By Amy Myers
What are the key hormones that affect women?
Although they’re all important, there are several key hormones that affect women’s health.
The thyroid gland keeps your metabolism under control through the action of thyroid hormones, which it makes by extracting iodine from your blood. Thyroid cells are the only ones in your body that specialize in absorbing and using iodine, which they use to create the thyroid hormones T3 and T4. These hormones don’t just control your overall metabolism, weight, energy levels, and temperature. They actually directly manage the metabolism of every single cell in your body, so if your levels are off, every cell can be affected. Thyroid disorders that result in too little or too much thyroid hormone can cause a wide range of symptoms, and left untreated can result in illnesses such as Hashimoto’s disease or Graves’ disease. There are about 20 million people diagnosed with thyroid disease. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. I myself had Graves’ my second year of medical school and it is why I chose to go into functional medicine and create The Myers Way® in order for individuals to find their root cause and reverse their conditions.
For women, this sex hormone is created in your ovaries, although your adrenal glands and fat cells make some too. Estrogen is responsible for reproduction, menstruation, and menopause. Estrogen is important in bone and blood health as well as sex drive. Levels of estrogen naturally rise and fall during a woman’s lifetime, however, low estrogen levels can lead to acne, skin lesions, thinning skin, or hair loss. Estrogen is metabolized by the liver through three different pathways. Depending on the pathway, estrogen will be converted into good or bad metabolites. The 2-hydroxy metabolic pathway has the lowest risk for cancer and other problems. The 16-hydroxy and 4-hydroxy pathways are associated with higher risks of breast cancer. Using the 2-hydroxy pathway, your body produces good estrogen metabolites, which support healthy mood, libido, breast tissue, and reproductive health. When your body is converting too many of your hormones using the 16-hydroxy and 4-hydroxy pathways, that’s when you experience estrogen dominant symptoms such as irritability, vaginal dryness, and PMS, and are at a higher risk of developing cancer.
Although both genders produce progesterone, it is often called “the pregnancy hormone.” In women, progesterone is produced in your ovaries and plays a key role in menstruation and in preparing your body for pregnancy. During pregnancy, production of this important hormone shifts to the placenta, which produces it at a higher volume than your ovaries, keeping you from producing more eggs and preparing your body to produce breast milk. Women who have low levels of progesterone may have abnormal uterine bleeding, irregular periods, problems conceiving, and difficulty carrying a baby to term. They may also experience headaches, migraines, mood changes, anxiety or depression, low libido, and hot flashes.
This steroid hormone, produced in your adrenal glands, is a very complex substance. It is the precursor to all sex hormones — it primarily turns into testosterone and then ultimately into estrogen. Without the proper amount of it, your body can’t synthesize estrogen. Adrenal fatigue, often characterized by body aches, fatigue, sleep issues and digestive problems, is a hallmark of low levels of DHEA. Because of DHEA’s involvement in regulating your immune system, low levels of this hormone can create a pathway to autoimmunity.
This mood-boosting hormone is associated with learning and memory, regulating sleep, digestion, and some muscular function. 95% of your serotonin is created in your gut, so having a healthy gut is critical to this hormone’s production. Recent research has shown that serotonin levels that promote a positive impact on mood can increase longevity by as much as 10 years. Low levels of serotonin can lead to depression, migraines, weight gain, insomnia, and carb cravings. Too much serotonin can cause agitation, confusion, or lethargy.
This hormone is released by your pancreas, which is located behind your stomach. This critical hormone enables your body to use glucose, or sugar from carbohydrates in the food you eat for energy. It helps keep blood sugar levels from getting too high or too low. If you have more sugar in your body than you need, insulin helps store it in your liver and release it later when you need it for energy.
The main function of this stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland is just that—to respond to stress. However, cortisol also plays a role in controlling inflammation and regulating blood flow. In danger mode, the adrenal gland boosts cortisol production which increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and overall inflammation. Nearly all of your cells have cortisol receptors, so in times of high alert, cortisol can shut down processes such as digestion, and sex hormone production. Many of us are dealing with chronic stress. When you have constant stressors in your life, your immune system never really gets to turn off. Your inflammatory immune response is activated for too long and eventually goes rogue, attacking your own bodily tissues, resulting in hormone imbalance and autoimmune diseases.
Often called HGH, growth hormone is a protein that is produced in the pituitary gland. It stimulates growth, cell reproduction and regeneration, and boosts metabolism. Production rises in childhood, peaks in adolescence, and declines in adulthood. However, even after you stop growing, you still need growth hormone for healthy muscles, bone, and fat tissues.
What causes hormone imbalances and how can you find out if you have an imbalance?
Virtually all women experience hormone imbalances at some point in their lives. These imbalances are often a result of natural changes that occur with age, such as puberty and menopause. When you were growing up, hormones triggered bone and muscle growth.
