Nutritional therapist Cassandra Barns explains how to stop your hormones giving you hassle
When we mention the word ‘hormone’ we immediately think about PMT, periods or the menopause and, ultimately, women. But, hormones are not just about periods. Hormones control or impact every body system, and they even have their own system known as the endocrine system. Here, we will be discussing the knock-on effects of stress on the body, how this can tip us out of balance giving us hormonal ‘hassle’.
THE STRESS RESPONSE
So, why does stress have such a significant impact on the balance of our sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone? To understand this, we first need to know what happens to our body when we become anxious. When we are exposed to a stressful situation it is the hypothalamus, pituitary adrenal axis, or HPA axis, that controls the response. But what does this mean and what is the HPA axis? Let’s take a look at each part in turn. The hypothalamus is located in our brain and links our nervous system to the endocrine system. The pituitary is a gland responsible for the production of a wide range of vital hormones and is stimulated into action by the hypothalamus.
The adrenal glands are located just above our kidneys and are responsible for the production of key stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine, the ‘fight and flight’
response and our sleep cycles. How do they all work together? Let’s have a look at what happens when we are under the influence of a ‘stress’ inducing situation. The hypothalamus will release corticotrophin that will send a message to the pituitary to produce adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) that then causes the adrenals to produce cortisol. If, for example, your adrenals are exhausted due to excessive stress exposure, then your body will no longer be able to produce stress-regulating cortisol and you might feel unable to cope effectively with a ‘stressful’ situation.
You might be wondering why is this relevant to hormone balance in women and how this affects our monthly cycle or hot flushes. Well, in women, the sex hormone balance is maintained by the hypothalamus, pituitary and the ovaries; also known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian unit. So, I am sure you can now see the link. If our body is experiencing chronic stress and our adrenals are continually under a level of pressure, it will tip all those other vital hormones being produced by these glands totally out of balance.
I am sure you can also now see that this will not just affect our monthly cycle or menopausal symptoms but it will also have a knock on effect on our sleeping patterns, appetite and core energy levels. What this really shows us is that every system within our body needs to work effectively so that it can function as one whole unit. If our body does not function as one complete unit, then we might start to notice that our digestion is a little out of sync, or our concentration a bit wayward.
If we were all completely balanced and our body in tip top condition then we should be experiencing:
· Healthy appetite and digestion
· Consistent energy and stamina
· Deep and restful sleep
· Freedom from enduring pain
· Being open to your emotions and healthy monthly cycles
It’s likely that we might all feel that perhaps some of these areas are a little lacking. More often than not, this is created by periods of stress, for example, or being under more pressure at home or work. The challenge comes when individuals do not counteract these periods with effective relaxation or rejuvenation techniques, causing the body to become completely exhausted and unable to effectively expend energy and undertake basic bodily functions such as hormone production. This is where we then see the development of more chronic long-term conditions affecting the body and particularly women’s hormonal cycles.
BE GOOD TO YOUR BODY
So what can we do to counteract this? You will have probably heard a lot of this before, but there is a reason for it – it works! The key here is to counteract periods of stress with periods of relaxation and rejuvenation to help our body recuperate. But this can take many forms, it might be that you take a walk out into nature for 30 minutes every day, or that you prefer a silent meditation or take 20 minutes to do some yoga in your living room. It doesn’t need to be complicated and you don’t need a gym membership.
Diet also plays an important role here. There are many stress-busting foods packed with antioxidants that protect you from the damage that can be caused by the free radicals we become exposed to when we are under physical and emotional stress. These foods are healthy but also delicious! Coloured fruits, primarily pink, purple and red fruits are bursting with antioxidants and immune-boosting vitamins like blueberries and pomegranates. If oestrogen balance is an issue then green cruciferous vegetables and lentils help us to metabolise oestrogen.
Herbs can also play a vital role. One herb in particular is shatavari – an age-old ayurvedic remedy for women’s health. In Ayurveda, shatavari is revered as a primary women’s herb. It can be translated as ‘the woman who has 100 husbands’ because of this herb’s affinity for strengthening the female reproductive system. Shatavari contains natural precursors to female sex hormones which help to balance hormonal irregularity, promote conception and improve menstrual and menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and PMT. But, what’s key here is that shatavari is also an adaptogen, which means it helps balance the stress response and protect the adrenal glands. Herbal teas containing green tea or licorice are also
great at helping us balance oestrogen levels. If you’re never heard about shatavari, now’s the time to get it on your radar. There are lots of different products out there containing shatavari - Pukka’s Womankind range, for example, is based on the herb, with a unique natural chemccal-free extraction process to preserve the natural active compounds.
So what are our top tips for preventing hormonal hassle?
1. Make sure you allow yourself at least 30 minutes a day of ‘me’ time, even it’s just a quick walk around the park or a cup of herbal tea.
2. Take a second look at your diet and make sure you are feeding your body with nourishing and protective foods and steering clear of pre-packed synthetically produced food.
3. Give your gut a helping hand by increasing fermented foods or getting yourself a good probiotic.
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