As women, many of us have come to believe that hormones are bad, and attach negative emotions and symptoms to them. They are in fact just a sign of transition from one stage of our lives into another. Menopause is a natural process, which occurs with age as a woman’s body adapts to the changes that result from ovarian decline. The Pituitary gland, found in the brain, attempts to stimulate the ovaries back into function, which in turn results in the symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flushes. At this time, the adrenal glands are expected to take over the role of the declining ovaries, so if they are exhausted or compromised in any way the process becomes harder work for the hormonal system to process and adapt to. Likewise, if the liver is overburdened with toxicity from diet and lifestyle choices, it is unable to assist in the detoxing of the body and processing of hormones.
The onset of menopause usually occurs between the ages of 50 and 55 and is a gradual cessation of menstruation. Peri-menopause, seen as the transitional period before menopause, can occur anytime between 2 and 20 years before menopause. The average age is around 45 for this transition. During this time, women usually see irregularity of their menstrual cycle caused by fluctuations in the levels of oestrogen and progesterone. Scientists believe that the peri-menopausal stage is occurring earlier and earlier due to the number of hormone-like chemicals in today’s environment, which disrupt a woman’s natural cycle.
In most women, hormone levels start to decline around their mid-thirties, gradually at first, then accelerating through their forties, before levelling out between 50 and 55.
However, when this decline commences, progesterone production falls considerably faster than oestrogen. The result is a widened gap in the levels of these two hormones which does not right itself until hormone levels finally stabilise in the years following the menopause.
This natural change in hormone levels is aggravated by modern environmental and lifestyle factors, which are believed to be responsible for the increasing incidence of what’s referred to as oestrogen dominance.
So what are the symptoms of Oestrogen Dominance?
Acceleration of the ageing process
Allergies, including asthma, rashes, sinus congestion and autoimmune disorders
Cold hands and feet, relating to thyroid dysfunction
Decreased sex drive
Depression with anxiety or agitation
Inability to focus
Early onset of menstruation
Fat gain, especially around the abdomen, hips and thighs
Pre-menopausal bone loss
Increase blood clotting
Increased risk of strokes
Water retention, bloating
How Progesterone affects women:
In your 40s, you may find you don’t cope with stress as well as you did. You’re not imagining things, and you’re definitely not alone. Women are three times more likely to suffer anxiety, depression, and insomnia during the five years before menopause. This is not just because you’re busier than ever with career and family, but also because you’ve suddenly lost the progesterone that used to calm and stabilize your stress response system (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis)
Progesterone regulates the HPA axis:
Progesterone plays a huge role in regulating your HPA axis. Progesterone is not just a reproductive hormone, it’s also a brain hormone and a nervous system hormone. Progesterone promotes neurogenesis (new nerve growth) in the hippocampus, which regulates your HPA axis. It also converts to a neurosteroid, which acts just like a soothing neurotransmitter and is your “hormonal Valium”.
The end of progesterone:
As you approach menopause, you will find it harder and harder to ovulate. That means you’ll lose your only way to make large amounts of progesterone. It’s not all bad. Menopause transition is a natural, normal process. Eventually, you will adjust to the small amount of progesterone made by your adrenal glands, and you’ll recover your ability to cope with stress.
What can you do to stay in balance?
Oestrogen dominance can occur at any age and a first step is to look at your lifestyle. The basic building blocks of optimal hormone balance start with a good wholefood diet, regular exercise and stress reduction as that can play a major part in most hormonal symptoms.
Oestrogen dominance is driven by our modern day exposure to hormones found in animal products, excessive sugar, the birth control pill and environmental endocrine disruptors.
In the 1990’s soya products were given to cattle, so those of us who eat meat were consuming phytoestrogens in our diets. Cattle are also given Bovine Growth Hormone and antibiotics, so consider green leafy vegetables rather than dairy to get Calcium into your diet.
Plastics leach phalates into our foods/water supply, which is why there are been so much news about oestrogen entering our body’s via plastic bottles. These phalates mimic hormones and therefore disrupt the natural balance.
Pesticides also do this, hence the need to include organic foods where possible in our diets.
