SOY... FRIEND OR FOE?

Written By: Brittani Kolasinski (BHSc Nut, Adv Dip Nut Med, ANTA Acc)

Soy has received a lot of press with many people avoiding it like the plague, and some embracing it as a health-promoting food. There are much confusion and confliction, even within the research, leaving many of us not knowing where we stand on the matter.

WHAT IS SOY

Soy is part of the legume family, coming from our humble soybean. It's rich in isoflavones, actually being one of the richest sources in the human diet. Isoflavones are polyphenolic compounds that are capable of exerting oestrogen-like effects in the body. Because of this, they are classed as phytoestrogens (plant-derived compounds with oestrogenic activity) along with other foods like flaxseeds and lentils.

Oestrogens are signalling molecules (hormones) that exert their effects by binding to oestrogen receptors in the body, similar to how a lock and key fit together so do oestrogen and their receptor sites. The difference with phytoestrogens is that although they mimic oestrogen in the body, once bound to the receptor they will exert a weaker effect to what the body’s true oestrogen would (80x weaker). Therefore, phytoestrogens are known to be amphoteric, meaning they can work both ways - to help build estrogen levels in a deficiency or to help reduce oestrogen levels when there’s dominance.

We have oestrogen receptors present in numerous sites within the body, not just within the reproductive organs. They are found in bone, liver, heart, and brain meaning that estrogen serves a far greater purpose for many other organ systems other than the female reproductive organs. Of course, like with anything, too much can also negatively impact as too little would. Balance is key.

In soybeans, the isoflavones are present as glycosides meaning they are bound to a sugar molecule. When fermented as with tempeh or digested, the sugar molecule is released leaving the isoflavone to remain as either genistein or daidzein (two different types of isoflavones). The effects of isoflavones within the body are greatly influenced by how they are metabolised. Their metabolism is dependent upon the activity of certain bacteria that colonise the human intestines. For example, the soy isoflavone daidzein may be metabolised in the intestine to equol, a metabolite that has greater estrogenic activity than daidzein but this would be dependent on the type of bacteria in the intestinal tract. Studies that measure urinary equol excretion after soy consumption indicate that only 33% of individuals from western populations metabolise daidzein to equol.

SO, WHY SUCH VARIATIONS?

  1.  It could be due to the gut health of the individual, and since the standard Australian diet (SAD) does not support good gut health it would mean that soy metabolism would be impacted.

  2. We have unique genetic variations and vast differences to our microbiome. Our microbiome is like a fingerprint, each one different to another’s.

With these reasons in mind, we can understand how such differences occur with our isoflavone metabolism and utilisation of phytoestrogens.

THE IMPACT ON OESTROGEN

The interest of soy consumption within the research lies mostly within the tissue-selective activities of phytoestrogens because anti-oestrogenic (reducing oestrogen) effects in reproductive tissue could help reduce the risk of hormone-associated cancers (such as breast, uterine, ovarian and prostate), while oestrogenic (oestrogen building) effects in bone could help maintain bone density.

We know from the research that the incidence of breast cancer in Asia where the average soy isoflavone intakes range between 25-50mg per day is lower than breast cancer rates in western countries where the average intake of isoflavones in non-Asian women are less than 2mg per day. However, many other hereditary and lifestyle factors could contribute to this difference.

WHATS THE VERDICT?

The humble soybean in its natural form can be a nutritious food. Traditional Asian foods made from soybeans include tofu, tempeh, miso, and natto. Edamame refers to varieties of soybeans that are harvested and eaten in their green phase. Yet the soy products that are gaining popularity in Western countries include soy-based meat substitutes, soy milk, soy cheese, and soy yogurt. So likewise, with anything, the quality counts. Choosing less processed, organic and non-GMO sources of soy like that of tempeh, tamari, tofu, natto, miso, and edamame beans can be a part of a healthy, nutritious diet. On the contrary, there are certain circumstances when soy products should be avoided.

WHEN TO AVOID

  • Thyroid conditions especially underactive thyroid or Hashimoto's disease. Soybeans contain plant compounds (glucosinolates) called goitrogens, which have been shown to block the thyroids utilisation of iodine. People with underactive or unstable thyroid conditions should avoid soy products. Individuals with overactive thyroid conditions such as Grave's disease may find some symptomatic
benefit from consuming goitrogenic food but their condition is often driven by immune system dysregulation.

  • Oestrogen dominant female reproductive conditions such as fibroids, endometriosis, heavy menstrual periods, early puberty and infertility.

