Sex hormone balance is intimately involved in whether we feel like we have got our sparkle on… or not! It also impacts on our capacity to feel calm, cope, and be happy. For when the critical little critters that are our sex hormones are out of balance, it can lead us to feel anxious, deeply sad, angry, illogical and totally chaotic.
In females, the ovaries are the main source of sex hormone production; however, both the adrenal glands (on top of your kidneys) and fat cells make sex hormones, too. The body also contains tissues that produce hormones themselves, but are not sensitive to hormone levels in our body. The reason some tissues are hormone-sensitive and some are not relates to the presence of receptors for a particular hormone being present on that tissue. Let me explain.
Hormones and Receptors: Like Locks and Keys
Just because your body makes a certain hormone, that doesn’t mean you get the lovely or the not-so-lovely effects of the hormone. For a hormone to illicit its effects, it has to bind to a receptor. The best way to imagine the way hormones interact with a receptor site is like a lock and a key. When they connect, you get the effects of the hormone. Breast tissue, for example, is highly sensitive to estrogen and progesterone (the two main female sex hormones) because the breasts contain receptors for both of these hormones.
Sex hormones can be delicious substances that give you energy and vitality, and yet they can also wreak havoc on your life. When it comes to a sense of calm, mental clarity, the ability to be patient and not make mountains out of molehills, fat burning, beautiful skin, as well as fertility, very few substances in our body impact us more than our sex hormones.
Estrogen’s Role in Dulling Your Shine
Estrogen is a feminine hormone (although men naturally make it in small amounts), and it plays numerous important roles in the human body, including ones associated with reproduction, new bone growth, and cardiovascular health. Challenges with estrogen occur, however, when there is too much of it compared to other hormones, progesterone in particular. Estrogen can also pose a problem if there is too much of one type of estrogen compared to other types of estrogen.
The ovaries of menstruating females make estrogen, and small amounts are produced by fat cells and the adrenal glands. At menopause, ovarian production of estrogen ceases.
From a reproductive perspective, estrogen’s role in the female body is to lay down the lining of the uterus, which it does between days 1 and 14 of a typical 28-day reproductive cycle, with day 1 of the cycle being the first day of menstruation. The estrogen lays the lining of the uterus down over these first 14 days to prepare the female body for a conception if it takes place. Estrogen wants a menstruating female to fall pregnant every single month of her life — whether that is on her agenda or not! Remember, our bodies are completely geared for survival, and perpetuation of the human species is an enormous part of that survival process.
As a result of the biological imperative to conceive each month, estrogen ensures there is adequate body fat, as most females do not immediately know that they are pregnant. In the event that the woman is thin without much body fat, it is possible that a brand-new foetus may not survive. To prevent this, estrogen signals fat to be laid down in typically female areas, giving women a pear-like shape to better serve the childbirth process.
Estrogen is the hormone that makes female breasts bud at the first signs of puberty, it broadens hips, and gives women their curves. It lays down fat on a woman’s hips, bottom, thighs, and is typically responsible for making the bottom half of a female body broader than the top half. Estrogen also, unfortunately, promotes fluid retention when it is in excess, and this alone can be very stressful for a female. Her clothes don’t fit her the way she would like them to, and when she feels “puffy and swollen” it can impact her food choices for the rest of the day, as well as the way she speaks to the people she loves the most in the world. Fluid retention can mess with our psychology and this can add another layer of stress to what may feel like an already overwhelming life, at times.
I am convinced that many women feel fat when really they are either bloated or retaining fluid. As I’ve said previously, I never weigh clients and I don’t encourage them to weigh themselves. I do this for many reasons, but one is that as hormone levels fluctuate over the month so can the amounts of fluid being retained, until the hormones return to balance.
Besides, when you weigh yourself, remember that all you are really weighing is your self-esteem. I have met thousands of women who can gain three kilos (six pounds) in a day — to say that this messes with their minds is an understatement. If you get on the scales in the morning and weigh 70 kilograms (155 pounds), and by the evening you weigh 73 kilograms (161 pounds), especially if you have eaten well and exercised that day, and even if you haven’t eaten well or exercised that day, it is easy to feel incredibly disheartened and wonder how on earth this could possibly happen. Weight can feel like just another thing to worry and panic about, which does little to help with your glow.
