Hormonal Harmony Pt. 3 – Androgens and Thyroid
In today’s blog post, we’ll cover the last two common hormone imbalances: high androgens and low thyroid. If you missed the first two blog posts in these series, you can check out the first one about cortisol imbalance here and the second one about female sex hormone imbalances here!
In this blog I’ll first take you through an overview of androgens, symptoms of high androgen levels, and a high androgen balancing protocol, then we’ll talk all-things low thyroid including a protocol to help balance out thyroid levels.
Let’s get to it!
Androgens (testosterone, DHEA, androstenedione, and DHT) are a group of sex hormones that first have an effect on us at just 6 weeks after conception, when an embryo either develops male or female genitalia.
As adults, androgens play a major role in our liveliness, libido, mood, and self-confidence. Having high androgen levels happens to be the most common hormone problem of women of child-bearing age!
Testosterone specifically is an important androgen to know about. It’s important for strong muscles and bones, immune function, and libido. Similar to cortisol, there is a “goldilocks zone” with testosterone.
If your testosterone levels are too low, you most likely deal with fatigue, low libido, and difficulty putting on muscle in the gym. If it’s too high, you might experience acne, facial hair, PCOS (which I elaborate on below), insulin resistance, thinning hair or balding, and weight gain. If your testosterone levels are extremely high, changes to voice and facial hair can occur as well.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
As mentioned above, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a very common condition where sex hormones become imbalanced for reasons that are not quite fully understood.
What we do know about PCOS is that up to 20% of women struggle with it and approximately 82% of women with high androgens have PCOS. PCOS is diagnosed based on having two out of the three following symptoms: high androgen levels, ovarian cysts, and/or lack of ovulation.
So not all women with excess androgens have PCOS and not all women with PCOS have high androgens.
Aside from high androgen levels, you’re at higher risk to develop PCOS if you live a sedentary lifestyle and/or you have a family history of PCOS (i.e., if your mom or sister has been diagnosed with it.)
A few other signs and symptoms of PCOS include:
– Irregular or super heavy periods or no period at all
– Excess body and/or facial hair
– Acne and/or abnormally oily skin
– Difficulty getting pregnant (PCOS is the leading cause of infertility in child-bearing age women)
– And patches of thick, dark, velvety skin.
– Weight gain, especially around the belly
Androgens and Insulin Resistance
The last thing I want to touch on before we get into our protocol for high androgens is the link between high androgens and insulin resistance.
Having high androgens poses a much bigger problem than just messing with our confidence. In fact, probably the most important factor of high androgens is it’s link with insulin resistance.
Most women with high androgens also suffer from insulin resistance. This is a problem and I’ll explain why, but first, I want to tell you a bit about insulin and insulin resistance.
Insulin, for those of you who don’t know or may need a refresher, is basically the key that unlocks the cell to let in glucose, which our cells use for energy. And when our cells become unresponsive to insulin, the pancreas secretes more and more eventually leading to insulin resistance which means both high insulin and glucose levels in the blood.
Here’s why this is a problem: high insulin levels are a signal to the ovaries to make more androgens. And this is a double whammy because high insulin levels are also a signal to the liver to make less sex-hormone-binding globulin, which normally binds to testosterone to keep it at a healthy level in the body.
So insulin resistance contributes to the ovaries making too much testosterone, and with the liver making less testosterone binding globulin, we have way more free androgens in the body to contribute to those symptoms I mentioned earlier.
A High Androgens Protocol
The basis of a high androgens protocol is a low glycemic index/load meal plan.
Glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how much the carbs in your food raise your blood sugar. and glycemic load (GL) is essentially the GI of the food per serving.
Following a low GI-food plan has been shown to reduce androgens by up to 20%, due to it’s balancing effect on insulin secretion and blood sugar levels.
So what does a low GL diet look like? Increasing insoluble and soluble fibre-rich whole foods, combining higher sugar foods like tropical fruits with a healthy source of fat (to blunt the blood sugar response), and eating adequate amounts of good-quality protein—either animal- or plant-based.
Since the liver plays a large role in balancing androgen levels, eating foods that support the liver is key as well. Raw beets and carrots in a simple apple cider vinegar dressing is great, but there are many other foods that nourish the liver.
Ceylon cinnamon is worth adding into your diet if you suffer from high androgen levels as well, as it has an impressive effect on balancing insulin levels.
Beyond diet, there are a few supplements to add to your daily rotation to help balance androgen levels: fish oil and zinc. Research has shown that women with more omega-3s in the blood have naturally lower androgen levels, so adding some omega-3 rich fish oil to your supplement regime is recommended! Zinc is great for balancing androgen levels as well, especially if you suffer from acne or have been on birth control pills in the past (or currently—stay tuned for a future blog post on this topic!)
As always, when it comes to supplementation, the best dosage to follow is the one recommended on the label.
The final piece of this protocol is exercise! Since weight loss reduces insulin resistance and excess androgens, this is an important one. And you don’t have to be up in the gym pumping iron 7 days a week— Even 20 minutes of brisk walking everyday has been shown to increase weight loss by 7%.
