By: Cat Ebeling, RN, MSN-PHN, co-author of the best-sellers: The Fat Burning Kitchen, The Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging & The Diabetes Fix
Perimenopause and menopause start in the 40s and continue into the 50’s for most women. Some of the uncomfortable symptoms can last for 10 years or more as hormone levels decline.
The majority of women in the U.S. and Europe and other modern countries experience many of the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, insomnia and fatigue.
As hormone levels continue to decline, menopausal women are at higher risk of developing serious chronic diseases such as heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and fatty liver disease.
While hormone therapy is available, many women are not comfortable using it, often because of a fear of health risks. Some women have tried hormone therapy and found they experienced adverse effects from them and stopped using them. And other women just prefer to go it alone and deal with perimenopause and menopause naturally.
Many women turn to diet, lifestyle, natural supplements and other remedies for relief. These are the best options to consider first. The biggest plus about making diet and lifestyle changes is that these things have a positive impact on your overall health as well as helping with hormone balance.
Proper hormonal balance can change your outlook, your health, and the entire trajectory of your life. Hormones most definitely have an effect on us—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Hormones for women include more than the sex hormones of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Our bodies function optimally with the proper balance of sex hormones, thyroid hormones, leptin, insulin, cortisol, growth hormone, serotonin, melatonin and more.
When any one hormone level goes up or down, it can wreak havoc on all the other hormones. So instead of a symphony of hormones working together, out of whack hormones can become just a cacophony of noise. And that’s when we get a lot of the unpleasant hormonal symptoms.
Hormones can affect almost every function in our body. Hormones play a part in our hunger or satisfaction, how well we sleep, how we react to stress, how we respond to exercise, how we metabolize our food, our sex drive, our moods, our energy levels and how quickly we age. And, hormones have a lot to do with our feelings of self-confidence and overall wellbeing.
Signs that Your Hormones May be Out of Balance (no matter what your age)
- Weight gain—especially around the middle
- Low thyroid symptoms—weight gain, fatigue, depression, hair loss
- Anxiety and depression
- Breast tenderness
- Loss of interest in sex
- Hot flashes
- Hair loss or hair growth in unusual places
- Blood sugar instability
- Food cravings
- Lack of ambition and drive
- Fluid retention
Estrogen and Health Issues
Estrogen is the hormone that makes us ‘female’ and is responsible for our female characteristics such as breast development, menstrual periods, and the tendency to store fat around our hips. Estrogen surges at adolescence and begins its decline in our forties.
Estrogen comes in different forms—estradiol, estrone and estriol. Each of these have different roles in our bodies. Estrogen is produced by the ovaries pre-menopause, produced in large quantities by the placenta during pregnancy, and even after menopause we still produce small amounts of estrone in the adrenals and body fat. The more body fat a woman has, the more estrogen is produced.
Estrogen also has a dark side and too much of it can cause many of the uncomfortable symptoms that women experience in perimenopause and menopause. Estrogen is responsible for causing weight gain, especially in the hips, thighs and breast tissue. Too much estrogen can also raise the risk of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers.
What is Estrogen Dominance?
Estrogen dominance is a condition that occurs when estrogen levels are too high in relation to progesterone. This can be characterized by symptoms such as:
- Breast tenderness or fibrocystic breasts
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Mood swings
- Decreased sex drive
- Uterine fibroids
- Weight gain
Estrogen dominance also dramatically raises your risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Estrogen dominance can also contribute to depression, headaches, infertility, insomnia, thyroid dysfunction and water retention. Estrogen dominance is present in the majority of women in their 40’s and 50’s.
What Causes Estrogen Dominance?
