Hormone Health in the Reproductive Years
Hormonal health during reproductive years might play the most significant role in a woman gracefully moving through the different phases in her life, yet many doctors suppress women’s reproductive hormone production often as a matter of course, in some cases as soon as a young woman begins cycling. While the use of synthetic hormones is indicated in many cases, in just as many or more cases, practitioners prescribe it as an easy, quick, and short-sighted “fix” with long-term ramifications.
Many cases of difficult conception, as well as severely symptomatic perimenopausal years, could be prevented, or at least moderated, by focusing on hormonal health earlier in development. Rather than “controlling” menstrual irregularities, it would be of greater benefit to try to understand and address the underlying cause.
A Naturopathic Approach to Hormonal Health
A naturopathic approach looks to optimize biological functions. The human body exists not as a set of separate systems in isolation; its parts and roles are complexly interwoven, so suppressing one biological function will invariably affect the whole.
Additionally, naturopathic philosophy approaches the human body with an assumption that it possesses inherent wisdom in its functioning. Often, disrupted menses presents as an initial sign that some other less obvious function is experiencing duress. Biologically, fertility and reproduction are not required for survival, thus, they are considered higher functions—functions that can be neglected in challenging times, ie: when our bodies are dealing with more significant, even if yet unidentified, issues.
The body communicates to us with its symptomatology, asking us to pay attention. If you have struggled with hormonal health in the past or currently experience hormones gone awry and have concerns about your hormonal health for the future, read on, and consider working with a naturopathic doctor.
Oral Contraception Pill (OCP) Use
It may surprise you to learn that the prescription of oral contraception, or other delivery forms of synthetic reproductive hormones, often has nothing to do with contraception. Common reasons for prescribing synthetic hormones include:
- Painful menses
- Heavy bleeding
- Irregular cycles
- Amenorrhea (no menses)
- PMS/mood swings
- Hot flashes
The symptoms that a conventional medical approach would suppress in an attempt at hormonal “regulation” are the same symptoms that a naturopath would use to help understand how best to support the body in achieving balance on its own. Rather than seeking simply “regularity”, the goal is to seek health.
Synthetic Hormones Are Not Your Hormones
Instead of truly balancing a woman’s hormones, oral contraceptive pills turn off the body’s own hormone production, masking whatever the underlying issue might be by forcing “balanced hormones”. Naturally produced progesterone comes from ovulation, and in addition to reproductive health, progesterone does some amazing things for women:
- Stimulates the thyroid
- Helps regulate adrenal function
- Reduces inflammation
- Builds muscle mass
- Promotes sleep
- Protects against heart disease
- Calms the nervous system
Synthetic progestins (in all OCPs as well as all other hormonal birth control) do suppress ovulation (prevent conception) and help regulate cyclic bleeding, but because they are chemically different from progesterone, they don’t follow the same biochemical conversions that progesterone does, and so they don’t offer the same global actions as your body’s own progesterone. Just take a look at the effects of progesterone, above, one more time – everyone can agree, those are desirable qualities.
Additionally, synthetic hormones come with side effects that can include nausea, weight gain, headaches, depressed mood, anxiety, heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and liver tumors. Many women will have trouble conceiving after extended use of an OCP because synthetic hormones turn the body’s own reproductive hormone production off, and it may take several months for that production to kick back in.
True Hormonal Health
The number one thing a person can do to support their entire endocrine system is to maintain optimal blood sugar control. All the different aspects of the endocrine system affect all the other endocrine functions. Reproductive hormones remain integral to the rest of the endocrine system, as well as to overall health.
Visualize the endocrine system as a three-legged stool (with the floor being blood sugar control – if not well-controlled and level, the stool will fall over – the whole thing becomes dysfunctional). The three stool legs are:
- the thyroid
- reproductive hormones
- the adrenals (stress hormones)
Regarding blood sugar, consider that:
- Diabetic patients or those with blood sugar dysregulation can have difficulty conceiving.
- Blood sugar dysregulation is a big stress to the body, leading to adrenal/cortisol dysregulation.
- Blood sugar dysregulation can induce changes in the thyroid gland.
When one leg of the “endocrine stool” isn’t working optimally, the other ones will be affected.
- Note that hypothyroid patients have trouble conceiving.
- Progesterone effects the thyroid and helps regulate the HPA axis (adrenal function).
- The adrenal glands are responsible for managing stress, and when the adrenals are overworked and putting out a lot of adrenaline and cortisol, your body down-regulates functions unnecessary to fight/flight survival – the thyroid function to some extent and…reproduction.
Reproductive Hormonal Health is a Marker for Whole Body Health
As revealed, a smooth monthly cycle with minimal symptoms cannot happen if other systems are stressed. In this way, the monthly cycle heralds the need to pay attention to and take care of other aspects of your health. Therefore, if the monthly cycle is not regular with minimal symptoms, it warrants an investigation of blood sugar, thyroid, and adrenal function. Because it takes three months for an egg to reach full maturity before ovulation, the progesterone-making ability during any given month depends on the overall endocrine health of the previous three months. In other words: With appropriate treatment, it may take several months to achieve hormonal health.
You Need Birth Control
Of course, an unwanted pregnancy poses some life and health challenges of its own and should not be minimized. How can a woman achieve optimal hormonal health and also avoid pregnancy? I encourage you to explore all the contraceptive options available with your doctor and your partner, if you have one, and consider doing what you can to maintain ovulation – the source of your progesterone.
Perimenopause – The Great Change
Perimenopause can start anywhere from 2-12 years before menopause and is when you will experience the most symptoms. Symptoms are due to the now-inconsistent levels of estrogen as well as a decline in the production of progesterone and all of its benefits outlined above. Symptoms include:
- Heavy or longer flow
- Shorter cycles
- Sore breasts
- Mid-sleep waking
- Increased menstrual cramps
- Hot flashes
- Increased premenstrual mood swings
- Weight gain
- Heart palpitations
If you have worked towards hormonal health before perimenopause begins, you will likely have an easier time. At menopause, symptoms will quiet down as the body settles into its new normal. This does not mean, however, that you have to wait for menopause for relief.
A Naturopathic Approach to Perimenopause
Hormonal health throughout your reproductive years can reduce perimenopausal symptoms. Remember how progesterone effects the rest of the endocrine system? These other aspects of your endocrine system are what your body will “lean-in” on during the swings of perimenopause. The health of the entire endocrine system will make the transition to menopause easier. Hormonal health during reproductive years provide you with resilient endocrine health during perimenopause. Additionally, the naturopathic approach to perimenopause is similar to the approach for reproductive health – essentially supporting the entire endocrine system with the foundation being blood sugar stabilization.
Work with Meghan Van Vleet, ND in Boulder, CO on Optimizing Hormonal Health
If you are interested in exploring how your monthly cycle and symptoms can help direct optimal healthy habits and lifestyle choices, if you experience an irregular and highly symptomatic cycle, if you are having difficulty conceiving, or if you find yourself in the midst of perimenopause and all of its symptoms and are needing support, give me a call. I can help