When it comes to hormones, the topic is enormous. Male hormones, female hormones, thyroid hormones, adrenal hormones, metabolic hormones. The body literally runs using hormones. Hormones are the messengers which tell our bodies when to perform every function that it must perform in order to survive, thrive and reproduce. They are our body’s tools to regulate many of the features that make us human, make us ‘us’ and allow us to interact with the world around us.
They are instructions, signals and information. They are vital to existence. As such, when a system is struggling, so often the solution seems hormonal: adrenal fatigue, fertility issues, menopause issues, low libido, thyroid issues… the solutions are to replace the missing/lowered hormones, surely?
And yet, the issue is that hormones typically exist in balance with one another. Having optimal hormonal function isn’t just about ‘optimal levels’, or thinking that more must always be better. Instead, hormonal function is about ratios and how much of each hormone your body is making at each moment – and how that trends (up/down/level) to the rest of your hormones. The resulting balance is really what shows the body what function to perform at any time.
So yes, when hormones go awry, physical functions fail. We are awake when we want to sleep, we store fat when we want to lose weight, we are infertile despite being of menstrual age, we have no libido or a slowed metabolism, we are unable to regulate temperature, behaviour, mood or activity.
But focusing on the hormones themselves has long been the preserve of conventional medicine. Fertility treatments (to regulate the menstrual cycle or menopause) use synthetic hormones to ‘replace’ what is deemed missing from a woman’s hormonal milieu. In bodybuilding, extra growth hormone, insulin and testosterone can be used to send artificial signals to the body to gain weight and strength. To treat thyroid conditions, supplemental T4 or T3 is given, and these are thyroid hormones which replace what the body is no longer making itself.
Adding in synthetic, external (exogenous) hormones into the body’s finely balanced internal (endogenous) production is a useful and sometimes necessary strategy. But it is not Root Cause Resolution.
In Functional Medicine it has become common to provide alternatives to synthetic hormones. These are bioidentical, which means that they are seen by the body as an exact metabolic match for the body and therefore processed in exactly the same way as an endogenous hormone would be. And no, I am not at all against using bioidentical hormonal supplementation to support my clients, to ameliorate symptoms and to start them on the road to feeling better. Sometimes, actually, bioidentical hormone supplementation is the only option, given someone’s unique circumstances.
But this is more rare than the online world would have you believe. Hormones are not the root of the situation. Because they are messengers which require a whole cascade of things to be in place, hormonal dysregulation is a consequence of something – and I’m always interested in why my clients’ endogenous hormonal production is off kilter to begin with.
Even if I end up supplementing with hormones, I still like to answer the ‘why’ question, because this information helps to navigate precise hormonal supplementation decisions and also to inform the comprehensive and holistic support that can be offered alongside any hormone therapy.
So, if you’re suffering from hormonal dysregulation of any kind, regardless of how you’re dealing with it, it might benefit you to find your own root cause. Typically, this doesn’t require fancy testing or expensive diagnostics… and the below might help you to just think carefully about what your root cause might be.
HOW ARE HORMONES MADE – NUTRIENT SUFFICIENCY
Hormones are made from the building blocks of basic nutrients – like absolutely everything in your body. The backbone (or fundamental building block) of hormones is either cholesterol (steroidal hormones) or protein (non-steroidal hormones).
When I say fundamental, I really do mean it. Hormones are entirely dependent upon their how their structure allows them to bind to plasma membranes (in the case of non-steroidal, protein-based hormones) or to bind onto the nucleus of cells (in the case of the steroidal, cholesterol/lipid-based hormones). The structure is determined by the cholesterol or protein base.
When people say ‘you are what you eat’ – this is what they mean. Biochemically, you build your cells, hormones and neurotransmitters out of the food you consume – and in the case of hormones, your ingested fat and protein forms the cholesterol and amino acid backbone to every hormone produced. In truth, the food you eat provides the raw materials for literally every cell and messenger within your entire body.
This means eating fat provides both the lipid membranes for cells AND the cholesterol backbone to steroidal hormones. Eating protein provides the amino acids that make up all of your tissue AND are the backbone to non-steroidal hormones. Therefore your dietary intake needs to contain enough fat and protein – preferably of good quality – in order to provide you with both cellular and tissue integrity, but also to provide you with all the hormones you need.
