Hormones play a pivotal role in regulating our body's essential functions, seamlessly coordinating various physiological processes. Their precise regulation ensures our body's systems all function optimally. However, when these chemicals become imbalanced, particularly in women, it can lead to significant disruptions. Why? Our bodies are particularly sensitive to the ebbs and flows of hormones. From the gentle rise and fall of the menstrual cycle to the more profound shifts of pregnancy and menopause, hormonal fluctuations are intrinsically tied to our experience. Yet, with modern lifestyles, stressors, dietary choices, and environmental factors, it's becoming increasingly common for these delicate systems to become imbalanced.
Jen Walpole is a registered Nutritional Therapist specialising in women’s health, specifically fertility and hormone balance. Jen typically works with clients that are experiencing irregular menstrual cycles, have been diagnosed with PCOS, endometriosis or those that wish to support their fertility, pregnancy or require ante-natal support.
There also seems to be some confusion around hormonal imbalances as the symptoms can significantly vary woman to woman, and we are often quite good at ignoring the signs and symptoms! Hormone imbalances can manifest in many ways: mood swings, fatigue, weight gain, diminished libido, and even chronic conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or thyroid disorders. For many of us, these imbalances can impact quality of life significantly so if we can get on top of them, it can be life changing.
Understanding Our Hormones
Hormones play a pivotal role in orchestrating the intricate processes within a woman's body. These chemical messengers travel through the bloodstream, impacting various physiological functions, ensuring everything runs smoothly. Let's take a brief look at some of the key hormones:
Often termed the 'female hormone', oestrogen is responsible for the development of female reproductive tissues such as the breasts, uterus, and ovaries. It also regulates menstrual cycles and impacts bone health. Beyond reproduction, oestrogen has protective effects on the heart and helps skin remain elastic and hydrated.
This hormone works in tandem with oestrogen to regulate menstrual cycles. It prepares the uterus for a fertilised egg and supports pregnancy. When progesterone levels drop, menstruation occurs. Additionally, progesterone aids in regulating mood and plays a role in libido.
Typically associated with men, women also produce testosterone, just in lower quantities. It aids muscle and bone strength, supports brain function, and is crucial for libido
Thyroid Hormones (T3 & T4)
Produced by the thyroid gland, these hormones regulate metabolism, energy production, and even influence other hormones, which is why they are just as important as the sex hormones to consider. Imbalances can result in weight changes, fatigue, and temperature sensitivity, emphasising their crucial role in overall health.
Dubbed the 'stress hormone', cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands. It manages how the body uses fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, suppresses inflammation, and regulates blood pressure. Its levels fluctuate throughout the day, but it can surge during times of stress, impacting other hormonal systems. It’s an important one to consider when it comes to hormone balance due to our modern lifestyles.
Common Causes of Hormonal Imbalances
Various factors that can throw hormones out of whack, such as:
Stress and elevated cortisol levels
Stress activates the body's "fight or flight" response, leading to an increase in the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. Chronic elevation of cortisol can disrupt other hormones, impacting menstrual cycles, metabolism, and even immune system function. Studies have found that prolonged exposure to stress can affect the female reproductive system, leading to irregular menstrual cycles and reduced ovulatory cycles.
Poor diet and nutrition
The foods we consume play a crucial role in hormonal balance. Diets high in processed foods, sugars, and unhealthy fats can contribute to insulin resistance, further leading to hormonal imbalances. Proper nutrition is foundational for maintaining optimal hormonal health, so stay tuned to the healf journal where we’ll deep dive into that too.
Environmental toxins and endocrine disruptors
Certain chemicals in our environment, known as endocrine disruptors, can interfere with hormone production and function. For instance, BPA (commonly found in plastics) can mimic oestrogen, potentially disrupting the body's natural hormonal balance.
Medications and birth control
Medications, especially hormonal contraceptives, directly influence hormonal balance. While they can offer benefits like birth control and acne management, they are simply masking symptoms and have the potential to disrupt the body's natural hormonal rhythms. Not only this, but the oral contraceptive pill depletes key nutrients we need for hormone balance!
Menopause, pregnancy, and other natural life stages
Throughout our life, natural stages such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause lead to significant hormonal shifts. For example, menopause is characterised by a decline in oestrogen and progesterone production, causing various physiological changes.
The gut microbiome influences various body processes, including hormone metabolism. Studies now prove that dysbiosis (an imbalance in the gut's microbial community), can influence oestrogen levels and contribute to conditions such as oestrogen dominance.
Signs and Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalances
It’s important to understand what the most common signs and symptoms of hormone imbalances are (and to know that these aren’t normal, and something can be done about them!)
- Mood Swings and Emotional Disturbances - Fluctuations in hormones, especially oestrogen and progesterone, can result in mood swings, irritability, depression, and anxiety.
- Fatigue - Imbalances in cortisol or thyroid hormones can cause persistent tiredness, regardless of how much sleep one gets.
- Weight Gain - Hormonal imbalances related to insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormones, and sex hormones can lead to unexplained weight gain or difficulties in losing weight.
- Menstrual Irregularities - Variations in oestrogen and progesterone can lead to irregular periods, heavy bleeding, or even missed periods.
- Sleep Disturbances - Cortisol and melatonin imbalances can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or oversleeping.
- Libido Changes - Decreased sex drive can result from imbalances in testosterone and oestrogen.
- Hot Flashes and Night Sweats - Commonly associated with menopause, these symptoms are due to fluctuations in oestrogen levels and can present at other times too.
- Memory Fog - Hormonal fluctuations can affect cognitive functions leading to difficulty concentrating or recalling.
