Be warned, this article is being written by a woman in menopause.
In fact, I was so battered around by the hormonal storm I found myself in by the time I reached 52, that I put myself on a structured wellness program.
This included mindfulness, a whole food diet, and a gentle exercise program designed to give my body the best chance possible to achieve the kind of hormonal balance that keeps us feeling healthy and well throughout menopause, and any life phase at all for that matter.
I wound up documenting my experiences during this program in what was to become my new book “The Ultimate Menopause Makeover”.
But don’t worry, I’m not only going to be exploring half of the population’s concerns here, the fact of the matter is, that looking after oneself from the point of view of diet, exercise, sleep, healthy mindset, and stress management benefits everyone.
This is because our hormones are affected by our lifestyle choices, and in turn they affect pretty much every process in our body, from growth and development, to metabolism, sexual function, reproduction, and mood.
What I plan to do in this short article is give you an overview of a few of the key hormones in the body, before honing in on what I see as the scourge of the modern day, which is the growing incidence of estrogen dominance, caused by the dietary and environmental xenoestrogens that we’re exposed to on a daily basis.
Xenoestrogens are environmental toxins that can mimic the action of estrogen once they enter the body. Believe me, these things have the power to profoundly upset our body’s ecosystem.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s get back to basics first by acknowledging that the 50 or so different hormones we have in our body are made by the endocrine system.
This includes the pituitary gland, the pineal gland, the thyroid gland, the adrenal glands, and the pancreas, as well as the ovaries in women and the testes in men.
When hormones are in balance all is well, but either too much or too little of any hormone can spell trouble for us, because hormones are essentially dependent on each other to maintain balance within the body as a whole.
The first gland we’re going to look at here is the thyroid which produces the hormones that regulate metabolism and energy production. Low thyroid levels can be caused by genetics, bacteria, gastro-intestinal bugs or allergies.
Signs that something might be out of balance include cold hands and feet, excess weight, hair loss and tiredness, especially in the latter part of the day all caused by an under active thyroid.
Signs of an overactive thyroid on the other hand may include anxiety, overheating, and heart palpitations.
Iodine supplements, minerals such as zinc and selenium, and a protein-rich diet are helpful in the case of an underactive thyroid.
Whilst more dramatic interventions such as surgery or anti-thyroid drugs are often resorted to to manage an overactive thyroid, diet can also play an important role in managing this condition.
You can provide your body with a wide range of antioxidants from foods like berries and other fruit and vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables such as kale and cabbage, along with adequate levels of protein and calcium.
Insulin is another hormone involved in energy. Its role is to enable the body to use the sugar from the carbohydrates we eat.
When everything is working well, insulin is released from the pancreas when required, and it’s transported through the bloodstream signaling the cells to let glucose in.
When this happens, blood sugar levels start to drop as glucose moves from the bloodstream into the cells. In turn this signals the pancreas to reduce the amount of insulin it’s releasing, which results in the amount of glucose going into the cells decreasing.
This balancing act happens many times throughout the day as energy is called on or stored.
A particularly worrying trend that’s been building since processed foods started coming into their own in the 1950’s, is the increasing number of people being diagnosed with diabetes.
Diabetes comes about either as a result of the body halting or slowing down the development of insulin, or developing resistance to it.
Diets high in refined carbohydrates, processed foods and saturated fats have been closely linked with insulin resistance which eventually results in type 2 diabetes if behavior change around food isn’t taken on board.
Whilst we’re on the topic of lifestyle factors resulting in hormonal imbalances, it’s worth taking a look at cortisol which is one of the body’s main stress hormones.
As far as I’m concerned there’s a stress epidemic in the world right now, so please do whatever you have to do to manage your stress, because consistently high levels of cortisol in your body can suppress our immune system, cause stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, fatigue, anxiety and high levels of cholesterol, as well as increasing our blood pressure, and more.
