Hormones: An Intricate Balance

Almost everyone who comes to a functional medicine provider will ponder “I wonder if it’s because my hormones are imbalanced?”. The normal and natural part of aging has been vilified. Why? Well, for one, the internet! It’s easy to blame what we already know to be a normal and natural part of life, and then capitalize on that!

Hormones are powerful messengers in the body, no doubt! But they are not the culprit in the VAST majority of the cases! Are they implicated? Sure. Are they the root cause of your symptoms, not usually. Now, yes… if you have had a hysterectomy before menopause, or some other medical condition or treatment that has affected your hormones, then maybe hormone imbalance is a root cause of your symptoms and needs to be addressed. 

Is it possible your hormones are out of whack? ABSOLUTELY! But we need to figure out WHY! Simply giving hormones to a pre-menopausal woman, or to a younger male is nothing but a band-aid that does not come without side effects, and many times doesn’t “fix” the symptoms. Many times people go on hormones and gain weight, have some worsening symptoms, and some will have only marginal improvements of the original presenting symptoms.

Unless we figure out and address WHY your hormones are out of whack. Your glandular tissue that is responsible for secreting hormones is very, very sensitive. Toxins and chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, meaning that toxins and chemicals can bind to an estrogen receptor, for example, and activate that receptor (acting like estrogen in the body). Too much estrogen in the female body is associated with mood changes, sleep concerns, weight gain, heavy or painful periods, fibroids in the uterus and breast, and estrogen-dependent cancers. Men with too much estrogen have lower relative testosterone, resulting in more body fat, less lean muscle, lower energy, lower mood, lower libido, and also an increased risk for cancers. 

The gut plays a huge role in hormone balance. We have a lot of endocrine receptors in the gut. We detoxify and balance hormones in the gut. We take in and absorb nutrients in the gut. When we don’t have a healthy gut or aren’t eating the right foods, we can be deficient in the macronutrients and micronutrients including minerals, fats, and vitamins needed to produce hormones. You may be eating these foods, but you may not be absorbing them. Or, you may not be getting enough specific nutrition in the diet to fuel the body to make and balance hormones. If you have imbalanced gut bacteria, certain enzymes can be produced by “bad bacteria” in the gut, affecting how hormones like estrogen are processed and eliminated. Hormone imbalance can result from and be a result of things like irritable bowel syndrome or chronic constipation or diarrhea. 

Now let’s talk about stress. Chronic stress is usually a huge factor in hormone imbalance. Mostly because of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that helps to dampen down the effects of adrenaline in the body. We all make and utilize adrenaline throughout the day. This means our body is making cortisol in an effort to keep adrenaline from having ill effects on our body. When we see a tiger, signals from our brain affect the cells in the body. We stop thinking about our grocery list, we have a hyper-focused vision (we stop noticing the beautiful scenery around us and we are looking for escape routes). Our blood gets shunted away from the gut and moved into the muscles so we can run and jump and fight. Our heart beats faster, our breathing gets shallow and faster, and our blood pressure changes so we can efficiently get blood and oxygen to where it needs to go (muscles and brain). Our muscles get tense in an effort to be able to brace against an attack and to quickly run or change direction. Our energy and nutrients get preserved for live-or-die functions like running, not making hormones. Every ounce of energy, oxygen, and nutrients goes to the organs that will keep you alive, not to processes that take a lot of energy and nutrients, like making hormones. 

Sounds extreme, right? We aren’t running from tigers like our ancestors did. They ran from tigers, and once the threat was abated, went back to a “simple” life of hunting, gathering, tending to their homestead, and sleeping. They did not have jobs, kids in school with projects due, and all kids on different sports teams practicing from after school till 8 pm most of the year. They didn’t have bills, cars that needed to be serviced, dentist appointments, doctor’s appointments, vet appointments, family and friends to keep up with, aging parents, social and political stressors, social media, electronics, homes and yards to keep up with, invasive jobs where we leave the office and come home and still have to address texts and emails and finish projects after the kids have been fed, bathed, and are in bed. Then after you have cleaned the kitchen, finished the laundry, made tomorrow’s lunches, and tied up as many loose ends with emails, shopping, and scheduling the bazillion things you have to do. Oh, and there’s your spouse! Maybe you two get to spend a few minutes together for a few minutes before you pass out from exhaustion.

