Female Hormones - #LifeHakx, “Slow down and Breathe"
By Eva Wisenbeck @Eva Wisenbeck Coaching 16/02/2020
#LifeHakx - Slow down and breathe!
Sounds simplistic, however it truly is one of the most important steps in rebalancing your female hormones. We are talking about a rather delicate cascade and balance of several hormones although the main ones we think of as female hormones are estrogen and progesterone.
One reason this simple advice is so important is that it is often cortisol, the stress hormone, that causes a lot of issues. Among other things cortisol triggers what is called the pregnenolone steal so other hormones can’t be produced properly. It also lowers progesterone production which then throws us into a state of estrogen dominance.
Estrogen dominance is when you have too much estrogen compared with its counter hormone, progesterone. These hormones are like fire and ice, and when in balance, progesterone is the ice that keeps the fire of estrogen under control. In scientific circles, it’s called dysestrogenism.
Estrogen dominance puts you at risk for weight gain, breast cancer, prediabetes, and diabetes. Women are at the greatest risk between the ages of 35 to 50, when the ovaries make less progesterone, allowing estrogen to dominate.
Estrogen dominance isn't just a problem of increased estrogen levels in your body. It can also result from high or low levels of other hormones like low progesterone, excess insulin, medical problems like obesity (fat cells make estrogen), as well as environmental exposures, such as skin care products and plastics.
Signs of estrogen dominance can include:
- Breast tenderness
- Ovarian cysts
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Endometrial polyps
- Difficulty losing weight
Women can also experience estrogen dominance in their post-menopausal years. This can be confusing because we often think of estrogen as it relates to menstruation and fertility.
Regardless of your age, however, it's crucial to understand estrogen and how it is working in your body. Too much estrogen relative to progesterone can cause mood problems, bloating, fibroids, insomnia, and anxiety at any age.
Estrogen dominance is the main reason women have a harder time losing weight regardless of age when compared with men. Too much estrogen can cause weight gain.
Estrogen, along with other hormones such as insulin, is responsible for how you respond to food, drink and supplements. Estrogen's interaction with the other metabolic hormones such as insulin and cortisol, can determine whether the food you eat is burned or stored as fat.
Taking the pill, or using any chemical birth control (implant, patches…), can also often push the estrogen levels up.
Cortisol also acts like a sea-saw with oxytocin, the love hormone, meaning that if cortisol is high you will be low in oxytocin. We’ll cover oxytocin in a whole separate podcast and blog still to come. Worth mentioning is that with high cortisol which pushes oxytocin and progesterone down we can end up with low libido. It might sound odd but it is how it should be, the body is protecting us, if we are too stressed we are in no position to carry and nurture a child. Too much cortisol also lowers your immune system and defense against diseases.
What can we do to help our hormones?
- Lifestyle (sleep and stress reduction) and nutrient dense diet
- Broccoli and brassicas! They are great at helping your liver move along estrogen and of course other toxins
- Vitamin C, complex B vitamins and Magnesium, Zinc are all helpful supplements if you feel like some help
- Adoptagenic herbs can also help lower cortisol, boost libido and generally rebalance hormones
- Regular moderate exercise
- Cut down on sugar in our diet
Sex hormones, healthy blood sugar, and insulin balance are much more intimately linked than you might think.
Spikes in insulin, and the insulin resistance that results from eating too much sugar and flour and other fast carbohydrates and 'ultra processed foods', can lead to acne and irregular menstrual cycles and can make women lose hair where they want it and grow hair where they don’t.
Low fat diets are also an issue as hormones are formed from fat and cholesterol, without fats, hormone production would suffer. We are of course talking healthy fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, eggs, nuts and seeds etc.
Healthy fats also help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K. Without fat the gut can't break everything down and absorb what is needed.
A nutrient deficiency can certainly cause a hormonal imbalance, and not getting enough fat could be the cause.
What are adaptogenic herbs?
