Watch Sophie Alexander and Shawn Burke on "A Natural Approach to Balancing Hormones"
Introducing the Endocrine System: The endocrine system consists of ductless glands that function together as a planning committee. This planning committee is responsible for both short-range (i.e. stress response and blood sugar control) and long-range (i.e. immune system activities, conception) goals. These glands are located at considerable distances from each other in the body and therefore communicate with each other by the release of hormones through the blood stream. Together, the endocrine system glands influence all metabolic activity either directly or indirectly through the release of their many hormones. The effectiveness of the endocrine system, and ultimately your well-being, relies on the health of each and every member of this committee.
Important: Unlike the hormones produced by the male endocrine system, there are major cyclic changes in the hormonal levels (mainly estrogen, progesterone) produced by the female endocrine system as part of the menstrual cycle.
The Main Actors (The Endocrine System):
1) Hypothalamus: This gland, located within the brain, releases hormones that control the secretion of hormones by the pituitary. It is the main region for the integration of parasympathetic (body building activities) and the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous systems. This gland is intimately connected with and affected by one’s emotions.
2) Pituitary: This gland produces an array of hormones that reach out to all the other endocrine glands. It controls growth within the body, secretion of hormones by the adrenal glands and thyroid gland, causes the follicles in the ovaries to mature and secretes a hormone (Lutenizing Hormone or LH) which is responsible for the production of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
3) Thyroid: This gland, intimately tied to the hypothalamus and pituitary, is responsible for regulating growth and metabolic rate. The role the thyroid plays in regulating metabolic control allows it to greatly influence the ability of a woman to become pregnant. Iodine is the most important mineral needed for the production of thyroid hormone but is lacking in the diet of most women.
4) Parathyroid: These glands function as a regulatory agency for controlling the precise amount of calcium in the bloodstream. It draws calcium from your bones when needed and puts calcium back when blood calcium levels are high.
5) Adrenal glands: The adrenal glands allow you to cope with stress (internal/external) and inflammation. In particular, a class of hormones that include cortisol are released by the adrenal glands in response to the pituitary gland. Cortisol prepares the body for long-term stress and influences the ability of women to bear children. Cortisol raises blood sugar levels, blood pressure and acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.
6) Ovaries (Gonads): Prior to menopause, the ovaries are the primary glands responsible for the manufacture and release of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. The ovaries receive their instructions directly from hormones released by the pituitary gland. Menopause is related to the decreased secretion of the female sex hormones, in particular estrogen. The decreased release of sex hormones is directly related to the ovaries having used up the 400 or so primordial follicles that were destined to ovulate.
7) Pancreas: This organ is responsible for the releasing of digestive enzymes, lowering blood sugar levels and increasing blood sugar levels when directed to do so by the adrenal glands and sympathetic nervous system.
8) Pineal gland: This gland is responsible for the tracking of seasonal changes, moon phases, and light fluctuations between night and day. Its major hormone, melatonin, is thought to be responsible for regulating one’s wake-sleep cycle.
9) Liver/Gallbladder: Though not part of the endocrine system, the liver and gallbladder have a profound impact on the health of the endocrine system and your internal hormonal balance. The hormones circulating though the bloodstream must be broken down and eliminated to help keep their levels from becoming too high and adversely affecting your health. Diets lacking B vitamins, cabbage, brussel sprouts, eggs, garlic, onions, cholesterol, protein and saturated fat can lead to a sluggish liver and sluggish bile flow. Bile is the main medium by which the liver discards fat soluble waste.
The Sex Hormones:
1) Estrogen: A) Controls the development of female sex characteristics and reproductive system.
B) Stimulates bone growth by controlling the cells that are in charge of breaking down old bone. It also helps to maintain the bone matrix and deposition of calcium into the matrix. Also responsible for stimulating cell growth throughout the body.
C) Responsible for the deposition of fat in the layers of tissue beneath the skin and is one of the main reasons women have a higher percentage of body fat than men. Estrogen stores fat in places like the breasts, thighs and buttocks.
D) Estrogen causes skin to be soft and smooth.
E) After menopause the main source of estrogen are fat cells and the adrenal glands.
2) Progesterone: A) Prepares the lining of the uterus for implantation of a fertilized egg.
B) Readies the mammary glands to secrete milk.
