PMS, poor sleep, weight gain, heavy periods, irregular menstrual cycles…. the list goes on. Health Space Rozelle’s resident Naturopath Jade Bertolasi talks hormones, how to identify common imbalances and what you can do to restore equilibrium to your endocrine system.
Let’s face it: women’s hormones are complicated. Sex hormone levels fluctuate naturally with our menstrual cycle, and major life events such as pregnancy and menopause see significant hormonal shifts in our bodies. When we are under pressure our stress hormones can leap into overdrive, fuelling our body with the energy it needs to fight or flee. In fact, your hormone levels change on a daily basis.
So then if there is all this natural variation, what exactly do we mean by a “hormonal imbalance”?. Think of your hormones like an ecosystem in nature, where each one interacts and influences the other. They ebb and flow depending on factors from our internal and external environments. But with over one hundred hormones working in concert with each other, the delicate balance can easily be disrupted, leading to less than optimal health.
So what exactly are hormones? Let’s take a step back and explain exactly what we are talking about here. Hormones are the chemical messengers of the body. Put simply, they tell our organs what to do and when to do it. They regulate key functions including appetite, sleep, body temperature, mood, digestion, and sexual function. We rely on our hormones to keep our bodies running smoothly.
When we are discussing women’s hormones, the key players include sex hormones oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone; stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline; thyroid hormones; and melatonin, a major sleep hormone.
SIGNS YOU MAY HAVE A HORMONAL IMBALANCE
Let’s discuss some of the common symptoms of a hormonal imbalance, plus a few that may surprise you.
An imbalance of oestrogen & progesterone can lead to excessive thickening of the endometrium (uterus lining), which in turn leads to heavy, and sometimes painful, menstrual flow.
Mood swings, breast tenderness, uterine pain, cravings, bloating/fluid retention, fatigue, anxiety, and digestive complaints either before or during menstruation. While we have been indoctrinated to think that this may all be a “normal” part of being a woman, from a naturopathic perspective this is a clear sign that something is out of balance. A normal menstrual cycle should be pain and symptom free.
Our sleep-wake cycle is regulated by key hormones cortisol and melatonin. Cortisol, a major stress hormone, peaks in the mornings (getting us out of bed and moving) and then gradually declines throughout the day. Conversely, melatonin should be high at night, assisting us to fall asleep — and stay that way all night long. High evening cortisol (and low evening melatonin) can lead to issues with sleep onset (getting to sleep) and sleep maintenance (staying asleep).
Persistent weight gain
An underproduction of thyroid hormone (as seen in hypothyroidism) is associated with a reduction in your basal metabolic rate and can lead to weight gain. Furthermore, elevated cortisol levels give your body the message that it needs to protect its fat stores as a back-up source of energy.
Androgens such as testosterone, while commonly referred to as “male hormones”, are found in both males and females. These hormones regulate sebum production in your skin and excessive androgen levels can lead to clogged pores and breakouts. Acne is often seen in women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) due to increased testosterone levels.
Some hair loss is normal. But when it’s starting to come out in clumps, this may be an indication of hormonal imbalance. A number of hormones that can impact hair loss, with thyroid hormone, cortisol, and your sex hormones all influencing the condition of your skin and hair. Thinning on your scalp combined with an increase in facial hair can be yet another indicator of PCOS.
Other signs and symptoms that your hormones may be out of balance include:
- Long menstrual cycle (more than 33 days in length)
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Absent periods
- Migraine (especially before your period)
- Low libido
- Trouble concentrating
- Digestive issues (constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, cramping, paint)
- Fertility problems
- Excessive sweating
- Hot flushes associated with menopause
WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?
The topic of hormonal imbalance is so broad that there is no “one-size-fits-all” treatment plan. It’s really important that you get to the root cause of the issue rather than implementing band-aid solutions. That said, here are some dietary and lifestyle modifications that can make great strides in supporting your body’s innate healing ability to improve such imbalances:
Love your liver
Hormones are metabolised and excreted by the liver. By supporting liver detoxification you can help clear excess hormones and prevent them from recirculating in your bloodstream.
How to: reduce caffeine & alcohol intake, increase consumption of “bitter” wholefoods (think rocket, radicchio, artichoke, broccoli, kale).
A big ask in today’s world, I know! But I cannot emphasise this enough — stress is the CORE of so many hormonal imbalances. When we are chronically stressed our endocrine system cannot function effectively. In my practice, I am an advocate for finding small ways to chip away at stress levels that are achievable in your daily life. Walk to work. Do 10 minutes of breathing or mindfulness before bed. Swap one coffee for herbal tea. Socialise. Find two small changes you can implement and do it NOW.
Eat more fibre
Adequate fibre intake has been associated with a reduction in circulating sex hormones. Additionally, fibre is the primary fuel source of beneficial gut bacteria, promoting the development of healthy gut microbiome. Ensure your diet is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes and, whole grains. Almonds, black beans, oats and chia seeds are excellent wholefood fibre sources.
Get more sleep
When we sleep, we give our body the chance to heal. Adequate sleep is critical to our overall health and hormonal function. Are you getting enough? If not, consider moving your bedtime forward slightly (or getting up a little later, if you can!). For those of you already struggling with sleep, this one might be tough. Your naturopath or nutritionist can help you find ways to support healthy sleep.
Some incredible herbal medicines work to address the root cause of hormonal disturbances. In my clinical practice, I love chaste tree for supporting progesterone production, regulating menstrual cycles and reducing PMS symptoms. I also use adaptogenic herbs such as Liquorice, Withania and Rehmannia work to build resilience and support your body’s ability to cope with stress. Herbs such as Black Cohosh have oestrogen-modulating effects, supporting oestrogen production in times of menopausal transition. This is just a small snapshot – there are SO many other herbs for supporting optimal hormonal function.
If you suspect a hormonal imbalance, testing can be a great way to get clarity. Hormone levels can be tested through blood, urine or saliva and there are multitudes of test options out there. As your hormone levels are constantly fluctuating it’s really important that hormonal testing is done under professional guidance and at the right times to ensure useful results. Talk with your naturopath, nutritionist or, other health practitioners to identify the options that are best for you.