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Harmonious hormones: getting the balance right

Hormones play an essential part in our wellbeing and affect fertility, metabolism and menopause. Restore order the natural way with tips and foods that positively influence hormone balance.

Harmonious hormones: getting the balance right

Hormones are chemicals that act as messengers between cells. They are secreted from glands that make up the endocrine system into the bloodstream, where they travel to cell sites called receptors. These receptors recognise each hormone and their intended specific action is then carried out. These actions are vital to our biological being and involve such functions as growth and development, metabolism and reproduction.

The glands of the endocrine system include the pineal, pituitary, thyroid and parathyroid, thymus, pancreas, adrenals, ovaries (female) and testes (male). Each of these glands has their own group of hormones it releases. When all the glands are working optimally, balance is maintained. However, because of the intricate connection within this system, when one of these glands begins to function sub-optimally it results in an imbalance of the hormones it secretes and a knock-on effect can then be seen with the imbalance of hormones secreted by other glands. This is how stress and adrenal fatigue can affect reproductive hormones, greatly influencing fertility, PMS and menopause.

For most women, hormonal health heavily depends on the delicate balance of oestrogen and progesterone, the two main female reproductive hormones. Oestrogen dominates in the first half of the female cycle and progesterone in the second half.

The imbalance seen in these hormones can be caused by several factors, even beyond the functioning of glands in the system. The exposure to xenoestrogens (foreign oestrogens introduced to the body from outside sources) in the food chain, cleaning or cosmetic products and plastics, interfere with the action of natural hormones in the body.

The term oestrogen dominance refers to a system where oestrogen is in excess and results in symptoms such as heavy bleeding cycles, headaches and weight gain or even conditions such as endometriosis. This often causes an imbalance in progesterone. Low levels of progesterone can reduce fertility, and high levels can cause sore breasts and lowered libido. The balance of these hormones greatly influence the type and intensity of PMS a woman will experience with her monthly cycle. During menopause, however it is natural for oestrogen levels to naturally decline. This is when associated symptoms such as night sweats and hot flushes are experienced.

Foods can positively influence the balance of these hormones. Phytoestrogens, substances found in plants that have oestrogen-like properties, greatly influence oestrogen levels. For symptoms associated with menopause, eating a diet high in phytoestrogens may be beneficial as these act in a similar way to the oestrogens in your body. Choose foods such as flaxseeds, chickpeas and fermented whole soy products such as tofu and tempeh.

The vitamin B6 plays an important role in modulating hormones and can greatly improve PMS. Foods containing B6 include fish such as tuna and salmon, as well as vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and asparagus. Wheatgerm is particularly high in this nutrient, as are chickpeas and lentils.

Cinnamon and licorice are a combination often used in the treatment of conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) due to their combined influence on hormones. These are best used in herbal form but the consumption of good quality licorice as well good quality cinnamon can provide some support. It is best to consult your naturopath on the use of these herbs. Licorice should also be avoided in people with high blood pressure and should not be used for long periods in any case.

Maca powder works to restore balance among all glands and their associated hormones. It is ideal if you’re unsure which hormone is out of balance as it will regulate rather than increase or reduce the production of a specific hormone. Only take half the recommended dose to begin with, as it can initially cause an exacerbation of symptoms.

As the food chain is responsible for providing a number of xenoestrogens, choosing good quality produce will keep these to a minimum.

Maintaining a healthy liver is vital to hormone health as it breaks down hormones. Quality sleep along with regular exercise will also aid healthy hormone production.

Nutritionist: Susan Buxton 

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal disorder among women. It causes a variety of changes in the body, both hormonal and metabolic, and is often a cause of infertility. Women who have PCOS often have insulin resistance, which causes blood sugars to rise. Recently, treatment of PCOS has focused on how insulin resistance can be corrected to help improve some of the other symptoms.

Although not widely researched, studies on women with PCOS have seen that modification of the diet to improve insulin sensitivity can improve metabolic and reproductive outcomes.

Fibre is associated with the body’s improved ability to secrete and use insulin, helping to overcome insulin resistance. Increasing fibre intake can help manage blood glucose control by slowing down the digestion of carbohydrates and the rate at which they are absorbed into the bloodstream.

Fibre also aids satiety (a feeling of fullness) which in turn can help with weight loss, an important part in managing PCOS as it also helps to reduce insulin sensitivity and improve hormone balance. High fibre foods include wholegrain products, fruit legumes, and vegetables

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