If you don’t already have a regular fitness routine, I highly recommend checking out the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines.
Thyroid: The Metabolic Thermostat
So why do we care about the thyroid in the first place? Well, because it’s basically our metabolic thermostat! The thyroid regulates the activities of almost every single cell in our bodies. It controls our sensitivity to other hormones like estrogen and cortisol (which means that if you have an imbalance in one, they are likely to all be out of balance in some capacity). It also regulates how quickly calories are burned and how efficient the metabolism is.
Fatigue, weight gain, and depression are the triad of thyroid imbalance symptoms, but imbalanced thyroid can show up as anything from constipation to hair loss to constantly cold hands and feet.
Thyroid by the Numbers
Thyroid hormone imbalance is quite common, but is often under-diagnosed for a few reasons. First of all, the reference range numbers your doctor is using might be really outdated. Secondly, your doctor may only look at TSH levels without taking into consideration a few other important ones like T4, T3, and reverse T3, which means they aren’t getting the whole picture.
Simply put, T4, T3 and reverse T3 are the numbers you want to pay attention to. Specifically, we want to pay attention to why and how T4 is triggered into producing more reverse T3, which is it’s inactive metabolite form.
T3, the active form of thyroid hormone, and reverse T3 are basically identical keys that compete for the locks on the cell doors, but they do very different things. It’s T3 that we want entering the binding sites, not reverse T3. But factors like stress, trauma, low calorie diets, inflammation, toxins, infection, liver and kidney dysfunction, and some medications favour reverse T3 production.
The result is thyroid resistance. A bunch of fun symptoms include fatigue, difficulty losing weight or weight gain, thinning and brittle hair, rough, dry skin, cold intolerance, constipation and bloating, depression, irritability, memory loss, abnormal menstrual cycle, decreased libido, and muscle cramping.
The thyroid and adrenals have a feedback connection, which means that when stress is not managed and cortisol levels become high, progesterone production stops due to the pregnenolone steal we talked about last time. This affects thyroid hormone levels as both progesterone and thyroid hormone are needed to send information about hormone levels to the pituitary gland. When progesterone levels are too low and thyroid is doing the work of both hormones, the thyroid can become exhausted, at the same time that the adrenals become exhausted due to constantly pumping out cortisol to deal with stress.
So this is yet another reason why stress management is so crucial, and should be incorporated every single day. A lot of us get used to a certain level of stress, or feel like a failure if we admit that we are stressed. So, the first step is just being honest with yourself and understanding that the time you dedicate everyday to self-care and stress reduction will benefit not only your health but everyone around you.
A Low Thyroid Protocol
There are a few specific nutrients that are very important for healthy thyroid function. Selenium and zinc are easily the two most important minerals for thyroid as they help with conversion of T4 to T3. Zinc-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, tahini, raw oysters, green beans, lean 100% grass-fed beef, lamb, veal, chicken breast.
Brazil nuts are the number one dietary source of selenium, though this all depends on the health of the soil in which they’re grown. Selenium is one of the minerals that is becoming super depleted in soil. You can also get selenium in tuna, sunflower seeds, cooked asparagus, egg yolk, and spinach.
Vitamin A and D are also really important for increasing cellular sensitivity to thyroid hormones. Vitamin A in its active form can be found in liver, cod liver oil, and egg yolks. It’s plant-form, beta-carotene, can be found in carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin, kale, squash, and red peppers.
Another thing to watch out for with diet is how much raw cruciferous veggies you eat. This includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and some other less common veggies. These veggies are great for estrogen levels but if consumed raw, can limit thyroid production. So, if you have issues with estrogen AND thyroid, only consume them cooked, and don’t go overboard.
It’s also important to make sure you’re getting enough protein and consider taking collagen peptides if you aren’t plant-based. The amino acid we are specifically looking for is L-Tyrosine, which is required to regulate hormones produced by the thyroid, adrenals, and pituitary glands. I like collagen for its soothing effect on the gut and skin, and it’s a great source of all essential aminos. If you’re plant based, spirulina, pumpkin seeds, oat bran, and wild rice contain some L-tyrosine.
Supplementation can be tricky with thyroid, so I recommend talking to a professional (like a naturopathic doctor or nutritionist) about it. However, two minerals to watch out for in any supplement you’re taking, whether that’s a thyroid-specific blend or multivitamin, is a balance of both zinc and copper.
A few other minerals to watch out for are chlorine and fluoride, especially in drinking water. As chlorine and fluoride can lead to inflammation of the thyroid gland and thyroid hormone imbalance, if you suspect you have low thyroid levels, I recommend drinking only filtered water.
There you have it! This marks the end of my blog series on hormonal harmony. I hope you learned a thing or two, and if you do suspect you have a hormone imbalance, I encourage you to follow the protocol that addresses your main hormonal concern! As always, if you have any questions for me, I’d love to answer them—just add them to the comment section below. And if you are interested in working with me, I am currently accepting clients! To schedule a free 15-minute consultation, you can click here.