Hacking Your Hormone Health
Hormones are special chemical messengers in the body that control most bodily functions. The hormones that have the biggest impact are our steroid hormones. These include: estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA and cortisol. Understanding these major hormones and what they do, can help us take better control of our health.
To begin, it is important to note that cholesterol (which is often made out to be the enemy) is the precursor to the production of our sex hormones. When cholesterol levels are depleted due to poor liver function or the use of Statin drugs, hormone production is disrupted. This puts individuals at a greater risk for not only hormone dysfunction, but also for cognitive impairments, depression and certain types of cancers. In other words, we need to keep our hormones healthy if we want to function optimally. Now that we know some of the basics, let’s delve a little deeper and introduce you to your key sex hormones.
Estrogen is not a single hormone as many think; it is a group of hormones that play an important role in the development of men’s and women’s sexual and reproductive health. What hormones make up estrogens?
- Estrone (E1): Is an estrogenic hormone secreted by the ovaries as well as adipose tissue. It is the main form of estrogen in postmenopausal women.
- Estradiol (E2): Is produced by the ovaries using cholesterol and is the main estrogen secreted before periods cease (menopause). It is also produced by the adrenal glands. It is responsible for building up the lining of the uterus. It is known as a strong estrogen with a powerful effect on estrogen receptors.
- Estriol (E3): Is a relatively weak natural estrogenic hormone and is one of the metabolic products of estradiol. It is the main estrogen produced during pregnancy.
In women, estrogen is produced in the ovaries, adrenal glands and fat cells. In men, it is produced mainly in the adrenal glands. Estrogen can affect both men and women. However, it is largely responsible for female physical features and reproduction. Ladies, you may remember going through puberty: seeing your breasts develop, pubic and armpit hair grow, and starting your menstruation cycle. This is a result of rising estrogen levels. While estrogen is mainly involved in puberty and reproduction, it also affects the urinary tract, cardiovascular health, bones, breasts, skin, hair and even the brain. And that’s not all, estrogen plays a role in the:
- Formation of female secondary sex characteristics
- Acceleration of metabolism
- Reduction of muscle mass
- Increase of fat stores
- Stimulation of endometrial growth
- Increase of uterine growth
- Increase of vaginal lubrication
- Thickening of the vaginal wall
- Maintenance of vessels and skin
- Increase of bone formation
- Promotion of heart health
For many reasons, your body can make too much or too little estrogen. One may even take in too much estrogen via certain foods, medication, etc. When this happens, hormones become imbalanced and symptoms can persist.
Excess estrogen—also called estrogen dominance—can cause:
- Fluid retention
- Loss of libido
- Low thyroid function
- Low progesterone
- Memory loss
- Migraine headaches
- Heavy and painful menstruations
- Hot flashes
- Weight gain
- Estrogen dominant conditions such as uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, ovarian cysts, endometriosis and cancer
- Erectile dysfunction in men
- Breast growth in men
Do some of these symptoms sound familiar? It is surprising that many of these symptoms we consider a normal part of menstruation or menopause, such as the fluid retention, acne, or hot flashes, but in reality they are just signs that our hormones are imbalanced.
On the other end of the spectrum, low estrogen can cause:
- Brain fog
- Painful intercourse
- Recurring urinary tract infections
- Vaginal dryness
- Thinning of vaginal wall
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Low libido in men
- Excess belly fat in men
Again, brain fog, vaginal dryness and loss of libido are commonly associated with “ageing,” but is that really what ageing gracefully consists of? I hope not! Many of these signs are subtle or not-so-subtle indications that our hormones may not be functioning up to par, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Estrogen Dominance: Xenoestrogens - How They Affect Us
The issue today is that we are bombarded by environmental estrogens, also called xenoestrogens or estrogen mimickers. These man-made chemicals act exactly like estrogen in the body. When you have too much estrogen, you are what is called estrogen dominant.
