Just like your body changes over time, the factors that impact your health change along with it. Fluctuations such as hormonal imbalance, stress, family demands, child bearing and menstrual or menopause issues demand a flexible yet comprehensive approach to overall health. What I often see in my clinic is the challenge of balancing hormones in women of all ages.
Stress and Hormones
There are several factors that can affect hormonal imbalance, including the fast-paced, high stress lifestyle where we are always “on”. Sometimes women must find a way to “pump the brakes” and try to slow down in order to lower stress. Having a mind-body practice such as guided imagery, meditation, deep breathing or yoga is one great way to restore the adrenal glands. One of my clinical tricks is to encourage women to do just 90% of their usual exercise and 90% of their typical overexertion; then tap out and put the extra 10% back into their “savings account” to relieve their stress hormones.
Both men and women may have a lot of life stress, but women many times have an unfair burden of family and work stress which can negatively affect their health. What we fail to realize is not only does mental stress cause disharmony in the hormone symphony, but environmental stress is even more damaging due to the high burden of toxicity. Both premenstrual syndrome (PMS), perimenopause (or early menopause) and true menopause are markedly affected by environmental toxicity.
Our environment is full of toxins all around us in our air, our water, our food supply, and surprisingly also in most medications and cosmetic products. Studies have shown that the average woman puts over 120 chemicals into her body before she leaves the house in the morning. These are found in her cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, foods, natural supplements, and even medications. Most people don’t know medications have toxic inactive ingredients! These can include phthalates, parabens, talc, synthetic preservatives, food colorings and dyes which have been shown to have behavioral, emotional and physical effects.
One of my major concerns for women’s health is the toxic burden that comes from exposure to environmental toxins in food, healthcare products, and more. An overwhelming toxic burden can ultimately cause endocrine disruption. When you combine this with the healthcare system that works on patching the symptom rather than looking for the root cause of an illness, then we can see how the traditional medical approach does not benefit the individual woman. For instance, we see many times that women end up on antidepressants and other mood medications when the core dysfunction is actually a thyroid, adrenal or hormone imbalance.
I see many women with PMS or with menopausal symptoms that have been prescribed antidepressants or birth control pills. These medications may benefit some women, but they can also lead to physical, sexual and other emotional side effects. The true key to optimal wellness is to have a healthy diet, adequate exercise, an ideal sleep schedule, and a stress management plan. We have found that combining a natural holistic solution with other mind-body therapies and adding mainstream medical therapies only when needed to be more effective than conventional medicine by itself.
My first step to helping women reduce hormone disruption is to promote awareness of the toxins in her world. One of the long-term solutions is to balance natural support for the hormone production against the toxicity of our environmental hormone disruption. That’s why I encourage all my clients to read labels on cosmetics, food, and medications to look at the ‘other’ or ‘inactive’ ingredients – this is where the toxins are hidden. Look at the Environmental Working Group website (EWG.org) to find information about clean foods and the most toxic foods. Be sure your home and work water sources are free of heavy metals and, if not, get a personal glass water bottle to use as your daily drinking water source.
Gut Health and Internal Fat
Women’s bodies need a healthy digestive tract to provide optimal nutrient absorption. Your digestive tract is a barrier to toxins as well as a gateway to good nutrients; this barrier should provide optimal absorption of good nutrients while excreting the bad toxins, which can markedly benefit hormone balance. While the supporting gut health is extremely important, the liver is also an integral part of detoxifying the body. Be good to your liver by reducing consumption of alcohol and medications that stress the liver.
No one likes body fat on the outside, but as a doctor I am most concerned about body fat on the inside. The hot, inflammatory, hormone disrupting visceral fat that wraps around our internal organs makes them work harder and less efficiently. This internal visceral fat particularly affects the liver! You can end up with the dreaded ‘fatty liver,’ which pretty much destines you to a life of diabetes, possible heart disease, and dementia.
Internal body fat in women is a specific indicator of high toxicity because body fat acts as a kind of toxic warehouse. With high toxicity, hormones are not only produced in insufficient amounts, but they can be metabolized into other, more dangerous hormone byproducts that increase cancer risk. Optimal production, efficient utilization, and healthy excretion of hormones all must be in synergy for women to feel balanced and to prevent cancer.
The Hormonal Symphony
In my clinic, we find that the path to optimal health for women includes balanced levels of cortisol, the thyroid hormone, supported by a healthy gut and efficient liver. Female hormones must all work together; when they are out of balance due to stress you may experience something known as the “cortisol steal”. This causes your body to shuttle natural progesterone into the production of cortisol to tame the stress response, which creates an estrogen dominance pattern because there is more estrogen than progesterone. You may see an increase of PMS or menopause symptoms as well as poor sleep quality and ‘brain fog’. Once the stress becomes manageable and balanced, the ‘cortisol steal’ pattern is removed, and all of these hormones will restore balance into a perfect symphony, especially if the gut is optimal.
Don’t forget to look around you and avoid those hormone-disrupting environmental toxins! By combining toxic beauty supplies, toxic foods, and toxic medications we disrupt the hormonal symphony. This causes hormone imbalance, adrenal dysregulation, and – many times – thyroid disruption. We see many women that have normal labs based on the old-fashioned traditional normal ranges, yet they don’t feel good. The key to solving this is to look at all the members of the symphony: balance the thyroid, adrenal hormones, and female hormones, plus promote optimal liver function for detoxification and ideal gut function for best absorption and elimination. All these members of the symphony must be in harmony for women to feel truly healthy throughout her life.