The endocrine system makes up the body’s hormone-secreting glands and organs, it’s responsible for regulating every other system of the body. Healthy female hormones are associated with balanced emotions, healthy weight, as well as a smooth comfortable ride for our PMS and menopause journeys. If our hormone activity is a bit off kilter our whole physiology, plus our emotions, can be a bit off too.
Conventional health models can sometimes influence how we perceive what is ‘healthy’ and what is not. Natural healthy states like menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause are often treated as conditions with (sometimes) unnecessary interventions. In fact, some interventions can lead to hormone ratio changes as a ‘side effect.’
On the other hand, some real indicators of hormonal imbalances are often dismissed as “normal for your age”. Typical examples are emotional instability, changes in libido, erratic moods, foggy brain and ‘middle aged spread’.
The naturopathic approach is to identify the factors that may influence hormone function, as part of a holistic view of health, and offer nutritional and lifestyle support. The industrial revolution, large scale food production and refining processes have reduced the nutritional quality of some of our foods, while at the same time polluting our living environment. Our modern lifestyles also tempt us to exchange the more healthful, slower work or communication methods for more fast-paced productivity-driven lifestyles which are the norm and can contribute to long term stress.
It’s a complex world, and those complexities are mirrored in our health outcomes. Fortunately, we can still look to nature for herbs, and nutrients to support normal and healthy female hormone ratio and endocrine function. Especially for those of us that experience changes with PMS and menopause that can disrupt our lives.
How do you know when your hormones are unbalanced?
It’s normal to have a range of emotional and physical responses to the events we encounter in everyday life. Sometimes life is stressful so feeling upset, shocked, sad, tired, or insecure in response to unexpected change is part of the human experience.
When you notice you’re reacting to the usual stressors more often, finding it difficult to regain your equilibrium or feeling out of control or overwhelmed, natural hormonal changes and fluctuations might be an important part of the picture. Especially if you can trace them to PMS or menopause.
Hormones directly influence our emotional state. Conversely, our emotional state also influences hormone secretion – they are very interrelated.
Signs of healthy hormones
- Comfortable tummy during menstruation
- Regular periods
- Stable emotions in the lead-up to period time
- Happy mood
- Feelings of calmness
- Healthy blood pressure post-menopause
- Healthy libido and sexual interest
- Healthy brain function, including memory and focus
- Healthy energy levels throughout the menstrual cycle and post menopause
- Healthy and settled sleep
- Healthy blood sugar levels
- Healthy fluid levels – no bloating
- Healthy weight
- Healthy, balanced appetite
- Smooth complexion without blemishes
- Healthy temperature regulation
- Healthy vaginal tissue including moisture levels and comfort
- Healthy urinary tract
Premenstrual syndrome and menopause are influenced by hormonal changes. A majority of the physical and mental changes that we that we link with PMS and menopause happen because of normal hormonal fluctuations and changes.
What influences our hormonal health?
Some of the lifestyle factors that affect our endocrine function include physical stress or injury, mental and emotional stress, nutrient imbalances, lack of or excessive exercise, and toxic environmental chemicals found in a range of products from cling wrap and conventional cosmetics to pesticides and paints. Toxins are a major factor and the effect of xenoestrogens is discussed in more detail below.
Stress, adrenals and the progesterone connection
After very prolonged periods of stress, our cortisol levels can be affected. Which can, in turn, influence our progesterone levels.
Reduced progesterone output is one outcome of chronic stress, making stress an important contributing factor in oestrogen dominance. This is because healthy progesterone levels are needed to keep oestrogen in balance.
Causes of higher and lower oestrogen
Lower oestrogen is usually related to menopause when ovarian hormone output naturally decreases. Another cause is surgical intervention like hysterectomy when the ovaries are removed.
In younger women, lower oestrogen levels may be due to over exercising, eating disorders and/or having very little body fat. These can all delay female development and menstruation. If low oestrogen levels in younger women are not addressed, the ability to conceive and maintain a pregnancy can potentially be compromised.
High oestrogen can be an issue for women. Maintaining the balance of progesterone to oestrogen is essential for healthy menstrual cycles and especially PMS. Increasingly women are experiencing a ratio of oestrogen to progesterone that is not ideal It is in this context that we talk about oestrogen dominance.
What everyday products could be disrupting our hormones?
Xenoestrogens, are synthetic chemicals that mimic natural oestrogen and bind to its receptor sites in the body. The body is tricked into responding as if there is oestrogen present. The result is an oversupply of oestrogens circulating in the body, which can overload the liver as it tries to metabolise them. Xenoestrogens occur in the following everyday household products:
- Bisphenol A (BPA) in cling wrap, plastic bags, drink bottles, take-away containers, opt for non toxic, eco friendly reusable food and drink storage options.
- Car interiors, some toys, vinyl flooring, shower curtains
- Medications such as the birth control pill, hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
- Cigarettes, paints, plastics
- Parabens in cosmetics and skincare (At HealthPost we don’t stock products that contain parabens, thanks to our strict ingredient standards)
- Dioxins from chemicals used in sanitary products, skin care, fragrances (thanks to our strict ingredient standards we avoid stocking products with these residues)
- PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) in the environment from pesticides
- Organochlorines in insecticides
What do these xenoestrogens do to the body?