  • Testosterone sensitive male reproductive conditions such as infertility and sperm irregularities, prostate problems

  • Weight gain when weight is contributed to a sluggish metabolism, soy consumption can interfere with thyroid function so can contribute to fluid retention and weight increases.

  • Nutritional deficiencies as soy is a legume, it contains phytic acid which reduces the absorption of nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

CAN YOU STILL HAVE IT?

Yes…better if it is fermented.

The fermentation process largely deactivates the phytates, enzyme inhibitors, and goitrogens. Moderate intake of fermented soy products have been shown to produce positive effects on these health conditions:

  • Osteoporosis prevention and treatment

  • Lowered risk of cardiovascular disease

  • Reduced incidence of prostate and breast cancer

  • Menopausal symptoms

Overall, my general recommendation is to always:

  • Choose whole soybean products (never isolates)

  • Ensure soy products are organic and free from contributing chemicals that aggravate health

  • Ensure soy products are free from genetic modification

  • Choose traditional preparations - fermented foods 


  • Keep consumption to a realistic level, around 50g per day as this is in line with the maximum average level Asian cultures consume

For most of us, we would assume that plant-based dieters would be consuming higher amounts of soy, but quite the contrary.  A typical western diet that’s high in processed and packaged foods can consume up to 250g per day coming from processed meats, confectionery, bars, and cereals.

If you decide to have yourself a coffee on soy each day, add some tamari as a dressing or the occasional tofu stir fry in line with a mostly unpackaged and unprocessed diet I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. If you are choosing more packaged foods always check the ingredients list and be mindful of your intake. Of course, as with anything, seek professional advice to tailor a diet to you if there are health concerns involved.

Yours in health,

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HEALTHY HORMONE SERIES PART IV

NATURAL CONTRACEPTION, EXERCISE & LIFESTYLE 

Written By: Brittani Kolasinski (BHSc Nut, Adv Dip Nut Med) 

Apart from diet and nutritional supplementation, there are some key lifestyle factors that come into effect when considering our hormones. Our hormones are somewhat sensitive to things like stress, inflammation, exercise, increased fat mass, toxin exposure and the use of the OCP, but in our current fast-paced toxic world, these things can be unavoidable for some. So how can we combat the negative effects of each?

Stress and inflammation were discussed already in the last post and is worth reading back over before continuing with this one, so let’s take a more in-depth look at some other suspects causing hormonal distress.

Toxins

These include things like hormone disruptors from cosmetics, plastics, pesticides from foods, medications including antibiotics and the many fragrances we spray, cleaning products, fumes from the traffic around us and so much more than we are unaware of.

Our skin is our largest organ. It absorbs and excretes, meaning that what you put onto your skin will ultimately enter into your body. Traditionally in some cultures, olive oil was used for dry skin but now we are applying lotions containing more than 20 odd ingredients, most of which you wouldn’t identify or even know how to pronounce. What’s more is that an ingredient listed as ‘fragrance’ can contain up to 100 separate ingredients that are considered toxic to the body. Today, the average woman uses at least 15 different products in the home before she’s even left the house – that’s not including the variety of toxins that are in our environment, which is estimated to be about 70,000 NEW toxins and chemicals since World War II.

“Emerging evidence suggests that nutrition can modulate and/or reduce the toxicity of environmental pollutants. Diets high in anti-inflammatory bioactive food components (e.g phytochemicals or polyphenols) are possible strategies for modulating and reducing the disease risks associated with exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment”

– Bernhard Hennig PhD, RD

The liver is the primary organ for metabolising and eliminating environmental toxins and pollutants from the body, and certain foods can help support its processes:

  • Drink green tea

  • Use spices and herbs like parsley and turmeric

  • Consume an abundance of cooked cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and kale

  • Include sulphur rich foods like garlic, leek, and onion

  • Flavour your water with some fresh lemon

  • Ensure that adequate antioxidants from coloured fruits and vegetables are included in the diet – eat the rainbow!

It’s also a wise move to take a complete inventory of your current morning routine – are there certain products you could eliminate, or make a simple switch? There are some great varieties of sulphate and paraben free shampoos and conditioners, as well as soaps and washes. Olive or coconut oil can be used as moisturiser. Cleaning can be done with variations of vinegar, water, essential oils or lemon. Teeth can be brushed with a mix of baking soda, coconut oil, and peppermint essential oil and natural deodorants are quite easy to come by – or you can simply go without. Having a healthy body means you’re free from nasty odours, which are another clear indication that there’s something out balance in your body. Cutting back or making the switch not only does wonders for your hormones and health but also halves the time it takes to get ready each day.

