A woman’s cycle is a magical thing. It ebbs and flows just like the tides and the moon. We essentially experience a full four “seasons” every month between the different phases of our cycle – it’s pretty remarkable when you stop and think about it. Our hormone levels (and associated parameters like mood, energy, appetite, libido, etc.) fluctuate based on where we are in our cycle. Interestingly, I find that many women feel like something is wrong with them if they don’t feel upbeat, outgoing and turned on 100% of the time. However, I want to point out that cyclical shifts are absolutely normal. As women, we have a cyclical, changeable and fluid nature about us – and I encourage celebrating that. These cyclical fluctuations are all part of a beautifully orchestrated symphony that both affects our overall health, and serves as a barometer for our current level of health.
If fluctuations are normal, then what is NOT normal?
So, if the above-mentioned fluctuations are normal, then what is not normal and needs to be addressed? For starters, you want to look into anything that is negatively impacting your life or preventing you from doing the things you want to do. Maybe it’s painful periods keeping you out of work, or maybe it’s having headaches before your cycle or feeling anxious or depressed around your period. Anything that you find disruptive should be addressed, in my opinion. You also want to be sure to address clear signs of hormone imbalance such as having painful or heavy periods, irregular periods, anovulatory cycles, acne, excess body or facial hair, hair loss, weight gain, cyclical depression or anxiety, and so on.
What causes hormone imbalances?
I find that there is rarely a singular “smoking gun” issue going on for someone, but rather that hormone imbalances tend to stem from multiple underlying issues. Here are the top issues I see causing hormone imbalances in my patients:
- Poor Nutrition and/or Blood Sugar Dysregulation – The average diet today is quite high in packaged, processed and refined foods, which tend to be low in nutritional value and problematic for blood sugar control. When we lack the proper nutrients, we cannot build new hormones or detoxify old hormones. These high glycemic index foods also destabilize our blood sugar by spiking blood glucose levels and then subsequently dropping it (via insulin surges). This dysregulated blood sugar messes with the communication between pretty much all our cells, including the cells of our reproductive tissues like our ovaries. If our ovaries aren’t communicating well, they won’t produce correct levels of estrogen and progesterone.
- High Stress Lifestyle (aka Nervous System Dysfunction or Adrenal Dysregulation) – This refers to being in “fight or flight” mode too often, for too long. Our systems were designed for quick periods of stress, with long periods of rest. Our nervous systems have not quite adapted to the constant “on-the-go” lifestyle or stressors associated with modern life. The key point here is that your hormones take a back seat if your body senses danger and thinks you are running from bear (i.e. if you’re under a threat, this would not the best time to get pregnant or have a child, right?). Your nervous system reacts to primitive signals and shares that information with your endocrine system but shutting down ovulation and hormone production, for example.
- Endocrine Disruptors – Various chemicals found in our air, water, food, beauty and self-care products, etc. have properties that cause them to mess with hormone levels and signaling in our bodies. They interrupt normal communication of the endocrine (hormone) system, which leaves the system confused and out of balance. Sadly, our bodies were not designed to deal with the onslaught of chemicals to which we are exposed today, so we need to be aware of these exposures and their effects.
- A quick note about hormonal contraceptives as they are, by design, endocrine disruptors. That is how they work to prevent pregnancy, by shutting down your natural hormone fluctuations (and usually ovulation as well) in order to prevent pregnancy. I like to point this out because many women come to see me, wanting to balance their hormones while taking the birth control pill. As long as someone is on hormonal contraceptives, she cannot balance her hormones. There is no judgment here – it’s fine if that’s your choice of contraception, but I think it’s important to have that piece of information.
- Inflammation – Chronic inflammation is at the core of most chronic health issues today and hormone imbalances are no exception. Inflammation can be due to a variety of factors, but I typically see this stemming from inflammation in the gut (aka the GI tract). This can have many names, from leaky gut, to bowel toxemia, to IBS or IBD, but when we have issues with inflammation and imbalance in the gut, it essentially spreads to the rest of our body and interferes with normal, proper function.
- Poor detoxification – Detoxification issues can be due purely to overload via the onslaught of chemicals referenced above, but it can also be due to genetic and epigenetic (environmental) factors. Poor detoxification interferes with our ability to clear out not just toxins, but also synthetic and excess or “old” hormones. This build-up of hormones, usually estrogen, then leads to ongoing hormone imbalance.
How do we fix hormone imbalances?
As you can see, the underlying issues that cause hormone imbalance are some big topics in themselves. These issues require a comprehensive approach if we’re looking for lasting improvement. I think the biggest mistake or misconception about addressing hormone imbalances is that there’s one magic herb, supplement or medication that is going to ‘fix’ whatever issue is at-hand. I don’t find this to be true. Most of these issues require lifestyle changes to address them, along with some targeted herbs and supplements. I find that herbs and supplements work best as adjuncts to a more comprehensive approach. For example – a multivitamin cannot replace a good diet or erase a bad diet, but it can be a really useful addition to a healthful diet. Similarly, balancing herbs are great supports for the adrenal glands and stress adaptation, but they will not replace regular self-care and stress management.
Dr. Casey’s keys for success when addressing hormone imbalance:
- Take a truly holistic approach. This includes addressing all body systems that need support (not just the endocrine system!) and looking at the pieces mentioned above like inflammation, detoxification, blood sugar regulation, etc. The body is a complex and integrated system and needs to be treated as such.
- Address lifestyle factors and daily habits, such as diet, sleep, exercise and stress management. Changing habits for the better is where I see the biggest positive shifts in health status, including hormone health.
- Create a support system. With addressing lifestyle components and making lasting changes, it’s imperative to have a support system. It’s nearly impossible to stick with positive changes when relying solely on willpower. This works best if you can get friends, family, coworkers, practitioners or all the above on your side to either join you in the changes, or at least help hold you accountable. For example – would you skip that morning workout if you knew your friend was waiting for you at the gym? Probably not. But if it’s just you, then it’s pretty easy to hit snooze on your alarm. Find some accountability and support partners!
Here are some steps you can take to improve your hormone health today:
- Eat real food, including regular protein and healthy fats to stabilize your blood sugar. Cut out sweets.
- Breathe. This sounds silly, because we have to breathe anyways, right? What I mean is: consciously breathe – breathe life into your body and when you exhale let go of that worry or whatever is causing you stress. Do this throughout the day. Breathe for life; don’t just breathe to stay alive.
- Assess your household and personal care products. Reduce your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and materials like plastics wherever you can. (A great resource for this topic is the Environmental Working Group via EWG.org).
This article was written by Dr. Bridget Casey and originally posted on the Ginger Tonic Botanicals blog, which you can access here.