Conventional medicine teaches us to think of the body as all these little pieces that exist and operate separately from each other.
If you have a stomach ache, you treat the stomach with stool softeners or antacids.
If your periods are irregular, you treat the hormones with pills that “regulate” them.
If you feel depressed or anxious, you treat the mind with antidepressants or anxiety medication.
We’re taught to troubleshoot and treat our health symptoms one body part at a time. And for most of us, the symptoms seem to get better at first. The stomach pain is relieved, your “period” regulates, and you feel calmer or happier than before.
Our bodies are treated the same way a handyman treats a house. If a handle on the cupboard is loose, they tighten a screw. The lamp is burnt out, so they change a lightbulb. The two problems have no relation whatsoever to each other. So they are fixed directly and efficiently.
Unfortunately, your body is not as simple as tightening a screw or changing a lightbulb. We’re not mechanical machines. In reality, we are beautiful living organisms in which one piece works intricately with the next to create a series of responses that result in a fully functioning human being.
That also means, however, that when one piece isn’t working correctly, the next will also suffer. A prime example of this is the connection between our gut health and our hormone health, and often the key to regulating hormone production is to heal your gut.
What is the Gut?
The gut includes your entire digestive system. From the moment food enters your mouth to the moment it leaves, it is in your digestive system or “gut.”
Why is Gut Health Essential to Healthy Hormones?
Different hormones have different relationships with your gut. Whether they are made in the gut, convert in the gut, speed up or slow down the gut, or exit through the gut – the link is there, and it’s undeniable.
So just how do your gut and hormones work together, and what can you do to keep the complex bond working smoothly?
Your Gut Microbiome Affects Estrogen Balance
Estrogen is essential not only for reproductive health but it protects against low energy, mood disorders, osteoporosis, headaches, hot flashes, and urinary tract infections.
Estrogen is produced in the ovaries of women who still get their periods and later in the adrenal glands after menopause. Once it’s produced, it’s sent to the tissues, bones, and organs, including the uterus and breasts. Your body is smart, and it knows when it’s had enough estrogen.
The remainder is sent to the liver and gut to be deactivated and metabolized. A group of microbes in your gut called “estrobolome” metabolizes estrogen. This group of bacterial genes regulates the amount of active estrogen in your body by producing an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase.
If your microbiome or bacterial diversity is imbalanced in your gut, it can result in too much estrogen circulating in the body. Additionally, poor digestion inhibits excess estrogen from leaving the body, causing it to recirculate in your tissues.
This imbalance will ultimately lead to estrogen-dominance symptoms, including PMS symptoms, mood swings, irregular or heavy periods, conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, weight gain, bloating, and much more.
Progesterone’s Surprising Effect on Your Gut
Progesterone is essential to balancing out estrogen and androgens. It calms your nervous system, reduces anxiety, boosts your immune system, and supports your organs, tissues, and bones. But progesterone does more than balance your sex hormones. It is also a vital anti-inflammatory that has been found to improve gut health.
A study done in 2019 showed that progesterone played an essential part in strengthening the gut lining and decreasing permeability. Pregnant women were primarily subjects because their bodies produce more progesterone during pregnancy.
The research found that progesterone helped improve symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) during pregnancy by improving the gut barrier function. Some women found that symptoms from auto-immune diseases (many of which are related to poor gut health) were reduced or completely disappeared for the duration of pregnancy.
While progesterone is especially high in pregnant women, high progesterone levels are essential for all women. We make progesterone when we ovulate, and that progesterone is critical for gut health.
If you’re not ovulating either because of irregular cycles or because you’re using hormonal birth control designed to stop ovulation, you are low in progesterone and missing out on its important benefits to gut health. The synthetic forms of progesterone (progestin) used in hormonal birth control have the opposite effect on your gut.
Another, more noticeable way progesterone affects the gut is by relaxing it and slowing down digestion. That’s why many women experience constipation right before their periods when progesterone is at its peak. If that’s something you deal with, you can relieve it by drinking half your weight in ounces of water each day, getting in plenty of natural fiber (around 25 grams a day), and exercising regularly.