Exercise

Exercise is considered a stress on the body, but more of a hormetic stress than a negative one. What this means is that the stress that’s placed on the body in appropriate doses can induce an adaptive response as the body recovers, it gets stronger, more efficient and more robust. This is generally a good thing. However, there is always too much of a good thing and exercise is certainly no excuse.

For women, its advised that different forms of exercise are better at different points in our cycle, as the fluctuating hormones can require different applications of movement.

The first week of your cycle (days 1-7): A decline in oestrogen can contribute to lowered energy levels, as well as the loss of blood that can further exacerbate the fatigue with the reduction of iron. It’s recommended to take it easy during this time, rest more, enjoy a week of slower paced movements, maybe with some stretching or pilates thrown into the mix.

The follicular phase is where oestrogen picks up, oestrogen is stimulating, oestogren is known for that drive, it’s an anabolic hormone meaning that it’s for building up and creating. This is good news for those who are trying to gain more muscle. This is a time where we can afford to go a little harder with our workouts, with more resistance and weight training.

During ovulation testosterone levels rise, pushing you that little bit harder. This is a time where you can see some great results in your workouts.

The luteal phase we see an increase in progesterone with a reduction in oestrogen. Strength -based training may not be ideal during this time, but rather aerobic exercises or some short bursts of high-intensity training. Think of outdoor runs, swimming, and cycling.

It’s always best to listen to your body, especially in the luteal phase there might be some pre-menstrual symptoms present that can lower your motivation. Take a step back and focus on nourishing, relaxing, and taking things easy – you don’t want to overdo it as this can throw off the hormonal balance. Restricted dieting is popular amongst women when coupled with excessive exercise it can be disastrous for our hormonal health.

Fat Mass

Our fat cells (adipose tissue) are considered part of our endocrine system, as they are known to produce and secret hormones. Fat cells produce oestrogen, a type of oestrogen known as estrone. Too much fat mass can contribute to increased levels of estrone which has been linked with the development of PCOS, and certain cancers including uterine cancer post-menopause.

Oral Contraceptive Pill  

The oral contraceptive pill (OCP) made huge advancements to us and for women as a way to legalise contraception and has also been of great benefit for some women dealing with endometriosis or PCOS, so there are some definite advantages for its creation. The OCP is used by 33.6% of the women who are using contraception, with some women as young as 11 years old, the OCP is given for not just preventing pregnancies but to ‘treat’ a myriad of other problems.

I understand the need girls may have for the OCP when dealing with such debilitating pains, embarrassing breakouts or heavy bleeds that impair their own quality of life, but what I have a problem with is the lack of investigations into why such symptoms are occurring and also the lack of education surrounding the use of the OCP. I know many women now in their late 20-30’s who have been taking the OCP for more than a decade without really knowing how the OCP is working within their body, or really knowing what alternatives they have.

The OCP contains synthetic hormones that act to shut down ovulation, inducing a sort of menopausal state. Yes, a bleed does still occur each month, but this is an anovulatory bleed. What many women don’t know is that there are vast differences between our own natural hormones oestrogen and progesterone and the synthetic varieties used including ethinylestradiol, levonorgestrel, and drospirenone.

Natural Progesterone

  • Promotes embryo implantation and pregnancy

  • Decrease risk of blood clots

  • Promotes hair growth

  • Improves brain health and cognition

Synthetic progesterone

  • Aborts pregnancies

  • Increase risk of fatal blood clots

  • Hair loss

  • Causes depression

Natural Oestrogen

  • Growth of reproductive organs and breasts

  • Promotion of the lengthening of long bones, feminisation of the skeleton

  • Maintenance of structure of skin and blood vessels

  • Protects against cardiovascular disease

Synthetic Oestrogen

  • Mood swings

  • Depression – lowers serotonin levels

  • Low libido

  • Decreases bone density

What’s more, is that when women do decide to transition from taking the OCP towards starting a family, there can be a loss of periods for up to 12 months on average. Not to mention, if there OCP was masking any underlying pathology like endometriosis or PCOS for so long it can be a huge setback and significantly impair their own fertility. The OCP not only shuts down your natural hormones but it’s also linked with a risk of stroke and heart attack, breakthrough bleeding, depression and interacts with common medications including anti-epileptic medications, some antibiotics, asthma medications, paracetamol, antidepressants, and thyroxine.

