Navigating Your Hormonal Network
When learning about hormones, many realise that the delicate interplay of a woman’s cyclical hormone balance is more complex than originally thought. This inevitably means understanding and resolving a hormone-based condition can be tricky, and finding the underlying causes may prove elusive without help.
Ranging anywhere from mildly uncomfortable to severely debilitating, many women experience some form of hormonal based symptoms across their lifetime. In fact, 50-80% of reproductive-aged women experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and 75% of women report mild to severe symptoms as they transition into menopause.
Balance is the Key
The simplest way to understand pretty much all female reproductive conditions is to begin with acknowledging that something has become unbalanced – but what does that actually mean, and should we be looking to the hormones themselves or not?
The hormones in our bodies are a key component of our overall health and wellbeing. If our hormones are out of balance then we are out of balance.
What Symptoms and Conditions Are We Talking About ?
Any woman can experience the odd irregular cycle, slightly more ‘crampy’ than normal period, or a minor mood fluctuation in the latter couple of weeks of her cycle – however, experiencing a regular problem and/or discomfort, though common, is most definitely not normal and therefore should be assessed by one of our team of health Practitioners so it can be resolved. Though female reproductive cycle issues can come in a range of shapes and sizes, some of the most common issues that we see clinically are listed below:
- PMS: symptoms of fluid retention, breast tenderness, anxiety, depression and food cravings occurring in the two weeks before menstruation.
- Dysmenorrhoea: painful menstruation.
- Menorrhagia: heavy menstruation.
- Oligo-/Amenorrhoea: irregular or absent menstruation.
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS): classified by the presence of cysts on the ovaries, elevated androgens and/or absence of ovulation.
- Fibroids: benign growths within the uterine wall, commonly resulting in dysmenorrhoea and menorrhagia.
- Endometriosis: tissue that normally lines the uterus grows elsewhere (outside the uterus), resulting in dysmenorrhoea, pain during other times in the month and potentially infertility.
- Adenomyosis: tissue that normally lines the uterus grows into the inner layers of the uterus, resulting in dysmenorrhoea, menorrhagia, and infertility.
Whether the picture is mild or severe, the appearance of any of the above leads to the next logical question – what is it that causes these conditions to arise?
Hormone Activity not just Levels
Up until recently, many female hormonal disorders were viewed through the simplified lens of there being either too much or too little of the two hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, therefore the strategy was to raise or lower their levels to ‘balance’ the cycle out again. For example, PMS and amenorrhoea were viewed as simply due to low progesterone; and dysmenorrhoea, endometriosis and fibroids caused by excess oestrogen production.
Nowadays we understand it’s more accurate to gauge hormonal status by assessing a hormones activity rather than just testing to see what the levels might be – especially as testing hormones, in many instances, doesn’t reflect what’s actually going on inside the body.
That’s because there’s more to this hormonal tale than just oestrogen and progesterone. You see, female hormonal health is also impacted by a whole troupe of other hormones and compounds. For example, thyroid hormone, insulin, androgens (e.g. testosterone) and cortisol all have the capacity to positively or negatively influence female reproductive health.
The Latest Science
Furthermore, the latest science now reveals female hormone activity is impacted by a number of additional processes, molecules and systems. For example:
- Inflammation: causes an increase in local tissue oestrogen production (meaning oestrogen produced in places other than in the ovaries), elevates androgens, increases insulin levels and causes decreased progesterone levels.
- Toxins, e.g. endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs): increase the oestrogenic load on the body, and are linked to abnormal puberty, irregular cycles, reduced fertility, PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids and early menopause.
- Mast cells: part of the immune system, these cells can be triggered by EDCs and oestrogen, releasing a flood of inflammatory cells and histamine in the pelvic cavity. Whilst traditionally associated with allergies, mast cells are a primary contributor to the marked inflammation and pain seen with endometriosis and adenomyosis.
- Gut dysbiosis: an imbalance of the normal, healthy microbial life residing within the gastrointestinal tract can reduce the efficiency of oestrogen detoxification and elimination, increasing the overall oestrogenic load. Dysbiosis has been linked with PCOS, endometriosis and fibroids. We now know that a healthy microbiome is also required to detoxify EDCs from the body.
- Brain changes: an increase in inflammation within the brain (caused by ongoing stress for example) alongside a reduction in neuroplasticity (the ability of brain structures to adapt well) is now known to play a role in PMS mood-based symptoms such as anxiety, irritability and depression.
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