The signs of hormonal imbalance are hard to ignore. Weight gain, thinning hair and hair loss, headaches, acne, depression, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia and a loss of libido could all be signs that your hormones are out of balance.
For women, hormonal imbalance can also manifest as acne, hard-to-lose weight, mood swings, PMS and poor memory. For men, it often corresponds with a loss of muscle mass, development of man boobs and curvy hips, crying more than usual, being grumpy all the time, angry outbursts and difficulty recovering from exercise. Men and women who have imbalanced hormones are at an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, dementia and several forms of cancer.
One thing you should know about hormones is that they never break in isolation.
That means that hormonal imbalances themselves are actually symptomatic of problems in other body systems. Hormones are like the tip of the iceberg: they may produce the most problematic symptoms, but the real problems are beneath the surface.
Often, the problems are in the gut. Remember, the gut is the root of all disease. Poor gut health is a leading contributor of hormonal imbalance and by healing our gut this vital balance can be restored.
How Does The Gut Affect Hormones?
The gut exerts a powerful influence over our hormones through two primary methods: the actions of the estrobolome in the microbiome and the inflammatory pathway that is induced by dysbiosis and resulting leaky gut.
Estrobolome is a new term that has been coined to describe the interactions between certain bacterial species in the gut microbiome and estrogen. Here’s how it works: Estrogen is produced in the ovaries or testes, as well as the adrenals and adipose tissue. After it has been circulated through the body and used by tissue in the breasts, brain, bones, etc. it is filtered by the liver where it is broken down and deactivated. At last, it is deposited in bile and moves on to the gut to be eliminated from the body.
This is where the estrobolome comes into play. Specific bacteria within the gut create beta-glucuronidase, commonly expressed as β-glucuronidase. Β-glucuronidase breaks down deactivated estrogen into its active form. This active form is now reabsorbed into the bloodstream instead of being eliminated from the body. If our microbiome is robust and diverse, the estrobolome will allow just the right amount of estrogen to recirculate to keep us in balance… but if it’s not, we’re bound to have problems. This means that depending on the diversity and amount of bacteria in our gut, we could have low β-glucuronidase (resulting in insufficient recirculation of estrogen and an estrogen deficit in the body) or high β-glucuronidase (causing an excess of estrogen to be recirculated and contributing to estrogen dominance).
Estrogen dominance is a dangerous hormonal imbalance that leads to a host of health problems. For women, it can mean PMS, cramps, fibroids, cysts, endometriosis, PCOS, infertility, weight gain and cancers of the breast and uterus. When men suffer from estrogen dominance, they experience fatigue, mood swings, low sex drive and erectile dysfunction, plus they’re more likely to develop prostate cancer.
On the other hand, low estrogen (as a result of lack of β-glucuronidase producing bacteria in the gut), puts women at risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, brain fog, dementia, osteoporosis and poor gut health.
Balance is key and if our microbiome is balanced we’ll have just the right amount of estrogen. Imbalances in the microbiome directly cause imbalances in estrogen… and indirectly suppress levels of progesterone and testosterone.
That’s because when we have fewer beneficial bacteria, we end up with a leaky gut which allows endotoxins (also known as lipopolysaccharides/LPS) to be released from the gut to the bloodstream.
Endotoxins are highly inflammatory. Untreated dysbiosis creates sustained bodywide inflammation and inflammation interferes with the production of progesterone and testosterone.
Women with LPS in their blood have inflammatory markers in their ovaries and a correspondingly low level of progesterone.
Testosterone is produced by the Leydig cells in the testes and they are highly sensitive to and easily destroyed by inflammation. When men are chronically inflamed, they cease producing Leydig cells altogether. Fewer and fewer Leydig cells means less and less testosterone.
Plus, inflammation activates an enzyme called aromatase. Aromatase converts testosterone to estrogen. This causes even further depletion of testosterone and also raises estrogen levels. (Men with high estrogen develop man boobs and round hips and tend to cry a lot more than they would normally.)
Researchers hypothesize that the microbiome modulates the hormone system in even more ways and are hard at work to uncover the explanations for fascinating correlations, like…
- Women with endometriosis have a specifc imbalance in their vaginal microbiomes: excess gram-negative bacteria and a lack of Lactobacillus species.
- A study has shown that when women consume ferments containing Lactobacillus species, the bacteria reached their breast tissue where it had a protective effect against breast cancer.
- Dysbiosis of the prostate gland and high estrogen are associated with prostate cancer.
- The microbiome sends messages to other organs to modulate hormone production.
I can’t wait to see what else scientists discover about the intricate connection between the microbiome and our hormones!
How Do Hormones Influence Gut Health?
Communication between hormones and the gut is a two-way street. While the microbiome influences hormone levels, levels of circulating hormones, in turn, impact the gut. Gut cells have special receptor sites to receive the messages from our hormones.
Estrogen and progesterone influence motility. Estrogen increases contractions in the intestinal wall, which speeds up transits time and can cause diarrhea. Progesterone relaxes the muscles of the digestive tract, slowing transit time and potentially causing constipation.