C) Responsible for causing the endometrium to be expelled from the uterus if no fertilization occurs.
3) Androgens: This is a group of male sex hormones (i.e. testosterone) that are produced in the ovaries. Before leaving the ovaries, most of the testosterone is converted to estrogen.
NOTE: 1) “The secretion of these hormones is cyclical and governed by complex factors including other hormones from the thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands. Thus, the entire endocrine system is involved and requires nourishment in order for menses to occur with regularity and ease”.
2) The sex hormones are formed from cholesterol. Cholesterol, which is classified as a nutrient, is produced primarily in the liver but every cell in the body does so as well. In addition, cholesterol is absorbed into the body when animal foods are eaten. Low-fat, no-fat and vegetarian diets do not provide the body with sufficient amounts of cholesterol. There is great demand and competition for this nutrient within the body and any method that lowers cholesterol also affects the ability of the body to make sex hormones.
The Hormonal Cycle and Emotions: During the menstrual cycle estrogen and progesterone are produced at higher and higher levels in order to prepare the endometrium for the implantation of a fertilized egg. The high levels of these hormones continue until ovulation occurs. If no fertilization occurs, the levels of estrogen and progesterone drop. Estrogen, in particular, is associated with clear cognitive thought and feelings of wellbeing. The drop in sex hormones following ovulation can lead to depression, anxiety, irritability and trouble thinking (a good reason to make sure the rest of the endocrine system is in good shape). The ability to produce enough estrogen and progesterone helps to keep women healthy and happy.
Stress: The ovaries (reproductive system) are the first glands signaled by the pituitary to slow down when one encounters long-term stress. Pregnenolone, a precursor to the sex hormones, is diverted to the production of the stress handling hormones (i.e. cortisol) by the adrenals. Injuries, illness, emotional stress and over exercising signal the endocrine system that the body is not ready for conception.
Blood Sugar Levels: High or low blood sugar levels throw the body out of balance and force glands such as the pancreas and adrenals to work harder. Swings in blood sugar levels can aggravate the symptoms of menopause and PMS. For example, low blood sugar can increase irritability, brain fog, depression and fatigue.
Body Fat: 1) As a woman goes through menopause it is normal to gain weight (10 to 15 lbs is normal). One of the main reasons for this weight gain is the cessation of estrogen production by the ovaries. Fat cells, particularly those of the hips and thighs, are responsible for producing much of the circulating estrogen in postmenopausal women. The stress society places on thinness and low-fat meals runs counter to the natural functioning of the body. In fact, thin postmenopausal women are at a higher risk for osteoporosis than are those who kept their few extra pounds.
2) Body fat percentage is also an indication to the endocrine system that a woman’s body’s is ready for reproduction. As a woman’s body fat percentage decreases the body reacts by increasing the ratio of androgens to estrogen. Furthermore, the hypothalamus will begin to slow down the formation of reproductive hormones. These reactions by the body reduce a woman’s chance to become pregnant because the body does not consider her healthy enough to bear and breast feed a child. Excess exercise and low-fat and/or low-calorie diets reduce fertility levels.
Hypothyroidism: 1) This term refers to a thyroid gland that is no longer producing enough hormones to maintain the metabolic functions of the body at an optimum level. The slowing down of thyroid hormone can result from insufficient stimulation from the pituitary gland, from lack of ample nutrition or from an autoimmune disease (Hashimoto’s disease). Symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, fatigue, headaches, constipation, cold hands and feet and depression. It is also a risk for coronary artery disease and breast cancer as the slower metabolism leads to metabolic aging and a weakened immune system.
In addition, women with hypothyroidism have a much reduced chance of becoming pregnant.
2) There are many substances that depress thyroid function such as unfermented soy foods (think Silk and Tofu), fluoride, pesticides and possibly aspartame.
3) Poor nutrition is a leading cause of hypothyroidism. The typical American diet of highly processed foods is devoid of many of the trace minerals needed for proper thyroid function. These trace minerals include iodine, iron, zinc and selenium. In addition, adequate amounts of B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin A and protein are all needed to avoid hypothyroidism.
