Hormone Dysfunction: An Unfortunate Norm

Pain, extreme fatigue, unwarranted emotional swings…just a few of the uncomfortable symptoms of female reproductive hormonal imbalance. Sadly, these symptoms, along with many others caused by hormonal imbalance are often looked at as normal today. What’s worse is that these symptoms are often underestimated, and even joked about in the media and the workplace; women feel shamed if they need to miss work or are having a rough day. These so called “normal” symptoms generally surrounding our time of menstruation are in fact, not normal. 

My mom and doctor suggested I start taking hormonal birth control (HBC) pills at the very young age of 14. At the time, it made sense to me, I trusted my mom and doctor to make the best decisions for my well-being. I still trust my mother to do so, but I have a feeling the doctor knew better. I was having 6-8 week long periods and extreme symptoms during this time, and HBC was the remedy (or so I was told). There began my journey down the road of messed up hormones. Because I started taking HBC at such a young age, I never gave my body the opportunity to sort things out on its own. I never even attempted a holistic approach to get my period on track and start feeling better. Unfortunately, this is the case with many teenage girls and young women these days. Of course, it’s a safety precaution against unwanted teen pregnancy, and does temporarily clear up many of the associated issues surrounding teen hormones such as acne, cramps, and abnormal cycles. The key word being “temporarily”. There’s a saying in the health field that goes, “pay now or pay later”. I wish so badly I would have had that knowledge long ago, but here I am, paying later. 

HBC fit into my normal life for many years, I was completely oblivious to the buildup of problems I was creating within my body over the nine year span that I was taking those little blue pills. Through the chronic migraines, regular vision loss, edema, enlarged breasts and depression, there was always some other factor to blame. In my early twenties, my vision blackouts began worsening, as well as my depression and edema. Everything came to a halt when I fell over in a grocery store and knocked down a whole stack of food, tumbling to the floor unable to see. I was humiliated but more than anything, scared. For two hours, I could only see blurry spots out of one eye and the other was completely blind, carrying with it an excruciating migraine. The next day I got in with my naturopath who looked me dead in the eye and said, “You must stop taking your birth control pills immediately. This is very serious.” And so I did. I finally let go. 

It took a few months of detoxing the stuff before I started to see positive changes, but when I did, they were immense! I ended up losing close to 20 pounds, my body shape completely changed, my depression went away, the constant bloating and edema ceased, my blackouts stopped, and the chronic migraines I had learned to live with almost daily slowly became less and less frequent. Four years later, I am still in the process of regulating my hormones through holistic practices, but I honestly feel like a different person. After sharing my story with my clients, I have learned that many of them are in the same boat but are definitely ready to jump ship. It’s important that before making such a big decision, a conversation with the gynecologist is had, and preferably the naturopath as well. 

HBC isn’t the only culprit in hormone dysfunction though. Living in the modern world poses an almost unavoidable threat to proper hormone function. Who would have thought our shampoo, beauty products, and household cleaners could be so dangerous? Surely not much of the population. Within a large portion of products on the market are what are known as “hormone disruptors” or “endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC’s)”. There is a surprisingly long list of chemicals used in modern products as preservatives, fragrances, colors, etcetera that have similar chemical structures to estrogen, which causes confusion at the hormone production sites inside our bodies. These phony estrogen structures can also be called xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens and EDC’s can cause a wide variety of disarray in the body such as weight gain, thyroid dysfunction, adrenal imbalance, infertility, and low sperm count. While beauty and home products are some of the main offenders on the shelves, so are the pesticides often sprayed on non-organic foods, components of plastic food and drink packaging, and even prescribed antibiotics. Over exposure to these xenoestrogens as well as habitual eating and drinking of low quality foods can lead to estrogen dominance. This is when all those gnarly symptoms start to occur at different times throughout the month, and can lead to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). 

Normally, if we accrue a little excess estrogen, our liver will be able to filter it out of the body. However, if our diet is rich in trans fats and sugars and we are overtly accumulating excess estrogen, our poor liver won’t have the power it needs to do so. An overworked liver means all that estrogen will saturate it and cause an overproduction of cortisol, the stress hormone. Excessive cortisol production can cause a whole slew of other issues, including blocked progesterone receptors. Progesterone can be considered the yin to estrogen’s yang, so when progesterone isn’t being manufactured properly, everything gets even more out of whack. 