- Conventional hormone therapy using synthetic estrogen, or contraceptive pills
- Exposure to Xenoestrogens (artificial estrogens in plastics, personal care and our environment)
- Being overweight
- Declining progesterone levels (often begins in the forties)
- Diet and inflammation
As we age, progesterone levels tend to drop fairly quickly after the age of 40 or so. By the time we reach menopause, our progesterone has hit rock bottom, while estrogen is still in a gradual decline. Due to diet and lifestyle factors, most women in American tend to have estrogen levels approximately twice as high as they naturally should be.
Many of the peri-menopause and menopause symptoms we attribute to lack of estrogen are actually from low levels of progesterone.
In fact, at menopause, progesterone decreases to about 1/120th of our premenstrual levels, while estrogen only decreases by about ½. While conventional thinking is that we have too little estrogen by the time we reach menopause, in fact, most women have too much estrogen in relationship to progesterone.
In less industrialized countries such as rural China and Japan, women who eat a primitive diet consisting of large amounts of vegetables, high fiber and wild caught fish, have far lower levels of estrogen. Not surprisingly, women from these cultures do not report difficulties with menopause or peri-menopause.
Fiber in the diet also helps to clear the body of excess estrogen by carrying it out in bowel movements. Circulating estrogen is sent to the liver to be processed, and then sent to the large intestine to be eliminated. If there is not enough fiber in a woman’s diet to carry out the estrogen, estrogen gets reabsorbed. So consequently, a diet high in fiber is helpful to balance out estrogen dominance.
What about Xenoestrogens?
Let’s talk briefly about Xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens are artificial, chemically-produced estrogens. Xenoestrogens are far more potent and dangerous to our health than natural estrogens. Xenoestrogens compete at the same receptor sites in our bodies as our natural hormones and can easily cause estrogen dominance. In fact, Xenoestrogens are powerful enough to affect even men. Ever seen a man with ‘man boobs’? This is the effect of Xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens can dramatically increase cancer risk (for men or women) as well as exacerbating estrogen dominance.
Where do Xenoestrogens come from? Unfortunately, they are all around us. Xenoestrogens are in pesticides, herbicides, our food supply, birth control, car and truck exhaust, nail polish, cosmetics, toiletries, shampoos, dry cleaning chemicals, and nearly all plastics. However, you can minimize the effects of Xenoestrogens by being aware of them by eating organic foods, naturally raised meats and using only natural personal care products on your body. You should also minimize your use of plastics and avoid toxins in your environment.
What About Progesterone?
Progesterone is what we call a ‘master hormone’. It is essential as a building block for our other hormones. Even men require small amounts of progesterone as a precursor to testosterone. Progesterone is made by our ovaries. Progesterone for women serves as a balancing hormone to estrogen and offsets the risks of too much estrogen.
When progesterone levels plummet in a woman’s forties, supplemental progesterone can actually help to reduce many of the symptoms of estrogen dominance. But that’s not all, progesterone can have far-reaching benefits for the whole body. Other benefits of progesterone include:
- Reduces ovarian cysts
- Helps prevent uterine cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer
- Lessen the chances of ovarian cysts
- Stimulates bone formation
- Helps prevent autoimmune disease
- Improves estrogen receptor sensitivity
- Helps prevent arterial plaque and prevents heart disease and strokes
- Lessens fibrocystic breast issues
- Aids the body in metabolizing fat
- Gets rid of excess stored fluids
- Increases GABA in brain and drastically reduces anxiety
- Facilitates deeper, more restful sleep
- Helps balance and normalize thyroid function
- Normalizes and balances blood sugar
- Protects against blood clots
- Helps with weight loss
- Protects the brain from injury after strokes or traumatic brain injuries
- Important for repair of nerves, especially the myelin sheath (MS)
Is it any wonder we have noticeable symptoms when progesterone drops?
The Dance of Hormones
Our bodies also create other hormones including:
- DHEA-made by the adrenal glands, and a precursor to testosterone, estrogen and some progesterone. DHEA peaks at age 25 then declines. We need it to help fight aging.