It’s high levels of progesterone that cause the trademark constipation and heartburn that pregnant women commonly experience. High levels of a certain kind of estrogen, called estradiol, can cause gallstones as it is processed by the liver and broken back down into cholesterol.
On the other hand, low estrogen can actually contribute to leaky gut. That’s because estrogen helps to keep the gut lining elastic and healthy.
Hormonal imbalances can cause a lot of trouble for the gut… and restoring the gut is the first step to balancing hormones. Before we can heal our guts, we have to understand where the problems are coming from in the first place.
A Gut Health Epidemic
If you are beginning to realize that gut problems are affecting your health more than you ever imagined, you can rest assured that you are not alone.
In what experts are describing as an epidemic of poor gut health, more and more people around the world are suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), leaky gut and pathogenic infections that take root in an unhealthy gut.
Why are gut health problems so common?
Balance in the microbiome can be broken down to a very simple explanation: when we have less beneficial bacteria, more and more pathogenic bacteria, as well as undesirable viruses, yeasts and parasites, proliferate in our gut.
The goal is not to completely wipe out any species, but to maintain a healthy balance. Keeping potentially harmful organisms in check is simply a matter of having enough protective species in the gut.
Unfortunately, that’s not an easy task. Day in and day out our microbiome is exposed to threats that destroy the microbes that maintain the healthy balance in the gut, threats like…
Antibiotics may wipe out pathogenic infections, but they also decimate our beneficial bacterial species. Just a single dose can destroy 90% of the microbiome! Unfortunately, the few species that survive are often not the ones that we want to have in excess. In the absence of competitors, these less desirable species proliferate and we are left with an imbalance that is not remedied without careful and targeted treatment.
Every day we are exposed to countless compounds that take a toll on our health: pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, heavy metals, toxic mold, plastics, chlorine, etc., etc., etc. These toxic materials fuel inflammation and demolish our microbiome.
The foods we eat have a strong and lasting influence on our guts. Diets that are low in fibre and resistant starch lead to decreased microbial diversity. Dairy, gluten and sugar cause inflammation and impair digestion.
Have you ever used alcohol to clean a wound? It effectively kills any bacteria thus preventing infections. Unfortunately, it has the same effect on the microbiome. Even moderate consumption can cause dysbiosis, leaky gut and inflammation.
When we’re under stress, our bodies shut down digestion to divert energy to the survival of an immediate threat. Unfortunately, many people are chronically stressed and their nervous systems are permanently stuck in this fight-or-flight mode. This causes indigestion, constipation and dysbiosis.
It’s important to know that the birth control pill damages the gut just as badly as antibiotics. It also makes women more susceptible to Candida overgrowth and SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). Although some doctors recommend the pill to alleviate hormonal imbalances, it actually only exacerbates and perpetuates the problem.
Heal Your Gut For Hormonal Balance
Getting your hormones back on track starts with a healthy gut. Follow these steps to restore balance:
1) Remove inflammatory triggers from your diet. The foods that cause inflammation for most people are sugar, dairy, gluten, corn, soy and peanuts, but, everyone is different. You can use an elimination diet to see which other foods are contributing to your problems.
2) Heal leaky gut. While avoiding inflammatory foods, use supplements to restore the integrity of your digestive tract. L-glutamine is a popular option. It helps to repair and strengthen the cells of the intestinal wall. Other good choices are slippery elm, deglycyrrhizinated licorice and marshmallow root, all of which help to restore the mucus barrier that protects the walls of the digestive tract.
3) Heal inflammation. Avoiding inflammatory foods will stop the cascading effect of inflammation but it won’t undo the damage that has already been done. To calm your immune system, use antiinflammatory herbs and foods to soothe and heal the effects of chronic inflammation.
4) Treat underlying infections and toxicities. Infections like Epstein-Barr, Candida, parasites and Lyme cause chronic stress and inflammation. The same is true of the numerous unavoidable toxins that we encounter on a daily basis. In either case, the key to a safe and successful detox is to start by opening your drainage pathways.
5) Repopulate your microbiome. Enjoy a wide variety of fermented foods and/or supplement probiotics to restore the lost beneficial species in your gut.
6) Correct your diet. Enjoy a high-fibre, nutrient-dense diet that emphasizes a diversity of plant foods. Boost your nutrient intake without breaking the bank with homegrown sprouts. Be sure you’re getting enough essential fatty acids and eat lots of antioxidant-rich foods.
7) Destress. Nothing else you do for your health will work if you are chronically stressed out. Stress is often unavoidable, but we still have a lot of power over how we choose to react to it. Practice mindfulness techniques and use adaptogenic herbs to enhance your stress-coping powers.
8) Take the test. Many of the contributing factors of poor gut health have overlapping symptoms. If you’re not sure what you should treat, take advantage of diagnostic testing to find out exactly which protocols will benefit you most.
Many people who suffer from imbalanced hormones are tempted to use medications to treat their symptoms. Unfortunately, this only makes matters worse in the long run.
On the other hand, treating the root of the problem by healing your gut will improve every aspect of your physical and mental health, protect you from developing serious chronic disease and restore balance to your hormones. What could be better?
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