Maybe this is you? You can’t seem to lose the weight. You’re tired all the time no matter how much sleep you get, and you feel like you can’t seem to get on top of all the things you have to do. For many women from their late 30’s onwards, “fat, fatigued and overly stressed” sums up their daily life. In almost all cases this is related to a hormone imbalance, brought about from adrenal exhaustion from prolonged stress. Other symptoms of hormonal imbalance include menstrual cramping, sugar cravings, hair loss, and sudden changes in mood. As we are now beginning to realise all body systems are connected and influence each other so we not only see disturbance in the hormonal system but in the digestive and detoxification systems as well, which often precedes the hormone problems.
Oestrogen & Progesterone: Two Key Female Hormones
These two hormones work together in a delicate balance influencing reproductive health and quality of life. When imbalances occur it is usually due to environmental toxins, nutritional excesses and deficiencies, stress, lifestyle choices and physical activity. The problems that can arise in the hormonal system signal an imbalance in both the ovarian hormones and those involved in the stress response. The solution lies in re-establishing the natural balance of these multiple hormones. As women age other factors contribute such as a natural hypothalamic-pituitary insensitivity to oestrogen, for example even when there is sufficient oestrogen stimulation, perimenopausal women may have a cycle without a surge of LH, resulting in low progesterone and symptoms of low oestrogen.
The primary role of oestrogen:
- Oestrogen is responsible for female sexual development at puberty
- Foundation to fertility, oestrogen promotes accumulation of fat in the hips, thighs, and breasts.
- It causes the lining of the uterus to grow and thicken every month in preparation for a fertilized egg. At the end of the menstrual cycle, this lining is shed as oestrogen levels drop.
- Another essential role this hormone plays is to promote the movement of salt and minerals into cells.
Diet, exercise and oestrogen:
Oestrogen is elevated in women who lead a sedentary lifestyle and are overweight or obese, through the creation of excess levels of sex hormones by the adipose (fat) tissue and it has been shown that increased exercise and weight loss will reduce excess oestrogens. “The natural drop in estrogen levels with the approach of menopause will be steeper in these women, leading to a corresponding rise in cortisol production. This intensifies any symptoms related to stress, and gives rise to a host of problems related to cortisol, including insomnia, hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings.” Kalish, Daniel D.C
Reasons for insufficient oestrogen include exposure to certain pesticide that can inhibit the aromatase enzyme (as a consequence this can lead to infertility), high levels of aluminium in the blood, high stress, as well as some nutritional deficiencies. Symptoms include:
- Menstrual irregularities or amenorrhea
- Breast atrophy
- Low libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Vasomotor symptoms
- Migraine headaches
- Irregular uterine bleeding
A number of causes exist for excessive oestrogen such as poor detoxification, a diet high in protein and fat, inadequate exercise, poor sleep, exposure to environmental toxins and vitamin D deficiency. Symptoms include:
- Creates cardiovascular risk, through clotting and elevated blood pressure
- Lowers the bloods oxygen carrying capacity
- Endometriosis, cervical dysplasia
- Stimulates cell growth, which has been linked to cancer
- Bloating and water retention
- Weight gain
- Decreases zinc, needed for wound healing
The primary role of progesterone:
- Thickening of the uterine wall during the second half of the menstral cycle preparing it to receive and nourish an implanted fertilized egg
Seen more often than progesterone excess, the causes are thought to be related to excess prolactin, excessive weight loss or exercise, stress (see below) alcohol, excess fat and sugar, antidepressants, exogenous toxins (BPA, pesitcides), and nutritional deficiencies (Vitamins A, B6, C and zinc). Symptoms include:
- Premenstral syndrome
- Ovarian cysts
- Fluid retention
- Recurrent miscarriage
- Low mood and depresssion
- Low levels of progesterone in the blood could indicate that a women is not ovulating as in PCOS
How prolonged stress affects our hormones
Cortisol, one of several hormones produced by the adrenal glands, plays a pivotal role in the hormonal system, and effects the body in numerous ways, including controlling metabolism, affecting insulin sensitivity, affecting the immune system, and even controlling blood flow. In cases of chronic stress, ie over a long period we see that the digestive system, immune system, detoxification system and hormonal systems remain inhibited as they are low priority when we are in survival mode.
Another adrenal hormone that needs to be kept in balance is dihydroepiandosterone, commonly known as DHEA. When DHEA production is disturbed because of stress, there is a breakdown in its conversion to oestrogen, and stress can therefore impact oestrogen levels, leading to hormonal symptoms. At the same time, pregnenolone is diverted to produce cortisol, which can lower progesterone, further exacerbating female hormone imbalance.
Correcting Hormonal Imbalance
The most important thing is to implement lifestyle changes that help us reduce our daily stress and restore our adrenal health. Especially as women enter the perimenopausal and menopausal periods of life, where their adrenal glands need to take up the role of oestrogen and progesterone production. Diet and exercise play an important role, as detoxification pathways help remove and recycle our hormones. Insulin resistance and metabolic symdromes also play a role and adressing this is a part of correcting hormonal imbalances. As medical herbalists we have very potent herbs that can help with regulating hormones and assist with diminishing levels as we age. Every women is unqiue and our treatments are based around thorough investigation into what would work best for your particular situation.
Vitalise Naturopath, Denise
Lizcano, F., & Guzmán, G. (2014). Estrogen Deficiency and the Origin of Obesity during Menopause. BioMed Research International, 2014, 757461. http://doi.org/10.1155/2014/757461
Campbell, K. L., Foster-Schubert, K. E., Alfano, C. M., Wang, C.-C., Wang, C.-Y., Duggan, C. R., … McTiernan, A. (2012). Reduced-Calorie Dietary Weight Loss, Exercise, and Sex Hormones in Postmenopausal Women: Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 30(19), 2314–2326. http://doi.org/10.1200/JCO.2011.37.9792
Kalish, Daniel D.C. (2017).Estrogen and Progesterone: Two Key Female Hormones. Coreonehealth. Retrieved from http://www.coreonehealth.com/estrogen-and-progesterone-two-key-female-hormones
Pizzorno, J., & Katzinger, J. (2012). Clinical pathophysiology: A functional perspective. BC, CA. Mind Publishing.