The OCP and Nutrient Depletion 

Our body’s nutrient demands are increased when taking the OCP, again something that most women are not familiar with.

  • Zinc: Women using the OCP have reduced levels of zinc, thought to be due to changes in absorption.

  • B vitamins: Specifically, B2, B6, and B12 are all depleted by the use of OCP. Deficiency in B2 can lead to migraines and headaches which could be attributed to OCP use. Low levels of B6 can result in low serotonin, leading to low mood/depression. Low B6 increases the risk of thromboembolism.

  • Magnesium: Important for smooth muscle relaxation and energy production. A deficiency can contribute to muscle spasms and pains associated with menses. Low magnesium levels can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, anxiety, and migraines. Low levels also affect the balance between calcium and magnesium.

  • Vitamin E: OCP reduces vitamin E status. Vitamin E is beneficial for cardiovascular health and acts as an antioxidant within the body to help maintain vascular integrity.

  • Vitamin C: levels are lowered in platelets and leukocytes with OCP use. The OCP is thought to increase the metabolism of vitamin C. Hormonal therapies can also increase oxidative stress, increasing the need for antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamin C

  • Selenium: Another important antioxidant, deficiency can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The OCP can interfere with selenium absorption.

If the OCP is something you wish to continue taking its good to be mindful of possible nutrients that may require supplementation. Always work alongside a trained professional to ensure the appropriate nutrients and doses are prescribed.

The Natural Approach to Contraception

  • Fertility awareness: This requires tracking your cycle and knowing with certainty when you are ovulating. As we’ve already mentioned in previous articles, there is a fertile window for women within their cycle. This method simply means abstaining from intercourse during this window or using other means of protection, like condoms.

  • Condoms: Simple, inexpensive and effective. Condoms also provide protection against sexually transmitted diseases. There are some natural and organic brands around that are better for you and the environment.

  • Diaphragm: a silicon diaphragm that you can insert and remove yourself, you can pick one up from your local pharmacy.

  • Copper IUD: Not suited for everyone, yet a non-hormonal method of contraception that won’t turn off your own natural hormone production, it also lasts up to 10 years and allows your body to return to its normal fertile state once removed. It’s not the best method with regards to your vaginal microbiome and has also been known to cause heavier bleeds, plus it’s much more expensive than other alternatives.

Yours in health,

 

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HEALTHY HORMONE SERIES PART III

TREATING PMS NATURALLY  

Written By: Brittani Kolasinski (BHSc Nut, Adv Dip Nut Med)

If you’ve missed the previous parts of this series, I encourage you to go back and read them from the beginning, to give you more understanding and insight for the blog posts to come.

As we’ve previously talked about, hormonal imbalances can lead to PMS. As excess oestrogen can manifest as irritability, tension, and aggression, breast tenderness, bloating, water retention and constipation before your period. A lack of progesterone can lead to feelings of anxiety, low libido, headaches, and migraines. Low progesterone can be due to the excess estrogen present as it may throw off the intricate balance of these hormones. We also know now the role that stress, and inflammation play in this PMS picture. So, with all this in mind, how do we go about treating this in a natural & non-invasive way.

To maintain hormonal balance, we need to ensure that we have the required substrates to make the hormones necessary but also have our detox pathways functioning well to ensure that we are able to metabolise and clear out any excess. Detoxification of hormones happens within both the liver and the gut. Poor digestion, food intolerances, excess alcohol, medications and consumption of coffee can all impact on these pathways and disrupt hormone levels. When hormones are not eliminated effectively it can lead to the reabsorption and contribute to conditions of hormone excess like heavy periods, fibroids and endometriosis as well as some common symptoms that can be attributed to hormonal excess.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? 

1. Support detoxification of excess hormones:

Specifically oestrogen and xeno-oestrogens that are in abundance in our chemical-filled worlds. Try swapping out coffee for green tea as coffee may inhibit oestrogen detoxification whereas green tea supports the liver to eliminate toxins sufficiently. Green tea also provides antioxidants in abundance, is anti-inflammatory and modulates the microbiome to protect the intestinal barrier from dysbiosis. Use turmeric and parsley liberally and include cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, cauliflower and brussel sprouts. Drink plenty of water and increase vegetable fibre to promote bowel clearance and hormone excretion.