And we wonder why, when we lay down at 11 pm after doing all the things, why we can’t shut our minds off and go to sleep. After all, we do have to be up before 6 to wake the kids, feed them, and get them and ourselves ready for school and work. Feed the pets. Make sure the house is shut down for the day and nobody forgot their homework, water bottle, or lunch. Get them off to school and make sure that you know what day it is so you know who has practiced and when, and they have everything they need. Oh, and by the way, mom, did you sign my permission slip? It’s due today. And I need a check for $20. But you haven’t seen your checkbook in weeks. And we are already in the car driving to school. And then on the way to work, go over the million things you have to do today, and don’t forget…

Sound familiar? And why the heck, if I am so tired and frazzled when I finally DO fall asleep, why do I wake up in the middle of the night? Why do I toss and turn or find it hard to get back to sleep? Oh well, I will just have that second cup of coffee to get through the morning. Maybe a third. And that “crash” after lunch? More coffee or tea (or worse, an energy drink). That craving for salt or sugar in the afternoons? Those are your adrenal glands begging for help! “Feed us!! We can’t keep up with this continuous adrenaline being flooded in your body!” Cortisol is made by the adrenal glands, and for the average person, those poor glands are overworked and eventually are unable to keep up with the demand we have placed on them for so long!

Think about it. We were athletes all through our school years. Straight A’s, honor roll. Involved in student council, band/drama/FFA, had an active social life, and parents who expected a lot and kept us on the straight and narrow. But we got through! On to college, more stress with grades, and now the stress of living on our own, jobs, friends, teams, and clubs. Then relationships, marriage, kids, careers, and buying a house. All with the stressors of moving, losing friends and family to moves, disagreements, or worse…deaths. Stressors of building a career and family, and life. All the while, trying to stay fit and active to balance it all. When we slip, we get tired and moody. So we need to get back on the wagon, get back to the gym, and tighten up our diet. And that works. And as we get older and the piles on our plate get bigger, we meet that with “I just need to get back to the gym”. We think if we work out more, we will have more energy. It worked in the past. If we just lost these 10 pounds we would not be so tired and achy and would have more energy and focus. 

So we start reading and watching videos and listening to podcasts. Everyone is saying it’s my hormones. After all, I do have heavy periods that are painful. I am bloated. My cycle is irregular. I have adult acne. My breasts are tender. I cannot lose weight for the life of me. It has to be my hormones! 

You’re right. Your hormones are out of whack. BECAUSE OF THE STRESS. Your body is more focused on making life-saving and sustaining hormones and NOT reproductive hormones. You are in what is called the “cortisol steal”. Every ounce of nutrient and energy that goes into making hormones gets shuttled right down the pathway to cortisol and NOT to the sex hormones. You can give a woman in this scenario hormones (appropriate for her cycle of life) and might see a little improvement in sleep, and maybe mood or improved menstrual symptoms. But she will likely still have weight gain, brain fog, acne, bloating, etc. UNLESS WE ADDRESS THE ROOT CAUSE!

Addressing the root cause(s). Gut. Stress. And toxins. We need to make some changes to our diet and lifestyle. Start a meditative practice. Get some gentle exercise. Get outdoors. Unload the impossible load we are carrying. Find creative solutions and ASK FOR AND ALLOW HELP. Prioritize our sleep and wellness. Improve our nutrition and heal the gut… Identify and avoid toxins and work on detox. It isn’t an overnight fix like taking a pill. But the effects are life-changing and far-reaching. Everything improves. We handle stress better, we sleep better, we feel better, our weight normalizes, we think more clearly, we laugh, and have more joy. We aren’t so stiff and achy and tired all the time. We aren’t dependent on caffeine and alcohol to help energize or relax us. We no longer have cravings for sweet or salty foods. 

Are there outliers? Sure. Does this synopsis pertain to you exactly, maybe? Maybe not. Are there other factors in your case, absolutely. This is where we need PERSONALIZED root-cause medicine to work with the whole person and the unique situation you are in. We work together to find the root causes, and we address the contributing lifestyle factors while bringing balance back to the whole body. Making an optimal environment where hormones can be produced, eliminated, and balanced properly.