They literally help the body to adapt, adjust and recalibrate itself. For example, they can help calm in times of stress. They can bring peace to a racing mind in the middle of the night. They can give clarity when everything around is in turmoil. They can give energy when we are tired.
The term adaptogen was introduced into scientific literature by Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev in 1957 to refer to ‘substances that increase the state of non-specific resistance' in stress. Broadly, an adaptogen must have the four ‘Ns’
- Nourishing - bring nutritive strength
- Normalising - raise what is low and lower what is high (eg energy, stress)
- Non-specific - act on multiple parts of the body at the same time
- Non-toxic - be completely safe when used over extended periods of time.
Adaptogens relieve stress by modulating the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands. As biological response modifiers adaptogens restore the body’s innate immune function and help the body adapt to different stressors. This gives them preventative and protective as well as curative activity in compromised immunity.
There are over a dozen different adaptogenic herbs, and each has its own unique effects on your body’s hormones and how they react to life’s stressors.
The ones we mentioned in the podcast were:
Ashwagandha: The Soothing Adaptogen
Awagandha is calming and anti-inflammatory, it is considered both a food and tonic for improving energy, memory and learning, promoting libido, and preventing premature aging. It is used to improve sleep, reduce anxiety, improve memory, and reduce inflammation and oxidative stress (damage from inflammation). It also boosts the immune system.
Holy Basil or Tulsi: The Vitalizer
Holy or “sacred” basil is a herb that calms the mind and spirit, and promotes longevity. In Ayurvedic medicine it is called Tulsi, which means “incomparable one.” It is used to improve energy and relieve fatigue, for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions, and to lower blood glucose, triglycerides, and cholesterol. Holy basil may also protect the liver, and elevates the mood, especially providing relief from mild depression.
Maca: The Energiser
Maca raises hormone production when your body is under-producing hormones and lowers hormone production when your body is over-producing hormones. Over time, maca enhances the function of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which restores balance to the adrenals. Unlike ashwagandha, maca is tasty and has a nutty flavour that can be mixed into baked goods or smoothies for an energy boost!
As always, although adaptogens are natural, please consult your health professional and take care. For example liquorice is not compatible with many blood pressure medications. And most adaptogens are not recommended whilst pregnant or breast feeding. If you want to do a trial, please start low and go slow, that same motto goes for all supplements.
Exercise, how can we find the right balance?
Most can agree that exercise is healthy and good for you, however, many women find themselves somewhere between feeling guilty that they can't make time for regular exercise and overdoing it entirely—and creating a lot of hormone haywire in the process.
Exercise is powerful medicine, yet we struggle to use it to heal and support hormones partly because the type and dose that's right for one woman doesn't work at all for her friend or her sister.
Instead of heeding hormonal messages, women keep going, or worse, double down assuming something is wrong with them, that they need to try harder and with that they drive their hormones into chaos.
Exercise is a stress on our hormonal system and metabolism, and we can harness that for favourable change to our health and body composition, or it can become just another stress on our already overburdened system, and in some cases, it can backfire entirely by causing weight gain that can be due to an increase in appetite after we've upped our exercise.
All of these effects will vary depending in part on the total stress load you're already under and how your cortisol response is already faring, how leptin-resistant or sensitive you are, and whether your thyroid hormones are adequate, whether you have more body fat vs. less, and whether you're a longtime gym rat or you are new to training. The type of exercise will also significantly affect how hangry exercise makes you.
So what is a good exercise approach?
#1: Less-intense cardio exercise.
#2: More intense, shorter bursts of exercise.
#3: Heavier weight training.
How can breathing help?
Breathing exercises and techniques sound a little funny at first: After all, don’t we all know how to breathe? Using specific breathing techniques and breath control, however, means that you’re being mindful about the way you breathe in and out. By purposefully changing the way we breathe, we can change the way we feel and how our bodies react to what’s going on around us.
Is Mouth Breathing Harming Your Health? Breathing through our mouth versus our nose can contribute to poor sleep, dry mouth, high blood pressure, migraines and more. When we breathe through our nose, we’re able to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. This means we’re more calm, relaxed, and ready for bed.
