What do you think of when someone mentions hormones? Most of us think of the sex steroid hormones. For women, this translates mostly to estrogen and progesterone and for men, mostly testosterone. Here is one of the teaching tools I use in practice (not an exhaustive list) when addressing the sex steroid hormones:
<- Steroid Hormone Cascade
This flow sheet is from a ZRT urinary metabolites report, just one of the options for assessing hormones.
You might notice (sorry for the tiny print) that cholesterol is at the top. It is the backbone of all of the other steroid hormones. Most patients are surprised to hear that.
I recently had a very stressed patient whose cholesterol had gone up in the last six months, despite her efforts to control it with diet, lifestyle and supplements.
If you look down the line flowing second from the left you will see cortisol. Cortisol is the main hormone from the adrenal gland that helps your body manage any stressors. Stressors can be good or bad, happy or sad. Divorce, moving, a new baby, death of a loved one - all are stressors. In the metro Atlanta area traffic is a stressor! Just making a Target run can add a little stress to your day.
So, I explained to my patient that her body may be making more cholesterol in order to meet the demand for cortisol. As I told her, cholesterol is the brick and when you need to build a house you will need more bricks. So if you experience daily stress for a prolonged period of time, you can see that the demand for cortisol might throw the other columns out of balance.
Hormone imbalance is the root cause of many symptoms, like PMS, PCOS, fibroids, ovarian cysts, irregular menses, weight gain, mood changes and libido changes. Since I get questions about managing hormone imbalances and see patients every day that are suffering from one or more imbalances, I thought maybe over the next few weeks we could cover hormones and how imbalances impact your health and what you can do about them.
There are hundreds of other hormones in the body but a few that will be important in this discussion, besides the sex hormones already mentioned, are the thyroid hormones that regulate our metabolism, melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, and the hormones that impact appetite and blood sugar control, leptin and insulin.
One very important factor in hormone imbalance is inflammation. We become inflamed because our food is inflammatory and our environment is inflammatory. Foods are either intrinsically inflammatory (containing too much sugar or omega 6s) or become inflammatory through processing or cooking methods or overconsumption.
One of the tools I get from IFM is a chart developed by nutritionists called the Phytonutrient Spectrum. It illustrates the positive effects of eating a rainbow of colors. The foods that are listed as anti-inflammatory include red foods - apples, red beans, beets, blood oranges, strawberries, rhubarb, tomatoes and watermelon (the actual handout has many more examples), yellow foods like apples, bananas, corn, ginger, pineapple and summer squash, green foods including (again not an exhaustive list) apples, asparagus, broccoli, celery, greens, okra and zucchini, and purple foods like bell peppers, berries, cauliflower (yes, it comes in purple), eggplant, figs, prunes and purple or black rice.
Just adding color to your diet will add natural anti-inflammatory properties to help lower your overall inflammation and balance your hormones. The best way to eat many of these foods is raw but some actually deliver more anti-inflammatory properties when lightly steamed or baked (broccoli's impact is increased with light steaming, tomatoes increase their lycopene content when baked but have more vitamin C raw).
The worst way is to blacken foods. The blackened parts are called Advanced Glycation End products or AGEs and they increase oxidative stress and inflammation (which accelerates the aging process).
<- Red, Yellow, Green & Purple!
Most people don't realize that dairy and animal fat are the most inflammatory foods because of the high omega 6 content. Most omega 6 fatty acids convert to arachidonic acid, which is mostly inflammatory in the body. There is a great book called The China Study that follows the adventures of a cancer researcher who set out to find out why children overseas in food impoverished areas suddenly began having liver cancer. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know the impact of what we eat on our risk for disease, including cancer. He also covers how corporate influences affect governmental agencies like the FDA, which was originally created to protect the health of the public but with corporate interests involved, not so much.
Besides adding color to your diet, you can take anti-inflammatory supplements like turmeric, ginger, boswellia, fish oil and resveratrol. Work with a Functional Medicine (like myself) or Naturopathic or Integrative doctor to determine the right doses for you. In general, you won't get therapeutic doses at a Target, Walmart or GNC and those cheaper supplements may contain contaminants so don't waste your money.
Exercising is another good way to lower inflammation, if you don't overdo it. Start slow and gradually work up to 30 minutes at least 5 times a week. I usually have patients start with some stretching and work up from there, incorporating breathing to also help lower stress.
So to sum up - lowering inflammation is one way to help balance your hormones. Avoid dairy and beef and pork (meats with the most animal fat), avoid processed foods (tend to have a lot of omega 6 fatty acids), eat more colorful foods, avoid sugar (or foods that turn into sugar like white bread, white rice and white potatoes), take anti-inflammatory supplements and get off your rump and move!
I'm doing a detox this week to help my body get rid of unwanted endocrine disrupting chemicals and other environmental toxins that can cause inflammation and hormone imbalance so next week will be a primer on detox. I like detox shakes so am sharing my watermelon shake recipe today. You will need a vegetable protein shake powder. There are formulations made specifically for detoxing, which I'll cover next week.
Watermelon detox shake:
Watermelon, chopped, approximately 2 cups
1/2 frozen pear (if you use fresh you'll need more ice)
1 ice cube of pomegranate juice, frozen
1/2 c spinach
juice of 1/2 lime
3 T MCT oil
1 tsp flax oil
Protein shake powder to provide 15-22 g protein(unflavored or vanilla)
8-12oz coconut water
Place all into the carafe of a high-speed blender and blend.
I use a Vitamix but any high-powered blender will do. Enjoy!