- Testosterone-made by the ovaries and adrenal glands. Helps burn fat, build muscle, create stronger bones and adds to motivation, energy and a sense of wellbeing
- Cortisol-Made by the adrenals and also from progesterone. Helps us manage stress, maintains blood sugar, and metabolize nutrients. Too much cortisol (usually from stress) can cause weight gain, sleeplessness, other health problems. A progesterone imbalance causes problems with cortisol. Low cortisol also equals poor thyroid function.
Chronic stress can affect many bodily systems and can wreak havoc on hormone balance. Chronic stress can make you feel exhausted and ‘out of gas’ and cause adrenal fatigue. Stress can affect insulin, progesterone, estrogen, testosterone, thyroid, melatonin and cortisol levels. Nothing in the body works as it should with high levels of stress.
Estrogen, Progesterone and Thyroid Hormones
The thyroid hormone regulates metabolism. A low thyroid or hypothyroid can cause you to gain weight, have low energy, hair and nails grow slowly, intolerance to cold, and low immune function. A hyperthyroid causes high metabolism, weight loss, hair loss, sleeplessness, and anxiety.
Women with estrogen dominance and low progesterone often have symptoms of low thyroid—even if thyroid lab work shows up normal. Other issues that interfere with thyroid function include high cortisol levels and gluten intolerance.
Thyroid hormones include T3 and T4. T3 is the active form of thyroid hormone in the body. If your body is not efficient at converting T4 into T3 you can have low thyroid levels, but it may not even show up on a standard thyroid test. Many physicians never check this part of thyroid function, but it is essential. If the thyroid is not functioning optimally, cortisol, estrogen and progesterone may be low as well.
Inflammation and Hormones
Many people have chronic inflammation due to poor diet, too much sugar, food sensitivities, toxins in the environment, high stress, and lack of sleep. Chronic inflammation can show up in many different forms including: Belly fat, chronic pain, accelerated aging, food allergies, blood sugar problems, autoimmunity, IBS and other inflammatory bowel diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer, skin problems and hormone imbalances—especially thyroid hormones, estrogen and progesterone.
Inflammation levels can be tested by looking at C-Reactive protein (CRP), blood sugar levels (HbA1c), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), and plasma viscosity (PV).
However, our hormones are at their highest levels in the mid-twenties and as they decrease, inflammation levels tend to rise. Changing one’s diet to avoid inflammatory foods like sugar, refined flours and processed foods lowers inflammation. In addition, following an elimination diet to eliminate any foods you may be reacting to, will lower inflammation levels as well.
How Do We Get Our Hormones Back into Balance Naturally?
These steps will help you lower inflammation, regain balance in your hormones and lose weight:
- First, eliminate inflammatory foods along with strategic detoxes that clear excess hormone levels from the body, stop food sensitivities, and clear hormone receptors. A diet that eliminates all grains, dairy, and all processed foods and vegetable oils is a good start. Eat only whole foods, lots of organic veggies and naturally raised meats/fish/poultry, along with healthy fats. Be sure to get lots of fiber which helps eliminate excess estrogens. Avoid sugars of all kinds.
- Avoid dangerous hormone-disrupting artificial estrogens in the environment by avoiding commercial home cleaning supplies, pesticides, weed killer, laundry soaps, dry cleaning, toiletries, makeup, shampoos, hair styling products, pesticides and other chemical-based products.
- Practice good self-care to lower stress such as meditation, getting good sleep and daily exercise.
Generally, these steps will often make a huge difference in how you feel and help to bring your hormones back into balance. If you still feel ‘off’, as your functional medicine doctor or health practitioner for a saliva hormone test to determine your hormone levels.
Natural Supplements to Ease Hormonal Symptoms
And lastly, some natural hormone supplements are available over the counter without a prescription that are safe and easy to use.
While some of these therapies are backed by clinical research, many others have very little research, and only anecdotal evidence to support their use.
Always talk to your doctor or other healthcare provider before you try any alternative treatment. They can discuss possible dosage, side effects, and interactions with you.