Under normal circumstances, we inhale to absorb oxygen and exhale to rid our body of carbon dioxide through the lungs, with the help of our diaphragm muscle. But when we’re stressed, anxious or upset, the way we breathe changes. Instead of deep, lung-filling breaths, we start “overbreathing” and taking short, shallow breaths. We use our shoulders to inhale and exhale, which can make anxious feelings even worse.
By using breathing exercises, we send a signal to our nervous system, the part of our body managing things like our heart rate and our stress response, that things are OK. In turn, the physical effects of anxiety, racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, are reduced, and our minds calm down. Best of all, unlike yoga or meditation (which I still absolutely recommend!), you can do breathing exercises when you’re commuting to work, before a meeting or even in the midst of an argument when you want to calm down.
Have you pooped today?
Why is pooping every day crucial for women's hormonal balance?
For many of us, life's modern stressors, a less-than-stellar diet, and not drinking nearly enough water has made constipation (i.e. going less than once per day) the new "normal”, however never confuse common with normal! And that's a problem for a variety of reasons, and particularly for women, that's because constipation can royally mess with your hormones, particularly estrogen, and in turn lead to a host of other problems like headaches and acne.
What happens when that excretion is delayed because you're constipated? "If your bowels aren't moving, your estrogen sticks around longer than it should and goes back into circulation in the body," says Jolene Brighten, women's hormone expert and author of Beyond the Pill. "You have to poop every day to get your estrogen out."
Other health problems caused by the accumulation of estrogen that can crop up pretty quickly include as mentioned headaches and acne but also PMS, frequent periods, heavy periods, and hot flushes. And over time, health risks start to get pretty serious. Over the long term, there's potentially an increased risk for estrogen-dependent cancers since the normal excretion process isn't happening properly.
And remember, "regular" means at least once and up to three times a day. Additionally, a healthy poop should not contain mucus, blood, or undigested food, so if any of those are present, schedule a visit with your doctor.
Now, on to some effective poop-promoting, hormone-balancing practices:
- Get regular exercise
- Chill out while you eat and for about 30 minutes after you finish
- Drink more water
- Up your fiber intake by eating more non-starchy vegetables and fruits
- Consider a liver supporting if you are really struggling
The Bristol stool scale is a diagnostic medical tool designed to classify the form of human faeces into seven categories. It is used in both clinical and experimental fields. It was developed at the Bristol Royal Infirmary as a clinical assessment tool in 1997. Types 1 and 2 indicate constipation, with 3 and 4 being the ideal stools as they are easy to defecate while not containing excess liquid, 5 tending towards diarrhoea, and 6 and 7 indicate diarrhoea.
Statin medications are a category worthy of a separate mention.
They are used to lower cholesterol however there is much controversy how much benefit they actually bring although that is for another blog. Today I want to talk about statin drugs because too low a level of cholesterol means the body can’t produce all the hormones it needs. So if you have been taking statin drugs for a long time and are experiencing symptoms please have a chat with your medical professional.
First step first, get the right cholesterol tests, rather than total cholesterol or just your HDL and LDL numbers which don’t tell you that much a test looking at particle size and particle number is much more informative. You want to see results that show lots of safe, light, fluffy, big cholesterol particles. You do not want to see small, dense, artery-damaging cholesterol particles.
Another helpful couple of test to check for metabolic syndrome or diabesity. The standard test here are glucose level and hemoglobin A1C, which is a measurement of your blood sugar control over the last six weeks. If it’s greater than 5.5 percent, you may have metabolic syndrome.
Then look to ways in which to lower or manage cholesterol using lifestyle.
- Eat a low-glycemic load diet. Besides healthy fats, focus on a high-fiber, plenty of plant with lots of phytonutrients and omega 3 fats. That includes lots of non-starchy veggies. Consume plenty of good-quality protein found in beans, seeds, nuts, and high-quality, sustainably raised or grass-fed animal protein.