Now, contrary to the popular diet crazes which involve mainlining fats or eating only meat, this doesn’t mean that you need to eat sticks of butter for breakfast or consume only steak in order to remain hormonally healthy. However, it does suggest that very low or no fat diets (as were the craze in the 80s) are profoundly unhealthy for human hormonal wellbeing. The food that you eat is literally doing everything for you – and it all has a long way to go.
Chronic undereating – in general, or of one specific macronutrient – can lead to lower levels of hormones across the board, simply because there is not enough nutrition to go around.
I am NOT going to stray into the vegan vs. carnivorous diet question when it comes to proteins – because actually, a vegetarian or vegan diet CAN be complete in proteins, it just a little harder to do than an omnivorous intake. What is impossible is having healthy hormones in a state of nutrient insufficiency.
Nutrient insufficiency doesn’t just cover the basic fat and protein, however: it also means there must be enough essential vitamins and minerals needed to both create and then metabolise hormones. In short, rounded, well-balanced, nutrient-dense diets are a basic prerequisite for a healthy body – and if your hormones are out of whack, THIS is the first priority: optimising nutritional intake to make sure your body can make all your hormones in the first place.
WHEN EATING WELL ISN’T ENOUGH
If you’re reading this blog, the likelihood is that your diet is already nutritionally replete, however. Sure – you may not be eating enough (chronic undereating is a common problem influenced by modern society’s obsession with weight-loss level calorie counts of sub-1500…) but you’re probably doing the ‘healthy’ things.
And yet, there is a step between intake and nutrient sufficiency: absorption.
In order for absorption to be optimal, gut function must be working well. This doesn’t just mean digestion and the stomach’s ability to break down foods – it really does revolve around the ability of your gut, and all of the bacteria within, to process all of the various elements of ingested nutrition and yield the most benefit from them all.
This is a little bit to do with acid, enzymes, bile and motility (flow) through the GI tract. It’s also to do with the nervous system – which has a key role in regulation all of these elements.
And then it has a lot to do with intestinal bacteria – which are increasingly being understood as the lynchpin between the outer and inner worlds. They can break down elements of food that we can’t, provide detoxification/assimilation/neutralisation functions that we cannot. These bacteria can protect us, signal things to our brain about relative wellbeing and/or immune threat – and are basically the front line when it comes to the clearing out of some of the old hormones which we need to get rid of.
A non-functioning gut, therefore, could screw up your hormones in numerous ways. From not allowing for nutrient absorption, to altering the way hormones are excreted or recycled – optimising gut function is a foundational step for ensuring hormones can be regulated adequately. If you’ve got nutrition optimised and are STILL feeling that there’s a gut dysbiosis or digestive issues, this is the next stepping stone for root cause resolution of your hormone difficulties.
INFLAMMATION, HORMONES AND THE MYTH OF FINITE RESOURCES
When it comes to gut function – if there is an issue with dysbiosis and/or intestinal hyperpermeability then inflammation can be the result. Inflammation can also result from toxin exposure, chronic over-exercise, excess stress (of any kind) and the ingestion of unknown dietary allergens. Inflammation is incredibly damaging to hormone production.
Inflammation will save our lives when we are under threat. But chronic inflammation has the capacity to be damaging when it persists over the long-term.
Inflammation sets the body into an alarm state. This marshalls resources away from simply running normal physiological functions and – when it comes to hormones – will be a large signal to the brain to STOP making hormones…
And yet, it DOES NOT do this in the ways that are often reported on health blogs or in forums.
The myths that surround hormone production are going to form the basis of Next Week’s Blog – sign up at the top bar to get notified of this direct to your inbox next week. In that article I will detail the mechanisms behind the way the body regulates hormone production – because it is important to understand.
If adequate nutrition is in place – as discussed in the first part of this article – any further hormonal dysregulation is NOT about the body having finite resources. Contrary to what you might have read, the body doesn’t ‘run out’ of pregnenolone, nor do the adrenals ‘run out’ of energy.
Instead, the body has a nuanced and intricate set of feedback systems which will downregulate hormonal production even in a state of nutrient sufficiency – and inflammation is at the heart of these feedback systems. Understanding this, as I will attempt to help you do next week, is necessary to comprehend how to really heal your hormones.