Some self-help ideas:
If you have been on any form of hormone therapy (The Birth Control Pill, IVF, HRT etc) then it is likely your body is lacking some vital nutrients:
Magnesium and Potassium – symptoms include fatigue, cramps, anxiety, sleep issues and cravings for sugar and chocolate. Anyone entering my clinic stating they are craving chocolate gets sent away with a magnesium supplement! Magnesium is quickly used up when we are stressed or have a diet high in tea, coffee and sugar, which deplete the body of this vital mineral. Magnesium is also needed by the body to help absorb and balance Calcium and Vitamin D.
Vitamin B – a lack of B vitamins will show as a loss of appetite, fatigue and weakness, oversensitivity, depression, anxiety, skin problems, sleep problems, constipation. Consider adding more fish, poultry, whole grains and potatoes in your diet.
Selenium – needed for healthy hair and breast health. Heavy metals found in pesticides, some fish, deodorants and fillings have been known to deplete the body’s stores of selenium and zinc. Selenium can be found in Brazil nuts.
Chromium – to help balance blood sugar levels. Chromium also helps raise the body’s metabolic rate.
Zinc – the birth control pill is known to deplete the body’s zinc levels. Pumpkin seeds are a good natural source.
Calcium – rather than getting this from dairy products, which have been pasteurised and may contain growth hormones etc, consider getting calcium from dark green leafy vegetables. Mineral waters such as San Pellegrino and Perrier are known for their high mineral contents too, so swap your next Diet Coke for a fizzy water!
Taurine is an amino acid that calms the brain by blocking glutamate and adrenalin. It’s obtained from animal products but it’s depleted by oestrogen, so women have a higher requirement for Taurine than men.
Consider switching to organic meat & dairy to avoid synthetic hormones
Cut back on sugar, caffeine, alcohol and limit stressful situations, all of which deplete our magnesium levels. The body will start to take magnesium from our bones if there’s a shortfall in our diets! By avoiding foods which stimulate the adrenal glands, which are already under additional demand you will help to lessen symptoms such as hot flushes. For example, caffeinated drinks and alcohol stimulate the adrenals and also over stimulate the nervous system.
Add some nuts and seeds to your cereal
A handful of almonds for calcium, pumpkin seeds for zinc and 4 Brazil nuts for selenium.
Dark berries and fruits are high in antioxidants and micronutrients so add them to breakfasts or a handful in a smoothie. Green Tea is also high in antioxidants, which help the body remove cell damaging free radicals, chemicals and environmental pollutants.
Some herbs and spices worth considering:
Herbs such as turmeric and ginger help to relieve hormonal cramps by increasing blood flow through the uterus and have anti-inflammatory properties. Fennel seed tea is also worth considering for painful periods as an anti-inflammatory option to over the counter drugs.
Members of the brassica family (broccoli and kale) contain vital nutrients that help the body process oestrogen and help the liver to detox the body. Also useful for this are onions, garlic and leeks. A few grams of seaweed helps to feed the hormonal system and improves a sluggish metabolism. It’s also good for the thyroid gland.
Phytoestrogens, found in plant based foods help to balance oestrogen, so consider adding flaxseeds or lentils to your diet. Oestrogen levels drop at the time of menopause, so consider these foods at this time to establish balance naturally.
Herbs such as oregano, thyme, rosemary and sage promote good liver function and help the organ to detox excessive oestrogen effectively. Sage tea also has also been used successfully to reduce hot flushes in menopausal women.
Most health food shops also stock a good range of herbal tinctures, such as Hypericum, Agnus Castus and Black Cohosh, all of which help to rebalance the hormonal symptom and relieve symptoms.
How about some oils and Essential Fatty Acids to balance things:
Naturopaths and other complimentary practitioners will use EFA’s and organic oils to help balance an irregular menstrual cycle, once other causes (Endometriosis, Polycystic Ovaries, fibroids etc) have been excluded.
Flaxseed and pumpkin oil are used to support the first (oestrogen) phase, while sesame and sunflower oil are used to support the second (progesterone) phase.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) can be found in raw foods, as processing/cooking foods destroys them. Nuts and seeds are a good source too. Essential Fatty Acids also alleviate hot flushes and act as a diuretic for those who experience fluid retention.