How many times have we heard or said,
“I’m so tired, I must be getting my period.”
“I want to eat everything, I must be getting my period.”
“I can’t stop crying at every Snuggles fabric softener commercial, I must be getting my period”
“Give me chocolate or I’m going to hurt you (to our spouse). Sorry, I must be getting my period.”
Maybe not the last two, but most of us have been there. However, this is what we have come to expect with the onset of our menstrual cycle. Must we just accept that we are doomed to have these massive hormonal fluctuations every month that impact our minds, our bodies, our social life, and our relationships?
These symptoms that we have described is what we call PMS. Modern medicine has labeled these symptoms which somehow makes us feel better about the monthly experience but I was always curious as to why some women have terrible PMS and others do not, other women don’t get their periods, and others get spotting all month. What is the driving force behind these hormonal fluctuations?
An important part of the picture is that hormones are the most intricate and complex system in the body. I was once told that everything affects everything when it comes to hormones. That couldn’t be more confusing for a woman trying to understand her own body. Throughout clinical practice, I quickly learned that hormones are affected by many other systems and pathways in the body. Against popular belief, I repeatedly found that hormones were most impacted by brain dysfunction and immune stress.
Here is a quick anatomy session to understand why the brain is so important for hormone balance. Your endocrine system is called the HPTAG axis which stands for the hypothalamus (brain), pituitary (brain), thyroid, adrenal, gonads. The biggest take away here is that the brain is the control center for your thyroid, adrenals, and reproductive organs. Your brain is the driving force behind the function or dysfunction of these organs. The brain creates stimulating hormones, that you may have heard of, like TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), FSH (follicle stimulating hormone, ACTH (adrenocorticoid stimulating hormone). The brain is needed to stimulate the organs to make the hormones, so if we have brain dysfunction we have hormone dysfunction. In American medicine, we take a bottom-up approach to hormones which results in treating the effect instead of the cause. We often supplement with hormones in the form of Bioidentical hormones, hormone replacement therapy, thyroid medication, fertility treatment, and even supplements and herbs. If hormone production is dictated by the brain why are we attempting to address the organ and not its control center?
There have been studies done to evaluate the brain patterns and brain waves in women dealing with thyroid and adrenal issues. As a practicing clinician, the number of women in my clinic reporting a thyroid diagnosis is endless. It is truly an epidemic, they say that 1 in 8 women will develop a thyroid condition in her lifetime. That is an astounding number. The women diagnosed with hypothyroid are often diagnosed based on their TSH is elevated. Reminder: the thyroid stimulating hormone that is released by the pituitary gland (the brain) to stimulate the release of T4 by the thyroid.
Most interesting, the thyroid is the last organ in HPTAG axis to become out of balance. You will have dysfunction in your adrenals and brain before your thyroid will dysfunction. At this point, you may be wondering, “what could be wrong with my brain?” Unfortunately, our brains are impacted by many stressors in this day and age. Our brain can be negatively impacted by dental work, chronic sinus issues, chronic sore throats (including strep), ear infections, stress, head trauma, eating toxic fish, pesticides, herbicides, canned food, aluminum in antiperspirant, hair dye, chemicals in shampoos, and the list goes on.
As your brain is changing, your hormones are also changing. People usually ask, chicken or the egg? Is it my brain affecting my hormones or are my hormones affecting my brain? The answer is both. Your brain, as the control center, can start to create imbalances due to the issues listed above but stress hormones can also negatively impact the brain. As you continue to be stressed, work long hours, ignore self-care, eat on the go, and not sleep enough we can potentiate the issues. This is because stress hormones are secreted by the adrenals and the brain.
So what does this look like for you?
Phase 1: you are burning the candle at both ends but you can because your body is pumping out adrenaline. Often times, you are feeling tired but when the adrenaline kicks in your are wired. You will usually have trouble falling asleep at night and might notice that you are feeling more inflamed. You may feel a little achy, bloated, or have low-grade headaches. Lastly, you will start feeling anxious. No full-blown panic attacks but just worrying more and feeling on edge.
Phase 2: You are having trouble maintaining that adrenaline rush that used to get you through the day. You start craving sugar and salt to keep you going but you also notice that you are getting “hangry.” Those of you not familiar, you want to hurt people when you haven’t eaten in a long period of time. You notice your stomach is off, not all the time maybe just when you eat out or eat too much sugar. You also start noticing you are feeling low and intermittently feeling worried or anxious but you blame it on your menstrual cycle and move on.