Here are the most common natural supplements for reducing symptoms of menopause:
B vitamins, especially with methylfolate (a usable form of folate), methylcobalamin and other B vitamins help the body with the methylation cycle. The methylation cycle is key in the transfer of the fat-soluble form of folate into the brain, as well as contributing to the formation of important neurotransmitters: epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin. B vitamins are also responsible for energy, brain and nerve function.
When methylation is going well, the process helps repair your DNA, regulates hormones, produces energy, protects against cancer, supports detoxification, keeps your immune system healthy, supports the protective coating along your nerves, strengthens the nervous system and on and on and on.
Methylfolate (the most bioavailable form of folate) is helpful in reducing the length and severity of hot flashes. And B vitamins are great to prevent anxiety, depression and irritability by regulating the brain neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation.
Vitamin D is a powerful hormone of its own. Vitamin D will boost your immune system, help maintain a strong bone structure, and help and with hormone regulation and vaginal dryness. IT’s also known to improve your moods.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3’s may help lubricate your body and decrease vaginal dryness. Omega 3 fats are also vital to healthy brain function and lowering inflammation. When taken in addition to B vitamins and magnesium, omega 3 supplements improve depression.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that most of use do not get enough of. Women in perimenopause or menopause can definitely benefit from magnesium supplements. Magnesium is known to help sleep by regulating the body’s circadian rhythms, and promoting muscle relaxation. This small study found that 500mg of magnesium daily led to a significant increase in sleep quality, as well as melatonin production.
Adequate magnesium levels may also lessen anxiety and depression, improving brain function, mood regulation and reactions to stress. Magnesium also lowers blood pressure, lowers inflammation, and decreases the risk of heart disease.
Some herbal supplements claim to help manage perimenopause and menopause symptoms. However, it is important to remember that the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements and there is little research on many of them—especially for menopause symptoms.
It’s important to talk to a healthcare provider before adding supplements. Potency of herbal supplements can vary widely, and some products may also interact with over-the-counter and prescription medications.
Black cohosh is a flowering plant that is often suggested to help with hormonal symptoms. Taking black cohosh may help decrease the frequency or severity of hot flashes.
Dong quai is an herb often used in Chinese medicine. Dong quai works like a phytoestrogen (plant based estrogen) in the body. Phytoestrogens are weaker than normal estrogens and take up the estrogen receptors in the body, helping to lessen the effects of estrogen, and balancing your hormones during menopause. Dong Quai helps to enhance metabolism, improve liver function (which improves the excretion of excess estrogen), aids in the utilization of vitamin E, and has a mild sedative activity.
Often suggested as a supplement for men, maca works for women as well. Maca works to improve sex drive and sexual function, while helping balance hormone levels.
Valerian is an herbal tranquilizer and is often used to alleviate anxiety and insomnia—two problems women in perimenopause and menopause report frequently.
Over the Counter Natural Progesterone
Natural progesterone is inexpensive, safe and easy to use. Natural progesterone may help ease the symptoms of estrogen dominance (see list above), help you feel calmer, relieve anxiety and promote sound sleep. Natural progesterone may also help thyroid function, as well as reducing the risk of breast and endometrial cancers. Natural progesterone when used regularly, can balance hormone levels and help eliminate some of the negative symptoms of estrogen dominance.
Natural Hormone Balance
There is a natural way to rebalance your hormones and get your estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid back into balance. In the process, you will most likely lose weight, sleep better, feel better, eliminate anxiety, and also get rid of many of those unpleasant menopause or peri-menopause symptoms.
Making changes in diet, weight loss, removal of Xenoestrogens and lowering inflammation will help you regain hormone balance—perhaps even better than ever!
And if none of the above things help you, it may be time visit a doctor who specializes in natural hormone replacement therapy and investigate bioidentical hormone replacement therapy.
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