by Dr. Will Cole
Your hormones act as messengers inside your body to determine everything from your weight, to your energy, to your mood. They are produced by your major endocrine glands including your brain, parathyroid, thyroid, pancreas, gastrointestinal tract, adrenals, and reproductive glands (ovaries and testes.) Since your hormones control so much of your health we often overlook how important they are until they aren’t working well and we are left struggling with uncomfortable, and sometimes debilitating, symptoms.
I often see women in my functional medicine clinic dealing with a variety of different hormone imbalances. After thyroid hormone problems, reproductive and sex hormone issues are the biggest hormone problems that women face.
There can be many underlying causes of hormone imbalance:
- Chronic inflammation
- Methylation impairments like MTHFR
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Stress overload
- Toxin exposure
Polycystic ovary syndrome (also referred to as PCOS), affects between 8 to 20 percent of women in America which makes it one of the most common endocrine disorders for women of childbearing age. And not surprisingly, it is also the biggest contributor to infertility in that age group. PCOS is characterized by an increase in male hormones known as androgens. Insulin resistance is also associated with this condition since high insulin levels can play a role in increasing androgen production and vice versa. This overload of androgen is responsible for throwing female body functions like menstrual cycles out of whack.
To be diagnosed with PCOS, you must be experiencing two out of these three key symptoms:
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- High androgen levels; symptoms include acne and excess facial hair
- The presence of ovarian cysts on an ultrasound
Although PCOS can be a debilitating disease that can affect your appearance and the possibility of having a family, it can also be managed with functional medicine tools. Here are five totally natural lifestyle ways to manage PCOS:
1. Monitor phytoestrogen consumption
These are plant-based estrogens that are not produced by your endocrine system but instead must be gained by eating phytoestrogen plants – one of which is the ever-controversial soy. Since soy is commonly found in a lot of plant-based and gluten-free products due to it’s high protein content, you need to be extra conscious when shopping. However, all legumes (think: flaxseeds, sesame seeds, and lentils) are considered phytoestrogens as well.
Deductive reasoning (and many studies) would say though that since people with PCOS have high testosterone levels, phytoestrogen consumption could help mitigate symptoms. However, since soy is often processed and genetically modified, it can further perpetuate hormone imbalances by triggering an overload of estrogen which comes with its own set of symptoms.
Studies have shown that flaxseed is just as effective as soy for reducing androgen levels due to its consideration as a lignin – a group of polyphenols found in certain plant foods. These work to help increase sex-hormone-binding globulin, which lowers the amount of free testosterone in the body.
With all of this in mind, make sure to work with your functional medicine practitioner to run labs in order to determine the underlying cause of your specific health case. This is especially important since for some people legumes can perpetuate inflammation and further gut dysfunction.
2. Get enough sleep
Sleep is the time when your body regenerates cells and maximize hormone production. PCOS is often linked to increased rates of sleep apnea because of the presence of insulin resistance. In fact, research has shown that people diagnosed with PCOS are more likely to also have insulin resistance. This inverse relationship should give you some extra motivation to turn off the TV and catch some Zzzs.
3. Experiment with adaptogens
Anyone who knows me knows my obsession with adaptogens. There are not many problems that can’t be helped with these plant-based natural medicines – hormone imbalances included. To be classified as an adaptogen it must fit three specific criteria:
- They are generally safe for everyone
- They help to manage stress
- They help to balance hormones
The sympathetic nervous system is the stress control center of your body and also controls hundreds of pathways in charge of inflammation. When inflammation runs wild it can contribute to hormonal problems. It’s because of this fact that adaptogens can be a great tool for helping ease symptoms of PCOS. Some of my favorites include rhodiola, cordyceps, and ashwagandha.
4. Stay away from endocrine disruptors
Endocrine disrupters are toxins that throw the endocrine system out of whack by increasing or decreasing the production of certain hormones, interfering with hormone signaling, or binding to essential hormones. These chemicals are ones we come in contact with every day and are hiding in common items such as cleaning products, plastic packaging, cosmetics, and even our water!
You can find a list of the 12 worst endoctrine disruptors at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) along with were they are typically found. Cleanse your life by eating organic foods whenever possible and switching to all-natural cleaning and beauty products. You can also check out my list of easy and effective ways to support your body’s natural detoxification process.
5. Manage your blood sugar and insulin
Due to the relationship between PCOS and insulin resistance, managing your blood sugar is an important part of alleviating symptoms. Using food as medicine is one of the main ways you can naturally control your blood sugar. The first step would be to make sure you are eating a clean diet filled with vegetables, organic meat, and a small amount of fruit. Beyond that, make sure to include ample amounts of healthy fats including coconut products, avocados, and wild-caught salmon which most people tolerate well. These work to bring blood sugar levels down by switching your body from a glucose burner to a fat burner.
Take it to the next level with intermittent fasting. Studies have shown that IF is a powerful tool in increasing metabolism and lowering insulin resistance. If you would like to try this, make sure you are working with your doctor to monitor your progress while your glucose is stabilizing.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.