The hormonal balancing act
The two main female hormones are oestrogen and progesterone. These are called steroid hormones because they are fat-like, originally made from cholesterol which is produced in the liver. Testosterone and the stress-hormone cortisol are also steroid hormones. The body has to balance these according to your needs. For example, if you are under a lot of stress your body may struggle to produce enough cortisol which is involved in the body’s response to stress, at the expense of the others. This is why sex drive diminishes when you're stressed, because the body produces less testosterone which, in both men and women, controls sex drive. Your ability to keep these hormones in balance can be helped by a number of nutrients as I'll show you later.
Why stress is a factor
Have you ever noticed how when you’re premenstrual, or in the throes of a menopausal episode, you feel pretty stressed out? Progesterone, oestrogen and the adrenal-stress hormones are derived from the same source. Stress knocks your hormonal patterns out of rhythm because there is going to be a greater demand on the raw materials. Stress also places a greater demand on the body's nutrient reserves, leaving you tired and in a vicious circle of feeling less able to cope with stress. You could take all the measures available to try to rebalance your hormones, but while you are stressed you are unlikely to see much difference. The way hormones are made is just one of the main underlying processes in the body that dictates the ebb and flow, balance or imbalance of our hormones, especially the important ratio between oestrogen and progesterone. Another is the monthly hormonal pattern, the balance between the two throughout the menstrual cycle, which is crucial. While very few women's bodies actually follow the textbook pattern, it is the ratios between these two hormones that dictates balance, or not. Critical times in hormonal shifts are ovulation and the lead-up to a period, and of course, when a woman is going through the menopause. At such times, the potential for symptoms related to hormones such as mood swings, bloating etc to show up increases.
Testing your hormones
You can find out whether your hormones are out of balance, to what degree and when in your cycle, with simple yet sophisticated tests.
The following symptoms are all the result of an imbalance in hormone patterns:
PMS (tension, anxiety, depression, bloating, breast tenderness, mood swings, irritability, cravings)
Period problems (heavy, painful or irregular periods)
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
Menopausal symptoms (hot flushes, depression, insomnia, fatigue, vaginal, dryness, weight gain)
Hormone-related cancers (breast, ovarian, uterine, endometrial, vaginal)
A common cause of both PMS and especially menopausal problems is progesterone deficiency and/or oestrogen excess. Various laboratories offer testing of your hormonal profile using saliva samples. You simply suck on a cotton baton on various designated days (usually every three days) over a month and a pattern can then be drawn of your hormone levels. This can be very useful in detecting if and when you have imbalances in the progesterone: oestrogen ratio and what they are. You can ask a nutritional consultant to arrange one of these tests for you and then to design a treatment programme based on the results. If you have any serious symptoms that you suspect may be linked to your hormones, it is important to visit your doctor so that the possibility of any more serious underlying condition can be eliminated or dealt with.
PMG – premenstrual greed
Now a look at that seemingly unstoppable urge for chocolate or starchy foods which rears its head just before your period. There is a connection between an imbalance in oestrogen and progesterone and the way the body uses the hormone insulin. Insulin is primarily used by the body to deal with glucose (sugar). If there is excess insulin (due to a high sugar or starch intake) or the body is not responding to insulin properly, this can trigger increased production levels of the hormone testosterone, which will in turn suppress ovulation. And any disruption to ovulation will have a knock-on effect on the production of progesterone. Stress also affects the body’s ability to keep the insulin mechanism which controls blood sugar levels in place. This is why reducing stress levels and eating less sugarly or starchy foods and more wholegrains, protein, essential fats and fresh fruit and vegetables can reduce premenstrual cravings and other hormone imbalances.
How hormones work
Hormones are, in effect, chemical messengers which travel around the body, providing information. Once they reach the cell to which they are giving the message, they dock onto a receptor site on its surface in order to begin transmission, so to speak. This docking process is another potential hiccup in the mission to have hormones well balanced. Firstly, if the cell membrane is not particularly healthy itself, the receptor site may not work properly. To minimise the risk of this, make sure you are getting a good supply of the essential fats which are so crucial to the health of the membrane. These are found in seeds, nuts and oily fish and their oils or can be taken in a linseed, fish or other oil supplement such as GLA.
Probably one of the most insidious processes which is leading increasingly to hormonal imbalance in women is what is known as oestrogen dominance. When the ratio of oestrogen in relation to progesterone rises, the likelihood of hormonally-related problems does too. We are currently exposed to a huge range of substances known as xeno-oestrogens, ie 'outsider' oestrogens which act as hormone disruptors. They are ......
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