While the ingestion and topical use of substances containing hormone disruptors is enough to create quite an internal mess, other less tangible aspects of our daily lives can have a significant impact as well. According to a 2014 study done by the American Institute of Stress, “77% [of Americans] regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress”. This brings us back to the hormone released when we’re stressed- cortisol. Although cortisol and reproductive hormones are released from separate organs, their signal centers are neighbors. The hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis (HPG) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are neurotransmitting pathways that communicate in order to regulate hormone manufacturing. The HPA axis responds to stress by sending signals to the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which activates the fight or flight response. HPG axis sends signals to the endocrine glands to produce male or female reproductive (or gonadal) hormones. After a stressful situation is over and cortisol levels normalize in the blood, negative feedback is sent to the HPA/HPG axis so that regular production may start up again. “Although the acute HPA response to stressors is a beneficial response, constant activation of this circuitry by chronic or traumatic stressful episodes may lead to a dysregulation of the HPA axis and cause pathology (Oyola, Handa, 2017)”. Chronic stress or fight or flight activation doesn’t necessarily stem from having a run in with a bear. Work, financial, relationship, health, or familial situations can all cause chronic stress, and often do if we aren’t practicing healthy de-stressing techniques regularly. Not only do we end up experiencing the other side effects of chronic stress, but now we have to deal with the symptoms of hormone dysfunction too! 

As scary as this information may be, we are not doomed. To be informed of the causes of hormone dysfunction presents the opportunity for positive change. The start to change ideally begins with a detox program so that we may clean our slate. It’s important that the detox is done properly, with guidance from an experienced wellness practitioner who can tailor the experience to the individual’s specific needs. Detoxing externally will be also be a crucial factor to this process. This means looking at the ingredients of household and beauty products and ceasing to use them if they contain any of those dreaded endocrine-disrupting chemicals. A great resource that lists the EDC’s is www.ewg.org. Buying all new makeup, skin care, hair care and household items can sound daunting, but there are several organic companies now that offer completely safe product lines at affordable rates. Learning how nutrition plays into our continual hormonal balance is vital as well. 

As mentioned above, a diet high in trans fats, sugars, non-organic foods sprayed with pesticides or processed foods can be inhibiting to the daily filtering of excess hormones through the liver. Certain foods, such as soy products, that are generally considered healthy can also be phytoestrogens, which means that they naturally contain estrogen and should be avoided or limited by those trying to decrease their estrogen levels. Many wellness practitioners are in support of what’s known as “seed cycling” to supplement hormone balancing. I use this method myself and have noticed a major difference in my moon cycle symptoms. Ingesting certain seeds during the follicular phase (day 1-14) and other seeds during the luteal phase (day15-30) of the cycle is said to act as a transport method for carrying excess estrogen out of the body as well as provide fatty acids, vitamins and phytoestrogens to help regulate hormone production. 

With all the mounting evidence on the impact chronic stress has on hormones, it’s safe to say some de-stress techniques need to be implemented. This can range from consciously taking deep breaths throughout the day, to doing yoga a couple times a week, to taking a hot bath and reading after work. Whatever it is that melts the stress away, as long as it’s healthy, it should be done regularly and without guilt. Humans weren’t meant to run on empty, it’s extremely important that we take time for self care. Finally, after speaking with physicians and making sure it’s the right life choice, making the split with Hormonal Birth Control methods could be the most effective action one could take. Some women do really well switching to the non-hormonal IUD, others learn how to effectively use the Natural Family Planning Method in conjunction with organic condoms. Each person is different and will have to decide what’s right for them long term. I’ve spent the last four years doing my best to rebalance my hormones so that I could feel like myself again. I plan on continuing this journey for the rest of my life, learning all I can along the way and spreading that knowledge as much as possible. My biggest hope in regards to hormonal health, is that women and girls will be educated from an early age on discerning which products are safe for use, the long term effects of hormonal birth control, and holistic avenues to correct and prevent hormone dysfunction.

Written by Holly White


Resources: 

Daily Life. (2018, September 20). Retrieved from https://www.stress.org/daily-life/

Oyola, Mario. Handa, Robert. Stress. 2017 Sep; 20(5): 476–494.

Published online 2017 Aug 31. doi: 10.1080/10253890.2017.1369523