The Hormone Balancing Act
Natural Strategies for Feeling Better
Hormones rule our lives; it’s a simple fact of biochemistry. In their role as the body’s chemical messengers, hormones affect every human biological system. Without them, nothing works correctly.
Women’s hormonal systems are as complex as men’s, although vastly different. They govern reproduction, plus every aspect of health—including metabolizing food, proper immune function, physical and emotional responses to stress and the aging of cells.
Teens and Early 20s
Puberty and the early reproductive years should be the physical peak of a young woman’s life; when she is physically active and full of energy and youthful health. It’s also the time when breasts develop, hips widen, pubic hair appears, menstruation begins, and she becomes capable of pregnancy.
The good news is that several studies by the National Cancer Institute and the University of California, Los Angeles, have shown that regular exercise undertaken at this age results in lower estrogen levels throughout a woman’s life, greatly reducing her risk of breast cancer and other hormonal cancers. Yet, C.W. Randolph, Jr., a leading bioidentical hormone physician and co-author of From Hormone Hell to Hormone Well, reports that the ideal hormonal balance is routinely upset today. Culprits are obesity among young American women and the everyday presence of toxic estrogenic chemicals in today’s dairy products and meat, personal care products, plastics, food containers, pesticides and herbicides, as well as car exhaust.
“These compounds often have chemical structure similar to estrogen and can act like estrogen when introduced into the body,” Randolph explains. “Over time, these substances can increase estrogen in the body, potentially causing problems.”
Categorized as xenoestrogens, these hormone disruptors can cause rapid growth in breast tissue and have been blamed for the appearance of breast tissue and even milk production in girls as young as 18 months and the early onset of puberty, particularly among African-American girls. They are also suspected in the rising incidence of breast cancer in younger women today.
Women in their reproductive years often experience extreme stress in struggling to balance family, work, relationships and a need for personal growth, along with economic challenges. Women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of The Wisdom of Menopause, blames the stress of modern lifestyles for hormone disruptions in women in their childbearing years. “The stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine can have long-term effects on all other hormones,” advises Northrup.
Concurrently, many women sacrifice self-nurturance in order to nurture others. The first result is often premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which Northrup calls a “lifestyle disease.” “We know that this problem seems to worsen with each subsequent child. That made the connection for me,” she adds, “that with growing families and responsibilities, women no longer take care of themselves as well; no longer get the amount of exercise they once did. The body is quite forgiving in their 20s, much less so in their 30s.”
Part of the result is the attempt to reduce stress levels by eating high-fat and high-sugar comfort foods. Weight gain, blood sugar imbalances and sex hormone imbalances follow. “Excess blood sugar changes the way estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are metabolized,” Northrup explains. “PMS and other problems of the reproductive years often go away when you get your blood sugar balanced, but—here’s the rub—you won’t get it rebalanced unless you are addressing the very real stressors in your life.”
Due to the presence of xenoestrogens and Americans’ general fondness for processed comfort foods, women in their childbearing years are also increasingly afflicted by polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition characterized by overproduction of testosterone and other male hormones. Insulite Laboratories, in Louisville, Colorado, reports that infertility and early onset Type 2 diabetes, another hormonal imbalance problem, are closely connected to PCOS.
The first priority for every woman at any age, counsels Northrup, is to get blood sugar (glucose) under control. “Get a glucometer. You don’t need a prescription. If your blood sugar level isn’t between 80 and 90 in the morning, you need to look at your diet and lifestyle. Getting this under control will create hormonal balance in the vast majority of women. It’s so simple.”
The next hormonal shift overlaps with a woman’s reproductive years. Symptoms of perimenopause, or the start of menopause and the end of childbearing years, typically show up between the early and late 30s.
These range from hot flashes, night sweats and insomnia to weight gain, fuzzy thinking and redistribution of hair on the body. Again, the presence of xenoestrogens and stress contribute. Women of other cultures rarely experience the intensity of perimenopausal symptoms that Western women report. So does that make perimenopause a lifestyle disease, as well?
Emphatically yes, says Holly Lucille, a doctor of naturopathy, registered nurse and past president of the California Naturopathic Doctors Association. “Diet and lifestyle are absolutely essential to a healthy hormonal system,” which she explains in her book, Creating and Maintaining Balance: A Woman’s Guide to Safe, Natural, Hormone Health. “The biochemistry of the body is based on vitamins and minerals. If we compromise food and lifestyle choices, we are not getting the nutrients necessary to have a healthy endocrine system.”