2. Take magnesium: 

Magnesium is typically lower in women suffering from PMS compared to matched controls. It supports oestrogen detoxification by stimulating certain enzymes and inducing the pathway in the liver known as glucuronidation, this is the key pathway to detoxify oestrogen. It’s also anti-inflammatory and quietens oestrogen receptors. Magnesium also supports the nervous system to protect against the effects of stress, ensuring cortisol is regulated and hormone production is balanced. The combination of broccoli sprouts and magnesium together, typically through supplementation, can relieve breast pain, support serotonin and GABA production to relieve emotional tension and promote bowel clearance, protect against migraines, support thyroid function, insulin signaling and balance blood sugars.

3. Consider Calcium D-glucarate:

A calcium salt that is synthesised in the body in small amounts. Supplementing with this, however, has been shown to promote oestrogen detoxification, reduce inflammation, and support gut function as it inhibits an enzyme known as beta-glucuronidase that are produced by bacteria within the gut and is involved in liver detoxification of excess hormones.

4. Reduce Inflammation:

Turmeric is a God-send when it comes to reducing inflammation and supporting hormones. It works on the liver to support healthy hormone metabolism and detoxification, as well as reducing oxidative stress and downregulates the production of inflammatory cytokines NF-KB, MCP-1, TNF-a and IL-6. Elevated levels of these means there’s inflammation present. Turmeric also provides pain relief thanks to its analgesic properties. A whole-foods dietary approach that’s rich in colourful vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and lower in the common inflammatory culprits that are gluten, dairy, vegetable oils and sugar.

5. Manage your stress:

Stress is unavoidable, but how we support our bodies to equip them to manage daily stressors is a vital part of establishing a healthy cycle. Stress can come from a number of sources from relationships, toxin exposure, psychological and emotional strains, trauma and even from things like exercising, dieting & food restrictions and a lack of sleep. Common stress combaters include mindfulness, meditation, and breathing techniques. Additionally talking to someone can help, either a friend or trained professional, learning to say no and take a step back, staying in for the night to wind down and relax – however that looks to you personally, or simply by turning off your phone for a day (I do this often when I feel I need to take a step back from life, a few hours in the evening or the morning with no contact from the outside world can be all I need to feel human again).

Eating enough and of the right things is essential. Think protein for neurotransmitters, like serotonin and melatonin for sleep, fats from olive oil, avocado, coconut products, butter, nuts and seeds can reduce inflammation, balance blood sugars and support brain function and slow release carbohydrates from starchy vegetables like sweet potato, or grain-like seeds quinoa, millet and buckwheat to provide B group vitamins that are depleted during times of stress. Starchy vegetables are calming for the body as they boost the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter GABA.

6. Get some sun:

Vitamin D levels are shown to be lower in those suffering from PMS compared to control groups. Low vitamin D is also more prevalent in women with endometriosis and is associated with pelvic pain. Vitamin D is obtained from food sources including free-range egg yolks, grass-fed butter, cod liver oil, and some types of mushrooms that are exposed to UV light. However we get most of our daily requirement from sunlight exposure. Although Australia may be a wonderfully sun-kissed continent, vitamin D levels are often low and deficiency is common. Optimal levels of vitamin D should ideally be around 200ng/mL, yet doctors advise that you’re ‘fine’ if you’re above 50ng/mL – I don’t think that’s enough. Vitamin D is an immune modulator, indicating its efficacy in preventing against autoimmunity. It is also known to regulate cells in the body to help protect against cancer – two health conditions that are on the rise within Australia, a vitamin D deficient population. More on vitamin D in another article “What’s the Deal with Vitamin D?”

7. Be good to your gut:  

 Your gut is one of the major elimination pathways for the body to rid itself of excess hormones, like oestrogen. Constipation is a clear indication that hormones are out of whack and it would warrant further investigations and appropriate treatments from a trained health professional. There is also a direct correlation to dysbiosis and conditions like endometriosis, with the microbiome of endometriosis sufferers having a larger number of pathogenic bacteria strains and a reduction in beneficial species like lactobacilli. The increase in pathogenic strains influence the levels of glucuronidase, meaning that oestrogens are reabsorbed by the body back into circulation. Chronic dysbiosis is commonly observed in cases of PCOS as well – more on this in future posts!

8. Nourish your being:

Getting enough macronutrients in the form of starches and carbs, healthy fats, quality proteins of both animal and plant origin, and fibre to support your bowels is, of course, important however a focus on nutrient dense foods are essential. As previously mentioned, being properly nourished supports your body through periods of stress. It’s also beneficial to include foods rich in zinc, vitamin B6, magnesium, iodine, selenium and calcium as these all support thyroid function, ovulation and progesterone synthesis. Speak with your nutritionist or naturopath about specific dietary advice or possible supplements to consider.

