The hormonal balancing act
The two main female hormones are Oestrogen is one of the main female sex hormones…. and Progesterone is one of the main female sex hormones….. These are called steroid hormones because they are fat-like, originally made from cholesterol which is produced in the liver. Testosterone is a male sex hormone important for sexual and reproductive development…. and the stress-hormone Cortisol has been nicknamed ‘the stress hormone’ as it is released in higher levels during the body’s flight or fight response to stress. Levels of… 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 is a hormone made by the pancreas. It is responsible for making the body’s cells absorb glucose (sugar) from the blood….. 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, Proteins are large molecules consisting of chains of amino acids. Proteins are essential nutrients for the human body – they are a building block of…, 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 Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) is an essential fatty acid within the omega-6 family. It is found primarily in plant based oils such as evening primrose….
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 largely man-made chemicals found in the pesticides sprayed on our food, plastics, medications (especially hormonal ones), detergents and other chemicals. Such toxins also get stored in There are many different types of fats; polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, hydrogenated, saturated and trans fat. The body requires good fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) in order to… cells – not just ours but also in animals. These powerful substances can ‘over-oestrogenise’ a woman, so that the receptor sites on her cells become blocked, which disturbs the carefully tuned rhythm of her normal hormonal messaging. Consider this – a cow eats grass and feed that have been exposed to chemicals, the cow is given hormones to sustain permanent milk production, the milk which naturally contains fat is made into cheese, we wrap the cheese in plastic film. It’s not difficult to see how easy it is to be exposed to such chemicals in every day life – leaving hormonal messaging in potential chaos.
To minimise your chemical exposure to these harmful oestrogens, limit or avoid your exposure to the following:
Bleached products – whenever possible use unbleached versions, eg teabags, toilet paper, tampons
Cling film and other plastic food storage – use PVC-free varieties, glass, ceramic or paper instead;
Hormonal medications (ie the Pill or HRT) – only use if absolutely necessary;
Unfiltered tap water – filter water to avoid possible presence of residues of chemicals and hormones;
Dairy products – don’t drink too much milk or have lots of cheese and cream. Where possible, buy organic dairy products.
While it is clearly important to minimise our exposure to these xeno-oestrogens, the good news is that there are other ways of helping nudge oestrogen levels back into balance.
Certain substances in plants known as phyto-oestrogens (phyto=plant) have been discovered which can help to block the effect of excess oestrogen. This way, any imbalance in the ratio between oestrogen and progesterone can be evened out. The way in which they work may initially seem rather contradictory: these phyto-oestrogens lock into the oestrogen receptor sites on cells. In doing so, they block out the xeno-oestrogens. At the same time, if a woman is actually low in oestrogen, such as during the menopause, they will act as a weak oestrogen, thereby helping relieve her symptoms by increasing levels. And at the same time, they block out the harmful xeno-oestrogens. This is known as an ‘adaptogenic’ effect, ie the phyto-oestrogens act to balance oestrogens, whether they are too high or too low.
Particularly powerful phyto-oestrogens are found in soya products – particularly two of its constituents, genistein and daidzein. The high soya content in traditional Japanese diets is likely to be why Japanese women tend not to suffer from menopausal symptoms. Other foods which contain phyto-oestrogens are chickpeas, beans, lentils, rye, alfalfa, and linseeds. Such chemicals are also found in several herbs such as Mexican yam, Black cohosh, Dong quai, Agnus castus and many others. You can take these orally in capsules or in a cream which you apply to your skin. Many women find immense relief from menopausal symptoms and all sorts of other hormonal problems by supplementing such phyto-oestrogens. Don’t take each of these herbs separately – several companies make excellent blends of such herbs, expertly balanced to maximise their effects.
Also important are natural substances found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. These are called indoe-3-carbonol (I3C) and di-indolyl-methane (DIM). Some female oriented supplements provide these, toegether with betaine hydrocholoride (TMG) which helps them detoxify excess oestrogens in the liver.
Also important are B vitamins. Vitamin B6, together with What it does: Component of over 200 enzymes in the body, essential for growth, important for healing, controls hormones, aids ability to cope with stress…, is well resesarched for releiving symptoms of PMS. What it does: Strengthens bones and teeth, promotes healthy muscles by helping them to relax, also important for PMS, important for heart muscles and nervous…, a muscle relaxant, also help maintain water balance and can reduce symptoms such as muscle cramps, period pain and breast tenderness. Vitamin B6, together with B12 and What it does: Critical during pregnancy for the development of a baby’s brain and nerves. Also essential for brain and nerve function. Needed for utilising…, are vital for ‘methylation’ which is how the body keeps its biochemicals in balance.
