Hormonal Stress: A Symptom of a Life Out of Balance
Our bodies are healthy and vibrant when all of our hormones are in balance. If just one hormone is off, it can cause stress on the body and affect all the other hormones. It’s important to remember that hormonal imbalance is your body’s way of trying to correct something or communicate to you that something is amiss.
Let’s take a look at the main hormones:
Pregnenolone: Sometimes called “the mother of all hormones,” pregnenolone is made primarily in the adrenal glands, from cholesterol. It’s the precursor for all the sex hormones: testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, and cortisol. Low levels of pregnenolone are common in people with hypothyroidism and adrenal burnout.
Estrogen: is produced from cholesterol, primarily by developing follicles in the ovaries, the corpus luteum, and the placenta. A small percentage is produced in the liver, adrenal glands, fat cells, and breasts. In men, estrogen is produced in the adrenal glands and testes. There are three types of estrogen: estrone (E1), estradiol (E2), and estriol (E3). The estrogens have many functions and are important for tissue growth, sex drive, and healthy bones and, when balanced, may protect from heart disease. Too much estrogen can lead to low thyroid function in two ways: it can inhibit the conversion of thyroid hormones T4 to T3, and it can bind to thyroid proteins, blocking thyroid hormone from its own receptors.
Progesterone: is primarily produced from pregnenolone in the ovaries in the second half of a woman’s cycle, but small amounts are produced in the adrenal glands. Men produce small amounts of progesterone in the adrenals and testes. Progesterone is the hormone that supports a healthy pregnancy. Progesterone can enhance thyroid hormone function, but if your thyroid hormones are out of balance, it can lower your progesterone levels.
Testosterone: is a male hormone, but both men and women have it. Testosterone is produced by the ovaries or testicles, and adrenal glands. Like estrogen, it plays a crucial role in the growth, maintenance, and repair of reproductive tissues.
DHEA: is produced in the adrenal glands and is responsible for proper immune function, fat burning, muscle building, tissue repair, proper liver function, and energy production. DHEA will also convert into other sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone.
Cortisol: is produced in the adrenal glands and affects every organ and tissue in the body. Cortisol has thousands of effects on the body, but its primary role is to control inflammation, help the body respond to stress, and maintain glucose levels in the blood for energy.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH): is secreted by the pituitary gland, which causes the liver to produce another hormone called IGF-1. IGF-1 affects almost every cell in the body. It’s often called “the hormone of youth,” because it’s responsible for rejuvenating the skin and bones and regenerating the tissues of the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. At optimal levels, it helps build muscle mass and burn fat. It enhances sexual performance and produces increased energy levels. It lowers blood pressure and improves cholesterol profiles. It encourages hair growth, removes wrinkles, eliminates cellulite, and improves memory, mood, and sleep. Thyroid hormones regulate the release and synthesis of HGH, and many people with low thyroid levels have low IGF-1. Chronic illness, stress, hypothyroidism, liver toxicity, and aging all slow the production of IGF-1, which results in accelerated aging.
When our hormones are in balance we feel good and look good – regardless of our age. Unfortunately, the stresses of modern life, poor nutrition, lack of movement, and exposure to toxins can wreak havoc on our hormones resulting in premature aging and chronic illness.
Check out three examples of how our hormones can get out whack:
- Chronic stress causes elevated stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin, which can cause adrenal fatigue and affect all of our other hormones.
- Over consumption of sugar, alcohol and carbs leads to blood sugar imbalances, dysglycemia and insulin resistance.
- Birth control pills, hormone replacement, and exposure to xenoestrogens require the body to contend with hormonal
signals introduced from outside sources.
As if these first two factors weren’t confusing enough for the body’s hormone production, even more of the natural balance can be lost when the third comes into play. While some stressors prod the body into producing more of its own hormones in unbalanced amounts, others simply enter the body and pretend to be those same hormones. This disrupts the endocrine cycle, because the body thinks its hormone-producing work is already done.
Exposure to Xenoestrogens and Endocrine Disrupting Compounds (EDCs)
EDCs are synthetic compounds that mimic our natural hormones when they are absorbed by the body. When these compounds mimic estrogen, they are called xenoestrogens. They can turn on, turn off, or even change normal hormonal signals. EDCs can dock in our body’s hormone receptors, thus blocking natural hormones. When this happens, there can be no hormone activity, or it may become altered or mutated, resulting in unnatural hormone expression. In some cases, it’s like having a key that fits in the lock but doesn’t unlock the door. In other cases, it fits and opens it, but then you can’t close and relock the door. Any system or bodily function controlled by hormones can also be affected, including the immune system.