Phase 3: You are really struggling day to day due to your fatigue. You don’t want to get out of bed and all of the coffee in the world is not helping. You are more aware that your feeling down and start thinking, “do I need medication?” You might be noticing some weight gain or just an overall feeling of puffiness. Your craving salt like nobody’s business.
Sound Familiar? I have heard the story far too many times as a physician but I also know this well considering this was my biography through my 20’s. Yes, this can happen as early as your 20’s.
So what can you do to reverse the process? Take a top-down approach to healing your body and balancing your hormones. It is important to make dietary and lifestyle changes but it is most important to consider the health of your brain and your immune system.
From a dietary perspective, it is all about avoiding hormones that show up in our food, personal products, household items, and long-term medications. Some of the things to keep in mind include soy, plastic water bottles, conventional (non-organic) meat, chicken, and dairy, birth control pills for more than 5 years, and makeup containing phthalates and parabens.
Some of you may already avoid those products and foods but there are a few more details to consider. Soy is mixed into the feed for animals, soy is also the primary oil used in fried foods, and growth hormone is often found in dairy.
Another important aspect of hormonal imbalance is the immune system. The most common immune system triggers that can affect hormones is mold and toxins (but is not limited to).
Mold is a complex topic, for sake of simplicity, toxic mold from food or environmental exposure can have a negative impact on hormones. Mold can be found on certain foods such as most grains, wheat, fruit, nuts, coffee, and wine. Yes, I said wine. Its okay, drink French wines, the French monitor their vineyards for mold.
Mycotoxins, the toxins are given off by mold, are known for creating insulin resistance and negatively impacting pituitary function. Toxic mold can play a role in disrupting your hormones. Mold is a driving force behind elevated testosterone and the development of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
Another important physiologic component to hormones is your liver. Your liver plays a large role in hormone production because hormones are cholesterol-based and the liver makes all of your cholesterol. The liver will help the body rid excess hormones that are circulating from these environmental exposures like plastics or food If you are constipated or pooping any less than 2 times per day, you could have excess hormone circulating which is negatively affecting the orchestra of hormones in the body.
To tie it all together, toxicity and mold exposure can negatively impact the brain which will alter hormones. You must remove toxicity and improve the brain function to balance the orchestra of hormones.
If you have not had success in balancing your hormones you need to shift from treating the effect and determining the cause. In finding the cause, you must evaluate the brain and the health of the immune system.
The top therapies to balance the brain, the hormones, and assist in detox include qEEG, Neurofeedback, Craniosacral Therapy, Infrared Sauna.
The qEEG is a brain evaluation tool (we call it the EEG on steroids) which is used to map out what parts of the brain are overfiring, underfiring, or imbalanced. This gives you a clear picture of the overall brain health and how imbalances correlate with hormone and mood imbalance. Following the brain map, the Neurofeedback therapy uses the map to balance brain waves, improve brain firing and activity, and improve overall brain function. A complementary therapy to the neurofeedback is Craniosacral therapy which is used to improve blood flow and cerebral spinal fluid to the brain. This gives the brain appropriate nutrients and decreases any inflammation that makes us foggy. Lastly, infrared sauna regenerates neurological tissue which further improves brain function. You may think you are just sitting there enjoying a spa day but infrared sauna therapy has tremendous medical benefits.
The traditional lab tests that are most useful for understanding the brain and hormones include blood, saliva, and urine. The following tests determine if there is toxicity adversely affecting the brain and your hormones: urinary mycotoxin testing, heavy metal testing, mineral testing, methylation testing, genetic testing, and blood work for liver enzymes and immune function. We will use salivary testing for hormones after resolving the brain and immune system issues with our Functional Medicine program at IWG.
Our commitment at IWG is to bring you the very best of what we are living and learning and to keep it honest and scientific. So please don’t expect another opinion-based style of medicine but do expect honesty, specificity, and an unwavering devotion to help you live your most vibrant and meaningful life.
Whether you’re struggling with a current set of symptoms or you are just trying to feel your best, we’re here to help you reach the highest levels of your health.