- Exercise regularly, studies show consistent, regular exercise can optimize cholesterol levels.
- Focus on quality sleep, optimizing blood sugar is just one of the numerous benefits of eight hours of sleep every night. Practice good sleep practices: Turn off the TV and Internet a few hours before bedtime.
Back to hormones, so how can we test our levels?
Well that’s both easy and very complicated. Of course you can absolutely test your hormones levels, most common being with a blood test *however* how much can be deduced by the results are a completely different matter. Don’t forget that not only does women go through cycles and the hormone levels should fluctuate, they will also change with age. Then add in lifestyle, medications etc etc and the picture gets more complicated.
Then we have other tests that do not rely on blood. The one currently being recommended by most Functional Medicine doctors for hormones of all kinds is the DUTCH urine 24 hour test. These kinds of tests, which take both urine and saliva samples across the course of a day, can provide a more accurate picture of your hormonal situation, shedding light on hormonal interplays and recognizing that the relationships between testosterone, estrogen, cortisol and certain other hormones matter. If you are curious the best thing you can do is talk to your medical professional. And of course please take a look at all the wonderful resources and links listed below.
So what’s with broccoli and broccoli sprouts? Why not just eat broccoli?
Cruciferous vegetables have many many benefits and studies find that eating them a few times a week among other things can reduce cancer risk by 30% or more. All cruciferous veggies contain glucosinolates, but broccoli sprouts have a massive amount, about 20 to 100 times more than most cruciferous vegetables.
And the ones they contain, "sulphoraphane", are especially potent. When it comes to sulforaphane, full-grown broccoli doesn’t even come close to these power-packed sprouts.
As stated 3-4 day old broccoli sprouts have up to 100x the amount of sulforaphane as mature broccoli!
Broccoli sprouts are almost foolproof to grow, are ready to eat in just a few days, and are healthier than almost any other vegetable you can grow.
How to triple the sulforaphane content in broccoli sprouts:
If you are curious and would like more information about Female Hormones and everything else mentioned in this blog then here are some great resources.
Mark Hyman ”5 Strategies to Optimize Your Sex Drive”
Mark Hyman “Killing Your Sex Drive One Bite at a Time: 5 Surprising Ways Sugar Lowers Libido”
MindBodyGreen “What Is Cortisol & What Causes High Levels Of This Stress Hormone”
PaloeHacks “The 10 Best-Hormone Balancing Foods”
MindBodyGreen “8 Doctor-Approved Adaptogenic Herbs For Less PMS & Better Periods”
Aviva Romm ” Adaptogens: Ancient Medicine for 21st Century Stress”
Josh Axe “7 Adaptogenic Herbs or Adaptogens that Help Reduce Stress”
Amy Myers “The 5 Best Adaptogens to Combat Stress and Adrenal Fatigue”
Josh Axe “Top 5 Maca Root Benefits and Nutrition”
MindBodyGreen “Why Exercise Is Making You Hangry + 3 Ways To Stop It”
Chris Kresser “My Top 5 Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief”
Josh Axe “5 Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress & Improve Sleep”
MindBodyGreen “Why Pooping Every Day Is Crucial For Women's Hormonal Balance”
MindBodyGreen “Is A Hormone Imbalance Causing Your Gut Issues? Here's How Estrogen Is Linked To Constipation”
MindBodyGreen “The Best Essential Oils For Fatigue, Irritability & Other Symptoms Of Perimenopause”
Refinery29 “Why Broccoli Sprouts Might Actually Be A Superfood”
WellnessMama “How to Grow Broccoli Sprouts (& Why We All Should)”
Max Laguvere “Grow Insanely Healthy Broccoli Sprouts At Home (Easiest Method)”
Magdalena Wszelaki “How to Grow Broccoli Sprouts”
Mercola “DUTCH — The Most Informative Hormone Test Out There”
Ben Greenfield Fitness “Why Is My Cortisol High Even Though I’m Doing Everything Right? Hidden Causes Of High Cortisol, The DUTCH Test & More!”