Our hormone levels change throughout our lives and the unique blend of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone affect our mood, weight, food cravings, sex drive and overall wellbeing and quality of life. The balance of estrogen and progesterone seems to be key.
Pollutants, chemicals, diet and modern lifestyle seem to influence this balance and many women are believed to be estrogen dominant. There is a vast amount of popular opinion surrounding estrogen dominance and some medical research has been done but more is needed for a clearer picture of the condition. Women may experience swollen breasts, irritability, cramping, irregular periods, migraines, cysts, weight gain and infertility among other symptoms.
Estrogen dominance is thought to be caused by many different factors including fewer pregnancies and “xenoestrogens” present in foods, chemicals and pollutants. Xenoestrogens are estrogen-like products made outside the body that mimic estrogen when ingested, pushing up our levels while our progesterone levels stay the same or decline. Pesticides, petrochemicals, plastics, detergents, parabens in skincare products and canned foods are thought to contain xenoestrogens. Dr John Lee is one of the earlier researchers into estrogen dominance and notes “In cultures whose diets are rich in fresh vegetables of all sorts, progesterone deficiency does not exist. Likewise, it follows that a general American diet of highly processed and stale foods has a serious deficiency of progesterone while at the same time produces estrogen dominance.”
There are a number of things we can do to reduce estrogen dominance. Choose unprocessed and organic foods. Reduce caffeine and dietary fat but increase fibre; use glass or ceramic containers; wear natural fibres; choose your skincare products carefully to avoid parabens and other nasties; exercise regularly and manage stress. Use simple detergents for laundry and cleaning products and use natural pesticides and herbicides. Some foods can weakly act like estrogen in the body and block the xenoestrogens from having an effect, so are great additions to our diets. These include alfalfa, apples, carrots, cherries, chickpeas, garlic, oats, red clover and sunflower seeds.
Pre-menstrual Syndrome (PMS) is the symptoms women experience just before their period starts. Commonly it includes cramping, diarrhoea, breast tenderness, mood swings and anxiety. To reduce symptoms, reduce salt, sugar and caffeine intake while maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise. Vitamin B6 from supplements or beans, nuts, legumes and some breads and cereals may help as well as increasing zinc and magnesium levels. Zinc deficiency may show as poor sense of taste or smell, acne, white spots on nails, anorexia, diarrhoea and can be corrected with supplements or eating poultry, seafood, nuts and whole grains. Magnesium deficiency can be identified by muscle cramps or twitches, headaches and restlessness. Dietary sources include legumes, nuts, whole grains and veges.
Peri-menopause occurs through a woman’s late 30’s and 40’s. This can cause mood swings, sensitivity, hot flushes, night sweats and memory problems. At the same time, changes to pituitary, thyroid, adrenal and pancreatic hormones may lead to sugar cravings, anxiety and altered energy levels. As awful as all this sounds, dietary changes can reduce symptoms. Reduce intake of salt, sugar, white flour, caffeine and wine and replace them with low GI foods like whole grains, fruits and veges. Calcium is also important and increase omega-3 intake with oily fish, walnuts and eggs. Regular exercise and reducing stress or managing it effectively will also help.
Menopause is defined as 12 months or more without a menstrual period. The ovaries stop releasing eggs and levels of estrogen and progesterone drop in the body. Women may experience the symptoms of hot flushes, sweating, racing heart, mood swings, sleep problems, vaginal dryness and incontinence. 20% of women experience severe menopause symptoms that can go on for many years. In these cases, you can discuss with your doctor whether hormone replacement therapy may be of benefit to you. The medical recommendation now is that for healthy women suffering debilitating menopausal symptoms, the benefits of HRT significantly outweigh the risks in short term treatment. Herbal remedies may also help and red clover has been shown to relieve symptoms with little side effects. It can take a couple of months to have its best effect and should not be used in women with estrogen sensitive cancers.
Lifestyle changes may also offer relief. Reduce stress and practice relaxation techniques like meditation or a nice walk in the fresh air. Walking and other weight-bearing exercise is good for your bones too. Eat a healthy diet, high in calcium and fibre and keep your weight to a healthy range. Balance your blood sugar levels by eating small amounts often and include protein in each meal. Stop smoking and limit tea, coffee and alcohol. Try a lubricant if vaginal dryness is bothering you and ask for help if you are feeling emotionally distressed.
Our hormones are so complicated and affect all areas of our bodies. Your health professional of choice can order blood tests of hormone levels and help to determine what needs to be addressed.