Some of the most common female estrogen dominant conditions are premenstrual syndrome (PMS), endometriosis, abnormal PAP tests, ovarian cysts, cystic breasts, uterine fibroids, heavy periods, low thyroid, cellulite, hormonal acne and severe menopausal symptoms. Ouf!! Also, if you cannot lose weight there is also a good chance you are estrogen dominant. On top of that, women who take hormones in the form of the birth control pill or hormone replacement therapy can also become hormone overloaded if they are not being monitored properly, increasing their risks for serious health issues.
Xenoestrogen can be either synthetic or natural chemical compounds and can be found in our food and environment including:
- Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides
- Parabens and phthalates (mostly found in cosmetics)
- Farmed fish, commercially raised meat and diary
- Birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy
- Coffee and alcohol
- Usage of microwaves
- Soy products
Essentially every organ and tissue in the body has estrogen receptors. When estrogen circulates in the body it binds to estrogen receptors and triggers certain effects in that organ or tissue. Xenoestrogen will mimic our natural estrogen and attach to our estrogen receptors, potentially taking the place of a real estrogen molecule, or giving the cell the wrong signals. This disturbs our hormonal system and affects the entire body. Limiting exposure to these chemical estrogen mimickers is key for optimal hormone function and optimal health.
Known as the “feel good hormone”, progesterone is produced in the ovaries and used in the production of our other sex hormones. Progesterone receptors can be found all over the body including the brain, skin, thyroid, blood vessels, breasts, and bones. An optimal level of progesterone is needed to ensure that these areas function properly. Progesterone is especially high during pregnancy, keeping the uterus from contracting until labor begins. It naturally decreases around menopause when the ovaries stop the production of eggs. However, small amounts are still produced in the adrenal glands. In men, progesterone is converted into testosterone and DHEA.
How will you know if you have too much or too little progesterone?
Symptoms of excess progesterone include:
- Breast swelling and pain
- Depression or low mood
- Growing facial hair
- Fatigue, drowsiness
- Overproduction of insulin
- Low libido
- Oily skin
- Developing brown spots on skin
- Anxiety or difficulty handling stress;
- Craving carbs
- Elevated cortisol
- Estrogen dominant conditions
- Heavy periods
- Osteopenia and Osteoporosis
- Recurrent miscarriages
- Water retention
- Weight gain around abdomen
Testosterone, although known to influence male sex drive and aggression, also plays an important role in female hormone health. It is crucial for women’s sex drive, muscle tone, bone health, skin and cardiovascular system. In women, testosterone is produced in the ovaries but most is converted into estradiol.
Symptoms of low testosterone are:
- Mood swings and depression
- Change in sleep habits
- Increase body fat and decrease muscle mass
- Low sex drive
- Erectile dysfunction for men
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
Symptoms of high testosterone are:
- Well-being (reduction in depression and mild euphoria)
- Confidence (reduce social anxiety and greater assertiveness)
- Better energy
- Greater sex drive and libido
- Greater concentration and focus
- Body fat reduction and increase muscle mass
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) in women
Women on high doses of estrogen supplementation (HRT) may also have an increase in sex-hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) which is a blood protein that reduces amounts of free testosterone as SHBG has a higher affinity to bind to testosterone than estrogen, therefore reducing the amount of testosterone available.
Testosterone and Aromatase
Aromatase is a naturally occurring enzyme located in multiple tissues in the body. In men it is located in the brain, muscles, and testicles. In women it is located in the ovaries, placenta, and lining of the uterus. It is the enzyme responsible for converting testosterone into estrogen and has been found to increase with the amount of fat an individual has. Poor nutrition and weight gain are a common cause of increased aromatase activity. In addition to this, high stress levels, lack of exercise, chronic inflammation and insulin dysregulation can also contribute to aromatase activity. Certain foods are known as aromatase inhibitors. These foods include: flax seeds, resveratrol, green tea extracts, quercetin, iodine, mangosteen extracts and isoflavones to name a few.
DHEA is mainly produced in the adrenal glands (just like cortisol) and is used in the production of estrogen (in women) and testosterone. It reaches its peak in your twenties and steadily declines after that. DHEA is a very powerful precursor to all of your major sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. When DHEA levels are low, the body does not have enough working material for proper endocrine function which throws off overall hormone production.
Low estradiol levels post-menopause may be a consequence of adrenal dysfunction since postmenopausal production of estradiol comes via conversion from the adrenal hormone DHEA.