They also set in motion the reproductive changes that led to menstruation and fertility in young women, and sexual maturity in young men. This surge of hormones is behind the acne, mood swings, and other “teen” issues that affect most adolescents.
On the other end of the spectrum, hormone production slows as you leave your reproductive years behind. A decline in hormone production is what leads to perimenopause and menopause symptoms in women, and low libido and erectile dysfunction in men entering middle age. Some hormonal imbalances, however, can have other underlying causes beyond the natural aging processes, including:
- Chronic stress
- Elevated blood sugar
- Lack of Sleep
- Thyroid dysfunction(Hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism)
- Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) or birth control pills
- Type 1 or type 2 diabetes
- Being overweight
- Endocrine disruptors such as pesticides, herbicides, and plastics
- Steroids and other medications
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
How do hormone imbalances showcase themselves in women — what are the “symptoms” of a hormone imbalance?
- The most common symptoms include:
- Bloating, constipation, and diarrhea
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Insulin resistance
- Chronic fatigue
- Estrogen dominance
- Mood swings, anxiety, or depression
- Low libido
- Brain fog
- Adrenal fatigue
- Hot flashes/night sweats
- Thinning, brittle hair
- Blood sugar swings
- Hot and/or cold intolerance
- Loss of muscle mass
How can someone work to balance their hormone levels?
Your overall health is the key to hormone balance. And the path to optimal health is through your gut.
Your gut is the foundation of your whole body’s health because 80% of your immune system is located there, as well as the vast majority of your serotonin. Without a healthy gut, you can’t have a healthy immune system. Without a healthy immune system, you’re open to infections, inflammation, and autoimmune disease. All of these wreak havoc on hormonal health.
The gut is naturally permeable to very small molecules in order to absorb nutrients in your food. However, a poor diet of toxic and inflammatory foods, environmental toxins, medications, infections, and stress can cause these tight junctions to break apart. Once these tight junctions get broken apart, you have a leaky gut.
When your gut is leaky, things like toxins, microbes, undigested food particles, and more can escape from your intestines and travel throughout your body via your bloodstream. Your immune system marks these “foreign invaders” as pathogens and attacks them. The constant onslaught of inflammation from your immune system causes a widespread immune response throughout your body. To manage this, I recommend the four Pillars of The Myers Way® which I detail in my book, The Autoimmune Solution, to take control and return to optimal health.
PILLAR 1: Heal Your Gut
1. REMOVE: Remove the bad. The goal is to get rid of things that negatively affect the environment of the gut such as inflammatory foods, infections, and gastric irritants such as alcohol, caffeine or drugs. Inflammatory foods, including gluten, dairy, corn, soy, eggs, and sugar can lead to food sensitivities. Infections can be from parasites, yeast, or bacteria. Two common ones are small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and Candida overgrowth.
2. RESTORE: Restore what’s missing. Add back in the essential ingredients for proper digestion and absorption that may have been depleted by diet, drugs (such as antacid medications) diseases, or aging. This includes digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, and bile acids that are required for proper digestion.
3. REINOCULATE: Restoring beneficial bacteria to reestablish a healthy balance of good bacteria is critical. This may be accomplished by taking a probiotic supplement that contains beneficial bacteria.
4. REPAIR: Providing the nutrients necessary to help the gut repair itself is essential. Collagen can seal the leaks while L-glutamine helps to rejuvenate the gut wall lining.
PILLAR 2: Get Rid of Gluten, Grains, and Legumes
Gluten is a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, semolina, spelt, rye, kamut, and barley. Gluten, which has been linked to more than 55 diseases, prompts your immune system to attack your own tissues. It’s not easily digested, and it contributes to gut imbalances like SIBO and Candida overgrowth. But even more damaging is gluten’s ability to trigger the body to produce zonulin, a protein that can signal the tight junctions between the cells in your intestines to open and stay open, causing leaky gut.
Lectins are also problematic. These are naturally occurring proteins in foods such as beans, peanuts, lentils, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, fruits, wheat and rice that protect them as they grow. Like gluten, they don’t have any nutritional value for people. Lectins are clingy and can attach to your gut wall, where they can ultimately enlarge openings enough to pass into your bloodstream.
PILLAR 3: Tame the Toxins
A toxin is a poison — any substance that’s dangerous to the human body. That includes things you know are a problem such as heavy metals like lead and mercury, industrial chemicals and pollutants, and pesticides. Then there is a category many have never even heard of — mycotoxins, the volatile organic compounds released by certain types of mold.
You might be thinking you aren’t exposed to many toxins because you live a very “clean” lifestyle. However, toxins are found in the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, and in the cosmetics, cleaning products, and cookware you use every day. It may seem like just a little exposure here — to pesticides when you eat conventionally grown produce — or a little exposure there — to mercury in your dental fillings. But each and every exposure adds to your body’s toxic burden.
For example, you may not realize that most personal care products out there contain phthalates, parabens, and other hormone-disrupting chemicals. These toxins get absorbed into your skin, where they can enter your bloodstream and wreak havoc on your hormones.