Other nutrients which are important are the antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E and other nutrients such as glutathione, CoQ10 and lipoic acid. These help protect the steroid hormones and cell membranes from any damage and are, again, widely available in blends, rather than having to be taken separately. Take note here though, that contrary to claims by some less scrupulous companies which make products containing such herbs, they are not converted into progesterone in the body (which may be desirable if progesterone is low in relation to oestrogen). They take effect by acting in the adaptogenic way described above. However, if your progesterone levels are low in relation to oestrogen, you can use a natural progesterone cream on your skin, which, as it is absorbed does just this. For more information on this cream, contact the Natural Progesterone Information Service on 07000 784849.
The role of food
In addition, eating foods rich in phytonutrients and Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are fats that must be taken in through the diet as they cannot be made by the body. Both omega-3 and… and eating organic wherever possible can help to balance hormones.
Another important factor is eating plenty of foods which are naturally high in Fibre is an important part of a balanced diet. There are two type of fibre; soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fibre helps your bowel to pass…. These include beans, lentils, oats, brown rice, vegetables and fruits. When oestrogen has been used, it is processed by the liver and passed into the intestine where it binds to fibre to be carried out of the body – this encourages the excretion of the unwanted oestrogen and a lack of fibre will do the opposite.
Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts contain substances known as glucosinolates. These plant chemicals have been found to help the way in which the liver processes oestrogen for it to be excreted from the body.
Alcohol can interfere with the way in which the body processes oestrogen, so keeping that to a minimum is important.
Even without carrying out a hormonal testing or having the expert input of a nutritional therapist, implementing the strategies described can have far-reaching effects on balancing your hormones, whether you get mild premenstrual symptoms, have a more debilitating condition such as endometriosis or are going through the menopause.
The Hormone Harmony Diet
- Make sure you eat enough phytoestrogens from soya(GM free), beans, lentils and rye.
- Include foods rich in essential fats in your diet – seeds, nuts, fish.
- Include plenty of foods which are naturally rich in fibre – beans, lentils, oats, brown rice, vegetables and fruits.
- Eat organic foods as much as possible.
- Increase your intake of cruciferous vegetables – cabbage, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts.
- Drink filtered water.
- Minimise your intake of sugar and sugary foods or drinks.
- Reduce your intake of animal fats – milk, cheese, cream.
- Limit your alcohol intake to no more than three units, three times a week, and have some weeks completely alcohol-free.
- Take a combination female friendly supplement providing a source of
phytoestrogens, I3C, vitamins B6, b12 and folic acid, zinc and
- Take an essential omega fat supplement providing both GLA and fish oil.
You want a supplement that provides 500mg of DHA is short for Docosahexaenoic Acid. It is an essential omega-3 fatty acid found in fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring, and is often…/EPA and at least 50mg
- Consider adding an Antioxidants are substances that protect cells within the body from damage caused by free radicals. They help to strengthen the body’s ability to fight infection… supplement that contains at least vitamins A, C and E,
minerals zinc and What it does: Antioxidant properties help to protect against free radicals and carcinogens, reduces inflammation, stimulates immune system to fight infections, promotes a healthy heart,… plus extras such as glutathione, CoQ10, berry
extracts and/or lipoic acid.
- if all these nutreints don;t work well enough try herbal remedies such as Mexican yam, Black cohosh, Dong quai, Agnus castus best taken in a blend.
- Reduce your stress levels – take measures to deal with stressful issues and take time out to relax.
- Test your hormone balance – if you’re deficient in progesterone consider using natural progesterone cream.
- Minimise your exposure to hormone disruptors, pesticides and fertilisers by eating organic food.
For a personalised diet plan to help you balance your hormones try our online 100% Health Programme which will provide you with your own diet, lifestyle and supplement programme.
Visit HOLFORDirect.com – the home of GL friendly foods, supplements, tests and books
For more information on a whole range of hormone imbalances – from PMS to endometriosis, breast cancer to menopausal problems – read Balance Your Hormones. For more on infertility and pregnancy, read Optimum Nutrition Before, During and After Pregnancy.