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Many women feel that painful periods, irritability, bloating, breast swelling and tenderness are all a normal part of menstruation. Whilst these symptoms are extremely common among women, they are not normal. A healthy menstrual cycle should ideally be pain and symptom free. Unfortunately, in today’s society, hormonal imbalance and premenstrual tension are commonplace and more serious problems such as infertility and hormone related conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, uterine fibroids and cancers such as uterine, breast and cervical cancer are all on the increase.
Other typical symptoms associated with hormonal imbalance may include depression, teariness, anxiety, cravings, headaches, cold or flu like symptoms, skin outbreaks, low energy, digestive complaints (constipation or diarrhoea), hot flushes and insomnia. These symptoms typically occur 7 to 14 days prior to menstruation and for some women may be extremely debilitating.
Let’s explore some of the factors contributing to this epidemic of hormonal disorders.
• Poor diet & nutrition: increased incidence of pre-packaged foods, takeaways and cold storage of fresh foods means most are devoid of essential vitamins and minerals. In addition, there has been a significant increase in the level of fat consumption in our diet. The type of fat has also changed from relatively unsaturated vegetable fat to saturated animal fat, causing a significant shift in the hormones that promote or modulate inflammation in the body called prostaglandins. An excess of inflammatory prostaglandins causes painful periods, breast pain and even headaches.
• Pollution: we live in large cities with high amounts of air and water pollution. Unfortunately, our water supply is contaminated with a variety of harmful substances such as pesticides, fungicides, and heavy metals. These pesticides can attach to the hormonal receptors on our cells and provide an estrogenic effect contributing to the symptoms mentioned above.
• Toxicity: increased exposure to poisonous chemicals contained in cosmetics, cleaning products, deodorants, pesticides in the food supply, plastics, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, hair dyes, drugs (both recreational and pharmaceutical), anaesthetics, etc. As mentioned above chemicals such as pesticides are able to attach to our estrogen receptors and cause unfavourable effects. Every chemical we ingest or absorb through our skin must be detoxified by our liver. The more chemicals we consume the more stress we place on our liver. If our liver is stressed, our body’s ability to detoxify and remove chemicals is reduced. Hormone breakdown may be affected so that hormones such as aldosterone required for fluid balance accumulate and lead to sodium and water retention resulting in bloating. In addition, estrogen may not be broken down and excreted from the body leading to symptoms of estrogen dominance, including breast swelling and tenderness, pain, bloating, etc.
• Electromagnetic radiation in the form of x-rays, electricity and transmission towers, mobile phones, cordless phones, electronic appliances, microwaves and any form of wireless appliance may have negative effects on our immune system and consequently our ability to produce hormones.
• Genito-urinary infections, particularly gonorrhoea, chlamydia and pelvic inflammatory disease may lead to irreversible damage to the reproductive organs and consequently reduce our fertility.
• Stress and lifestyle habits (physical and emotional stresses, overwork, cigarettes, alcohol, excessive exercise or lack or exercise, etc.). Stress is a well-known hormonal disruptor. Exposure to stressful situations will induce the hypothalamic pituitary axis (HPA) located in the brain. The HPA sends messages to our thyroid, and ovaries to produce various hormones to keep our body in balance. An excess of stress may alter ovarian and thyroid function and result in imbalances in estrogen and progesterone levels which may manifest in premenstrual symptoms or altered menstrual cycles. In addition, stress also negatively impacts digestion and immune responses.
Having established some of the factors which may adversely affect our hormones, let us now explore what we can do improve our hormonal health and reduce some of the unfavourable symptoms associated with hormonal imbalances.
• Avoid toxin exposure: Where possible try to avoid exposure to chemicals and toxins by drinking filtered water; eating organic foods or washing all fruits and vegetables thoroughly to remove chemical residues; buying organic eggs free of antibiotics and pasture fed hormone free meat; using organic, sulphate free shampoos and natural cleaning products and cosmetics; avoiding excessive amounts of heavy metals: lead, cadmium (active/passive smoking), mercury (dental amalgams, fish, vaccines), aluminium (cookware, antiperspirants, antacids), copper (intra uterine devices, oral contraceptive pills), paints, glues, solvents, household cleaning products (especially bleach based products), insecticides, industrial products, hair dyes, perfumes; and minimising electromagnetic radiation exposure, including, microwaves ovens, wireless networks and broadband, cordless phones, transmitters, electric blankets, water beds, and clock radios.
• Avoid excessive amounts of saturated fats such as red meat, butter and dairy products as these are pro-inflammatory and aggravate hormonal imbalances and premenstrual symptoms. Remember grass or pasture fed meat is not only lower is pesticides but contains more omega 3 fats which are anti-inflammatory. Also avoid excessive amounts of refined carbohydrates such as sugar, white bread, cakes, biscuits, pasta and potatoes. Instead eat a balanced diet with an emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables (aim for 5 serves per day), nuts and seeds, healthy oils such as olive oil and coconut oil, deep sea fish, organic eggs and lean red meat and chicken. Also drink at least 2 litres of filtered or spring water per day.
• Reduce social toxins such as caffeine and alcohol. Not only do these substances place extra stress on our liver, they have also been shown to exacerbate hormonal imbalance and reduce fertility.
• Take a good multivitamin or mineral supplement. In particular, B vitamins are required for healthy energy and nervous system function, as well as to support our liver detoxification pathways. B6 taken in the week prior to menstruation may reduce premenstrual tension (PMT), bloating and breast tenderness. Magnesium is very beneficial for those suffering with headaches, period pain and PMT and is often deficient in our diets. Essential fatty acids such as evening primrose oil and fish oil are also often deficient in the Western diet and may reduce bloating, headaches, breast swelling and tenderness and improve mood.
• Detoxification programs: since many environmental toxins have been shown to have a direct effect on hormonal pathways and foetal development, a detoxification program may be useful excrete harmful chemicals and heavy metals from the body and improve liver function. This is of particular importance for those having difficulty conceiving or suffering from disorders such as fibroids and endometriosis. Detoxification programs are best conducted under the supervision of a naturopath or herbalist.
• Herbal medicines are extremely effective in alleviating premenstrual and menopausal symptoms, balancing hormones, improving uterine tone and enhancing fertility. Chaste Tree is a herbal remedy used to alleviate premenstrual symptoms and regulate periods. Black Cohosh is traditionally used to reduce hot flushes, night sweats and menopausal symptoms. Other herbs which may be effective in treating hormonal imbalances include Dong Quai, Shatavari, Wild Yam and Peony. Often a combination of herbs works best so it is best to consult a professional herbalist or naturopath for an individualised prescription.
• Stress Management Practices. With our increasingly hectic schedules it is becoming more and more difficult to find time to exercise and relax. Since stress has a direct effect on our hormones, it is essential that we find time to incorporate practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and “down time” into our schedules. This will not only improve our feel good chemical or “endorphins” but also increases our immune system function. Exercise is also extremely beneficial for our overall health. As well as increasing our endorphins, it also improves our bone density and cardiovascular function. Aim for 40 to 60 minutes of exercise 4 to 5 times per week.
Remember that balance and moderation are the keys to a healthy life. Finding the time to eat well, exercise, relax and avoid harmful toxins and chemicals is an essential prescription for healthy hormones and a healthy life.