Xenoestrogens flood the body’s oestrogen receptor sites and can have a stronger oestrogenic response than some of the body-made oestrogen. This leads to oestrogen dominance where the ratio of oestrogen to progesterone is too high, a major factor in many women’s health.
Xenoestrogens need to be eliminated by the liver and circulate around the body until they can be metabolised and excreted.
Other factors that contribute to higher oestrogen
Obesity, anabolic steroids, hormones in meat and dairy, exposure to pesticides, and a poor diet are also major contributors to high oestrogenin all genders.
What can you do to support your body’s hormone health?
Progesterone is the precursor to oestrogen, as well as its antagonist. Healthy and balanced progesterone levels are key to maintaining healthy oestrogen levels. here are different ways to support healthy progesterone through our lifestyle, including:
- Reducing stress – cortisol which is secreted when we experience stress and can affect progesterone levels
- Exercise – this has been shown to help the body cope with stress and improve both PMS and menopause, address poor sleep patterns – if the circadian rhythms are healthy, there is better hormone production
- Support liver function for healthy and normal detoxification pathways. Eating foods high in natural magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B6 will help support our body’s natural progesterone production. In addition, to counter high oestrogen we need to reduce the burden of xenoestrogens in the body. The first important stage is to remove any external factors contributing to the problem. Avoiding the xenoestrogenic products listed previously is an excellent place to start. Choose eco-friendly cleaners, eat organic food when possible, and reduce use of plastics, especially for food and drink storage. In this way, we significantly reduce the number of toxins we ingest and absorb from our everyday environment.
Dealing effectively with stressful life situations is important. To reduce the load on the adrenal glands we need to reduce our burdens and improve our quality of life. Regular exercise, relaxation techniques, and self-nurturing practices all positively affect our endocrine function, including our adrenals, as well as progesterone and oestrogen balance.
How can food help?
The next stage is to focus on the internal physical environment and support the body's natural process of hormonal activity. The liver is responsible for the breakdown of excess hormones in the body, so working on supporting healthy liver function is central to hormonal health. Reduce your intake of foods that are hard on the liver: excess animal protein, cheese, cream and ice cream; alcohol, sugar, chocolate, and any highly processed foods.
Wheat germ, kelp, walnuts, turmeric, thyme and oregano are good examples of foods that help support healthy progesterone levels. Cruciferous vegetables (a.k.a. brassicas) like broccoli, kale, cress, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and others from this plant family are great options to support healthy oestrogen metabolism via the liver. They contain Di-indolyl methane (DIM), which has been shown in research studies to support the immune system and healthy metabolism of oestrogens in the body. DIM is also available in supplement form. Maca root is another cruciferous plant known for its hormone support. Foods like onions and garlic, bitters like raw rocket, dandelion leaves, and mesclun help to support healthy bile secretion from the liver for normal detoxification. Fibrous nuts, seeds, and wholegrains, such as linseeds and almonds contain natural fiber help bind metabolic waste and elimination via the bowel. They’re also rich sources of omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Green ‘super foods’ such as chlorella or spirulina and organic vegetable juices are some other good liver supporting foods.
What about herbs and nutritional supplements?
There are many herbs that can support a healthy endocrine system and female hormonal health. Some familiar herbs are listed below, and these can be used in combination with other herbs.
Chaste tree can support the health of the pituitary gland – the master gland of the endocrine system. It is used to support healthy progesterone levels and is very popular for PMS support, especially for emotional stability, breast comfort and a clear complexion. Wild yam, Dong Quai, Licorice, Sarsaparilla root, and the Ginsengs are used as adaptogen herbs to support healthy cortisol levels, which in turn, is key for healthy progesterone levels. Adaptogen herbs support a balanced and healthy stress response which is key for maintaining a healthy oestrogen to progesterone ratio.
Black cohosh is very popular for women experiencing changes associated with menopause. It is most famous for its use in formulations to support healthy temperature balance. Herbs that are used to support female hormonal health are generally not suitable to take during pregnancy unless specifically stated on the product label or under clinical guidance.
Some specific vitamins and minerals are used to support healthy endocrine function.
- Vitamin E - having sufficient vitamin E has been linked with healthy progesterone levels
- Vitamin B6 is excellent for supporting female hormonal health, it has a direct role in the normal production of female hormones as well as neurotransmitters important for a calm and happy mood.
- Magnesium is used to support a normal healthy stress response, which is important for healthy oestrogen to progesterone ratios. Research shows it supports PMS, including healthy fluid levels, abdominal comfort, calmness, and emotional stability. Magnesium is needed by the liver for the normal metabolism of oestrogen, which is key for balance. Magnesium is critical for calcium to function well in the body, important for bone health post menopause
- Vitamin C and bioflavonoids are important for adrenal function and healthy stress management.
- Vitamin D - healthy levels are associated with healthy mood and inside the body, the active form of vitamin D is a hormone and an integral part of the endocrine system. Regular healthy exposure to sunlight is your best source, and if you’re missing out on the sun’s rays a vitamin D supplement could be an option.