I always encourage you to work with your healthcare practitioner about appropriate supplementation in doses tailored to you. Stay tuned for tomorrows article “Lifestyle Factors that Affect Your Hormones”

Yours in health,

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HEALTHY HORMONE SERIES PART II

THE PMS CODE - YOUR BODY IS TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING 

Written By: Brittani Kolasinski (BHSc Nut, Adv Dip Nut Med) 

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) is believed to affect approximately 90% of women each month, with the presentation for each being vastly different. I’m certain the men in our lives think that we make most of this stuff up, that we are just being sensitive or overly emotional and irrational, which I must admit I have been more than a few times. But, unfortunately PMS is a real thing, but although it might be so common its most definitely not normal. Our periods should not be this way, they should not impact our lives to such an extent or the lives of our loved ones and people around us.

When PMS rears its head it’s not something for us to just suck up and push through, but to stop, take a moment to listen and really feel what your body is showing you, and from there address the underlying imbalances that are causing such discomfort. PMS can be a thing of the past, once you understand what is driving it.

There are many, many different presentations of PMS with symptoms effecting our physical, mental and emotional worlds. Mood swings, appetite changes, fatigue, irritability, acne, fluid retention, anxiety, depression, brain fog, insomnia, pain, migraines, breast tenderness, indigestion and constipation are just some of the many presentations of PMS. The timing of these symptoms may also differ woman to woman, for most these may occur during the second half of their cycle and pass with the onset of their period or very soon afterwards.

The development of PMS is not exactly clear cut. Its hypothesised that PMS can be due to fluctuations in sex hormones, a result of too much stress and disruption of our hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, from abnormal GABA function (a neurotransmitter responsible for calming the body), altered serotonin levels leading to feelings of sadness and altered bowel movements, a reduction in opioids and blunted response to endorphins.

Our reproductive hormones impact on many of our neurotransmitters and chemicals within the brain, hence why mood is affected when suffering with PMS. Progesterone for one, influences GABA. GABA is responsible for feelings of relaxation, is calming on the body and promotes restful sleep. Therefore, with lowered progesterone levels, GABA is affected and can cause changes to mood, inducing feelings of anxiety and impairing sleep.

Dysmenorrhea is the term used for painful periods. This pain is described as a dragging, dull ache or a heaviness with episodes of cramping and is generally located around the lower abdomen and pelvic region but may also spread to the lower back. Pain can be from the muscular contractions needed to shed the lining to induce the bleed, however extreme pain or pain that occurs at different times during the cycle, not relating to the bleed itself can all be indications that something else is going on and would warrant further investigation.

Endometriosis is a condition that can be responsible for such severe pains and its worthwhile to have this properly investigated if you suspect something is not quite right. There are slight differences to the pain of endometriosis in comparison to dysmenorrhea. Endometriosis pain may begin up to 10 days before the day of bleed and remain for up to a week after, there may also be pain present around ovulation (mid cycle) whereas dysmenorrhea is generally felt the day prior, or the day of the bleed and will pass shortly after, within a couple of days. More on Endometriosis in future articles, stay tuned!

Cracking the Code

Firstly, its best to log the symptoms you experience and when in your cycle they are occurring, as we have previously discussed in the last article there are many hormones fluctuating at different points during your cycle. Doing this can also give you an understanding of what is going on internally. For most, the symptoms present indicate signs that there is too much estrogen or too little progesterone. Although it’s a much more complex and intricate hormonal dance that’s happening within the female body, these two are centre stage and worth looking at in more detail.

Signs you have too much oestrogen

Feeling particularly aggressive and irritable, with fluid retention and bloating, breast tenderness as well as constipation, which then leads to more oestrogen reabsorption and further sustaining the distress.

Signs you don’t have enough oestrogen

A common sign of oestrogen deficiency is vaginal dryness, but other symptoms include dry skin, insomnia, weight gain, fatigue, hair loss and depression – I mean who wouldn’t feel depressed with symptoms like this! But more technically speaking, the low mood is to do with the relationship oestrogen has to serotonin, our ‘happy hormone’.  Oestrogen deficiency may occur when you’re unable to ovulate, this can be due to a number of things – under eating, stress or an underlying pathology. If you’re still ovulating it may just be that your oestrogen is on the lower end, and this might be noted with a lighter bleed with your period, referred to as a scanty flow. Changes to diet and lifestyle can rectify this and restore the balance.