- Skin Issues - Imbalances in hormones and the gut microbiome can lead to acne, skin dryness, or even premature aging.
- Breast Tenderness - Variations in oestrogen can lead to breast tenderness.
- Bone Density Loss - Imbalances in hormones, especially a decline in oestrogen seen during the menopause, can lead to reduced bone density, increasing the risk for osteoporosis.
- Hair Changes - Hormonal imbalances, particularly of thyroid and sex hormones, can cause hair loss or changes in hair texture.
- Digestive Issues - Imbalances, especially in stress hormones, can affect gut motility, leading to symptoms like bloating or constipation.
More Severe Conditions
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) - A condition characterised by 2 out of the 3 following criteria - high levels of androgens, irregular cycle and/or polycystic ovaries. It can also lead to acne and hair growth in unusual places.
- Endometriosis - A painful disorder where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus. It's believed that imbalances in oestrogen might drive the disease, but it’s not fully understood.
- Thyroid Disorders - The thyroid gland regulates metabolism, and imbalances in its hormones can lead to conditions like hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid).
- Adrenal Fatigue - A term used to describe a set of symptoms linked to chronic stress and imbalances in cortisol.
- Insulin Resistance and Diabetes - Imbalances in insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar, can lead to insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes in the long term.
Natural Lifestyle Solutions
With the constant pressures of modern life, managing stress becomes paramount in this balancing act. Here’s a helpful natural guide to support you in achieving hormone balance.
Managing Stress: A Holistic Approach
Modern life is replete with stressors. Chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, the body's primary stress hormone, wreaking havoc on the endocrine (hormone) system.
Meditation has shown promising results in reducing cortisol levels according to the research. Engaging in regular meditation, even for a few minutes daily, can promote relaxation, clarity, and a sense of calm. Getting out into nature, often termed 'forest bathing' or 'Shinrin-Yoku' in Japanese, has been shown to have multiple therapeutic effects on health, which indirectly can support hormonal balance. Immersing yourself in a natural environment, whether that is your local park, woodland or garden has been found to reduce cortisol, the primary stress hormone.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels can disrupt hormonal balance in the body, affecting levels of insulin, progesterone, and oestrogen. What’s more, spending time in nature can enhance parasympathetic nerve activity, which is the 'rest and digest' component of our nervous system, reducing sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) nerve activity, further aiding in reducing stress and balancing cortisol.
Finally, exposure to natural sunlight, especially in the morning, can also regulate circadian rhythms and improve sleep, which is crucial for hormonal balance. Adequate melatonin production, regulated by the day-night cycle, has implications not only for sleep but for reproductive hormones and even insulin sensitivity. During sleep, the body repairs, and regenerates and a lack of quality sleep can alter the secretion of stress hormones like cortisol. Prioritising 7-9 hours of restful sleep can work wonders for overall well-being and hormonal health.
Exercise and Hormonal Health
Regular exercise not only strengthens the musculoskeletal system but also modulates hormonal output. It can also increase endorphins, often termed 'feel-good hormones', and support insulin sensitivity, crucial for blood sugar regulation.
However, it can be a double-edged sword for female hormone balance. While physical activity is essential for overall health, the wrong kind or too much exercise can increase cortisol and throw hormones out of whack. For women seeking to maintain hormonal balance, the best approach is low-impact, moderate-intensity exercises that align with the body's natural rhythms and don't excessively stress the system. Yoga is a top choice. Beyond building strength and flexibility, yoga emphasises breath, mindfulness, and relaxation, which can help in lowering cortisol levels and balancing other hormones. Pilates is another excellent option, emphasising core strength and whole-body alignment. Walking is often underrated but doing so, especially in nature, provides both exercise and stress-relief benefits without placing undue strain on the body.
Strength training, when done in moderation, can support bone health, lean muscle mass, and metabolic balance. However, it's essential to give the body enough time to recover between sessions – aim for no more than 2-3 weight training sessions per week. The key thing about exercise is to really listen to your body. Balance more strenuous activities with rest and recovery and consider integrating practices that combine physical movement with relaxation for optimal hormonal health.
Adaptogens for hormone balance:
1) Vitex (Chaste Tree Berry) for Progesterone Support
Vitex Agnus-Castus, commonly known as Chaste Tree Berry, has been traditionally used to alleviate menstrual irregularities and improve female reproductive health. Vitex promotes the secretion of luteinising hormone, which boosts progesterone production during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. This aids in correcting progesterone deficiency, which can lead to various menstrual irregularities.
2) Maca Root for Overall Hormonal Balance
Maca root, a Peruvian plant, has been shown to improve hormonal balance without directly influencing hormone levels. One study found that Maca helps in reducing symptoms of menopause and improving libido without altering serum oestrogen or progesterone.
3) Ashwagandha for Stress and Adrenal Health
Ashwagandha, an ancient Ayurvedic herb, is recognised for its adaptogenic properties, especially in regulating stress hormones. One study highlighted that Ashwagandha reduced cortisol levels, supporting stress-induced hormonal changes, supporting adrenal health and overall hormonal balance.
4) Evening Primrose Oil for PMS and Menstrual Irregularities
Evening primrose oil, a source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), has been studied for its benefits in alleviating PMS symptoms. According to research, evening primrose oil supplementation can help reduce the severity of PMS symptoms, potentially due to its role in prostaglandin synthesis.
Probiotics for Gut Health and Hormonal Health
The gut microbiome is intricately linked to hormonal health. Probiotics, beneficial bacteria, play a role in metabolising and recycling hormones, such as oestrogen, ensuring balanced levels. By balancing the gut microbiome with probiotics, we can indirectly supports hormone regulation.