A look at some of the causes of hormonal imbalance.
Somewhere in the middle of the brain is a control center called the limbic system, or old mammalian brain. Here, amongst a host of structures are two glands of the endocrine system: the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. These glands act as a hub for the body’s chemical messengers called hormones.
Hormones travel from one endocrine gland to the next to communicate messages from the brain that control a number of biological functions. For example, the hypothalamus tells the pituitary to produce thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which tells the thyroid to produce thyroid hormone, which feeds back to turn down the hypothalamus and pituitary. This is called a feedback loop. The pituitary produces a hormone that travels down to the gonads (ovary and testes) to tell them to produce estrogen or testosterone. The hypothalamus and pituitary tell the adrenals to produce cortisol, which is needed in times of an acute stressor, to increase blood pressure, glucose production and suppress the immune system. This whole structure is called the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Thyroid Gonadal Access, or HPATGA.
With age, both women and men undergo natural changes that interrupt this communication system and produce hormonal imbalances; but most of the time it’s external factors, like environment, diet, and lifestyle, that are to blame.
Symptoms that individuals experience vary greatly; among the more common symptoms are sleep disruptions, unexplained weight gain or loss, changes in mood, sex drive, and energy levels. When left unchecked these imbalances can contribute to more serious clinical conditions.
Causes of hormonal imbalances
Let’s start with the diet. First and foremost, the gut and its entire bacterial flora are intricately connected to our immune system. We know that 1% of the U.S. population has Celiac disease, a condition where the gluten in wheat barley and rye cause inflammation in the gut and destroys the natural barrier in the small intestine to large proteins and toxins. This has been associated with autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroid disease.
Similar issues are observed in people who are gluten intolerant, which by some estimates account for over 6% of the population. There has also been identified a non-gluten protein in wheat called ATI (amylase trypsin inhibitor) that has been associated with autoimmune disorders.
For example, in autoimmune thyroiditis, the thyroid gland is attacked and becomes inflamed. As a result, it can produce too much thyroid hormone (Graves’ disease), or stop producing thyroid hormone leading to hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s disease). A leaky, inflamed gut from gluten and other wheat proteins can be the cause or further aggregate these conditions.
What about lifestyle? A busy, high-stressed lifestyle can cause the overproduction of cortisol from the adrenal gland which can results in an increased risk of diabetes, inflammatory diseases like heart disease and cancer, disruption of sleep, and an increase in anxiety and fatigue. Since cortisol suppresses the immune system, those who are chronically stressed get sick more easily. Cortisol also suppresses estrogen and testosterone, and interferes with the conversion of T4 thyroid hormone to the more active T3, resulting in fatigue, weight gain, irregular menses, chronic pain, and depression.
How does the environment affect hormones? There are environmental toxins called endocrine disruptors that actually bind to hormone receptors and increase or decrease these hormones unnaturally.
Examples of endocrine disruptors include pesticides like DDT, plastics that contain phthalate and bisphenol A (BPA), and industrial chemicals like PCBs. There are also glyphosate-based weed killers (like Roundup®) that are used in agriculture and end up in our food. These herbicides damage DNA and act as an antibiotic killing off our good digestive bacteria and disrupt the proper functioning of the immune system.
How to support hormonal balance
1. Evaluate Diet and Medications. What we eat and the medicines we take make a difference. Food is code, meaning food turns genes on and off. If someone carries genes for Celiac disease, diabetes, or cancer, these genes can be turned on – or off – by specific types of food. Eat to minimize inflammation in the gut and promote the growth of highly diverse, good bacteria, which research shows is associated with good health.
There is evidence that over the past several decades, the newer wheat strains like dwarf wheat which are so loaded with gluten and other proteins, are causing more and more people to develop Celiac and non-Celiac gluten wheat intolerance, leading to leaky gut and autoimmune disorders. Anyone with an autoimmune thyroid condition, or other autoimmune, disorder should eliminate gluten.
In addition, the overuse of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals reduce the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Minimizing the use of medications, and eating fermented foods, probiotics, and dietary fiber that feeds our good bacteria, promotes good gut health and decreases the likelihood of autoimmune disorders.
2. Assess stress levels. Stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol. How can we lower cortisol levels and restore the natural cortisol pattern? We need to take the time to assess our stress levels. Are we working too many hours, sitting too long, staying up too late, worrying about yesterday and tomorrow, and coming up with excuses for not exercising and eating poorly? All of these practices increase cortisol which increases the risk of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, and affect our hormones. It is imperative that we slow down, prioritize, take time to move, eat well, sleep, seek help and support when needed, and get connected with the community and loved ones. Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, weight training and aerobics help tremendously with stress and lower cortisol. Research is now showing that sitting too long can be as bad as smoking!
3. Eliminate toxins. Environmental toxins are tougher to deal with, but minimizing the toxins we are exposed to, and eating foods that naturally detoxify like deeply colored and cruciferous vegetables, foods with omega 3 fatty acids (i.e. fish oil or other sources), and supplementing with magnesium, vitamins B and C, are just a few ways to support the liver’s detoxification process.
Every year since 2004 the Environmental Working Group assesses the sampling of pesticides in our food source from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration, and makes a recommendation as to which fruits and vegetables should be consumed as organic and which are safe as non-organic (EWG Guide to Pesticides in Produce). As previously mentioned, herbicides like Roundup® are showing up in wheat, corn, soybeans and a host of other foods. Shopping wisely for foods like grass-fed beef (not grain-fed), free-range chicken and eggs (organic may not be enough), wild-caught fish (rather than farm-raised), dairy products without hormones, and buying organic produce from the list put out by EWG, are ways to minimize your exposure to toxins.
Household cleaners, personal care products, and plastic bottles can also have endocrine-disrupting chemicals, so using glass instead of plastic, and minimizing exposures to these chemicals is recommended.
As we age, there is a natural decline of our gonadal hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) and in some cases replacement hormones are beneficial. There are ways that we can minimize the risk associated with hormone replacement by using bio-identical hormones, which are closest to natural hormones, and by supporting the metabolic process with diet to reduce any harmful metabolites of hormones that could increase risk of disease.
To support you in your journey to good hormonal health, I recommend hormonal testing, functional digestive testing when indicated (stool, urine, and breath tests), a dietary consultation to plan a healthy low-inflammation diet, meditation, yoga, a regular exercise plan, adequate sleep, and a look at any potential toxic exposures that could disrupt your hormones, the Great Communicators!
1 Consumption of wheat amylase trypsin inhibitors enhances autoimmune encephalitis in mice. Oral presentation, 16th International Celiac Disease Symposium, 2015, Zevallos
2 Akil Palanisamy, MD, The Paleovedic Diet