Signs you have too much progesterone

To be completely honest, it’s not often you’ll come across this – progesterone is difficult to make. The more common scenario is a progesterone deficiency with oestrogen excess. Too much progesterone can occur with progesterone supplementation (note this does not include hormonal contraceptives, these contain a synthetic progesterone – not the real thing). Pregnancy is another time that progesterone may be high, or with oestrogen deficiency as this throws of the balance of these two hormones. In other instances, it may also indicate underlying pathology that would warrant further investigation, adrenal related problems may throw out your progesterone levels. Signs that you have too much include fatigue, morning brain fog, dizziness, water retention, sense of physical instability, anxiety and changes to libido. As these symptoms can be vague and an indication of a multitude of other health conditions its always best to work with a health practitioner to help guide you.

Signs you don’t have enough progesterone

Your luteal phase is shorter, and you will notice fertile mucous within the luteal phase, rather than around mid-cycle when ovulation should occur. If tracking your basal temperature, you may find that your temperature is lower during the luteal phase. Weight gain, low libido, irregular periods and problematic skin may also indicate that progesterone is too low. Progesterone can be more difficult for the body to create and requires consistent ovulation each month. Remember the corpus luteum mentioned in the previous post? This 4cm gland is formed from a single cell within a small window of time every month, meaning that you must be well fed and nourished. Underlying conditions that effect thyroid or to do with blood sugar imbalances must be addressed as these can impair ovulation. It takes 100 days in total for your eggs to reach maturation, so when it comes to healing hormones, be patient – it’s not an overnight fix.

A deficiency in progesterone could be due to increased stress or inflammation within the body, meaning that these will also need to be addressed to support healthy hormone production.

Apart from oestrogen and progesterone, both stress and inflammation can contribute or be the causative factor to what’s behind your PMS;

Stress is a major factor in the presentation of PMS. Cortisol, our stress hormone is synthesised from the same precursor that both oestrogen and progesterone are made. This means that during times of stress more cortisol is made from the precursor, leaving less available to make adequate hormones and leads to an imbalance that can affect your cycle as well as trigger PMS.  

Inflammation also comes into play. PMS is associated with higher levels of inflammatory cytokines, and this can manifest as pain and cramping, fatigue and migraines. Increased blood sugar levels also promote inflammation and lead to excess production of oestrogen.

When it comes to supporting your body naturally to reduce the monthly burden that your periods might often bring, it’s always a good idea to track your symptoms across the month, this allows you to gain more understanding of what exactly your body is crying out for.

Looking forward to the next part of this hormone series, ‘Natural Treatments for PMS’ where we will be considering all of the aforementioned information and breaking it down into some simple tips & tricks you can do for your body to make you menstruation more enjoyable.

Stay tuned xx

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HEALTHY HORMONE SERIES PART I

WHAT IS A HEALTHY PERIOD? 

Written By: Brittani Kolasinski (BHSc Nut, Adv Dip Nut Med)

Starting this 5-part series, where we will be talking all things hormones & health, with the topic of periods. This is our menstrual cycle. A topic near & dear to me, and often times one that comes up in conversations with girlfriends as well as in clinic with my female clients. It’s something that should be celebrated, talked about, and something that we as women (and our male companions) need more education and clarity around as many of us don’t truly understand the intricacies of the women’s cycle and the hormones at play - or how to appropriately support them. 

The menstrual cycle

This is the cycle that occurs, involving a number of hormonal and physical changes that makes pregnancy possible. The ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, thyroid, and brain are all involved with a number of different hormones at play. The process, in a nutshell, involves the development of an egg (ova) by the ovaries that are released (this is ovulation) to travel down the fallopian tubes and become embedded within the uterus ready to be fertilised. The lining of the uterus thickens each month in preparation for a possible pregnancy. Without fertilisation the uterus contracts to shed the thickened lining of tissue (which is our endometrial tissue) and this is the bleeding that occurs with menstruation which is known as the woman’s period.

The first day of the cycle is the first day of bleed, and the cycle finishes once the following months bleed occurs. The average length of a woman’s cycle is between 28-32 days. Anything outside of this time window is worth investigating. The entire cycle can be broken up into three stages:

1.     The follicular phase – this stage lasts typically from days 1 to 14, it is the first stage of the cycle in which the follicles in the ovary begin to mature. The follicles are tiny sacs in which an egg is contained.

