Hormone Imbalance and Balancing Hormones Naturally
Start your healing journey with a focus on hormone imbalance!
By Jen Donovan
Hormones matter! They are a major dictator of our mood on a day to day level. Anyone who has gone through kind of hormone replacement therapy including gender confirmation, or who have hormone cycles that include ovulation and menstruation will tell you this with no hesitation! Whether you handle a minor life stressor with grace or catastrophizing can often be related to the balance of hormones your body needs to thrive.
Depending on the balance of your hormones, a lot can change! Hormones affect your body’s ability to maintain regulated blood sugar levels, a healthy metabolism and weight for your shape and frame, emotional stability, clear cognition, steady energy, desire for sex, and even capacity for attachment and intimacy with other people. The more you identify with these qualities, the more balance you have in your hormones. If these seem like unattainable goals, there is likely an overarching imbalance in your hormonal state.
While conventional medicine does usually acknowledge the importance of hormones, there is generally a jump to “symptom masking” interventions such as birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy. While these tools can help reduce unwanted symptoms in the short term, they are not actually changing the underlying dysfunction that is causing the problem.
There is always a root cause to hormone imbalance. The problem is not that your body just doesn’t produce the right synergistic complex of hormones, the problem is that something is actively preventing your body from doing this. If you are looking for a longer term solution that will actually stimulate your body to naturally start producing more balanced levels of hormones, we can start intervening on the level of lifestyle, nutrition, supportive herbs and supplements.
To learn more about hormones, what they are, and how they work, I recommend the book “The Hormone Cure” by Sara Gottfried. In it, she discusses in great detail the primary hormones our bodies are working with and the imbalances that are most commonly seen. There is a very helpful quiz towards the beginning of the book that provides lists of symptoms associated with different imbalances, as well as specific recommendations for healing each of them. In the appendix, she also includes references to helpful laboratory tests and more involved medical resources if your symptoms are more complex. Something really powerful about this book is that all of her recommendations are backed by scientific studies- she does not include anything that is anecdotal or untested.
Here is a quick guide to some of these hormones and the common ways they can manifest as imbalances. Keep in mind, though, that this is a major simplification- hormones are a very complicated topic and they all influence each other and work synergistically in the body.
Cortisol: High cortisol is signified by a feeling of being “tired but wired”. It is often associated with high anxiety, feeling “keyed up”, and racing thoughts. It can also by associated by blood sugar instability, high blood pressure, and rapid heart rate.
Low cortisol is signified by chronic fatigue, low stamina (getting exhausted quickly by mental or physical activity), muscle weakness, and low blood pressure.
Progesterone: Low progesterone is signified by classic “PMS” symptoms such as swollen breasts, painful periods, fluid retention, easily pushed to tears and general emotional instability. Low progesterone generally goes hand in hand with high estrogen.
Estrogen: High estrogen is signified by classic “PMS” symptoms such as swollen breasts, painful periods, fluid retention, difficulty losing excess stomach fat, easily pushed to tears and general emotional instability. High estrogen generally goes hand in hand with low progesterone.
Low estrogen is signified by classic “menopausal” symptoms including night sweats, achey joints, dryness (skin, vagina and joints), and low libido.
Androgens: High androgens are signified by classic “PCOS” symptoms which can include metabolic dysfunction and insulin resistance, difficulty losing excess stomach fat, higher amounts of body hair, acne, greasy hair, and skin tags.
Thyroid: Low thyroid is signified by symptoms such as hair loss or thinning hair, constipation, a slow metabolism and/or difficult losing excess stomach fat, dry skin, often feeling cold (especially in fingers and toes), low basal body temperature, and a general “sluggish” feeling.
Remember, these hormones all work together in the body and influence each other, so you may have more than one imbalance or they may cause more unique manifestations in your body related to your biological individuality.
Once you know more about the imbalances you have, what do you do? The good news is that regardless of the specific imbalances you are dealing with, there are key lifestyle changes that will support the foundations of stress, toxic load, nutrients such as minerals and fatty acids, blood sugar balance, and digestive health. All of these factors will allow your hormones to begin re balancing naturally. Check out these concrete steps below:
1. Start with stress, always! A body in a constant state of stress will not prioritize the synthesis of balanced hormones, because it will be focused on perceived survival needs. Of course, the reality is that some amount of stress is unavoidable. You may have a job, kids, family, or other social or individual factors that are outside of your control to moderate in terms of stress. It is essential, however, to find ways to decompress daily from the unavoidable stress in order to put your body into the proper nervous system state for natural hormone balance.