But activating the stress response is not the only role this hormone plays. Like insulin, cortisol is involved in breaking down glycogen, which is the form that glucose is stored in the liver, so that it can be released into the bloodstream for our cells to use for energy.
Cortisol is the hormone that gets us up in the morning by raising the level of sugar in our blood. And appropriately enough, cortisol production lessens as the day wears on, so that we’re able to wind down and go to sleep at the end of the day.
This in turn triggers the production of more melatonin which is the hormone that’s involved in maintaining our body’s circadian rhythms. If you’re struggling to get to sleep, or not sleeping deeply, you may have a melatonin imbalance.
Obviously if you are producing too much cortisol, this will affect the production of melatonin, and the later you stay awake with the lights on at night, especially back lit devises such as iPods and televisions, the less melatonin you’ll be able to make.
So as boring as it might seem, basic sleep hygiene which includes going to bed and getting up in the morning at more or less set times, sleeping in a dark, quiet room, and getting out into the sunlight wherever possible during the day, are really good habits to get into because they support the production of melatonin.
Things start to get really interesting when we look at the state of play in relation to our sex hormones in general, and estrogen levels in particular.
Testosterone which is a product of progesterone and DHEA is the main sex hormone in men, as well as being a significant one for women as well. Testosterone is an anabolic steroid in nature. It support bones and muscles, as well as the cardiovascular system.
Estrogen is the main female hormone, which together with progesterone is responsible for reproduction, menstruation and menopause.
Estrogen does a number of great things such as lowering levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and increasing levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), as well as being an antioxidant and reducing the risk of heart disease.
Basically it’s the levels of estrogen relative to progesterone that determines how well we’ll be feeling at any given time, and as I found out in the early days of menopause when my progesterone levels dipped to all but negligible amounts, progesterone does a number of great things as well.
It was only when I started to get really antsy and at times downright depressed, that I realized how much I had previously benefited from progesterone’s anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and diuretic properties. It’s not only women in menopause who encounter the effect of low progesterone relative to estrogen either, in fact this is also the hormonal basis for Premenstrual Tension (PMT) as well.
Looking at this question of the relative levels of hormones from the other end of a woman’s reproductive life, it’s interesting to note that the only place progesterone is made during the first half of the menstrual cycle is in the adrenal glands.
Given that this is also where the stress hormones are made, and given that the role of the stress response is to focus all of the body’s resources on survival, it becomes all too obvious that reproduction and any other non urgent functions such as the routine growth and repair work that needs to take place for our body to stay well, have to get put on the back burner.
So it’s fair to conclude that living with chronic stress is not going to be conducive to conception, or maintaining our health overall.
And to add insult to injury, because stress shifts the body’s priorities and shuts the production of progesterone down, we’re not going to be able to benefit from progesterone’s anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties to help in the context of stress management either.
In addition to the issues that women might expect to experience during high levels of stress and/or menopause when their progesterone levels start to drop, they may experience low energy, thinning skin, wrinkles, hair loss and bone weakness when their estrogen levels start to drop as well.
But it’s the unnaturally high levels of estrogen relative to progesterone during any and all life phases in both men and women that’s the canary in the coalmine that I want to briefly touch on now.
The bottom line is that we need to wise up about the impact of the environmental toxins like parabens that are commonly found in cosmetics, and PBA that is commonly found in the plastics that are used to store foods, along with the hormonally active components that can be found in a plethora of consumer products, such as hair products, pesticides, packaging and building materials.
The problem is that these substances mimic estrogen when they enter the body and are likely to play a more significant role in the rise in certain kinds of cancers and increasing levels of hyperthyroidism, auto immune disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome, than we might like to think.
The take home message here is to educate yourself about what you’re eating, breathing, and putting on your skin, and to train yourself to be mindful of the lifestyle choices you’re making because they all impact your hormones’ ability to keep you well now and into the future.
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Jane Turner – Woman’s Health Expert