Xenoestrogens and EDCs are everywhere—from lotions and sunblock to pesticides, plastics, and industrial and household chemicals. We find them in non-organic meat and dairy products as well. Cattle are injected with estrogen to create weight gain and increase milk production (more pounds and more milk = more profit). Exposure to xenoestrogens and EDCs has been directly linked with allergies, autoimmune conditions, and elevated antinuclear antibodies (ANA).40
I talk in greater detail about how to identify the most common EDCs in my article on Endocrine Disruptors.
Women and Autoimmunity: Elevated Estrogen and Inflammation
Many experts believe that estrogen-induced inflammation may be the reason why women account for 75 percent of all autoimmune cases.41 After all, we make our own natural estrogen, but then we’re exposed to much more in the environment. Excess levels of estrogen can cause inflammation in the body and push the immune system to make too many antibodies.42 Excess inflammation caused by estrogen is of particular concern for women under stress, in perimenopause and menopause, or those who have high exposures to xenoestrogens.
Particularly at risk are women on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), who take synthetic estrogens and progestins such as Premarin, Prempro, Provera, and birth control pills. These “therapies” have been linked with an increased risk of developing systemic and discoid lupus, scleroderma, and Raynaud’s disease, as well as certain cancers.43
Bad Estrogens and Impaired Liver Detoxification
The liver plays an important role in processing and metabolizing all of our hormones—not just the ones we make naturally, but also the ones we are exposed to through birth control pills, HRT, and xenoestrogens.
The liver works to clear our bodies of excess hormones and toxins using two pathways, known as Phase I and Phase II. We’ll talk more specifically about these pathways in Chapter 17: Restore Your Liver.
Once your body has used the estrogen it needs, it will break down or oxidize the excess into different estrogen metabolites during Phase I through an enzyme system called cytochrome P450, in order to convert the fat-soluble estrogens into more easily excreted water-soluble forms. These leftover metabolites have varying levels of estrogenic activity; some are weak and some are strong (and more troublesome).
The bottom line is that some estrogen metabolites are good, but others can be harmful if produced in excess or out of proper balance. Good estrogen metabolites like 2-hydroxyestrone don’t seem to increase inflammation or cancer risk, and may even protect us from the bad estrogen. One harmful estrogen metabolite is 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone, which causes inflammation and has been linked to breast cancer and lupus. In fact, one study found this bad estrogen to be 10 times higher in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus!44
How well your liver metabolizes estrogens depends on many factors. Your liver may have difficulty detoxifying due to stress, poor nutrition, or toxic exposures. It can also be affected by exposure to hormones originating outside your body (exogenous) such as birth control pills, synthetic hormone replacement therapy, and substances that your body mistakes for estrogens (xenoestrogens.)
In the future, health care will likely focus more on reducing disease by improving genetic expression through diet, lifestyle, and supplementation. For instance, soy isoflavones, flax lignans, exercise, fish oil, and the phytonutrients in cruciferous vegetables all stimulate the genetic expression and metabolism of estrogen into a safer form the body can handle (2-hydroylated). On the other hand, alcohol and pesticides stimulate genetic expression to create the dangerous forms of estrogen (16-hydroxylated). Many people’s alcohol intake and pesticide exposure are contributing to the widespread incidence of estrogen-related cancers such as breast cancer.
Sure, some people are genetically predisposed to make more of the bad estrogens than the good ones, but as you have learned, genes are not your entire fate. By supporting your liver function you can improve your detox pathways and work around this predisposition.
Symptoms of Hormonal Stress in Women
• Thyroid conditions
• Irregular cycles or heavy bleeding
• Breast tenderness or fibrocystic breasts
• Fluid retention, swelling, or puffiness
• Hot flashes
• Loss of interest in sex
• Weight gain around the middle
• Migraines/headaches before period
• Mood swings—crying spells
• Polycystic ovarian syndrome
• Uterine fibroids
• Facial hair
• Poor memory
• Trouble sleeping
• Cramping at ovulation
• Acne around the time of your period
• Menopausal symptoms
Symptoms of Hormonal Stress in Men
• Thyroid conditions
• Low libido
• Lack of drive or sense of purpose
• Low sperm count
• Decreased muscle mass
• Losing hair in places other than your head
• Increased abdominal fat
• Bone loss
• High cholesterol
• Insulin and blood sugar imbalances
• Memory loss
• Frequent urination and prostate problems
List any of the above hormonal stress symptoms you have here. Do you have any symptoms that are not on the list?
Michelle Corey, C.N.W.C., FMC, is a Wellness Recovery Specialist, Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, researcher and author. Michelle studied holistic nutrition at Clayton College of Natural Health and completed a comprehensive 2-year practical program at Academy of Functional Medicine and Genomics. Since reversing her autoimmune condition, Michelle has helped hundreds of people reverse autoimmune and other chronic conditions. She is currently an advisor to the Academy of Functional Medicine and Genomics and the Functional Medical University. She is a member of the Institute of Functional Medicine and the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants. Michelle and offers Functional Mind-Body healing retreats, workshops and online courses.
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