Some helpful practices for stress reduction include diaphragmic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, chanting or prayer, guided visualization, and restorative yoga practices such as yin yoga. Dedicating at minimum of 15 minutes to one of these practices every day will make a major difference in your hormone health.
2. Address endocrine disruptors. Unfortunately, we live in a highly toxic world, and many of the plastics and other chemicals that pervade our modern environments are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they disrupt the ability of your body to produce balanced hormones. The two major categories of this are xenoestrogens and phytoestrogens. Xenoestrogens include synthetic chemicals found in cookware, cleaning and hygiene products. They mimic estrogens and therefore disrupt the natural balance of hormones in the body. Common sources include Teflon and non stick cookware, plastic containers and bags for food storage, artificial fragrances (often found in soaps, air fresheners, laundry detergent, candles, etc.), and many chemicals in conventional shampoos, lotions, body wash, and cosmetics.
Here is a list of common hormone disrupting ingredients found in personal care products:
BHA/BHT, CI numbers, phthalates, “parfum”, “fragrances”, PEG compounds, parabens, triclosan, siloxanes, sodium laureth sulfate
Phytoestrogens are natural compounds in plants that can mimic estrogens. While they are not toxic in the way xenoestrogens are, they can still exacerbate hormone imbalances. Foods highest in phytoestrogens include soybeans, flax seed, and peanuts, and essential oils lavender and tea tree used topically. On the other side, consumption of foods high in phytoestrogens could be helpful if the imbalance you are dealing with is low estrogen (menopausal type symptoms).
3. Dial in your nutrition. Nutrition can be a nuanced topic, and depends on individual factors such as personal health history and ancestry. However, there are some basic tips that can improve your body’s natural ability to synthesize balanced hormones.
Cut the coffee, alcohol, and gluten. These can both block absorption of nutrients, tax an already overstressed endocrine system, and create inflammation in the digestive tract.
Reduce your consumption of both refined sugar and flour, and even heavy sugar fruits and natural sugars like honey and maple syrup. The goal here is to create more balance in your blood sugar response, which is a foundational part of hormone health.
Get enough B vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and omega-3 fats. These are nutrient building blocks for hormones. Animal protein sources are the most easily absorbable sources of these nutrients, so try to get at least 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight every day. Seafood, beef, liver and lamb are excellent sources of these nutrients.
Avoid goitrogens, which are compounds in uncooked vegetables that can block production of thyroid hormones. These are mostly found in raw cruciferous and root vegetables, so simply cook your plant foods well to avoid them!
4. If you have done all the previous steps already, and are still struggling with symptoms, start looking to herbs and supplements for support. Adaptogens are herbs that help modulate our stress response and can be used especially for imbalances related to the adrenals (high or low cortisol). Chasteberry (sometimes called vitex) is helpful for modulating our estrogen production and can be used for high estrogen/low progesterone imbalances. DIM is a compound that helps us detox excess estrogen, and although it is naturally found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, it can also be supplemented for an extra boost.
In “The Hormone Cure” book, the author discusses the possibility of prescribing bio identical hormone therapy in cases where people are not responding to treatment or don’t want to make the above lifestyle changes. While I appreciate having these medical interventions as an option for specific circumstances, I think she overlooks other root causes that could be contributing to more stubborn symptoms. Chronic infection, heavy metal toxicity, and unresolved trauma could also be important pieces of the puzzle for those with more complex cases, all of which are overlooked by this book. Additionally, I believe she emphasizes the importance of lean protein in a way that does not acknowledge the power of healthy fats from animal foods to build our hormones. In her focus on using scientific studies for the basis of all her recommendations she unquestioningly cites studies showing carcinogenic effects of red meat without acknowledging the problematic research methods used in those studies.
Because hormones play such an important role in our day to day wellness, addressing imbalances are an essential step in your mental and physical health journey. While conventional medicine tends to focus on “symptom masking” through pharmaceutical interventions, we can get to the underlying causes of these imbalances through simple yet profound lifestyle changes. Remember, there is always a root cause to hormone imbalances. The problem is not that your body just doesn’t produce the right synergistic complex of hormones, the problem is that something is actively preventing your body from doing this. By giving our bodies the right building blocks, those obstacles will naturally resolve themselves and your hormones will rebalance naturally.