Dr Felecia Sumner
Hormonal Health: Why Balance Is So Important For Women
Hormonal health is all about balance - but achieving the right balance can be a challenge, particularly for women in midlife. One of the most striking examples of this dynamic is found in women whose estrogen and progesterone balance is off kilter. The wide range of resulting symptoms can be debilitating, and women can find themselves battling heavy periods, disruptive PMS, fatigue, and many more symptoms.
How can balance be restored for optimum well-being? Let’s take a look at how hormones influence your health and how a healthy lifestyle can help.
Hormones’ Role In Your Health
Your body contains over 50 different types of hormones, and they all act as chemical messengers to other parts of the body. Hormones are secreted by endocrine glands, including the:
● Pituitary gland
● Pineal gland
● Adrenal glands
When hormones are released by endocrine glands, they travel to specific receptor sites, where they “lock-in” and transmit a message to perform a specific action.
What does this mean in practical terms? Your hormones control almost every function in your body, including:
● Maturity and growth
● Metabolism of food items
● Sexual function and reproductive health
● Cognitive ability
● Stress response
Hormones also work in tandem with each other. A good example is a relationship between progesterone and estrogen, two hormones produced by the ovaries that work together to regulate the menstrual cycle.
The Link Between Estrogen and Progesterone
Estrogen and progesterone have complementary functions. Estrogen is the more energizing of the two and helps with memory, libido, mood, sleep, and many other functions. It helps protect bone density, youthful skin and hair, mental sharpness, and healthy cholesterol levels. Estrogen levels rise in the follicular phase, which is the first half of the menstrual cycle, up to the point of ovulation.
Progesterone is produced after ovulation occurs (the period called the luteal phase) and has a more calming function. Progesterone levels peak about midway through the luteal phase, then drop off before menstruation occurs. This sudden drop can contribute to symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Progesterone helps regulate the effects of estrogen on the body. It plays a role in the growth of the uterine lining during menstruation and helps regulate the timing of menstruation.
As you see, both hormones play vital functions in a woman’s body, but they must be balanced. Having inadequate levels of progesterone is not only problematic on its own, but estrogen doesn’t function as well with low levels of progesterone. When your levels of estrogen and progesterone aren’t balanced, estrogen dominance can occur.
Estrogen Dominance: When Hormones Go Off Kilter
Without the balancing influence of progesterone, estrogen’s influence on the body can lead to troubling symptoms. Women who previously hadn’t experienced trouble with their periods may find themselves bleeding far heavier than before. They may struggle with PMS or wonder where their wild mood swings came from. The symptoms of estrogen dominance include:
● Heavy periods
● Menstrual cramps
● Fertility issues
● Blood sugar problems
● Weight gain, particularly around the belly
● Thyroid problems
● Higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases
● Mood disorders, including anxiety and depression
● Anger management issues
● Increased risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers
What Causes Estrogen Dominance?
Many factors can lead to estrogen imbalance, and it’s not uncommon for a woman to experience more than one cause.
● Problems in other parts of the body can contribute to estrogen dominance, including poor liver function since the liver helps eliminate excess estrogen.
● Other hormones also influence estrogen and progesterone production, particularly insulin and cortisol, so when those hormones are disrupted, the effects can cascade.
● Chronic stress can lead to harmful hormonal fluctuations.
● A poor diet can also lead to hormonal problems, because magnesium, zinc, protein, and B vitamins help to metabolize estrogen. In addition, since fat cells produce estrogen, obesity can contribute to excess levels.
● Normal age-related fluctuations in hormone levels can create imbalances, particularly during the perimenopause years. Women experiencing polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are also vulnerable.
● Interestingly, sometimes estrogen dominance isn’t caused by estrogen itself. Xenohormones are compounds that mimic the properties of estrogens. They can be absorbed by the body and trigger estrogen production, leading to further imbalances. Many common products contain xenohormones, including plastics (watch out for plastic food containers in particular), pesticides, factory-farmed meat, car exhaust, and emulsifiers found in shampoo and other beauty products.
How To Balance Estrogen and Progesterone
1 - Reduce stress.
Stress, particularly the chronic stress so common in our modern lives, impacts cortisol production, which in turn impacts other hormones, including progesterone. Stress reduction techniques such as meditation and yoga can help regulate stress and hormone levels. Sometimes, a simple attitude shift in attitude can slow the “flight or fight” response that produces cortisol. To do this, try considering a stressful event in a more positive light - perhaps as an opportunity to prove your strength.
2 - Get enough sleep.
Hormonal imbalances can cause sleep disturbances. At the same time, you need adequate sleep to maintain a healthy hormonal balance. If this seems frustrating, it is! Work with a healthcare practitioner to address stubborn sleep issues and avoid sleep medications.
3 - Maintain a healthy liver and gut.
Your liver metabolizes estrogen, so it’s imperative to maintain optimum liver health by reducing exposure to toxins and minimizing alcohol. In addition, your gut microbiome also plays a role in estrogen regulation. Probiotic supplements, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, and drinks like kefir help maintain the “good” bacteria in the microbiome. Fiber consumption triggers the production of more bacteria, so increase your fiber intake with a focus on whole grains and produce. High amounts of fiber can also lead to more bowel movements, which helps eliminate excess estrogen.
4 - Eat for hormone health.
The traditional Western diet of highly processed, high-sugar foods is linked to higher estrogen production. In contrast, a Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce estrogen levels. The Mediterranean diet centers around whole grains, brightly colored vegetables, olive oil, and fish. Green, leafy vegetables like kale and spinach are particularly beneficial.
Protein is essential for the production of amino acids, which are the building blocks of hormones. Some evidence shows that vegetarian sources of protein are the most effective in regulating estrogen - but the most important factor is to avoid meat from animals exposed to pesticides and artificial hormones.
Omega-3 fatty acids help regular insulin and cortisol production and reduce inflammation, which has a beneficial effect on estrogen. Foods high in omega-3 include chia seeds, avocados, many nuts, and fatty fish.
5 - Improve hormone receptivity with exercise.
Some research shows that regular exercise can make your body more receptive to the messages carried by hormones. Plus, exercise can help reduce excess body fat, which carries estrogen.
6 - Consider replacement.
The decision to start hormone therapy can be complex, with many factors to consider, including a woman’s age and overall health. It’s important to work with a healthcare practitioner to find a solution that works for you.
In bioidentical hormones, the hormones are derived from plants and are identical to the hormones produced in your body. These can be customized based on your unique hormone profile. Traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is synthetic. The hormones are close to those in your body, but not always exactly the same. Long-term use of HRT carries many risks, including increased rates of certain cancers, heart disease, and strokes.
If you recognize any symptoms of hormonal imbalance, I can help! Reach out to get a comprehensive assessment of your hormones and a customized plan for rebalancing. You don’t have to live with an imbalance of hormones!