High Levels of Estrogen (Estrogen Dominance): Women today are more at risk today of having elevated estrogen levels due to exposure to estrogen mimicking herbicides, pesticides, chemicals called phthalates in plastics and the consumption of unfermented soy products. The estrogen-like properties found in these substances and unfermented soy interfere with the endocrine system of women, and men, causing imbalance within the body. High levels of estrogen are linked to “fibrocystic breast disease, breast cancer, cervical cancer and dysplasia, endometrial cancer, endometriosis and ovarian disease as well as prostatic hypertrophy and cancer.”
Fibroid Tumors and Cysts: 1) Fibroids and cysts “are common side effects” of endometriosis, an abnormal sloughing off of the endometrium. The occurrence of endometriosis and therefore fibroids and cysts is related to “a disruption in the estrogen-progesterone cycle, resulting in high estrogen levels and low progesterone levels. They are not cancerous.
2) Symptoms include heavy bleeding (most common symptom), severe menstrual cramps, back pain, pain during defecation and pain during intercourse.
3) The normal medical procedure is to perform a hysterectomy or myomectomy (removal of only the fibroids). A whole foods approach, though, in conjunction with whole food supplements helps to provide the body with the nutrients it needs to bring the endocrine system back online so that it can deal with the fibroid tumors and cysts itself.
Note: Fibroids are related to hypothyroidism. In effect the ovary is not finishing its processing of the oocyte, residue is left over and a scar (fibrous tissue) results. Cysts, while painful, are absorbed by the body after a few cycles.
Infertility: Factors that can lead to infertility include:
1) Chronic stress (emotional or physical) or unresolved emotional issues.
2) Lack of cholesterol and/or saturated fat in the diet. Lack of fat also leads to a lack of fat-soluble vitamins such as A and D. For example, vitamin A is essential to the development of the follicle of the ovary.
3) Low body fat percentage. Generally, a healthy range for women is 22%-36%.
4) A diet consisting of processed foods. Particularly processed sugar and flour products.
5) Exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. They contain chemicals that mimic estrogen.
6) Exposure to phthalate plasticizers and bisphenol A (BPA) found in plastic bottles and microwave dishes.
7) Exposure to chemicals and heavy metals found in health care products and perfumes.
8) The consumption of unfermented soy products such as tofu and soy milk. Unfermented soy contains phytoestrogens that mimic estrogen and elevate estrogen levels in the body.
Note: The standard American diet, many diet programs and the average vegetarian/vegan diet do not provide the female endocrine and reproductive systems with the nutrients it needs to produce the hormones needed for conception. Many women are eating (or not eating) their way to infertility.
Remember: The body is innately smart. The less prepared the body is for nourishing a fetus to term the more likely the female is to be infertile. Many indigenous tribes spend months feeding mothers-to-be specially prepared foods high in fat and cholesterol.
What is Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)? PMS is defined as a “recurrent condition of women, characterized by troublesome symptoms seven to fourteen days before menstruation. PMS arises from hormonal imbalances among the endocrine glands. Women with PMS are found to have high estrogen levels, low progesterone levels, high prolactin levels, hypothyroidism and elevated cortisol levels.
What are Some of the Common Symptoms of PMS? Some of the most common symptoms are decreased energy levels, tension, irritability, depression, headache, breast pain, altered sex drive, abdominal bloating and edema of the fingers and ankles. The key to reducing and/or eliminating these symptoms is a well functioning endocrine system.
Why is it that Some Women don’t Experience PMS? There are many reasons for the varying degrees with which women experience PMS. Much of how a woman experiences PMS can be traced to how balanced she is both physically and mentally. As mentioned, stress, blood sugar levels and poor nutrition (see below) do not help to prepare her body for the hormonal changes that occur during the menstrual cycle. (If a woman’s body is out of balance and the endocrine system is not working optimally, how is it possible for her to adequately handle the wide swings in hormonal levels?) Additionally, both the endocrine system and the reproductive system are intimately linked to feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, happiness and calmness by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
What is Menopause? Menopause usually occurs between the ages of 40 to 50 years of age and signals the end of females’ capability to reproduce. At the same time that a woman’s cycle ceases, the production of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone diminish. Menopause related symptoms accompanied by osteoporosis, gallstones and arthritis occurs most frequently in western societies. There is an important distinction: Menopause is not a disease although the dominant medical view treats it as such. It reflects the normal hormonal changes that result from your ovaries ending their roles in ovulation. Menopause creates a new situation in which there is a reassignment of various gland functions. The body must be ready!
