Hormonal Harmony Pt. 2: Let’s talk about sex (hormones), baby
Today’s blog is part two of my Hormonal Harmony blog series and it’s going to be a long one because we’re covering the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone, and the two most common hormonal imbalances associated with them!
Let’s get started with a quick and general overview of estrogen and progesterone.
In a nutshell, estrogen is one of your top three most important hormones as a woman. It’s actually a group of hormones, which together perform more than 300 jobs in the body and influence around 9000 genetic messages. Estrogen could be considered your main sex hormone as a female— it plays a major role during puberty, menstruation, it regulates libido, and also plays a part in regulating appetite and mood.
Progesterone is like the peanut butter to estrogen’s jelly. It also plays a role in regulating libido, appetite, and mood, but affects emotions and sleep as well. Physiologically, progesterone’s main role is maintaining uterine lining thickness, so it is a key hormone to pay attention to if you’re trying to get pregnant or are pregnant.
Estrogen and progesterone are in delicate balance together. In proper proportion, they are like two sides of a seesaw, which shift back and forth over the course of your menstrual cycle.
During the first half of your cycle (which starts the first day of your period) estrogen builds up the tissue in the wall of your uterus. In the last two weeks of your cycle, progesterone takes over, and shifts the focus from growth to maturing and preparing the uterine lining for the next stage: either your period or getting pregnant. If conception doesn’t happen, the uterine lining is released and progesterone levels drop. If conception does happen, progesterone levels rise.
In very general terms, when estrogen peaks, progesterone levels in the body are naturally at the lowest point, and when progesterone peaks, estrogen levels are at their lowest point.
This is assuming your hormones are in balance, of course. When hormonal imbalances occur, our menstrual cycles can be affected. They can become too short, too long, irregular in length, or non-existent. And when you lose your period, regardless of the cause, it’s called amenorrhea.
Tell-Tale Symptoms of Progesterone or Estrogen Imbalance
- PMS (Check out my blog that goes into detail about the different types of PMS here)
- Loss of mental clarity
- Loss of libido
- Insomnia or difficulty falling/staying asleep
- Infertility or sub-fertility (You can read more about my recommendations to help with fertility here)
- Night sweats
- Breast tenderness
- Ovarian cysts
How Stress Affects Your Female Sex Hormones
Last week’s blog post was all about stress management and cortisol imbalance. We’re not done talking about stress, though. Difficulties effectively coping with stress (and resulting cortisol imbalance) can lead to a process called “Pregnenolone Steal”, which affects progesterone and estrogen levels as well.
In the diagram above, you can see that all these hormones are actually derived from cholesterol and “the mother hormone” pregnenolone. Progesterone, estrogen, and androgens (which we’ll talk about next week) are all created from pregnenolone. Unfortunately, cortisol is also formed from pregnenolone during this process called pregnenolone steal.
Under normal circumstances, when adrenals are working well, pregnenolone is converted to either progesterone or DHEA, the precursor to testosterone. However, when you’re really stressed out and the adrenals go into overdrive to secrete lots of cortisol, progesterone and DHEA get the shaft because the adrenals have a special relationship with pregnenolone allowing cortisol production to be the priority. This is called pregnenolone steal, because cortisol is essentially being made from stolen pregnenolone that should’ve been used to make progesterone.
This basically means that if you’re always stressed and your cortisol levels are high, your progesterone levels are likely also out of balance. So, aspects like sleep, mood, and emotional composure are significantly affected. To make matters worse, this can also lead to symptoms of estrogen dominance, simply due to too-low progesterone levels.
Common Causes of Progesterone Imbalance
In general, factors like aging, genetics, poor nutrition, exposure to toxins, poor lifestyle choices, pregnancy, and of course stress play a major role in all hormone imbalances.
However, there are a few factors that play a role specifically in progesterone production. Aging and stress are big ones, but problems with ovulation can be a major factor as well. If for whatever reason you aren’t ovulating enough or at all, either because you’ve run out of eggs or have another hormonal problem (for example, excess testosterone), you’ll have a progesterone deficiency.
Another common cause of progesterone imbalance is low thyroid hormone levels. Your body needs enough thyroid hormone to actually make pregnenolone from cholesterol, so if thyroid levels are low, that entire hormonal cascade in the diagram above can become imbalanced.
A Low Progesterone Protocol
Like last week’s protocols for high and low cortisol, focusing on an anti-inflammatory diet is key for low progesterone imbalance as well. This means reducing inflammatory foods like processed foods full of refined sugars, oils, and grains, and increasing anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fibre-rich veggies, fermented foods, good quality fats and proteins.
A couple of nutrients to focus on specifically in the diet are vitamin B6 and Magnesium. B6 is an important one for estrogen metabolism and maintaining optimal progesterone levels, so this is a great nutrient to focus on if you have low progesterone and/or excess estrogen. Foods rich in B6 include sunflower seeds, pistachios, shiitake mushrooms, cooked turkey, tuna, and beef liver (yum!)