Additionally, nearly every type of plastic releases chemicals that mimic estrogen in your body. Continuous, low-level exposure to these chemicals can lead to hormone imbalance and put you at risk for insulin resistance, breast or prostate cancer, infertility, male impotence, and a whole host of health issues.
The best way to keep toxins from upsetting your hormonal balance is to prevent them from entering your body in the first place. Clean the air inside your home with a HEPA filter to ensure it is as toxin-free as possible. Buy clean, organic foods whenever you can. This is especially important for meat because animals are at the top of the food chain, and if they’re consuming pesticides in their feed, yo u are too, but in a magnified dose.
To support your body’s natural detox process, drink plenty of water and do something that makes you sweat. Regular activity not only produces sweat that moves toxins out of your body, it can also help your sleep, digestion, memory, and even sexual function, thanks to its ability to help boost serotonin.
PILLAR 4: Heal your infections and relieve your stress
Certain viral infections which never leave your system, such as herpes simplex (HSV) and Epstein-Barr (EBV), can trigger your immune system and cause widespread inflammation, especially when you are chronically tired and under constant stress. The systemic inflammation caused during a flare-up of an infection further impacts your overall health and hormone balance.
While it’s impossible to avoid stress completely, it’s crucial to find ways to manage it to restore balance to your hormones. Meditation and forming a supportive community are proven ways to relieve stress.
Are there any foods that are particularly damaging to healthy hormone levels?
Sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause blood sugar spikes and mess with your insulin. Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas that helps turn glucose into energy and keeps your blood sugar stable. Too much sugar causes your body to release more and more insulin to help control blood glucose levels. This can lead to insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes. Keep refined carbs to a minimum and save sweet treats for special occasions. Choose natural sweeteners that won’t send your blood sugar on a roller coaster.
Another hormone-wrecking food to watch out for is soy. Soy contains phytoestrogens known as isoflavones that mimic estrogen in your body. It’s a good idea to ditch soy, particularly if your estrogen levels are already high due to menopause.
What about gluten? If you’re sensitive to gluten or have Celiac disease, how does ingesting gluten affect your hormones?
As I mentioned earlier, gluten is a big issue. The gluten we eat today is not the same as the gluten our ancestors ate. Over 100 years ago, scientists began to develop new, hybridized forms of wheat with higher proportions of gluten protein to produce bigger, fluffier breads and pastries. They also figured out a way to deaminate gluten, which allows it to be dissolved into liquids and other products that didn’t previously contain gluten.
As a result, we are not only eating a very different kind of gluten than our ancestors ate, we are eating and being exposed to much more of it. And it’s no coincidence that the change in our gluten consumption aligns with a dramatic increase in chronic disease.
The new proteins that are present in our modern hybridized wheat and were not found in our ancestors’ wheat are highly inflammatory, especially in the large quantities that we eat today. Our bodies simply have not had time to evolve properly to digest these gluten-dense forms of wheat and the result is a state of chronic ongoing inflammation. This chronic inflammation can affect everything from your skin, to your sleep, your mood, and your hormone levels.
That’s because your immune system becomes overly stressed as the inflammation just keeps on coming with each bite of bagel, pretzel, or even whole wheat pasta. It can begin to malfunction! The result is that your immune system begins to misfire. It begins attacking your body’s own tissues as it tries desperately to combat the sources of inflammation.
However, gluten doesn’t just cause inflammation from its own proteins, it adds fuel to the fire by opening the door for other inflammatory agents to wreck your health as well by damaging your intestines, causing leaky gut, and allowing particles that should have been excreted to invade your bloodstream.
On top of causing leaky gut, which itself contributes to autoimmunity, gluten is particularly dangerous because of a phenomenon known as molecular mimicry. This is when a foreign invader (such as the gluten proteins now flooding your bloodstream due to leaky gut) shares sequence or structural similarities with your body’s own tissues. Your immune system memorizes the structure of invaders. Then it develops a customized defense and recognizes it in the future.
However, your immune system is not always perfect. If the invader looks enough like your own cells, your immune system ends up attacking your own tissues along with the invader by mistake, in an autoimmune reaction.
Gluten happens to be structurally similar to a number of your body’s tissues, particularly the thyroid gland. This is why gluten is one of the leading causes of autoimmunity, especially in those with a thyroid condition.
And if there is a recipe from your cookbook that you’d like to share, feel free to do so!
My cookbook, The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook, is packed with delicious, healthy recipes. One of the best ones for supporting hormone balance is my Mardi Gras Salad because it’s packed with cabbage, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, which are powerful detoxifiers.
My grandmother lived right on the parade route in New Orleans, which meant our family hosted a party almost every night during the season. A Mardi Gras salad is anything that contains Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. The vegetables in this adaptation of my grandmother’s crowd pleasing salad caramelize beautifully with high-temperature roasting. Tangy
pomegranate seeds add a bit of sweetness.