Weight gain is a particular concern during perimenopause. In their book, From Belly Fat to Belly Flat, Dr. Randolph and Genie James, co-founders of the Natural Hormone Institute, advocate a specific eating plan to override belly fat and related accumulating effects of excess estrogen. “In perimenopause, progesterone production usually declines rapidly, more than 120 times faster than estrogen or testosterone production. That’s what aggravates the symptoms,” Randolph notes. “Because women in perimenopause are usually still menstruating, they think their hormones are okay.”
“The more body fat you have, the more estrogen tips the hormonal imbalance,” says Lucille. “Those fat cells hold on to toxins and place more burden on the liver, making it unable to effectively metabolize those extra estrogens,” which are stored in body fat and brought into the body as xenoestrogens. “At the end of the day, estrogen is a messenger, and its message is to tell cells to grow and proliferate. That’s what we don’t want.”
When estrogen becomes dominant, several things happen, including a more rapid release of insulin from the pancreas, which triggers sugar cravings. “It’s not a willpower problem,” Randolph assures. “Too much estrogen causes you to pack on the pounds in the belly area, and belly fat produces more estrogen. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Lucille considers perimenopause the opposite of puberty and counsels, “While we are dealing with these changes, bringing some hormones on board for a short time can be a valuable tool.” However, she cautions, replacing anything isn’t the issue. “You have to look at the big picture,” she avers. “Putting hormones into a toxic body is like putting gas into a dirty gas tank. We have to restore function first.”
Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) has been a boon for millions. Results of the Women’s Health Initiative, a national study of women’s health between 1991 and 2002, involving more than 160,000 postmenopausal women ages 50 to 79, sparked more widespread use early in the 21st century, when research began to show the dire consequences of synthetic hormone replacement. The Million Woman Study of British women also found that taking synthetic hormones at menopause doubled the risk of breast cancer for women.
Northrup calls bioidenticals “nature’s ideal design,” due to the prescription of individually tailored doses, custom-made by compounding pharmacies. Although these are rarely covered by insurance, estradiol-only patches may be; however, additional progesterone and testosterone may still be necessary, depending on test results, according to Northrup.
If a woman has had no menstrual periods for 12 months, she is considered to be in menopause. However, Lucille asserts, “Menopause is not a disease.” Northrup touts menopause as the most creative and precious time of a woman’s life; it is often a time of spiritual awakening and self-fulfillment.
“When the female brain passes menopause, the brain changes,” advises Northrup. “In a sense, we move from alternating current to direct current; I believe that this is the way the brain encodes wisdom.”
“Yet there are women in their 60s that are still having hot flashes. What should they do?” queries Northrup. Natural alternatives exist that are safe and effective. “Many herbs have been used for millennia that have estrogen-like properties, but do not have estrogen’s side effects,” Northrup says. “There is huge confusion about this: Plant hormones have different structures than mammalian hormones and cannot act as growth hormones. If you have too much estrogen, these plant hormones can actually protect against excess stimulation.”
Her favorite is pueraria mirifica, which has helped relieve perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms in 80 percent of her patients within days. (Because the method of harvesting and processing supports effectiveness, Northrup likes Solgar brand PhytoGen.) She also uses maca, from Peru, for its phytoestrogens, vitex, black cohosh and omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in salmon for ongoing hot flashes.
“Some women go through these years and truly take their place as women of wisdom and power. They don’t need any additional hormone support; they have enough life energy coming,” comments Northrup. “Others may need to take some kind of hormone support their entire lives. Either way, no one should suffer.”
Kathleen Barnes is a natural health advocate, author and publisher. User’s Guide to Natural Hormone Replacement is among her many books. Visit KathleenBarnes.com.
How to Access Bioidentical Hormones
Bioidentical hormone replacement requires a prescription hormone blend prepared specifically for each individual by a compounding pharmacy. It may include the three primary aspects of natural estrogen: estradiol, estrone and estriol, and will usually include progesterone and testosterone, if needed.
“An almost limitless flexibility of doses is available in capsule or cream form,” says Steve Metcalf, a registered pharmacist and owner of Metcalf Pharmacy, a compounding pharmacy in Brevard, North Carolina. “Unlike conventional hormone replacement therapy, where the mentality of the pharmaceutical companies is ‘one size fits all,’ we can make the specific strength you need.”
To find a local compounding pharmacy, visit the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists website, iacprx.org.