What are hormones?
Hormones are powerful chemical messengers that regulate many activities in the body. They are part of the endocrine system, which is a group of glands that produce and secrete hormones into body fluids. Each hormone has specific target organs or cells that it influences. The secretion of a hormone may be triggered by the nervous system, as in the release of adrenalin, or by the concentration of a specific chemical compound, for example when an increase in blood glucose triggers the release of insulin. Hormones regulate cellular processes by binding to receptor sites, either on the surface of the cell membrane or within the cell itself.
What is hormone imbalance?
Hormone imbalance refers to the balance of the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. The most common imbalance is related to an excess of oestrogen, known as oestrogen dominance, which may be caused by an over exposure to oestrogenic substances, a lack of progesterone or a combination of both. Restoring hormonal balance may be achieved naturally through dietary and lifestyle changes and may help resolve many health issues. These chemicals interfere with the body’s ability to function properly, affecting the endocrine and immune systems. Oestrogen and progesterone produced by your ovaries are responsible for controlling the sequence of changes that govern your ability to conceive and maintain a healthy pregnancy. Therefore the balance between these two hormones is vital for fertility.
What are the causes of hormone imbalance?
Liver function - the liver is an organ of detoxification and it is responsible for clearing excess hormones. An overburdened liver will not function properly and may lead to hormones not being optimally cleared. Moreover it may not be able to deal with toxic metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, which can have a negative effect on fertility and ability to maintain pregnancy. It is therefore important to lighten the liver’s load to optimise its ability to clear hormones.
Alcohol and smoking (including passive smoking) recreational drugs, non-essential medication (don’t come off any medication without consulting your GP), caffeine, tea, chocolate, coca-cola and processed foods (they often contain chemicals and unhealthy types of fats which your liver will have to deal with). Organic food will reduce the amount of insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, which your liver will have to process. To further reduce chemical exposure, use natural cleaning products such as Ecover. By reducing the liver’s toxic load in this way, it should have increased capacity for hormone clearance.
Gut function - hormones are excreted from the body in the stool. Regular bowel movements will aid efficient clearance. The correct balance of gut flora is important as they play a part in facilitating this excretion. Drinking 1-2 litres of filtered or mineral water daily and eating plenty of whole foods (e.g. fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, brown rice, rye, whole meal bread, muesli, porridge) to provide the bulk necessary to form healthy stools should help avoid constipation. Fibre also helps block reabsorption of hormones back into to circulation. If you have a sluggish colon and are constipated, oestrogen that has been converted in the liver, and passed back into the colon for excretion will be re-absorbed back into the blood stream and will need to be detoxified again.
Blood sugar balance - excessive sugar turns into fat and encourages the production of oestrogen, potentially causing a hormonal imbalance. In addition, stimulants (caffeine, alcohol, smoking, sugar) and stress promote the release of adrenaline, which blocks the re-uptake of progesterone in the second half of the menstrual cycle, exacerbating the hormone imbalance.
Stress - as above, when the body is in a state of stress, or when we take stimulants like coffee, tea, alcohol or chocolate, the hormone cortisol is produced. Cortisol competes with progesterone, and also increases the production of oestrogen, so frequent stress again promotes oestrogen dominance. Stress also upsets the blood sugar balance, meaning more insulin and cortisol are produced, contributing to adrenal stress and putting extra burden on the immune system
Xenoestrogens - oestrogen-like chemicals found in herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, plastics and household cleaning products can have a hormone-disrupting effect. To minimise exposure, as far as possible, you should try to eat organically produced food. Don’t wrap foods in plastic, especially foods with a high fat content, such as cheese or meat. If you do use plastic for food storage, get PVC-free plastic. Buy fruit juice in bottles rather than cartons lined with soft plastic. Xenoestrogens can easily pass into foods.
Meat and dairy - nowadays cows may be given hormones to increase milk output, these hormones may well end up in the milk. The saturated fats in meat and dairy will also block the production of the essential fats mentioned above. It would be therefore prudent to eat only small amounts of meat and dairy and to buy organic if possible.
Water status - water is involved in all processes in the body and helps to transport nutrients and waste products around the body. In addition to increasing dietary fibre, increasing water helps to prevent constipation and aids the excretion of oestrogen from the body. Avoid drinks containing caffeine, which have been linked to PMS symptoms such as breast pain and also to heavy periods. Choose instead filtered or bottled water, herbal teas and diluted fruit juices.
Weight - body fat is involved in the manufacture of oestrogen so hormonal problems linked to high oestrogen levels are helped by losing weight whereas problems associated with low oestrogen, such as a lack of periods, are helped by gaining weight. Any changes in weight should be kept within normal levels for your height and build.
