Balancing act

We take a look at the role hormonal balance plays in women’s health

From PMS to the menopause, hormones can affect women’s health at any stage of life. Achieving hormonal balance really is key to ensuring optimum wellbeing.

“Hormones can cause problems with energy, mood swings, food cravings, memory and concentration, muscle cramps, sweating, anxiety, tension and irritability,” explains Dr Marilyn Glenville, leading nutritionist and specialist in women’s health (www.marilynglenville.co.uk). “They can even change how well your digestive system works giving you symptoms such as bloating, flatulence and IBS.”

According to Dr Glenville, an imbalance in female hormones can lead to a range of health issues from PMS and endometriosis to fibroids and PCOS.

Diet and lifestyle
In order to achieve hormone balance, it is essential to look at both dietary and lifestyle factors. “Work-life balance is key,” says Dr Glenville, “as working longer hours with more stress means we may eat on the go, often nutrient-depleted foods. This also means less exercise, which reduces the endorphins which make us feel good. It then becomes a vicious cycle. Trying to incorporate some form of relaxation into your day can be very helpful – even soaking in the bath for 20 minutes – or a short relaxation exercise such as deep breathing before bed can help us to unwind.”

Little and often
“Hormones do not respond well to poor blood sugar regulation,” says Dr Glenville. “Eating little and often, protein-rich meals and snacks and never skipping meals is essential for stable blood sugar levels. Hormones do not like caffeine and sugar, so keep these to a minimum. Hormones love essential fats found in oily fish, nuts and seeds. Try to eat oily fish three times a week and snack on nuts and seeds during the day. Increasing dark green, leafy vegetables which are magnesium-rich promotes hormone balance and happy mood. Try to limit alcohol as hormones can be severely disrupted. We know that smoking can bring on an earlier menopause so it’s best to stop altogether.”

Achieving a balance
“Lack of sleep is also a factor,” adds Dr Glenville, “because of the effect on melatonin which also influences female hormone balance. Moderate exercise can have a profound effect on our hormone levels because it encourages endorphins which are chemicals associated with good mood and emotion. Too much exercise (i.e. intense running) can have the opposite effect and switch off hormones and even stop menstruation, so it is all about balance.”

Managing the menopause

“During the menopause, levels of both oestrogen and progesterone fall, as the need for a menstrual cycle comes to an end,” explains Eileen Durward, the menopause expert with A.Vogel (www.avogel.co.uk). “The most common set of symptoms are related to falling oestrogen levels. Women may experience one or more of the following (in any combination):

  • Fewer, lighter periods
  • Hot flushes and night sweats
  • Low mood
  • Tiredness and weepiness
  • Low libido
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Dry and/or itchy skin

Hot flushes and night sweats are the symptoms that cause most distress. A simple, non-hormonal solution is sage extract. For a broader range of the low oestrogen symptoms listed, go for fermented soya isoflavones, which gently raise oestrogen without any of the problems associated with HRT. (Not suitable alongside hormonal contraceptives.)

For anxiety, which can be an intense problem during this time, try a good magnesium supplement alongside a vitamin B complex and additional L-theanine. A symptom pattern that is more closely associated with falling progesterone levels is heavy periods and/or periods coming closer together. Agnus castus can be used in this situation, although heavy flooding should be referred to the doctor.

This is also a very good time to ensure that you are drinking sufficient water (at least 1.5 litres of still, plain water daily) and cutting back on caffeine and fizzy drinks, as this simple step will reduce the severity of many symptoms such as fatigue, flushes, headaches, joint pain and anxiety.”

Tackling PMS

“PMS refers to symptoms which occur after ovulation and disappear almost as soon as your period starts,” explains nutritionist Sandra Greenbank (www.sandragreenbank.co.uk). “Symptoms can range from anxiety, cravings and water retention to mood swings.

As it occurs only during the second half of the cycle, it is clearly a hormonal problem. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach but there are strategies to bring the body back into balance and therefore become better able to utilise the hormones in circulation.

Stress can cause elevated levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can then throw the sex hormones out of balance. It’s best to avoid consuming caffeine, alcohol and sugar and instead go for a wholefood diet with good quality protein (organic meat, eggs and fish), good fats from nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados, and plenty of colourful vegetables.

It’s also important to keep blood sugar balanced, as this has been shown to correlate with severity of pre-menstrual symptoms. Eliminate sugar altogether, eat three meals a day (with a couple of snacks if needed) and make sure that each meal contains a source of protein and fat. Avoid foods made from refined flour; instead choose complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and steel cut oats.

Vitamin B6, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc and essential fatty acids such as evening primrose are all useful in addressing the symptoms of PMS. However, first consult with a qualified practitioner as they can be unsafe with certain medications or during pregnancy.”

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