (see slide above) is the precursor for many hormones.
Take supplements including a good comprehensive multi, fish oil,probiotics.
Eat a healthy diet that includes 4 ½ cups of antioxidant rich organic vegetables and fruit per day, lean organic protein, soaked organic nuts, seeds and whole grains. Avoid sugar laden and processed foods and include healthy fats (see Healthy Fat article www.WNCWoman.com/ December 2012 issue).
Avoid Sweets: We falsely believe sugar laden foods will sooth our PMS or depression. Actually, the opposite is true as sugar depletes our nutrient stores needed for mood stabilization and hormonal balance.
Avoid constipation: in addition to fresh organic vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, include freshly ground flax seed and other organic nuts and seeds (pumpkin, hemp, sunflower) as sources of fiber (and in the case of flax also a source ofplant or phytoestrogens). Along with 25-40gms of fiber per day, having good bacteria flora in the intestines will insure proper breakdown and elimination of harmful estrogens and other toxic substances. If these are not eliminated daily, these estrogens can re-conjugate, recirculate, and contribute to breast cancer and other illnesses. Estrogen is excreted by the bowel; if stool remains in the bowel for longer periods of time (constipation), estrogen can be reabsorbed back into the circulation.
A happy, healthy liver is a hormone balancing machine: When the liver has to work overtime breaking down and eliminating excess toxins from alcohol, drugs, caffeine and environmental chemicals, its capacity to cleans the blood of estrogens and other hormones diminishes. Since the liver breaks down all the hormones once they have done their job in the body, if it is not operating efficiently, or if it is overburdened, hormones can accumulate and cause hormonal imbalance. According to the “Liver Doctor” (Dr. Sandra Cabot, MD: Poorly broken down estrogens can lead to an increase in breast tenderness, heavy periods, weight gain, a pear shape and of course “estrogen dominance. Poorly broken down testosterone can lead to excess facial hair, weight gain, loss of scalp hair and an apple shape. Even PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) falls into this category of disorders occurring as a result of poorly broken down hormones. The liver doctor states that this syndrome can be helped by a liver detox program and natural progesterone cream. To learn more about natural ways to cleanse and detox the liver leading to improved health and hormone balancing go to www.WNCWoman.com/March 2012.
Natural progesterone cream: After making some or all of the above mentioned life style changes, according to respected author and anti-aging expert, Jaqueln McCandless, MD “With estrogen being so ubiquitous in our toxic world and progesterone being such a fragile molecule, if every woman around 45 or even earlier with any symptom of progesterone deficiency, such as PMS (main cause is low progesterone), low libido, anxiety, depression, difficulty losing weight, not to mention infertility, etc. ruled out (along with hypothyroidim, chronic candida infection, and major nutritional deficiencies) ’estrogen dominance’ by far the most important cause of breast cancer. I have maintained for years that if every woman started supplementing with bio-identical progesterone around 45, the incidence of breast cancer would plummet.” According to Dr. Northrup, MD, “Many of the symptoms of estrogen dominance can be relieved with natural, bioidentical progesterone, available over the counter in a 2% cream (one quarter teaspoon contains ~20 mg progesterone). quarter to one-half teaspoon 2% progesterone cream on skin (e.g., face, breasts, abdomen, hands) daily for two to three weeks prior to onset of period. If periods are irregular, use 2% progesterone daily, or from the full moon to the dark of the moon. (That way you’ll be teaming up with the cycle of the Earth itself — the same cycle that governs the tides and the flow of fluids on the planet.)”
Additional Reading and References:
Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup, MD
The Bioidentical Hormone Handbook by Deanna Osbornne, MD
Maureen has been a registered nurse for 35 years (in the fields of: childbirth education, labor and delivery, autism and clinical nutrition). She is available to speak to small and large groups on health topics ranging from hormone balancing, breast health, healthy aging, natural approaches to ADHD and Autism, and the importance of detoxing the liver for weight loss and optimal wellness. Contact her at MauraHealth@aol.com. Maureen is also the co-founder of Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet (SOKHOP. com) and is a frequent lecturer on the role the environment and nutrition play in women and children’s health. Currently she is the health editor of WNC Woman Magazine, is a featured health blogger at www.DIEV.org, works as a consultant for Arbonne and is the Medical Coordinator of the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer. She and her husband have five grandkids and feel blessed to be living in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina.