By Dr. Alexis Blanks, ND
You’re feeling tired, moody and you’ve just a flair up of acne…could it be your hormones?
Are you in balance? What does that mean?
Balance is something that I think about daily in my practice. In Naturopathic medicine, one of our main goals is to look for the underlying cause of an issue and to work from there to support the body in it’s own healing, to regain balance. This is why our appointments tend to be longer than your average medical visit. In order to understand the underlying cause of your concern, we need to look at the whole person and dig a little for clues as to the source of the problem for that individual.
We listen and ask questions about many different areas of our patients lives. Symptoms such as fatigue, skin problems and poor sleep, etc., are messages from our bodies that all is not in order. When I see symptoms getting better or disappearing I know they are regaining balance and that their mind/body will be better able to function more effectively in the day to day and that their future health will likely be better as well.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers that zip through our blood to tell our cells and tissues what to do. Together our hormones weave an incredibly complex web – interacting and affecting each other in a multitude of ways. They affect many, many, processes in our bodies: from metabolism to energy production to reproduction.
Dr. Shannon and I find hormones incredibly fascinating and although we realize that science still has much to learn about hormones and their many functions and interactions, we can use the knowledge we have to support people in regaining balance.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest about hormones. To know what’s going on in your body right now here is a basic introduction to a key players in the endocrine system (the system that deals with our hormones) with some clues that your hormones might not be in balance: written from a woman’s perspective.
*Please note: This article is meant to give you a taste of the complexity of our body chemistry, it is not meant to be used for self diagnosis.
Estrogens (there are actually three types)
Estrogens are hormones that exert their influence all over the body. They affect our bones, brain, blood vessels, breasts, thyroid gland and our reproductive organs. Estrogens play a critical role in our menstrual cycle.
Symptoms of low estrogen include: depressed mood, hot flashes, poor memory, decreased libido, vaginal dryness, fatigue.
Sometimes we can have what appears to be too much estrogen, either because we are coming in contact with things like pesticides and other chemicals in our environment that can mimic estrogen or because we actually have a deficiency of other hormones such as progesterone and the balance between the two is off.
Symptoms of too much estrogen include: poor sleep/insomnia, anxiety, weight gain, tender breasts, bloating, headaches, mood swings, and achy joints.
The name progesterone comes from its ability to promote gestation (pregnancy). It is essential for maintaining a healthy pregnancy. It’s also the main hormone present in the second half of the menstrual cycle. Like estrogen, progesterone also has effects all over the body, including the brain, bones, breasts, blood vessels, thyroid gland and reproductive organs.
Symptoms of progesterone deficiency will sound a lot like estrogen excess, that’s because these two hormones are dependent on each other. These symptoms include: poor sleep, anxiety, weight gain, tender breasts, headaches, mood swings and fibrocystic breasts.
Too much progesterone is less common but can happen, and symptoms include nausea, depression, foggy thinking, drowsiness and breast swelling.
Women have about 1/5th to 1/10th the testosterone that men have, but we do have it! Testosterone brings women a sense of well-being, improves libido, and has a role in bone health, heart health, skin elasticity, and muscle mass.
Symptoms of low testosterone can include low mood, fatigue, low libido, changes in memory, bone loss and reduced muscle strength.
Too much testosterone in women can lead to acne, excess hair growth or thinning head hair, menstrual irregularity, irritability and decreased breast size.
Thyroid hormones come from the thyroid gland in our neck. These hormones are responsible for a vast array of functions in our bodies, for example growth and development, metabolism, heart rate and temperature.
Symptoms of low thyroid function, or hypothyroidism, include: fatigue, slower reflexes, weight gain, brittle nails, thinning hair, dry skin, slower heart rate, constipation and feeling cold.
Too much thyroid hormone is called hyperthyroidism. People with this condition could experience heat intolerance, weight loss, more excitable reflexes, insomnia, anxiety, or a rapid heart beat.
Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands, two glands that sit on top of our kidneys. This hormone is essential for life, it is involved with blood sugar regulation, fat breakdown, immune system, it defends against infection and inflammation and is released in response to stress. This hormone is also critical in regulating other hormones.
As I’ve already mentioned, cortisol is released in response to stress. If cortisol remains high, it can lead to symptoms that include anxiety, feeling tired but wired, and difficulty sleeping. Excess cortisol can also interfere with the action of other hormones creating further imbalance and more symptoms.
The above should not be confused with Cushing’s syndrome, a condition associated with far too much cortisol produced by a tumour or from prolonged drug therapy using cortisol-like drugs.
Addison’s disease is a relatively rare and severe condition in which there is a loss of hormones from the adrenal glands, including cortisol. More common than Addison’s is adrenal fatigue, a condition in which prolonged stress has lead to a decrease in hormones including cortisol from the adrenal glands.
Symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue include low energy (particularly in the morning), increased susceptibility to infection, slow recovery from exercise, allergies, low blood sugar, a burned out feeling, depression and low sex drive. This condition that is less recognized by the conventional community but is commonly treated by more holistic practitioners.
To add to the complexity of our hormonal web is the multitude of factors that can affect them. Our hormones are affected by the food we eat, the thoughts and emotions we have, our level of stress, how much we exercise, the pesticides we consume, and even the personal care products we put on our skin.
As holistic practitioners we look at the whole person Naturopathic doctors are in an excellent position to work with women on hormone balance. Further to that, we have wonderful natural tools such as herbal medicines to help guide the body back to balance. As a last resort, many Naturopathic doctors (including myself) are licensed to prescribe bio-identical hormone therapy – but that’s a topic for another newsletter!
Dr. Shannon and I both love to work with women to help them achieve better hormone balance. If this is something that interests you we encourage you to come in. We are always happy to offer free 15 minute meet and greet appointments to ensure a good therapeutic relationship.