Haywire Hormones

If you are a woman or know a woman, this post is for you. Did you know some people think PMS didn’t used to exist, but is a product of our modern lifestyle? Everyone has heard of menopause, but what about perimenopause? (Yeah, I hadn’t. And my spell-check doesn’t recognize that word.) Hormone imbalance, what is that? Well it could be the reason you are tired, cranky and can’t lose any weight. It can be the reason for insomnia, infertility and thyroid issues.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time, because hormone imbalance has been part of my life for the past few years. It has been an incredibly frustrating part of my journey, but I’m starting to make some progress, and I hope I can help others by sharing my story. It’s also been a big reason for improving my health in recent months. I suspect I could write a whole series of posts about what I am learning, but I will start with my story. And, since menstrual cycles are part of this story, I apologize if that’s a little too much information. Trust me, I’m feeling just as weird writing about it. On the internet, no less. If you’re a guy reading this, know that you might help your wife/girlfriend/mom/daughter by understanding hormones, too. (My husband was the first to recognize that some of my issues were cyclical.) And, men can have hormone imbalance, too. Since I’m not a guy, you’ll have to look into that yourself.  And, I’m not to menopause yet, so for those of you in that stage of life, I’m not going to be as much help, but you might still learn a few things.

You could have completely different symptoms than I have had, as everyone is different. You may relate to nothing or everything I say, but here’s my story. In my late 20s and early 30s, I had three babies in four years, which is an obvious hormone roller coaster, full of all day morning sickness and those post-baby blues. I used birth control pills at various times before and after those pregnancies, except for a few months where I didn’t, and that would be part of why we had babies so close together. I wouldn’t change a thing about my precious babes or how close they are, but growing those babies takes a toll on a mama’s body. I gave up the pill about three years ago, and that’s when the period problems became evident.

It started out just a little off. I’d have spotting for a couple days, a couple days of nothing and then a regular period. It was all very regular, the cycle happening every 28 days. My doctor wasn’t concerned. By last fall, when things were at the worst, I was having two weeks of spotting, then a week of a “normal” period, maybe a week off and the cycle would start again. Periods are annoying all the time, but ones that last for three weeks? No thanks! But even more annoying than the physical stuff were some of the other issues that came along during the spotting weeks, including PMS (bloating, irritability, etc.), anxiety and trouble sleeping. My doctor was more concerned with all of these lovely symptoms, and I got some blood work and had an ultrasound last December to check things out. My blood levels came back normal for thyroid function and I wasn’t anemic. Everything was normal in my ultrasound, also. No cysts, fibroids or other structural issues. I tried a hormone pill that was supposed to re-set my cycle. Rounds 1 and 2 of that showed zero change.

In the mean time, I started doing research (see resources listed at the bottom of this post) and came across the book The Hormone Cure: Reclaim Balance, Sleep, Sex Drive & Vitality Naturally, by Sara Gottfried, M.D. It is a very in-depth book describing the science of hormones and why they get out of whack. She uses her medical knowledge to explain how our hormones are supposed to work and why common treatments prescribed to women, such as birth control pills and anti-depressants, can make hormone imbalance worse. She also gives remedies, including diet change and herbal treatments, for a more natural way to re-set your hormones when they get off balance.

This was music to my ears, because all of the lifestyle modifications she suggests are things I already *know* are part of a healthy life, they are just things I often forget to put into practice. When we eat nourishing foods, get regular exercise, manage stress levels, have positive relationships and work on our emotional health, our hormones will start to shift back to the normal range. Often, especially as women and busy moms, we just expect that being tired, cranky, forgetful and stressed is part of the job description. Who has time to achieve complete emotional health, and what is balance anyway? Am I right? I’m tired of living that way, and I suspect you might be, too.

Here’s Cori’s basic hormone guide, without a lot of technical information.

First of all, what hormones am I talking about? The main ones discussed in The Hormone Cure are cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, androgens and thyroid hormones. We all have them, and they all interact. You can be off in one or multiple areas. The book has a questionnaire with symptoms to help you figure out which hormones might be off for you and corresponding chapters to help you get better. She recommends starting with simple lifestyle changes and seeing a doctor for testing or further treatment only if improvements are not seen. The basic lifestyle changes are similar for all, so you can start there if you feel a little — or a lot — off.

Photo by Morton Fox

Photo by Morton Fox

Why do they get off balance?

  • Lifestyle: Stress, stress and more stress. It’s a huge factor in our health. Also, our diets that have too much sugar, refined flour and processed foods and not enough protein, good fats, fruits and vegetables. Sometimes vitamin and mineral deficiencies are to blame. Extreme dieting and calorie restriction can put stress on your body. Emotional stress, also, triggers an avalanche of hormone problems. Did I mention stress?
  • Environment: The biggest culprits are pesticides on our produce and chemicals used in food, food packaging and toiletries & cosmetics. They can mimic estrogen, throwing our natural hormones out of balance.
  • Age: As we age, our bodies change hormone production, especially estrogen and progesterone. Menopause is when you have stopped menstruating for 12 months. Perimenopause is the time leading up to that, and can last for 10 or 15 years and have worse symptoms than menopause. Both have hormone fluctuations that can cause havoc in your body. Some women fly through with little notice, others have more problems.

