If you’ve ever dealt with hormonal issues, you know how powerful hormones can be! They can leave you crying in a corner when you know what’s making you upset isn’t as big as it feels. You can also feel edgy, anxious, and irritable and utterly powerless to control it. You may read up on what to do, and try a few things, but nothing seems to work and you can’t seem to figure out what it is that’s causing these problems.
If you’re plagued by mood swings, this can be the worst. That was probably the hardest part for me in dealing with my hormones; the mood dysregulation. One day I’d feel super edgy and irritable and a week later, I’d be low and depressed. Ladies, let’s face it – we’ve got lives to live… Careers to rock… kids to wake up to… And not knowing what mood is going to hit you from day to day or moment to moment is just not g0ing to cut it. And guess what, you’re really not alone…
43% of women report that hormones have negatively impacted their well being (1), and this is sad because there are so many things that can be addressed that can help support healthy hormone balance. So, let’s dive in.
This is Part 1 of a four part series on balancing hormones naturally. In this part, we’ll delve into many of the common ways women try to balance hormones that often don’t work, and why. This will help you understand why you might be dealing with hormone problems if you’ve already taken steps to address what’s going on.
I do have a video of this article if you’d rather listen or watch the content. Just scroll to the bottom of this page, and you can view the video there.
There are three things that a lot of people try to balance their hormones that often don’t work.
The first one is a big one, so I’m going to spend the most time on this one:
#1: Hormonal birth control
I’m going to talk about why birth control has been really important for women and why it could still be really useful for you, but then I want to talk about why birth control is not helpful, necessarily, for hormone balance in many cases. In many ways, the pill has been wonderful for women. It’s contributed to social and economic improvements for women. It’s allowed women to choose when or if they want to have a child, and it’s provided them the ability to work outside of the home. There was actually one study that found that the pill is partly responsible for a 30% increase in women’s wages by the 1990s (2). Pretty cool. It’s also contributed to higher college enrollment and completion rate in the ’60s and ’70s.
However, the pill really hasn’t kept up with the times. It was initially prescribed to help prevent unwanted pregnancies from occurring. Women have complained of side effects throughout the years, but there’s been little improvement to the pill. Women prescribed the pill are more likely to be prescribed an antidepressant. The pill is associated with an increased risk of heart attack, autoimmune disease, thyroid, and adrenal disorders. So, there are side effects to the pill and a lot of times women are not informed of these side effects before they choose to start taking it. The pill is often prescribed for non-contraceptive reasons. Some of those include endometriosis, PCOS, painful periods, and acne. These issues are not due to a lack of synthetic hormones. These are due to underlying root causes, which we’ll discuss in more detail later.
Ever wondered how the pill works? There are different types of the pill, but typically the pill contains estrogen and progestin and these inhibit the body’s natural cyclic hormones. They stop the body from ovulating and cause some other changes that, in turn, prevent pregnancy.
I’m often asked:
Why do I get a period, then, when I’m on the pill if I’m not producing my natural cyclic hormones?
This is due to the withdrawal of hormones during that week. That withdrawal causes a drop in the body’s hormones, which causes the lining of the uterus to shed, producing what seems like a period, but it’s not really equivalent to what would happen during a natural period.
If you are on the pill, there’s no judgment here! In the past, I took it for years. For some women, the pill reduces unwanted symptoms, or is a preferred method for preventing pregnancy. I’m not recommending that you stop taking it if you’re currently on one. That’s for you to decide with your physician if that’s right for you. If you started taking the pill to deal with hormone issues, I wouldn’t suggest just stopping it cold turkey anyway because ultimately you want to start addressing the root causes we’re going to discuss in this series. This will help get those systems in the body functioning more effectively so that, if you do decide that you’re wanting to discontinue the pill, you can do it after you’ve discovered and begun to address your root causes. You can begin to discover these root causes even while you are currently on the pill.
