They're essential for life, tiny chemical messengers that create physiological effects. But if they become unbalanced, hormones can wreak havoc on moods, cause weight gain, and make you feel like your brain is on vacation. Of approximately 50 different hormones in the human body, three are especially crucial for women:
- Estrogen, the most important hormone for women, spikes at puberty and is primarily responsible for sexual development and reproduction. Too little estrogen, and your periods may cease; too much, and cramping, and heavy menstrual flow occurs. Left unchecked, excess estrogen can result in fibroids and increased risk of cancer. Too little estrogen is associated with cardiovascular disease and low bone mineral density.
- Progesterone, the second main hormone for women, keeps estrogen in check. Progesterone production amps up during the second half of the menstrual cycle to encourage pregnancy. Progesterone levels naturally begin to decline when you reach your 40s, which can result in anxiety, insomnia, and memory problems.
- Testosterone, often considered a "male" hormone, is made by women too. Levels rise and fall throughout the monthly cycle, tending to peak in the middle. Excess testosterone, especially around menopause, is associated with insulin resistance and belly fat.
In balance, these hormones make your body run like a well-oiled machine. Out of balance, they make you feel like you're in the seventh ring of hell. The good news is that there are safe, natural ways to treat hormone issues.
1. Depression, irritability, mood swings. "Hormone imbalances cause shifts in mood through the effects of progesterone and estrogen in the nervous system, and the effects on blood calcium levels," says Laurie Heap, MD, a physician specializing in hormone balancing (RUhealthyRUhappyMD.com). Estrogen causes the release of brain chemicals that make us awake and alert. But estrogen can cause over-stimulation if it's not balanced by progesterone.
What works: Try vitamin B6 and calcium citrate. "Starting B6 supplements after ovulation helps stabilize brain cells, and calcium citrate counters the dip in blood calcium levels that occurs leading up to a woman's period," says Heap. Maintaining a healthy diet-avoiding refined starches and sugar, eating enough protein and healthy fats-is key. For tough cases, calming herbs such as valerian, passionflower, and catnip can help.
2. Insomnia. Like mood swings, hormone-related insomnia is caused by a estrogen/progesterone imbalance. Hormone-related insomnia is most common during menopause and perimenopause, when the ovaries slow production of estrogen and progesterone. During menopause, hot flashes or night sweats can disturb sleep. The body's production of the hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep, decreases as we age, as well.
What works: If you have trouble sleeping just before your period, calcium supplements may help. If your sleeplessness is associated with hot flashes or night sweats, try black cohosh. Supplemental melatonin can also help; sublingual forms are best absorbed.
3. Bloating and water retention. “Bloating is due to the effects of estrogen and progesterone on the kidneys," says Heap. "An imbalance tells the kidneys to keep more water, which expands plasma volume and increases water weight gain." This is most common during pregnancy, when plasma volume expands dramatically, but it can also happen just before your period.
What works: Reduce the amount of salt in your diet the week before your period. Also avoid excess sugars and refined carbs, since they can raise blood sugar and encourage sodium retention. DePuff from Canfo Natural Products can also help.
4. Irregular or painful periods. Irregular cycles may be caused by insulin resistance, which prompts testosterone production by the ovaries that can disrupt menstruation, says Heap. Pain and cramping during periods is caused by prostaglandins-substances that stimulate uterine contractions-and is exacerbated by inflammation.
What works: "A low-glycemic index diet reduces the need for insulin to maintain normal blood sugar and decreases the effect on the ovaries," says Heap. Omega-3 fats mitigate the effects of inflammatory prostaglandins. And evening primrose oil and borage oil are rich in GLA, which interferes with inflammatory prostaglandin production.
5. Acne. Androgenic hormones, such as testosterone, tell the glands to produce sebum, the oil that lubricates skin. Excess testosterone can lead to overproduction of sebum, which can clog pores.
What works: A low-glycemic index diet, milk thistle, and chasteberry may help.
6. Weight gain, especially around the middle, is common during menopause. And chronic stress increases cortisol levels, which can also impact hormone balance, says Heap. Cortisol inactivates thyroid hormone, which can further exacerbate weight gain.
What works: Avoid stress, exercise more, and follow a low-glycemic diet.
7. Low libido. Testosterone helps fuel desire. Around ovulation, testosterone levels often surge, part of an evolutionary mechanism to spur baby making. But as we age, these surges occur less frequently.
What works: Black cohosh, damiana, and ginseng may help spur desire. Maca root may also help by enhancing mood and increasing testosterone levels.
Are You Getting Too Much Calcium?
There is no question that calcium is absolutely vital to strong bones and the prevention of osteoporosis. However, it is a dangerous combination to have large doses of calcium coupled with a deficiency of magnesium. The fact is, as a society, we are getting too much calcium and not nearly enough magnesium. The result: calcium deposits, muscle spasms, kidney stones, fatigue, and even hardening of the arteries. Without magnesium, calcium is not properly dissolved and absorbed. The whole foods Paleolithic (Stone Age) diet provided a 1:1 calcium to magnesium ratio. Today, that can be as high as 15:1, with the average person getting 10 times more calcium in the diet than magnesium.
"Both our current diet and tendency to over-supplement with calcium makes getting enough magnesium almost impossible," explains Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of The Magnesium Miracle. Dr. Dean says large doses of calcium are especially harmful to women after menopause because it can lead to soft tissue calcification (especially in the arteries) and can have serious side effects, such as hardening of the arteries. There is some speculation that too much calcium and not enough magnesium could be a cause of heart disease among menopausal women. More research is needed to confirm this effect.
It's best to not take calcium without also taking the same amount of magnesium (for example, 500 mg each of calcium and magnesium).
Good food sources of magnesium include roasted pumpkin seeds, almonds, firm tofu, baked halibut, cooked oatmeal, and shrimp. Examples of calcium-rich foods are plain, low-fat yogurt, cheddar cheese, non-fat milk, oysters, spinach, firm tofu, bok choy, almonds, and scallops.
Get more calcium information online: Calcium and magnesium can interact with or be depleted by certain drugs. -Karolyn A. Gazella
Garden of LifeVitamin Code RAW B-Complex features the full range of B vitamins from whole foods. The vegan formula also includes a probiotic and enzyme blend.
Nordic Naturals Omega Woman blends the high-potency omega-6 fatty acid GLA from evening primrose oil with hormone-balancing EPA and DHA from fish oil.
NOW FoodsHerbal Pause boasts a patented blend of three herbal extracts (EstroG-100) shown to ease symptoms of perimenopause and menopause.
SolgarLiquid Calcium Magnesium Citrate with Vitamin D3 provides an ideal balance of these key nutrients in a tasty Natural Blueberry Flavor and easy-to-absorb liquid form.
Lisa Turner is a certified food psychology coach, nutritional healer, intuitive eating consultant, and author. She has written five books on food and nutrition and developed the Inspired Eats iPhone app, which you can buy at iTunes-it features hundreds of delicious quick-and-easy recipes. Visit her online at inspiredeating.com.