What Is Hormone Balance And How Do I Get It?
Heavy periods are a curse, and can dramatically affect our quality of life. I still cringe remembering walking out of middle school class backwards with a sweater tied around my waist hoping no one would notice the blood on my chair, and when this happens to you in your 40’s at work, it is definitely time to do something! If heavy periods are adversely affecting your life, for example by causing you to reschedule or avoid activities that you like, there are good options to consider apart from just waiting for menopause.
The concept of “hormonal balance” has been so widely misused and abused by marketers that many of us think that there is a mysterious state of balance that we can somehow achieve by taking a single pill or handful of supplements. The truth is that any product that claims to be able to restore hormone balance by itself is nonsense. It was hearing an advertisement on the radio for one of these that spurred me to write this today.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the human body is that we can fix one symptom without causing a series of others. Our bodies are incredibly complex machines, each part dependent on the others, and any change or adjustment to one system leads to changes in the others. Just as in the universe, we can’t change one thing without a trickle down or ripple effect reaching far wider than the initial event. So instead of the concept of “balance,” implying a scale with one thing on each end that needs to be equalized, the concept of “wellness” to me is more like a three dimensional interlocking series of cogs or gears all moving in the same direction. If one cog moves, the others also move, but they all need to be working together and not opposing each other. I equate “hormone balance” with “wellness,” or the state in which our body’s complex systems are working in synchronization, at the optimal level appropriate for our age. “Hormone imbalance” is therefore the state in which our systems are fighting one another causing suboptimal functioning. But feeling like we are in a state of hormone balance involves a whole lot more than just our hormones.
Hormones have become the scapegoat for almost everything that doesn’t feel good, and “hormone imbalance” is blamed for many common maladies such as weight gain, fatigue and mood changes. The media suggests that if we don’t feel great, our hormones are out of balance. If we feel sad/moody before our period, notice weight gain around the middle in our 40s, or lose some of our sex drive with age, we are “out of balance” and need a pill to fix it. In reality, these examples are normal processes that occur in almost every woman. So really nothing is out of balance, things are exactly as they should be according to nature. That does not mean that we can’t seek to work with the aging process and improve symptoms of aging that are natural and normal, but I use these examples to point out that everything that feels bad is not necessarily a symptom of something hormonally wrong. Our sex hormones (those produced by the ovaries) change dramatically throughout our lives. What is normal hormonally for a 5 year old, a 15 year old, a 30 year old and a 50 year old are totally different. Should a 50 year old feel the same as a 15 year old? Thank goodness, no! At least part of the solution is understanding what is normal at our particular time of life and optimizing, but also embracing it.
I am certain that the majority of issues that we ascribe to hormone imbalance are actually problems caused by an unhealthy diet and bad habits such as poor sleep and lack of exercise. While it is much easier to take a pill than to adjust our lifestyle in a healthier direction, we all know that eating well, sleeping well and exercising will make us feel dramatically better. So why don’t we all do it? After generations of evidence that there is no pill that will make us feel as good as a healthy lifestyle, we still search for it and spend billions of dollars annually on experimenting with alternatives to diet and exercise that don’t work. The most common health complaint I hear from my patients is that they feel tired, moody and can’t lose weight. The vast majority of the time these problems are not due to any hormone issues, but rather to a stressful and hectic lifestyle with little time devoted to healthy eating and exercise. The cure is not a pill or supplement but a lifestyle change.
The concept of “balance” is often used in conjunction with our diet. Not only does balance mean healthy variety, but it also means that any mood-altering effect that food gives us will likely come back to us in reverse. Think for example about sugar and caffeine, two of the mainstays of the average American woman’s diet. Many of us use these as “drugs” to achieve a stimulating effect, and wonder why later in the day the stimulant effect is not only gone but we are exhausted and craving more sugar and caffeine. If we push the body in one direction, the body will push back in the other direction to compensate.That is how nature works.
In some cases, hormones that are not functioning optimally can be restored to normal with diet and exercise. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, for example, is a condition on which too much testosterone (male hormone) is produced, often resulting in irregular periods, hair growth and acne. In many cases (not all) weight loss resolves the problem without the need for any medication. The same can be seen for Type 11 diabetes, which in most cases is preventable reversible with a healthy lifestyle. There certainly are instances in which certain hormones are over or under-produced causing the body’s complex systems to function at a less than ideal state. Type 1 diabetics lack the hormone insulin, and need supplementation to stay alive. Autoimmune disease can result in low thyroid hormone production causing serious health consequences for the patient. Rapid estrogen depletion in menopause can cause a number of highly unpleasant symptoms. These are states of hormone deficiency not hormone “imbalance,” and replacement of the deficient hormone to mimic what nature is missing can restore a state of wellness.
So how does one archive the mysterious state of “hormone balance”? Have us check your hormones, and if they are normal for your age, eat moderate quantities of healthy foods (foods found in nature), exercise daily, sleep well, avoid foods/drugs with mood enhancing effects, and practice stress reduction. But please don’t buy those pills they advertise on the radio!