The Emerging Hormone Revolution
By Marcia Smith, ND, PhD
This question is on the lips of millions of women in the industrialized world. Most women have been exposed to media reports about the potential dangers of long term Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) covered in front-page articles of newspapers and magazines such as Time and Newsweek. This article will provide some common sense that may assist you or a loved one in solving the dilemma of what to do about supporting your hormone balance as you age.
The greatest point of confusion about hormonal function comes from women being led to believe that when they enter menopause-either naturally or surgically-that their production of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone will cease completely. This is just not so! There are various organs besides the ovaries involved in the production and processing of hormones. These include the adrenal glands, the liver and even the skin though an enzyme called aromatas. The adrenal glands are a key site for hormonal production in both men and women, and the adrenal glands have the capacity for providing enough hormones to facilitate a smooth ride through the aging process.
The challenges arise from the numerous elements of the industrialized lifestyle that put excessive stress on the adrenal glands. These glands are sensitive to emotional, mental and physical stress. These stressors trigger the production of adrenaline. The adrenal glands also react to many pharmaceutical drugs as well as to stimulants such as tea, coffee, cigarettes and high sugar diets. These demands often tax the adrenal glands to the point of reducing overall adrenal function. The liver conjugates and de-conjugates hormones. Translation? The liver puts hormones together and takes them apart. There are a multitude of nutrients that are necessary for the processes, including many photochemical from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale.
In the industrialized world, the liver has the extra burden of dealing with environmental chemicals (some of which even mimic hormones), that extra stress on the liver can have an indirect effect on hormonal function in both men and women by diminishing the livers resources for the detoxification of hormones. Other dietary insufficiencies, such as vitamin B12 and folic acid, can also negatively affect the ability of the liver to detoxify hormones. Because of these extra demands, there is a greater need than ever for optimal nutrition and broad-based supplementation.
Different Approaches to Health
With this background information, lets examine the difference between the "allopathic"/ pharmaceutical approach and the nutritional/lifestyle approach for dealing with "the change of life". The prefix "allo" means other. The western medical model treats the body with something other than natural elements to which the body is accustomed. The allopathic approach works against the body. My favourite nutritional biochemist, Dr Jeffery Bland, says that when you take a pharmaceutical drug, "the drug OWNS your body". Synthetic hormones are drugs, and while you are taking them, they "own" your body. This "ownership" has certainly been very obvious to many women who have gone off hormones suddenly. Many of these women have reported being very uncomfortable as the hormones relinquished "ownership".
I am certainly not opposed to taking pharmaceutical drugs when necessary. When the body is malfunctioning, it can be life saving to have a drug "own" your body, however, my perspective, as a health consultant, is that a proactive, natural approach can often prevent a crisis. Such an approach works with your body, not against it supporting and enhancing optimal function. With regard to hormonal function, both generalized support for the adrenal glands and the liver are helpful. The generalized support includes making healthy dietary choices as well as working to achieve mental and emotional balance. The latter is crucial since stress is so taxing to adrenal function.
A Dietary Solution to the Problem
I have found that the most effective dietary basis for this natural approach is a low-glycaemic diet, a diet that doesn't raise blood sugar quickly. A quick rise in blood sugar triggers insulin. High insulin levels produced by a high-glycaemic diet can adversely affect hormone balance, as well as many aspects of metabolism. A low-glycaemic diet is composed of unprocessed foods, low glycaemic fresh fruits and vegetables, sufficient proteins and helpful, essential fatty acids.
The Importance of Supplements
Individuals living in the industrialized world need more than diet alone. My experience is that a variety of supplements are essential. Both men and women will benefit from a carefully formulated food based multi-vitamin/mineral formula. Eating cruciferous vegetables provides a very important source of antioxidant molecules known as phytochemical. A phytochemical supplement can fill the gap for all of us who simply don't consume enough of the key vegetables. Glyconutrients are designed to support optimal signalling mechanisms require accurate cellular communication for proper function.
Natural Production and Balance of Hormones
Various herbs support hormonal function, as but I have experimented with many of them personally and with my clients. I have tried many hormone support supplements but find that a phytogenin product derived from Mexican wild yam is the best. I have used it myself and in my practice for over eight years. The results have been amazing for both clients and myself. I have just turned 60 and I feel great!
The Physicians' Desk Reference for Non-Prescription Drugs and Dietary Supplements states that the product I use provide nutrients to help support the endocrine system's natural production and balance of hormones. You can do your own research in the key ingredients of these products, if you find a paper on plant estrogens by Dr Bland he prefers the term "plant hormone modulators", and a specific paper on dioscorea (wild yam), one of the main ingredients in the product I use. If you do your own research you will find that there is a substantial history of cultures that have eaten wild yam. In fact, it was from studying cultures which ate wild yam that researchers got the idea of creating hormonal drugs from wild yam.
It is significant to note that active ingredient in wild yam is almost identical chemically to the substrate that the body uses in the production of adrenal hormones. We also know from The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann that wild yam is considered a "hepatic" herb - a herb that supports liver function. As noted above proper liver function is necessary for good hormonal function. The wild yam is also considered as "adaptagen", a natural substance that assists the body's ability to adapt to stress. Its adaptagenic properties may help the body in a generalized way to deal with the many stressors of the industrialized lifestyle, thus relieving some of the load on the adrenal glands.
Synthetic analogs of active ingredients in wild yam have been used to create hormonal drugs, including "progestin" (synthetic progesterone). Progestin is one of the drugs that are part of HRT. There is a key difference between nature's own building blocks and synthesized hormonal drug. A drug has side effects, whereas food generally does not. There are even differences between wild yam formulas. I have several clients purchase wild yam formulas other than the product I use. They have all reported to me that these formulas don't work as well.
The Hormone Revolution
I suggest that you become educated about the many elements in your lifestyle that affect your hormonal balance. An educated consumer is an empowered consumer. John Lee MD boldly states, "Women are rebelling... (They) aren't dumping tea into the Boston Harbour, they're dumping their HRT down the toilet!" ["What Your Doctor May Not Tell You" about Breast Cancer, Warner Books January 2002].