Exercise - exercise helps to avoid constipation, therefore aiding the elimination of excess oestrogen in the body. It also helps the immune system and thyroid function and improves metabolism. Regular exercise can also help mood and reduce stress levels and may help to keep blood sugar levels stable. Exercise has been shown to help balance oestrogen levels in the body and may be beneficial for many hormone related disorders. Levels of exercise should be moderate and regular.
What are the symptoms of hormone imbalance?
Hormonal imbalance can cause many symptoms including:
- Premenstrual tension
- Menopausal problems
- Heavy periods
- Ovarian cysts
- Weight gain
What should you avoid?
Reduce your intake of saturated fat - from meat and dairy products as these interfere with the processing of essential fatty acids and are pro-inflammatory.
Avoid additives - preservatives and chemicals, such as artificial sweeteners.
Avoid sugar - as it can cause blood sugar fluctuations and weight gain, which increases oestrogen production leading to a hormone imbalance.
Reduce caffeine - as a diuretic it depletes stores of hormone balancing nutrients. It also acts as a stimulant and raises blood sugar. So limit or stop coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate etc…
Reduce alcohol - it depletes nutrients and raises blood sugar levels, and taxes the liver (which is vital for toxin removal). It also interferes with the metabolism of essential fats.
What other actions can you take?
Try to balance your blood sugar - never skip breakfast, eat small regular meals, include some protein at every meal and fibrous vegetables with most meals. Try to avoid all refined (white) foods, confectionery and sugary drinks, plus caffeine.
Eat plenty of fruits & vegetables - this provides fibre (for removal of toxins) and antioxidants (for protection and healing). The cabbage family (kale, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower etc) can help avoid absorption of foreign oestrogenic chemicals into the bloodstream and aid elimination as they support the liver detoxification.
Eat complex carbohydrates – wholegrains like brown rice, oats, quinoa and wholemeal bread. This should help to balance blood sugar levels to give a consistent energy supply while wholegrains also contain vital minerals. Avoid all white equivalents.
Buy organic food where possible - especially grains (as they have a large surface area for absorption of chemicals) and dairy products (due to the antibiotics and hormones used in dairy farming).
Eat phytoestrogens - these are adaptogenic plant oestrogens which are believed to help hormone balance by increasing oestrogen in the body when levels are low but reducing it when levels are high. Phytoestrogens are found in:
Soya products - soya beans, tofu, tempeh, soya flour, soya milk, soy bean sprouts, miso
Whole grains - millet, wholewheat, rye, barley, oats, brown rice
Seeds - sesame, flaxseed or linseed, pumpkin, poppy, caraway, sunflower
Beans and pulses - aduki, haricot, kidney, lima, pint, mung beans, peas, lentils and chick peas
Sprouts - alfalfa, mung bean
Fruits - cranberries, apples, pears, plums, cherries, citrus fruit, rhubarb
Vegetables - onion, corn, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, garlic, alfalfa, fennel, celery
Herbs and spices - parsley, sage, cinnamon
Phytoestrogens have the most effect in the form of isoflavones, which are found in legumes (soya, lentils, chickpeas, beans). All of these have hormone-balancing properties.
Eat more essential fats - beneficial prostaglandins are converted from fats, which our body cannot manufacture itself. There are two types of essential fats:
Omega 6 - sourced in raw nuts and seeds and their oils, (which should only be consumed unheated), Evening Primrose Oil and oatmeal.
Omega 3 - sourced in linseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and oily fish.
These prostaglandins help balance hormones by increasing cell receptor sensitivity to hormones. Aim to eat oily fish 2-3 times per week and snack on raw nuts and seeds. Deficiency of EFA's can give rise to symptoms like depression, irritability, allergies (such as hayfever), fatigue, difficulty losing weight and PMS.
Drink plenty of fluids - this is essential to hydrate the body for more efficient transportation of nutrients and to flush out toxins, and keep stools bulky for easy passing in order that toxins and excess hormones may be expelled more easily. The best choice is pure still water.
Increase your intake of fibre - along with adequate water, this should ensure efficient elimination of toxins and excess hormones. Avoid wheat fibre as it can irritate the gut in some people, but use oat bran or organic linseeds.
Are there lifestyle changes that can help?
- As far as possible avoid food or drinks in plastic containers or wrapped in plastic. This includes cans and cardboard packs with plastic linings. Xenoestrogens tend to transfer into foods with a high fat content, so do not heat food in plastic, especially in microwave ovens.
- Wash all fruit and vegetables before eating and if eating non-organic produce, add one tablespoon of vinegar to the washing water to help remove some of the pesticides.
- Drink filtered or bottled water rather than straight from the tap as tap water can contain oestrogens, residues of pesticides and heavy metals.
- Avoid using pesticides in the garden and if you can garden organically.
- Use natural cleaning products for the home (such as Ecover) as well as natural toiletries.
- Consider natural alternatives to the contraceptive pill and HRT.
- Take regular exercise.