Remember this: it is not physically possible to gain three kilos (six pounds) of body fat in a single day. The only possible cause is fluid retention. Yet, even though the logical part of the female mind knows this, seeing three extra kilos on the scales over the course of just a day, or even a week, will make most women, no matter how reasonable they are, feel fat, anxious, impatient, frustrated, and generally lousy. And are you more likely to make good food choices when you feel this way? Are you likely to want to be intimate with your partner when you feel fleshy and puffy and as though there is not enough time in your day, because you are eating well and exercising and still gaining weight? When you think that this must mean you have to find the time to do even more exercise, and you don’t know where on earth that time is going to come from because you already can’t keep up — and that was all thought in such a hurry that by now you are gulping for air!
There can be numerous factors behind fluid retention — too many to go into here — but, in a nutshell, fluid retention can be driven by poor lymphatic flow, a congested liver from too many liver loaders, mineral deficiencies and imbalances, and poor progesterone production. From an energetic medicine perspective, I also encourage you to think about who or what you may be holding onto that no longer benefits you. Perhaps it is a belief that no longer serves you, and your body is simply trying to wake you up to this and get you to change. So many of us fear change whether we realise it or not.
Progesterone plays a variety of roles in the human body. From a reproductive perspective, its job is to hold in place the lining of the uterus that estrogen lays down between days 1 and 14 of your cycle. If your body detects that a conception has taken place, the lining of the uterus needs to be maintained and thickened, rather than shed. As a result, progesterone levels begin to rise. If there is no conception, the lining of the uterus is not needed, and progesterone levels fall away, which initiates menstruation. When health is optimal, progesterone is the dominant sex hormone from just after mid-cycle until menstruation.
Biologically, progesterone plays numerous other roles, particularly when it comes to our mood. It is a powerful anti-anxiety agent, an antidepressant, and a diuretic. Without the right amounts of progesterone at specific times throughout your cycle, you can have a tendency towards an anxious or depressed mood — and if you feel like you have a blessed life and yet you still feel flat, add guilt to that emotional cocktail and a degree of confusion about what is really bothering you. You can see how layer upon layer of physical and emotional stress can form, which is a sure-fire way for women to feel like their sparkle has diminished… or even been extinguished.
When Estrogen is Dominant
Estrogen dominance may or may not involve low progesterone. If you want to learn more about this, grab a copy of my book Beauty from the Inside Out.
For now, simply know that the typical symptoms of low progesterone include:
- premenstrual migraine
- PMS-like symptoms (as outlined below under typical symptoms of estrogen dominance)
- irregular or excessively heavy periods
- anxiety and nervousness
- feeling like you can’t get your breath past your heart.
The typical symptoms of estrogen dominance (which usually also involves low progesterone, but not always) include:
- irregular periods or excessive vaginal bleeding
- bloating/fluid retention
- breast swelling and/or tenderness
- decreased libido
- mood swings, most often irritability, easy to anger, and/or depression
- weight gain, especially around the abdomen and hips
- cold hands and feet
- headaches, particularly premenstrually
- tendency to yellow-tinged skin.
And all of these symptoms can lead you to feel lousy and like the lights have gone out in your eyes. On top of the internal impacts, the toll hormonal imbalances can take on your skin can have a significant ripple effect in a woman’s life. When your skin is not great, whatever your age, it can be the source of immense frustration and stress. For countless women, balancing their sex hormones is key to a beautiful complexion as well as deep calm and happiness.
Dr Libby Weaver is an internationally acclaimed nutritional biochemist, author and speaker, based in Sydney Australia. Her natural ability to break down even the most complex of concepts into layman’s terms has seen audiences across the world embrace her holistic approach and unique form of education. With abundant knowledge, scientific research and a true desire to help others see their own light and beauty, Dr Libby empowers and inspires people to take charge of their health and happiness.
For more insights and know-how from this wonderful holistic biochemist, visit her website where you will be treated to a heartwarming hub of information on all things women’s health, plus some truly delicious wholesome recipes. Make friends with Dr Libby Weaver on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Instagram!