What are some lifestyle solutions  you can use?

  • Food — focus on nutrient dense foods that nourish your body including lean protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables. Limit alcohol, processed foods, sugar and white flour. Eat organic, if you can. Many recommend a Paleo diet.
  • Moderate exercise — Just walking is good. Running and over-training can increase your coristol (stress hormone) levels.
  • Meditating and Breathing exercises — Things like yoga, meditating on scripture and deep breathing techniques.
  • Supportive relationships — Work on your relationship with your spouse or significant other and spend time with friends. It’s important!
  • Emotional health — Expressing your emotions in a good way (not lashing out, but also not stuffing them inside), forgiveness, being thankful and helping others all contribute to our emotional well being.
Photo by sjrankin.

Photo by sjrankin.

What am I doing? For me, I suspect I have high cortisol and high estrogen and/or low progesterone, which all have similar symptoms. I might have thought I was just losing my ind had the mental/emotional issues not been so closely tied to my physical issues of irregular periods. I’m at the prime age for starting perimenopause (mid 30s), I ate horribly for years, and I am a natural for stressing out about things. My symptoms are very cyclical, I even had gallbladder issues after my first pregnancy, and that was cyclical, too. (Gallstone attacks happened every four weeks.) Here are some steps I’ve taken:

  • Just starting to recognize that I had anxiety and insomnia in correlation with my wacky menstrual cycle was helpful. I could manage the anxiety better, and keep it from spiraling out of control, when I could just tell myself, “It’s that time of the month.” I discovered that reading in the middle of the night helped me fall asleep better, so I bought a book light and read when I can’t sleep.
  • I started taking a quality, food-based vitamin supplement with herbal hormone support for women. These are huge, stinky, nasty tasting vitamins, but I’ve noticed improvement since taking them.
  • I experimented with no sugar and no wheat months with my eating, and I eat way, way less sugar than I used to. I’m also going to try the Paleo diet for the month of October, which is both exciting and terrifying. (I’ll be writing about it here, so watch for more details. Want to join me? 🙂 )
  • I quit running. How ironic would it be if running, the thing that got me more interested in a healthy lifestyle, was contributing to my high cortisol levels. I haven’t done any running since the Warrior Dash at the beginning of this month, and I didn’t do a ton in the weeks leading up to that race. I have felt much calmer and clear-headed lately, and my anxiety issues hit last week, but with much less force (maybe because I was on a relaxing vacation.) When I’ve done the Couch to 5K training plan, I only saw weight loss in the early weeks that had more interval training, and not when I got into running longer distances. (It’s the long-duration aerobic exercise that can trigger cortisol levels to rise.)

Whew. That’s a lot of information, and I didn’t even begin to cover all that I could. The more I read about this, the more intrigued I am. And the more I see changes in myself, the more excited I get about making more changes. I just have been feeling so much better. I hope if you relate to any of this at all, that you’ll consider reading more about hormone issues, too.

Resources for you:

Below are several websites I have used to research about hormone issues and general health and wellness. They are all geared toward women. I am not receiving any compensation for recommending these sites, they are simply the ones I’ve found most helpful. They are also all selling courses and supplements. I have not purchased anything from these sites, I have only used the free resources and cannot endorse any of their programs or products, because I have not tried them. You can learn a lot just by reading the free information.

Lisa Grace Byrne’s Well Grounded Life

  • Lisa is running a Clear Up the Hormone Confusion free webinar tomorrow, Sept. 26. I’m planning to listen in. You can learn more here.
  • She has a free guide for dealing with PMS, found here.

Women to Women

  • This site has endless articles on women’s health. This list of symptoms might be the best place to start.
  • You can also take a free profile “quiz” that asks about your symptoms. Even if you don’t have these symptoms now, it can give you an idea of red flags to keep in mind for the future.

I mentioned I read the book The Hormone Cure by Dr. Sara Gottfried. The book website is here. Her website with more articles is here.

One of the first things I read about hormone imbalance was this post at Keeper of the Home. I’ve read very mixed reviews about the hormone cream she recommends (lots of anecdotal positive reviews that are not backed up by research), but she gives a great introduction to hormone imbalance. I have not tried any hormone cream, as I’m hoping other lifestyle changes can do the trick.

How about you? Would you like to know more about this? Have you had similar experiences?

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  1. Pingback: Eating Paleo for 31 Days | The Journey

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