The second thing a lot of people do to try to balance their hormones that often doesn’t work is:
#2 Eat a Keto or Low-Carb diet
Disclaimer that if the symptoms you’re experiencing of hormone imbalance are due to insulin resistance, then eating keto or low carb may be exactly what you need!
We always want to know the root of what’s going on, so that we can choose an appropriate dietary approach. If there is HPA axis dysregulation present, keto or low-carb is typically not a good starting approach to balance hormones. If thyroid issues are present this may also not be an ideal place to start. HPA axis stands for hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal axis dysregulation. Think adrenal fatigue. Think stress. Think high or low cortisol… or c0rtisol that doesn’t follow a healthy circadian rhythm. Cortisol is a stress hormone. If HPA Axis dysregulation is present, which is often the cause for people feeling burnt out with energy issues, then we want to include sufficient amounts of complex carbohydrate in the diet. In these cases, typically including around 125-150 grams of complex carbohydrates from vegetables, fruits, and gluten free grains can be a good place to start. Things can always be adjusted from there.
The reason for this is that when we eat keto or when we eat low carb, it causes a bit of an increase in cortisol. So, this means that a low carb diet could be a stressor in individuals already dealing with HPA Axis issues. Combine that with a stressful job, running around all day with kiddos, not getting enough sleep, and high intensity exercise. This can be a recipe for adrenal burnout and eating keto or low carb diet is just going to make it worse. If you’re dealing with a lot of stress; maybe you’re in a period of high stress, then you’re going to want to increase your carb intake until you get those stressors under control. Then later, after addressing stress levels, a low carb or keto approach might work out really well for you. If you don’t do that and you’re pushing through keto for a long time, it can elevate cortisol, cause burnout, and further dysregulate hormones.
Let’s talk about thyroid health! Hypothyroidism is one of the most commonly cited reasons for needing to eat a moderate carb diet. The big reason for this is that carbs affect thyroid function directly. We need insulin for the conversion of inactive T4 hormone into active T3 hormone. Insulin is typically quite low on a low carb or a keto diet, so if you start a keto or a low carb diet and you start developing hypothyroid symptoms, then this is a sign that you’re probably going to want to up your carbs. If you already have a thyroid issue, then keto/low carb may not be the right approach for y ou. If you’ve started a low carb approach thinking it’ll help your energy and things worsen, this can indicate that you may want to dig deeper into your HPA Axis and thyroid health to determine if some work needs to be done in these areas to help get you on track.
The good news is that our bodies shift as we address our root issues. I have a client who couldn’t eat keto when we first started working together, but after a 8 months of working on her gut, hormones, and stress levels she was able to shift into a low carb diet with great success!
The third thing you may have tried to help balance your hormones and improve your energy is to:
#3 Exercise More
This really goes back to HPA Axis function. If you’re burnt out and stressed moderate to high intensity exercise may cause more problems than it’s helping. Cortisol is secreted in the body once we enter into long-term stress. Long-term stress is anything over a couple minutes. We might think of long-term stress as being months or years on end, but for the body, it’s actually just past a couple minutes. So, when we perceive a stressor, we release adrenaline and then, if that continues past a couple minutes, we start releasing cortisol. If we’re engaging in moderate to high intensity exercise for 30 minutes to 60 minutes straight, we are stimulating a cortisol response in the body. This is fine if the HPA access is functioning well. However, if the degree of effort is beyond what the HPA Axis can handle, than we could be stressing this system further. Thus appropriate exercise is really important!
We’ll go more in depth into the types of exercise that are optimal if you’re dealing with imbalanced hormones and HPA Axis dysregulation in the next parts coming out soon. It’s always safe to do gentle movement practices like yoga. If you find swimming calming, you can do this. Walks out in nature are wonderful!
Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon! We’ll be going into the root causes of hormone imbalance. In parts 3 and 4 we’ll get into diet, lifestyle, and supplements to balance hormones naturally!
~Brooke, Functional Medicine Nutrition Practitioner
Here’s the video of this article for those that enjoy watching or listening!