Poor Gut Health is Related to High Testosterone
If you suffer from high testosterone symptoms such as excessive body and facial hair, acne, especially around the jawline, hair thinning, insulin resistance, or long or missing menstrual cycles, your gut may play a more significant role than you thought.
Many women with high testosterone symptoms are diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS. While the underlying cause for PCOS still remains a mystery for researchers, one study showed a clear connection between gut microbiota and testosterone levels. It found that women who suffer from PCOS had less diverse gut bacteria than women with normal testosterone levels.
The conclusion was that testosterone levels became more balanced when more “good” bacteria were introduced to the gut, and women saw a dramatic reduction in symptoms.
Additional Gut-Hormone Connections
Conversion of Thyroid Hormones
Your gut microbiome converts your T4 thyroid hormone (inactive) into T3 thyroid hormone (active), so it can be utilized in your body. Additionally, micronutrients in your gut, such as selenium and zinc, are essential to converting your thyroid hormones.
Your thyroid hormones, in turn, improve your gut health. Having enough thyroid hormone prevents constipation, indigestions, nausea, vomiting, and other digestive complaints.
Production of Serotonin
95% of serotonin is made in your gut. Serotonin is essential to balancing your mood, helping your feel safe from anxiety, and fighting depression. It’s the hormone that keeps us happy and motivated.
Serotonin is also essential to the communication between your brain and other nervous system cells. It improves how you eat, sleep, and even digest.
A poor diet, lack of exercise, and not getting enough natural light all impact your gut health, limiting serotonin production.
The Importance of Melatonin in Gut Health
Melatonin is essential for your circadian rhythm (when you fall asleep and wake up) and promotes good sleep. A melatonin deficiency, often because of poor sleep habits, has been linked to increased gut permeability or leaky gut.
Typically, when I run a hormone test that shows low melatonin, it’s a strong indicator of poor gut health and should be explored further.
Cortisol and Digestion
Cortisol is important to keep our blood sugar stable, regulate our metabolism, and reduce inflammation. However, if this “stress hormone” is too high, it puts us into fight-or-flight mode and suppresses essential functions, including digestion.
Fight-or-flight mode is helpful in short-term situations – like back in the day when we might have been chased by a bear. However, today we aren’t doing that. Rather, we’re just under chronic stress from long commutes, increasing demands at work, a global pandemic, and many other reasons. Thus, leaving us in a chronic state of flight-or-fight.
If your body is busy fighting off a tiger or running from a bear, it’s not thinking about processing and eliminating your food. When we face chronic stress each day, our body begins to think we’re facing something life-threatening like a wild animal and the increase in cortisol shuts down “non-essential” functions like pooping regularly.
Insulin is necessary to balance your blood glucose levels, store excess glucose in your liver, muscles, and fat, and regulate metabolism. Your gut microbiota affects how your body responds to insulin, improving how our cells use glucose for energy.
Signs and Causes of an Unhealthy Gut
If you suspect or have been diagnosed with a “hormone imbalance,” chances are your gut could use some work.
Terms like “estrogen dominance,” “low progesterone,” “high androgens,” and “insulin resistance” are prevalent in the wellness industry. Rather than worrying about changing the numbers on test results, focus on pinpointing why these imbalances occur.
Many times, your gut is directly involved, so it’s crucial to address your gut health as well. In fact, I often say that treating hormonal imbalances without addressing the gut is much like trying to fill a bucket that has a hole in it.
How to Balance Your Hormones by Healing Your Gut
Gut permeability (leaky gut), poor gut microbiome, bacterial infections, pathogens, and food sensitivities profoundly impact your hormone health.
Identifying and treating gut problems is your first step to balancing your hormones. In the long run, the easiest and most affordable way to do this is with functional lab tests.
I offer a wide range of lab tests within my Transformed coaching package, including a gut pathogen test, food sensitivity test, and advanced hormone testing. Book a call today to learn more!
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