Balancing Female Hormones
The interplay of hormones
Balance is the key when it comes to hormones. Estrogen and progesterone levels, for example, change over the course of a month, a year, and one’s life. These varying levels affect different cells in different ways. They influence growth, metabolism, sexual function, affecting the actions of one another and other hormones. At high levels a hormone may have a completely different effect than at low levels. To keep hormone levels appropriate, there are feedback mechanisms that help the body self-regulate this bio-chemical dance. An important aspect of steroid (sex and adrenal) hormones is that they are made from cholesterol. This much vilified substance is essential for health and not getting enough of it is bad. Because these hormones share a common pathway, in situations of prolonged stress, the body will preferentially use cholesterol and pre-hormone molecules to make cortisol, our stress hormone. This commonly contributes to sex hormone deficiencies. Also of note is that high cortisol levels can cause low thyroid hormone activity and therefore the symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Xenohormones, estrogen pretenders
I wish excess stress was the only problem affecting our hormone health. Unfortunately there is now a legion of chemicals in our world, which can mimic hormones, namely estrogen. This is similar to how naturally occurring isoflavones in soy can affect health by interacting with the estrogen receptor on our cells. The effects of soy is usually mild and for some may be beneficial. Not so benign are environmental chemicals that can act like hormones, sometimes referred to as xenohormones or xenoestrogens. These synthetic chemicals can be found in pesticides; plastics, namely phthalates and bisphenol A; and in industrial organic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), dioxins, furans, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Another source of potentially harmful synthetic hormones is from pharmaceuticals such as birth control pills, HRT, fertility drugs, and synthetic hormones given to livestock. Because of the widespread use of hormone drugs, there are now detectable levels in many waterways, contributing to breeding dysfunction in wildlife.
Many of these chemicals are only later determined to be xenohormones or what are referred to as “endocrine disruptors.” It’s one thing to know that industrial chemicals are harmful, but many don’t realize these chemicals are often in consumer products that are placed on and in your body! Parabens are the latest suspect, which along with other xenohormones are in lotions, sunscreens, cosmetics, nail polish, hair products, spermacides, shaving foams, soaps and detergents. Interesting, but disturbing is the fact that one’s home is often the place of highest exposure to toxins! The consequences of all this is anything but trivial. Along with the conditions mentioned above, this chemical onslaught is associated with increased rates of cancer, birth defects, sexual dysfunction, uterine fibroids, anemia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety disorders, just to name a few.
So besides obviously trying to avoid exposure to xenohormones what else can you do? Step one is getting a proper assessment. Sadly the conventional medical approach to women’s hormonal health has totally missed the boat. The indiscriminate use of synthetic hormones to treat female reproductive ailments often causes more harm than good. In addition, testing a woman’s hormone levels through a single blood test rarely gleans meaningful information. Since hormones rise and fall throughout a woman’s cycle, to get the full story you must take a series of samples throughout the month. One of the best ways to do this is through saliva testing, with samples properly staggered. This test can detect the subtle imbalances that often occur. Most importantly it can guide treatment to restore proper hormone balance. Specific saliva tests are also available for peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women, as well as for men.
From a naturopathic perspective effectively treating hormone issues requires looking at the whole person and her unique story. After all, isn’t the point to restore the body back to a state of health? A synthetic hormone prescription will not help the body find its own natural hormonal rhythm. Unlike most prescription hormones that are synthetic, bio-identical hormones, when prescribed appropriately, can provide relief, but require additional treatments to help the body restore its ability to self-regulate. After properly identifying a hormonal imbalance, many women can find relief through dietary adjustments, nutritional interventions, supporting detoxification, and through herbal medicine. Because our mood, emotions, and spirit have such a powerful impact on our physical bodies and hormone health, these areas must be nurtured as well.
Although figuring out what is wrong and how to fix it is half the battle, in order to actually get well one has to commit to follow a new course of action. The health challenges that many face are the result of slowly accumulating insults that may take time to reverse. When the foundations of health are addressed; one is eating better, eliminating better, weak organs are nourished, and proper hormone balance is being restored; a new level of health can be achieved that would never be possible by just taking another prescription drug. Once you start feeling better you will be motivated to keep moving forward.
If you have health problems that you think may be hormonally related, consider contacting Dr. Graves for an assessment and get started rebalancing your hormonal health.