Magnesium is also involved in estrogen metabolism but is especially good for progesterone imbalance because it helps relieve cramping during PMS, which you most likely experience if your progesterone levels are off. Magnesium is found in hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, black-strap molasses, almonds, and good news—dark chocolate is an amazing source of magnesium as well!
If you’re experiencing hormonal imbalance, it’s always a good idea to consider your caffeine and alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, these can really make symptoms of low progesterone a lot worse, especially if sleep is an issue for you.
Speaking of sleep, practising good sleep hygiene makes a big difference if you find your sleep quality is easily disrupted. This means keeping your room dark, cold, and free of electronics. “Power down hours” are another great way to improve sleep. Simply put all electronics away for at least an hour before bedtime to focus on relaxing activities like reading, taking a bath, hanging with your family, pets, etc.
Since pregnenolone steal is directly affected by your ability to cope with stress, finding a daily stress-minimizer is crucial. Meditation, yoga, breathwork, tapping, gratitude journaling, or exercise are all great options. Studies have even shown that spending quality time with your family and closest friends actually raises progesterone in saliva tests as well.
Estrogen Dominance and Xenoestrogens
Estrogen dominance is one of the most common hormonal imbalances these days with women and men. But why is that?
The first thing you need to know is how hormones work in general. In a nutshell, our cells are always bathing in a constantly-changing soup of various hormones. Our cells also happen to have receptors that respond to specific hormones, in a lock-and-key function. So, the hormone receptors are like locks on a door, and hormones are the keys that fit into the lock to open the door.
Just like in real life, only certain keys fit certain locks, and locks can become broken and stop working. An example of this is insulin resistance: the lock can become damaged and the insulin key can no-longer open the door, leading to a build up of glucose in the blood.
This is important to know when we’re talking about estrogen, because there happens to be “imposter” keys that fit into estrogen-specific locks. These are called “xenoestrogens”.
Exposure to xenoestrogens, chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body, increase estrogen levels. Insulin resistance and being overweight also increase estrogen levels. These are the three main causes of excess estrogen.
Common sources of xenoestrogens include pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, car exhaust, solvents and adhesives like nail polish and glue, dry cleaning chemicals, meat from conventionally-raised, hormone-fed animals, plastics (especially when microwaved), and fire retardants found in carpet, furniture, and cheap clothing. Unfortunately, most people in the western world are exposed to these things on a daily basis, resulting in increasing levels of estrogen dominance.
Other factors that contribute to estrogen dominance include low fibre diets with excess refined carbs and poor-quality fats, sluggish liver (another reason to stop drinking), impaired immune function, poor gut health, and adrenal fatigue.
An Excess Estrogens Protocol
Diet-wise, we of course want to steer clear of those xenoestrogens we talked about, so that means buying organic food when possible. To read more about how to eat organic without breaking the bank, check out this blog post.
Another thing to think about is limiting exposure to phytoestrogens (plant estrogens). There are two foods specifically to watch out for, soy and flax. Phytoestrogens have a similar effect in the body as xenoestrogens, so if you have excess estrogen it’s a good idea to limit or eliminate them from your diet completely.
Another big dietary culprit for increasing estrogen is conventionally raised meat. Almost all of the meat you buy in the grocery store, unless it specifies that it is pasture-raised or grass-finished, has added hormones and/or antibiotics, which stay in the meat and end up in our system as endocrine disruptors. I highly recommend only buying organic and pasture-raised meat if you aren’t plant based.
There are two specific nutrients that have been shown to really help with excess estrogen levels. Indole-3-carbinol, is a naturally occurring phytochemical found in cruciferous veggies like brussels sprouts and broccoli, that helps the liver metabolize estrogen and balance hormones. You can get it in supplement form if you don’t enjoy eating a few pounds of brussels sprouts per day!
The other one is curcumin, is the active component in turmeric, the spice that turns Indian curries that beautiful golden colour. Curcumin is one of the most potent anti-inflammatory agents we know of. You can definitely add more turmeric to your diet, or you can take curcumin daily to counter the effects of excess estrogen.
What About Low Estrogen?
Low estrogen levels are most often affected by perimenopause and menopause, in women aged 35 and older. It’s much less common in younger women, though it is possible if there is decreased activity in the ovaries, or if you’re pregnant or lactating.
Since this imbalance is much less common in comparison to low progesterone and high estrogen, I’m not going to go into detail about it in this blog post—but do watch out for a future post on navigating perimenopause with holistic nutrition!
If you’re interested in learning more about how to balance your hormones naturally, check out my blog post on seed cycling here!
As always, if you have any questions about anything I’ve covered in today’s post, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below! If you suspect you have a hormonal imbalance, I’m currently taking clients! You can learn more about my services by checking out my page here, or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a free 15-minute consultation.