There are lots of jokes and stereotypes addressing the many differences between men and women. While the health of both sexes is equally important, there is, perhaps, nothing more complex than addressing the full picture of a woman’s health. Men often find women confusing because of our plethora of emotions, but what many fail to realize is that these emotions are often driven by our hormones.
The Hormone Game
Men and women alike have been perplexed by female hormones since the dawn of time. While men definitely have hormones too, we women simply have a lot more of them, which means there’s plenty of room for things to go wrong. Since hormones are invisible, it isn’t always easy to pinpoint which one or how many are going off, and what’s the quickest way to get them back on track again.
As an example, there’s a reason that thyroid problems are more common in women versus men, in a ratio of 20:1. Because women have many more hormones required for the basic function of our reproductive systems, there are many more ways that they can become unbalanced.
Hormones work together like an orchestra, requiring one to play the correct note for the next one to play their piece well. When one or more hormones start producing more or less than expected, it can function as the equivalent of sending the entire orchestra out of tune. The cacophony that ensues is a good analogy for the same widespread chaos that breaks out in a woman’s body when hormones begin to fall out of balance or stop communicating with each other.
Women require very specific levels of hormones throughout their menstrual cycle to ensure that all functions as it should. Their rise and fall is often triggered by the rise or fall of another hormone(s), and when one fails to send the proper signal, the others react in confusion and a series of health problems can begin.
Primary female hormones include estrogen (of which there are three forms, E1, E2, and E3, with E2 being the primary form during reproductive years), progesterone, thyroid hormones (thyroxine and triiodothyronine), pituitary hormones (thyroid stimulating hormone and prolactin), adrenal hormones (cortisol, adrenaline), follicle stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, testosterone, and melatonin. Of course, there are more hormones at play here, but you get the gist that there are a lot and that they all function, to some degree, in dependence on each other.
Some hormones are produced to tell the body to produce other hormones, while some hormones are responsible for triggering specific responses. TSH, for example, is produced by the pituitary gland to tell the thyroid to produce more of its own hormones while follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) is produced early in a woman’s menstrual cycle to prepare an egg for ovulation, and then luteinizing hormone (LH) is produced to cause the egg to actually ovulate.
If there are even minute changes to the levels of hormones that are produced, many processes in a woman’s body can go awry. A woman can become hyper- or hypothyroid. She can stop ovulating or having a menstrual cycle altogether. She can experience weight gain, appetite changes, mood disorders, infertility, and even cancer due to hormone problems.
6 Things You Need To Know About Women’s Hormones and Health
Hormones are delicate. We tend not to think of our bodies when they’re working normally, as if everything works as a well-oiled machine, independent of our awareness. But hormones frequently get off balanced, and we often don’t notice until they’ve been out of whack for awhile. It is worthwhile to make note of changes to menstrual cycles, moods, or other physical symptoms, even if you don’t think they’re connected to anything. These can be important pieces of information for doctors who may eventually be trying to sort out your hormonal needs.
Hormones can be affected by the environment. The world around us has a stronger influence on our bodies than we think. Even if we have cleaned up our diets, there are many lifestyle factors that can have a huge impact on hormonal health. This is because chemicals in water, vehicles, homes, in plastic, cosmetics, and even on receipts can get into our blood stream and send confusing messages to our hormones. BPA, a well-known chemical that has many far-reaching hormonal effects, is found in many plastic bottles but is also found on receipts, something that many of us handle on a near-daily basis. We need to be aware of the sources to minimize our exposure.
Hormones are a big deal. But, perhaps you’re thinking, only the really whacky health nuts avoid things like receipts and BPA. Do you really need to go that far? Because there are numerous sources of toxins that we have little control over—a.k.a. the air we breathe, fumes from vehicles, and the water we drink—I believe that we do need to be vigilant about things that we can be in charge of. It may seem insignificant to avoid trace amounts of BPA found in receipts, but when you consider how that can add up over a lifetime, coupled with the fact that toxins have a cumulative effect in our systems, you’re actually sparing yourself from a megadose of hormonal toxins.
Hormones can be improved. Never quickly, and usually not without frustration and headache first, but hormones can be improved, primarily through diet and lifestyle. The Paleo diet is amazing for helping to rebalance hormones because it cuts out a lot of foods that can have detrimental affects on hormonal balance: refined grains, sugars, preservatives, artificial flavorings and colorings, trans fats, and nutrient-poor foods. By eating a diet rich in nutrients, many women can empower their bodies to reset their hormones on their own. In more extreme cases, hormone supplementation may be required for shorter or longer times, but even these can be found in bioidentical forms that mimic what our own body produces.
Hormones should never be ignored. If you’re feeling off or experiencing health symptoms that aren’t normal for you, it’s always a good idea to get your hormones checked. Make sure that you see a doctor who works with an integrative and holistic view of hormones or else you may be left without answers, feeling more confused than before. Ideally, hormones should be tested via saliva, as that presents a more accurate view of the bioavailable amount of hormone that you have. But some hormones, like those that the thyroid produces or pregnancy hormones, can be accurately tested via the blood. Whatever the case, if you’re struggling to lose weight, are having a hard time getting pregnant, have had miscarriages, are dealing with unpleasant skin conditions like acne or psoriasis, or have issues like thin hair, thin eyebrows, bumpy skin, and so much more, you’re likely dealing with a hormone problem.
Hormones react to stress. The body produces specific hormones when it is under stress, and these hormones in turn have an effect on other hormones, specifically those related to the thyroid and reproductive systems. If you’re dealing with hormone imbalance, a diet change and hormone therapy may not be enough to restore balance to your life. It’s important to look at underlying emotional or physical stresses that could be contributing to your hormone problems, and then to find positive ways to address them. Many find relief through counseling, participating in restorative exercise programs like yoga or Pilates, meditation, or prayer. Taking a holistic view of the body means understanding that all is connected, and that emotions, thoughts, and other physical stressors can have an impact on the body at large. Some experience this through digestive disturbance or sleep problems, but many women will feel the effects on their hormones. Because hormones aren’t readily visible, it can be easy to overlook their effects.
You Are Your Best Advocate
No matter how amazing your doctor is, it can be common for doctors to leave hormone issues undiagnosed for years since symptoms overlap with many, many other conditions. If you’re struggling with weight loss or any of the other issues discussed, or even if you just don’t feel like yourself, it’s very worth it to find a doctor who will take a deeper look at your hormones. Many women have found a greater quality of life by rebalancing their hormones when they didn’t know they were having issues in the first place. Most importantly, know that you’re not alone, and that hormone imbalance is relatively common in women. There are many ways to find support for lifestyle changes, and since addressing diet is a big one, you’re in a good place for that. PaleoPlan specializes in helping Paleo dieters make it practical for their lives—which definitely includes women who want to eat to support healthy hormones and weight balance.