Cortisol - Impact Of Stress On Sex Hormones Production
We have already discussed in great length the role of cortisol and adrenal function, however it is also very important to make note of cortisol’s impact on sex hormone production. What happens when we are stressed? First, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in by increasing heart and breathing rates, initiating sweating, jacking up blood sugar and inhibiting digestion—or as you may recall, the “fight or flight” response. Second, the hypothalamus, which is our hormone command centre, gives marching orders to our adrenals to pump adrenaline (a short term response) and cortisol (a longer term response). Cortisol has many similar physiological effects as activating the sympathetic nervous system does, as it can spike blood sugar, inhibit digestion and even halt immune activities.
So how is the body able to “fabricate” cortisol? It has to literally steal pregnenolone which is a precursor hormone made from cholesterol for not only cortisol but for all four sex hormones (progesterone, testosterone, DHEA and estrogen). In times of stress, the body diverts a lot of the pregnenolone toward stress hormone production and away from sex hormone production.This is what is known as “pregnenolone-steal” (as you may remember from our previous chapter) as the adrenals are forced to steal key hormonal building blocks from the sex hormones, contributing to hormonal imbalances and the slew of side effects that come with them.
High cortisol levels can also result in high estrogen levels. How is that? When there is an over abundance of stored fat, fat cells produce excess estrogen, which signals to your body to store more fat. One of the main roles of cortisol is to break down fat cells and move triglycerides (fat molecules) into the bloodstream for more energy. This energy is used in “fight or flight” responses to stress. However, since many of us are in a constant state of “fight or flight” due to high stress levels, the body often produces an overabundance of triglycerides that go unused. Cortisol causes these unused fats to be redeposited in the adipose tissues surrounding the belly. Talk about a double whammy! Keeping the adrenal glands in check and keeping our body fat low are the best way for women to avoid hormonal imbalance and keep their hormones happy.
Oh, menopause! We could write an entire book on menopause, but I’m going to keep it short. The secret to a happy menopause is to prepare for it. Make diet and lifestyle changes before you get there! For those of you who haven’t gone through menopause yet, here are 5 questions you should ask yourself:
- Am I running on high cortisol and stress that is causing my adrenal glands to tap out?
- Am I exposed to xenoestrogens that could be making me estrogen dominant?
- Is my blood sugar stable?
- Are my liver and gut healthy enough to process and detoxify my hormones?
- If I am already having hormonal symptoms and have already made diet and lifestyle modifications, am I using high quality natural supplements and adaptogens (herbs) to help balance my hormones?
When it comes to menopause, it is important to ensure that the adrenals are in check, that you minimize your exposure to xenoestrogens and toxins and that you control your blood sugar. These steps will ensure that your menopause experience runs smoothly.
How to Balance Your Hormones Naturally
There are several things you can do to regulate your hormones. Here are my top tips:
- Prevent “pregnenolone steal” – Make sure to keep your cortisol levels in check by controlling your stress and sleeping at least 7 to 9 hours per night to avoid your adrenals stealing from your sex hormones.
- Decrease your environmental estrogen exposure – We must avoid products containing environmental estrogens such as cosmetics containing parabens, plastics with BPA, synthetic hormones in dairy and meat, just to name a few.
- Detoxify – The liver acts as a filter helping us to get rid of toxins and when it works overtime with things like alcohol, caffeine and prescription drugs, its ability to cleanse the blood of excess estrogen is compromised. Easy ways to help your body detoxify is to consume organic foods and try to focus on eating cruciferous vegetables like: broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and kale. Also, consider dry brushing, taking Epsom salt baths and using an infrared sauna regularly.
- Clear your bowels - Slow colonic transit time (or getting “backed up”) could actually lead to an increase in serum estrogen levels! Vitamin C and Magnesium can help speed up colon transit time and get things moving smoothly.
When it comes to hormones, you’ve got to take charge! If you are experiencing the symptoms listed in this chapter, your body is telling you something is wrong. Seek help. Consider getting your hormones tested or working with a functional medicine practitioner as they have many tools to help you balance your hormones naturally.