What are Some of the Common Symptoms of Menopause? Some women may not experience symptoms related to menopause. Others may experience the following symptoms in various degrees from hardly noticeable to severe. These symptoms include nervousness, hot flashes, chills, cold hands and feet, excitability, fatigue, apathy, mental depression, inability to concentrate, crying episodes, insomnia, palpitation, vertigo, headache, numbness, tingling, myalgia (muscle pain), urinary disturbances and tract infections and various gastrointestinal disorders.
Hormone Replacement Therapy: Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) involves using estrogen extracted from pregnant mares’ urine as a way to counteract the natural decrease in women’s estrogen levels. The hormone progesterone is also added to the mix. HRT does offer some benefits such as relief from hot flashes and a decrease in osteoporosis, but it does so with the possibility of severe side affects. The side affects of HRT are an increased risk for breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes and blood clots. In addition, while it may decrease the risk of osteoporosis it does not decrease the risk of bone fracture.
Progesterone Creams: The use of progesterone creams is currently marketed towards women as a safe, effective means of thwarting osteoporosis and other health concerns due to the affects of aging and menopause. Some of the names of these creams are Wild Yam Cream, Progonol and Progest. There is currently no clinical evidence to support the claims made by their manufactures. Just like with shots, HRT progesterone creams come with side effects. Some of the symptoms linked to high levels of progesterone caused by creams include headache, weight gain, fatigue, water retention and depression.
Birth Control Pills: 1) Estrogen and progesterone birth-control bills increase the risk of cancer, the development of gallstones and blood clots. They are also linked to nausea, breast tenderness, depression, liver disorders, enlargement of uterine fibroids, fluid retention, blood sugar disturbances and headaches.
2) Birth control pills may suppress females’ hormones and prevent pregnancy, but they leave some women “feeling emotionally deadened.”
Some Natural Herbs (MediHerb) and Supplements (Standard Process):
1) Herbs and Herb Mixes: Wild Yam Complex, Dong Quai, Ginko Biloba, Black Cohosh, Sage, Tribulus, Hawthorn, LivCo, St. John’s Wart and Chaste Tree. We recommend herbs from MediHerb for quality assurance and effectiveness.
2) Whole Food Supplements: Promaline Iodine (thyroid), Drenamin (adrenals), Symplex F (ovaries, adrenals, pituitary, thyroid)
Whole Foods Focus: In order to give your body the best chance to go through its monthly cycle and menopause without experiencing symptoms or at least to minimize them you must provide your body with nutrient dense foods. Nutrient dense foods provide all the known and unknown nutrients that allow your body to maintain balance during times of stress (i.e. ovulation).
The Top Six Actions to Support the Endocrine and Reproductive Systems:
1) Reduce daily stress. Activities such as yoga, exercise, meditation or even a 10 min. daily “timeout” go a long way.
2) Avoid contact with harmful cleaners, detergents, pesticides and the majority of personal care products.
3) Eat plenty of saturated fat, protein and cholesterol. This will help maintain strong bones and support hormone function.
4) Eat vegetables, vegetables and more vegetables. Drink the “Amazing Green Smoothie” daily.
5) Avoid unfermented soy products such as soy milk and tofu. Unfermented soy interferes with hormonal functioning.
6) Always avoid refined sugar, especially HFCS, and refined flour.
Male Menopause (We have it too!): 1) Some men also experience a decrease in the production of sex hormones, in particular, testosterone, as they get older. This condition is called “andropause.”
2) Low fat/no fat diets, processed foods, refined sugar/flour, low dietary cholesterol and statins can interfere with the male endocrine system and sex hormone production just as with females.
3) Symptoms include irritability, moodiness, depression, weight gain and docility.
Sources: “Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary”, by Donald Venes MD., “Guyton and Hall’s Textbook of Medical Physiology”, by MDs Guyton & Hall, “The Endocrine System and Chakras”, The National Institute of Whole Health, “Wise Choices, Healthy Bodies: Diet for the Prevention of Women’s Diseases”’ by Sally Fallon & Mary Enig PhD, “The Weston A. Price Foundation.”; “Balancing Female Hormones Naturally” by Dr. Janet Lang.
We hope this information is helpful!