If you’re a woman, and you most likely are if you’re reading this, (don’t worry though fellas, this applies to you too), then you’re probably familiar with your hormones and all the chaos they create when imbalanced. Maybe this shows up for you in your monthly cycles, or maybe it’s in the persistent acne that won’t let up, or maybe you’re having a hell of a time with those hot flashes and mood swings that started around your birthday this year. No matter where you are in your life cycle, hormones can be a bitch to deal with and a headache to figure out.
However, from a nutritional therapy standpoint, there’s an easy way to comb through the web that is our hormonal system and make sense of the complexity surrounding it. We do that by coming back to the foundational aspects of good health, in particular, digestion.
In conventional medicine and structure, we think of the body as made up of separate systems that work independently of each other. This is a reductionist point of view that has gotten us in a lot of trouble as we continue to prescribe a “pill for the ill” and fail to recognize the wide-spread effects they have on other systems. Pharmaceutical ‘Side effects’ are the manifestation of this paradigm. If your digestive system wasn’t connected to your mineral balancing system, we wouldn’t see osteoporosis as a side effect of acid blockers. Similarly, if you’ve ever had a nervous stomach before publicly speaking or performing, you’ll understand that the gut and brain are connected as well. The body is made up of relational systems that each build upon, support and work in conjunction with one another. It is for this reason that we can address deficiencies in one and make a significant impact on another, like we are going to talk about today in relation to digestion and your hormones.
Coming back to foundational principles of health is essentially the process of filling in the holes letting out the most water so that we can bring the boat back to optimal function and safety. Digestion is the process by which we extract nutrients from our food. We take for granted that when we eat a food, it will go to where it needs to go and do what it needs to do. This isn’t necessarily the case. Our digestion needs to be strong in order to do this, but dietary habits, stress, inflammation and a host of other factors can impede these processes.
All of our hormones are made up of either proteins, fatty acids or cholesterol as their main component. So where do we get these substances? From our food! The food we feed our bodies supplies the building blocks to manufacture hormones in our body. Interesting, right? So you can see how if we are deficient in those nutrients, either because we aren’t eating them or because we aren’t digesting them, we won’t be setting up a very good foundation. It’s kind of like trying to build a house without tools - you’re probably not going to get far.
We’ve talked a lot about digestion in previous posts, but what are some of the ways that things can go wrong? Well, to start with, we are usually eating in a sympathetic state, or in other words, stressed. We are rushing, eating in the car, standing up or walking, hurrying back to work, etc. as we eat. Digestion, unfortunately, is a parasympathetic activity, meaning it happens we our body and brains are at rest or calm. When our brain registers stress, all energy and focus goes to getting through that stressor and moves away from stimulating digestive juices and processes. This means that nutrients are not being absorbed from our food leading back to a low supply of those building blocks. Another common dysfunction occurs when we have too little stomach acid being produced. A highly acidic environment is needed not only to chemically break down our food but to stimulate other digestive processes. Digestion is sort of like a water cascade, wherein the water supply of one pool directly affects the next process in line. Without this very specific pH as a trigger, we don’t release certain enzymes or bile that also work to break down proteins and fats. Yet another way that digestion affects hormones is through reabsorption. Hormones are meant to be excreted from the body via our elimination systems. However, if our colon is sluggish or backed up, this allows extra time in which our hormones can be reabsorbed into the body and recycled. This is when we see things like excess estrogen or testosterone. There are lots of other ways in which digestion affects our hormonal system, but hopefully you are starting to get a picture of why this fundamental process is to vital to our endocrine health.
So, what can we do? Well, I personally recommend that we begin to look at the ways in which we eat and start there. Simple shifts can make a big difference, and before overwhelming yourself with tons of new habits, just try taking some time to sit and enjoy your meals. Begin to thoroughly chew your food and perhaps start a sort of gratitude practice for the meal you’re about to eat. Gratitude immediately puts us into a parasympathetic, (rest and digest) mode. If you want to take it further, begin to address possible food sensitivities that are creating inflammation and introduce some gut healing nutrients and foods. Adding in a hydrochloric acid supplement can help to get that acidic stomach pH and enzymes will ensure that your food is being digested, even if your natural digestion isn’t where it needs to be yet. Lastly, addressing possible infections in the gut, such as SIBO or candida, will be necessary to improve digestion long-term. These small but easy changes can make all the difference if hormonal imbalance is something you’re dealing with and will give you something to focus on when the task seems overwhelming at best and defeating at worst. Hormonal balance is our body’s natural state of being. Our job is simply to remove the barriers and stressors creating the imbalance in order to bring back our vitality and see the world through those rosy, hormonally-balanced lenses once again.
Until next time…