Take Charge of Your Hormones
Hormones are a big deal for women. They influence just about every aspect of our health.
These days, thanks to an ever-increasing toxic load, your body may be presenting you with new and daunting hormonal challenges. Many of these challenges—which can result in insomnia, depression and irritability, lack of energy and weight gain around the middle—are endured both by women who are experiencing perimenopause (the 10 or so years leading up to menopause) and those who have reached menopause (which begins on average at age 51).
These discomforts likely result from factors that have been developing for decades: suboptimal dietary choices, nutritional deficiencies, inadequate exercise and toxic exposures. The good news is that they can be remedied with herbs, vitamins, minerals or a change in diet and lifestyle, rather than medication.
Toxicity: The top villain
Toxins from our polluted world are the worst hormone offender and are almost never addressed by conventional health care practitioners. They deliver a constant barrage of manufactured chemicals into our food, air and water. Products mess with our hormones from the moment we’re born, with cumulative effects over a lifetime. The average woman is exposed to about 168 chemicals in her personal-care products alone, according to estimates by the Environmental Working Group, which specializes in research and advocacy in areas involving toxic chemicals. More than 80,000 chemicals are registered for use today, with more than 60,000 of them released to market with grossly inadequate or no safety testing. Your menopausal woes may be as much a toxicity problem as a hormone problem.
One predominant category of hormone disruptors is xenoestrogens. These human-made chemicals—think pesticides, parabens in cosmetics and BPA in plastic water bottles, canned food linings, store receipts—act as estrogen mimics, interfering with your body’s normal estrogen function. Xenoestrogens are a thousand times more potent than your body’s natural estrogen. Even in the tiniest of doses, they can produce a torrent of hormone-driven symptoms for menopausal women, from bloating and weight gain to hot flashes, brain fog, diminished sex drive, depression and more.
How do we get excess estrogen and xenoestrogens out of our body? Start with flaxseeds, a great food for sweeping away excess estrogen and xenoestrogens at any age. Flaxseeds can reduce hormonal discomforts as well as fight breast cancer. Everyday, simply sprinkle two tablespoons of lignin-rich ground toasted flaxseeds on your food or into a smoothie.
The fiber in flaxseed also helps keep your colon moving and your bile flowing freely.
What does bile have to do with hormone balance? This overlooked fluid, which is produced by your liver and stored in your gallbladder, rids your body of excess estrogen, xenoestrogens and toxins. As we age, toxins and excess estrogen accumulate in our bile, making it thick and sluggish—which is the perfect recipe for gallstones. Even if you no longer have your gallbladder, thinning the bile and maximizing its production is very important for your overall health.
The best strategy to enhance bile production is to consume more bitter foods—including artichokes, arugula, beet greens, lettuce, endive, dandelion greens, horseradish, cabbage, turnips, grapefruit, cilantro, cinnamon and cardamom. A tablespoon of raw (unfiltered) apple cider vinegar in a glass of water before meals is also helpful for bile release and overall digestion. Without good bile, you can’t digest those beneficial fats that are so important for optimal hormone function.
Fats to use, fats to lose
Eating plenty of essential fatty acids will address some of the underlying causes of hormone imbalance. Those essential fats—flaxseeds, hempseeds and their oils; chia seeds; other raw seeds and nuts; organic, grass-pastured meats and dairy—have proven helpful for hot flashes, irritability and dry skin, hair and eyes. They are also vital to the cellular communication network that your hormones rely on.
Nosh on walnuts! Besides possessing beneficial omega-6 fats, their high phytosterol content helps prevent xenoestrogens from binding to receptor sites.
Eliminate margarine. Margarine, the most prevalent source of trans fat, places a strain on your liver and colon and destroys the integrity of your cell membranes. Even margarines that claim “zero trans fats” are high in toxicity, with chemical compositions not dissimilar to plastic.
Swap out margarine for coconut oil, which is semi-solid at room temperature. Despite what you might have read, coconut oil is extremely healthy for your heart, brain and liver. Coconut oil improves thyroid function and boosts metabolism by more than 50 percent—great news for those battling mid-life bulge. Other beneficial fats include raw butter, ghee, olive oil, avocado oil and macadamia nut oil. For high-heat cooking, avocado oil, ghee, coconut oil and macadamia nut oil are your best options.
Whether you are 18, 48 or 88, banish the toxins and xenoestrogens and fill up on health-giving foods. This plan, combined with an exercise you enjoy, will help ease the adverse effects associated with menopause.
To Use or Not to Use Hormone Replacement Therapy
Key to our current understanding of menopause is the estrogen window. This concept, developed by women’s health expert Dr. Mache Seibel, refers to a period of time during which hormone replacement therapy will maximize menopausal symptom relief and minimize the risks. The window is open for about five to 10 years, starting when a woman begins menopause.
Whether or not to use HRT during this time is a personal choice with pros and cons on each side and should be discussed with your doctor. However, it is very clear when not to use it.
If you begin estrogen therapy after your window closes, you may actually increase your risk for breast cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis. This has been shown in multiple studies, the most notable being the Women’s Health Initiative, which researches strategies for preventing heart disease, breast and colorectal cancers as well as osteoporotic fractures in postmenopausal women. The WHI study of the health effects of HRT was halted in 2002 because of disturbing increases in breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and pulmonary embolism among study participants.
Many women are looking for effective natural strategies for navigating menopause that do not carry the risks of synthetic HRT. Some are using safer and more natural HRT, including bio-identical hormones and plant-based progesterone creams, to balance out their estrogen levels. But HRT—even the natural form—does nothing to correct nutritional deficiencies or reduce your body’s toxic load.
Best Tips to Keep You Hormonally Healthy
Magnesium is the new calcium. The latest science shows we should be getting twice as much magnesium as calcium. Deficiency is nearly universal among women. Magnesium plays a role in more than 350 biochemical processes in your body, and a deficiency can trigger a broad spectrum of hormonal symptoms related to your heart, nervous system and muscles. Consider supplements of 500 to 1,000 milligrams per day.
Sitting is the new smoking. The more time you spend sitting each day, the shorter your lifespan may be—regardless of regular workouts. One study found sedentary individuals to have an almost eight-fold increased risk of premature death. The remedy: Get up every 30 minutes and move around. Take walks often to lower stress hormones.
Your liver is responsible for metabolizing all hormones, so keeping it happy should be a major priority. A morning tonic consisting of the juice of half a lemon in eight ounces of water is a simple way to help your liver do its job. Cardamom and dandelion root are also effective liver cleansers. Have a cup of roasted dandelion root tea in the afternoon to boost your body’s detox efforts.
Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., CNS, has just published an updated edition of her New York Times best seller, Before the Change: Take Charge of Your Perimenopause. She is a life member of Hadassah.