Monthly Archives: September 2013
As women move towards menopause, many of them begin to ponder the need for hormone replacement therapy. This time in a woman’s life is associated with hormonal change. Women are often instructed to initiate estrogen therapy to restore levels and alleviate symptoms. The most common of these symptoms is hot flashes, but this is by no means the only. Other annoying symptoms are vaginal dryness, mental fog, wrinkles and alterations in body composition. So many of these symptoms are blamed on lack of estrogen, but is estrogen the only problem?
A critical, yet rarely considered point is that women’s transition to menopause is influenced by far more than estrogen. Estrogen is under the influence of many other hormones. However, the hormone group that seems to have the most impact on the estrogens are stress hormones. Stress hormones play a vital role in making the transition into menopause smoother. The fluctuation of symptoms commonly associated with menopause suggests a bigger problem. It emphasizes the need to support the systems that are dependent on stress hormones.
Hormone Trade Off
Under an ideal situation, there is a trade off between the ovaries and the adrenal glands. Just as the ovaries are responsible for estrogen production, the adrenal glands secrete the stress hormone cortisol, as well as others, in a pre-menopause state. As a female continues to move closer to menopause, the function of the ovaries continues to decline. This production is replaced by the adrenal glands. Thus as estrogen production continues to decrease from the ovaries, the adrenal glands replace it making the net amount of available estrogen consistent. There is only one problem with this picture. Most women do not have adequate function of the adrenal glands. Therefore when it comes time to transition, there is already limited function of the gland the production of estrogen is being shifted to. As less estrogen is produced from the ovaries, levels continue to fall. With limited of no support from the adrenal glands, estrogen deficiency symptoms are only a matter of time.
If the symptoms that I noted initially sound like you, considering your stress hormones as part of hormone replacement therapy during peri-menopause and into menopause should be a consideration for you. By addressing the stress hormones, especially cortisol, you provide support to the adrenal glands. As these glands get the support they need, they not only are able to produce cortisol, but also a multitude of other important hormones, including estrogen.
Replacing estrogen has merit, but doing so alone only serves to further imbalance the body’s delicate chemistry. Hormones are chemical messengers and when the wrong message is given the outcome is negative. Women often experience this as hormone deficiency symptoms. Supporting a demand for estrogen also means promoting balance. This is best done by supporting the stress hormone cortisol as well as its direct precursor progesterone. Progesterone maintains balance over estrogen and keeps it from acting uncontrollably. Estrogen replacement therapy without sufficient progesterone further imbalances their ratio and worsen symptoms.
Taking a complete approach to the demand for estrogen means not just replacement, but also considering the stress hormone cortisol. The stress hormone cortisol robs from other hormones to maintain its production. Yet pushing more hormone toward this problem to attempt to support the adrenal glands is not the issue. The bigger picture is that one must address the basics of life and minimize stress. This includes adequate, restful sleep, a diet based on unprocessed, living foods, adequate nutrition, and the proper balance of exercise. Once these are addressed, then the demand for estrogen can be met and maintained.
Do you suffer from stress? If you are like nearly every other person living in Houston, Texas, or even the United States at large, you are dealing with stress. I bet if I asked you to list the stressors in your life you could immediately name several. In contrast, if I asked you to tell me what you do for fun, I bet at a minimum you would hesitate prior to answering. Interestingly this is something that I ask all my new patients when we are first beginning to work together. You might think this a little odd, but it speaks volumes about the lack of balance in most people’s lives. Some of my patients are not even able to provide me with a single example of what they enjoy. This can only result in dire consequences.
As I have been witness to, stress robs us of good health. The problem with stress is that it often disguises itself. We often think about stress as being mental or emotional, but the tentacles of stress reach far deeper than this. Stress is looming everywhere and depending on how we react to it makes a difference in our long term health.
An ironic point about stress is that regardless of the source of stress, your body is going to react the same. There is only one inherent response to stress. This is through the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol carries out some very necessary functions in our body, but when increased demand is placed on this stress hormone, ill effects begin to accumulate. In contrast, the secret to good health is keeping the stress hormones, especially cortisol, balanced.
Keeping the stress hormones balanced requires returning to some of the basic ideas that appear to have been eroded from our society. These include getting adequate rest and relaxation, eating a diet that limits inflammation and the demand for stress hormones, getting the proper amount of exercise and finding time to enjoy life. You may look at this list and think how am I going to ever tackle each of these areas? The answer lies in consistency. You may be the one percent that is going to make the jump and change your lifestyle habits immediately, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Rather you want to pick a particular area to work on in your life and once you have mastered it, then you can proceed to the next area. Becoming healthy cannot be about making yourself stressed out over becoming healthy.
Diet & Sleep
Start with you diet and sleep. These two items are going to have a profound impact on controlling your stress hormones. The demand for cortisol is increased when a diet of refined foods that have no living qualities is consumed. The repetitive consumption of these foods weakens the immune system and increases inflammation, leading to the need to produce cortisol to compensate. Add to this a lack of sleep and you have a recipe for poor health. Sleep is restorative. When you lack it, the demand for the stress hormone cortisol is raised leading to reduced healing and the breakdown of the body. Without sleep, you inhibit your body’s ability to control stress hormones and keep them in check.
Life is stressful enough without engaging in activities that further imbalance the stress hormones. Maintaining their balance is crucial to each aspect of our lives if good health is what you desire. When you get right down to it, the secret to good health is really not a secret at all. We know how to inherently achieve good health, it is just that many are overwhelmed with the stress of their life. In an attempt to manage their stress, many lose focus on the basics. To avoid falling victim to this paradigm, stay focused on the basics, one at a time, find something in life that you enjoy that you can routinely engage in and your stress hormones will better maintain balance, a key to good health.