2.     Ovulation/The fertile window – once an egg has reached maturity, it is released to enter the fallopian tube and make its way to the uterus. This usually takes place between days 13, 14 or 15. This ‘window’ is the fertile window, the ideal time to have sex if you’re wanting to conceive. Worth noting that not all women will ovulate at this time, so it’s important to understand and look for the signs that you have ovulated to know the ideal time for you and your partner to conceive. Ovulation does not need to occur to still experience a menstrual bleed, this is known as an anovulatory bleed.

3.     The luteal phase – the finale, in this time the lining of the uterus has thickened in preparation for a fertilised egg. Without fertilisation the lining will break down and contractions allow this to be shed as the bleed and signaling the beginning of the next cycle.

The Hormones

Hormones are chemical messengers produced by the body that stimulate a number of reactions and responses from tissues. There are a number of different hormones needed throughout a woman's cycle for it to be completed.

Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) – this is needed for puberty and healthy ovarian function. As the name indicates, its required for the stimulation of growth and the maturation of follicles to become the egg that is ultimately released during ovulation. FSH is also needed to stimulate the secretion of oestrogen. It's highest in the follicular phase of the cycle and peaks just prior to ovulation. 

Oestrogen – this is secreted by the ovaries and has a number of functions throughout the body. It's stimulating and is responsible for the drive we as women have, it promotes the growth and development of tissues, from breast to uterine lining. It halts the production of FSH so as to ensure that only one egg is matured and released with each ovulation, it stimulates the release of luteinising hormone (LH), it allows the secretion of fertile mucous (a clear indication of ovulation), which is a creamy egg white discharge that provides the sperm with an easier trip to the fallopian tubes to reach the egg.

Oestrogen levels peak during the follicular phase with a particular spike around ovulation – this triggers LH which allows ovulation to occur. Oestrogen is also needed for healthy bones, muscles, brain, heart, sleep, skin and metabolism. It tapers off during menopause, a time where there is an increased risk of bone, heart and metabolic conditions.

Luteinising hormone – a spike in LH mid-cycle triggers ovulation to occur, it’s also required for the development of our corpus luteum which is needed for the synthesis of our hormone progesterone.

Progesterone – almost opposing the effects of our stimulating oestrogen, progesterone is our calming hormone. It's secreted by the corpus luteum and also by the placenta during pregnancy. Progesterone is anti-inflammatory, involved in muscle growth, promotes sound sleep, protects against cardiovascular diseases and supports the nervous system during times of increased stress. Progesterone is needed to maintain pregnancy, its levels are highest during the luteal phase of the cycle. Without fertilisation of the egg, progesterone levels will then taper off which stimulates the contraction of the uterus to shed the lining and induce the monthly bleed.

Signs you’re ovulating

It’s common for women to experience anovulatory bleeds on the odd occasion, but regular occurrences may indicate hormonal imbalance is warrants further investigation. Without ovulation, there is a lack of progesterone made which can contribute to premenstrual symptoms including breast tenderness, insomnia, changes in mood (anxiety, depression) and increased appetite and food cravings. A lack of progesterone can also shorten the length of your cycle as the lining of the uterus cannot be maintained as long.

One way to track ovulation is by checking your basal metabolic temperature. This is a simple, effective and non-invasive tool to use. Using a thermometer which you can purchase from your local chemist, you take your temperature the moment you wake and can chart it using a hand-written method or through an app on your phone (I use Kindara). You can see what you have ovulated as you will find a rise in temperature. 

Additionally, you can watch for physical signs such as fertile mucous, this will appear as an eggwhite consistency that you will note around mid-cycle or during the luteal phase and is an indication that you are ovulating.


Premenstrual Syndrome – PMS

PMS is common, with a variety of symptoms occurring for each woman that can significantly impair their quality of life. Although incredibly common, PMS is certainly not normal. A healthy period should not cause distress, it should not induce significant pain or cramping, or be responsible for changes in weight and mood or disrupt your normal sleeping pattern. If you’re experiencing such complaints month to month it's worthwhile to work with a healthcare practitioner to make the appropriate changes to diet and lifestyle or include nutritional supplementation to restore balance and harmony.

Changes or irregularities to your period are a clear indication that something needs to be addressed, a great resource for further understanding this is the book by Sydney naturopath Lara Briden, where she refers to your period as your monthly report card. A great analogy in my opinion.

Our periods are a gift and a healthy period is a sign of balance, health and wholeness. Further articles to come will address natural treatments for PMS, look into lifestyle factors that are affecting your period, discussing what pathologies might be underlying your menstrual irregularities of pain – things like PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids etc, to finish up the week with healthy hormone foods and recipes. Here’s to happy, healthy hormones ladies!

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