This Common Hormone Disorder In Women Has Everything To Do With Blood Sugar Balance
Your hormones are the messengers of your body, and they determine everything from your mood to your energy levels to your weight. The major endocrine glands that make your hormones are your brain, thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, adrenal, gastrointestinal tract, and reproductive glands (ovaries and testes). Your hormones control so many aspects of your health, but it's easy to overlook just how important they are to our health until they aren’t working well.
In my functional medicine clinic, I often see women dealing with many different hormone imbalances. Next to thyroid hormone issues, reproductive health and sex hormones are some of the biggest hormone issues that I see many women deal with—along with the life-altering, sometimes debilitating symptoms that go along with them.
There are many underlying causes of hormone imbalances including:
In America, between 8 and 20 percent of women are affected by polycystic ovary syndrome (more commonly referred to as PCOS), making it one of the most common endocrine disorders among women of childbearing age—and one of the biggest contributors to infertility. It is characterized by an overload of male hormones, known as androgens. Insulin resistance is also associated with PCOS since it is believed that high insulin levels can increase androgen production and vice versa. It’s this excess androgen that can throw off regular female body functions, including the menstrual cycle.
In order to be diagnosed with PCOS, you must display two out of these three main symptoms:
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- High levels of androgens, which can manifest as symptoms of excess facial hair and acne
- Presence of ovarian cysts on ultrasound
PCOS can be a debilitating disease to live with—and affect everything from appearance to your dreams of having a family—but it's also a condition that can be managed through functional medicine lifestyle tools. Here are five essential (and totally natural) ways to manage PCOS:
1. Monitor your phytoestrogen consumption.
These plant-based estrogens are not produced by your endocrine system. They're gained through eating phytoestrogen-classified plants. Soy is the most controversial phytoestrogen and is common in a lot of gluten- and plant-based products due to its high protein content. However, all legumes (think: lentils, flaxseeds, and sesame seeds) are considered phytoestrogens.
Since those who have PCOS have high testosterone levels, it would make deductive sense that increasing phytoestrogen consumption would help to mitigate symptoms—and many studies support that theory. It’s important to note, though, that soy is often genetically modified and processed, which can further perpetuate hormone imbalances by potentially triggering an overload of estrogen—which comes with its own set of symptoms.
Flaxseed has been shown to be just as effective at reducing androgen levels as soy due to the fact that it is also considered a lignin, a group of polyphenols, found in certain plant foods. Research has found that lignins work to increase the levels of sex-hormone-binding globulin, which reduces the amount of free testosterone.
With these in mind, be sure to have a functional medicine practitioner run labs to help determine the underlying mechanisms of your specific health case since legumes can further perpetuate gut dysfunction and inflammation in some people.
2. Get enough sleep.
Sleep is when your body has time to regenerate cells and maximize hormone production. PCOS is also associated with high rates of sleep apnea due to the presence of metabolic disorders like insulin resistance. (In fact, studies have shown that those who are diagnosed with PCOS are more likely to struggle with insulin resistance.) It’s this inverse relationship that should make you want to turn the TV off and hit the pillow earlier.
3. Experiment with adaptogens.
Anyone who knows me knows my love for adaptogens. There are not many health problems that adaptogens can't help with. These plant-based natural medicines are able to bring balance to every system of your body—hormones included. In order to even be classified as an adaptogen, they must fit three criteria: They are generally safe for everyone, they help manage stress, and they help to balance hormones. The sympathetic nervous system is your body’s stress control center and governs hundreds of pathways that are responsible for inflammation. When inflammation gets out of control, this can lead to and further contribute to hormonal problems. It’s because of this that adaptogens can be an essential tool helping alleviate PCOS symptoms. Some of my favorite adaptogens include ashwagandha, rhodiola, and cordyceps.
4. Avoid endocrine disrupters.
Endocrine disrupters are chemicals that mess with the proper function of your endocrine system by decreasing or increasing production of certain hormones, binding to essential hormones, or interfering with hormone signaling. We come across these toxins almost every day, and they can be found in anything from our water supply to nonorganic foods, cleaning products, cosmetics, and plastic packaging. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a list of the 12 worst endocrine disrupters and where they are typically hiding in plain sight. Detox your life by switching to all-natural products and organic foods in every case possible. Take a look at my list of practical ways to make your life a cleanse and support your body’s natural detoxification process.
5. Manage your blood sugar and insulin.
With insulin resistance being directly related to PCOS, it is important to manage your blood sugar and get it under control in order to manage symptoms. Food as medicine is the biggest tool you can use to naturally change your blood sugar. If you are not already eating a clean, whole food diet with a focus on organic meats, vegetables, and some fruit, that would be an important first step. But if you already are, make sure to include enough healthy fats. These will bring blood sugar levels down and control metabolism by using fat for fuel instead of consistently bombarding your body with glucose. Some of my favorite healthy fats include coconut products, avocados, and wild-caught salmon and are generally well-tolerated by most people.
Intermittent fasting is another way to take blood sugar management to the next level. Research has shown IF’s ability to increase metabolism and lower insulin resistance. Just make sure to work with your doctor to monitor your progress while your glucose starts to stabilize.
If you want to learn more about intermittent fasting and how it can affect your health, check out our ultimate guide to fasting.