As a Naturopathic Doctor I have been taught to think about health and healing in a very comprehensive, holistic manner. In fact, the science that drives my thought process is that of Vitalism. Vitalism states that our bodies have an inherent self healing mechanism and are brilliant and built to stay in balance through the harmonious efforts of many interrelated systems and are constantly working on our behalf to take care of us. As a practitioner of this style of medicine, I am challenged to listen and ask deeper questions when I am involved with a patient who has become entirely out of balance and therefore symptomatic. Symptoms are the body’s way of talking to us, telling us that something needs attention! I have to understand where there might be “obstacles to cure”, where there might be some excess, some deficiencies and then work with the body in order to achieve a state of health.
This brings me to the issue at hand, HORMONES and hormone replacement therapy (HRT)! The topic has almost reached celebrity status with genuine confusion and concern regarding what is being talked about! I have been extremely perplexed at the whole notion of replacing hormones. I ask…where did they go? Which hole did they fall out of? Did a woman leave them at a party one night and wake up the asking “oh my..has anyone seen my hormones?” Our bodies have exactly what they need to make all the hormones we need at any particular stage in a women’s life. When there is trouble hormonally, it is more about RESTORING function rather than REPLACING it!
As my private naturopathic practice evolved, I was in awe at the number of women I experienced having trouble during normal hormonal transitions. I saw women having difficulty transitioning into menopause, a very natural, once celebrated once honored stage, and I also saw an extraordinary number of younger women experiencing weight gain, irritability, insomnia, decreased libido, and hot flashes. There were also women with sexual and reproductive problems—infertility, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS)—as well as breast and uterine cancer. Most of these women came in with a recommendation from their physician that they begin taking synthetic hormones. For women entering menopause it was HRT, and for the younger women it was the birth control pill. These artificial hormones suppress the body’s natural cycles; they do nothing to address why the symptoms are occurring.
A pattern was emerging among my patients, but it really hit home when my own 37-year-old body started to flare up. My periods became unbearable; I had cramping, clotting, and bloating. My PMS and irritability got so bad my family would mark the two weeks beforehand as the “red zone.” I wrestled with debilitating fatigue for the first time in my life, not to mention the unwelcome weight gain and changes in body temperature. I was frustrated because I couldn’t attribute these changes to anything different in my diet or lifestyle. I was desperate to figure out what was going on, and more importantly, what I could do about it. The stress of building my practice and business, having a family, being president of the California Association of Naturopathic Physicians, and having an overall unrelentingly stressful lifestyle was taking a toll. I had moved back to one of the most polluted—yet beautiful—areas in California. And my dietary choices tended to be less than ideal in times of stress when I needed quick energy. I was drinking coffee in the morning to get me going and looking forward to a glass or two of wine on the weekends so I could finally relax.
I was completely out of balance. My stress level was taxing my adrenal glands (the built in back up system for post menopausal hormone production). I developed digestive disturbances, which I knew were compromising my liver’s ability to do its many jobs, including processing and neutralizing hormones. The effects on my body were manifesting in the form of annoying and uncomfortable symptoms. I knew the last thing I needed was more estrogen from birth control pills. I needed to get my body back in balance. If I didn’t work to correct some things, I knew I was increasing my risk down the road for dangerous health conditions, such as cancer. Listening to the signals my body was sending, such as the difficult periods (which are not normal), then making some profound changes in my diet, lifestyle, and supplement regime got me back on track, in balance, and wiser than before. What I discovered in treating my patients and myself is that women are experiencing extreme difficulties during normal hormonal transitions due to being overall OUT OF BALANCE due to many underlying influences.
Most important, the treatment approach of just “replacing hormones” is not helping women live longer, healthier lives. More hormones are the last thing women need. In fact, this course of action could be harmful. Hormone imbalance can not only cause the symptoms mentioned above, but also can lead to cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Women’s hormone health did not become more problematic overnight. It has a lot to do with our modern environment and lifestyles. Pollution, stress, food quality, the way we nourish ourselves and prevailing medical practices take their toll on bodily systems. The good news is once we understand what creates imbalance; we can tap the many safe ways of restoring balance and eliminating uncomfortable, irritating symptoms while preventing disease and increasing overall quality of life and well-being.
When experiencing difficulties during hormonal transitions that are normal, natural and a birth right for all of us, before filling that prescription, take an internal inventory to see how well you are! Ask yourself these questions: What is my foundation like, are there any cracks? What is my exercise regime? Am I involved in re-creation activities? How am I moving through the stress in my life? Am I staying hydrated? Am I adequately rested with restorative sleep? How am I nourishing myself (what is my diet like)? Is it time for a 2-week cleanse? How is my digestion? Am I absorbing the nutrients I need and eliminating waste products regularly? Am I having fun? What is the quality of my relationships, with self, others and my higher source?
Listening to your body and answering these questions and increasing awareness in your life instead of increasing your hormones artificially might just be the key to overall hormonal health and well-being!