A Balancing Act: How the Body Regulates Your Hormones
by Sue Hughes, MSEd, HHP, CNC
Hormones. We love to hate that word. After all, our hormones seem to be at the root of every emotional rollercoaster, bloating, cravings, cramps . . . basically, all of the cyclical pain and anguish that a woman may experience. But the truth is, the ability of our hormones goes well beyond the realm of our reproductive cycle. Hormones are actually incredibly important biochemical substances that are the great communicators to every cell in our body. Simply put, they tell everything what to do, how to do it and when to do it. (To learn more about Female Hormones, click HERE)
If you already think this sounds pretty amazing, consider this: the body makes hormones in only very tiny amounts; so tiny that they are measured in nanograms and picograms. In other words, billionths and trillionths of a gram. To give you a point of comparison, a billionth of a gram is equivalent to one pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips! These hormones are released them from the glands directly into the bloodstream where they begin to make their way to target cells to make all sorts of things happen.
Because hormones are so powerful in such small amounts, the body must exercise tight control over them to prevent issues. To take care of this important responsibility, the body employs a dynamic duo: the Endocrine System and the HP Axis. The endocrine system is the master control system of all of the hormones in your body. It is controlled, however, by 2 glands located in our brain: the hypothalamus and the pituitary. Together this “team” is called the HP (Hypothalamus-Pituitary) Axis or sometimes the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal). It’s critical that the HP Axis is working correctly, or else hormone production can slow down or even come to a complete halt, creating an imbalance. Let’s explore the causes of hormone imbalance and how the body reacts:
1. Too much hormone entering the body from the outside.
- Birth control, hormone replacement therapy
- Xenoestrogens from the environment – chemicals that have a molecular structure very close to estrogen and act as a very strong form of this hormone. Found in plastics, fuels, industrial chemicals, pesticides, styrofoam, paints, personal care products, artificial scents and air fresheners
- Hormones in our meat and dairy
- Plant-based phytoestrogens like soy
The body is amazing, though, so it’s no surprise that there are some built-in mechanisms within the endocrine system to protect us from this influx of powerful, unnecessary hormones.
The Endocrine System’s Answer to Excess Hormone
Negative Feedback Loop: This is sort of like the heating system in your home. When the furnace produces enough heat to elevate the temperature above the thermostat set point, the thermostat is triggered and it shuts off the furnace. (Heat is feeding back negatively on the source of the heat). When the temp drops back below the set point, negative feedback is gone and the furnace comes back on. Similarly, if the body receives large doses of a hormone it will activate the body’s system of checks and balances and the “gates” on the cell will close so that no more hormone is able to enter the cell.
So when hormones are introduced from the outside, such as birth control pills to “regulate” your cycle, it triggers the HP axis to stop ovulation through this negative feedback loop. It tells the ovaries that there are enough hormones so don’t secrete more. If you continue to introduce these hormones over time, the HP axis continues to be suppressed even when you come off the pill. In fact, it may not return to normal function for quite some time, resulting in the production of insufficient levels of hormones by the ovaries.
Sex-Hormone-Binding-Globulin: To illustrate this one, let’s look at estrogen’s movement throughout the body during the reproductive cycle of a woman of child-bearing age:
First, estrogen is made in the ovaries and then works its way to the blood vessels which transport it throughout the body to destinations that have “estrogen receptors”. These are basically parking spaces for estrogen inside of cells where it can do its thing – change the way that cells behave. However, once in the blood vessels, some of the estrogen binds with a travel companion – a protein called SHBG (sex-hormone-binding-globulin). The SHBG inactivates the estrogen so it can’t get out of the bloodstream and attach to receptors. This BOUND ESTROGEN can’t do anything, it just circulates. This is the body’s way of avoiding an overabundance of estrogen. You see, an influx of estrogen into the body: 1) triggers the liver to produce SHBG to inactivate some of the hormone that’s already in the bloodstream; and 2) communicates to the ovaries to stop producing estrogen. So, as a result, estrogen production is effectively shut down.
This sounds wonderful, right? But there is a slight complication of a hormone excess that potentially worsens any existing imbalance: SHBG, after tracking down and inactivating the estrogen, also tracks down and inactivates other important hormones such as thyroid hormone, growth hormone, and testosterone, no matter what their levels are. It literally becomes a downward spiral, all because there was too much of one hormone coming in from the outside.
So, when it comes to hormone replacement therapy of any kind, synthetic or bioidentical, it is very important to make sure that both free and bound hormone levels are included in blood tests. Saliva-based tests typically measure “free” hormones, meaning those that aren’t bound and inactivated. This leaves out an important part of the puzzle (a buildup of inactive estrogen won’t even show up in a saliva test.) So the tests may indicate that you need more hormone when, in fact, the body has already sensed that it has too much and therefore SHBG has shut down functionality of the hormones that are already there and the new, incoming hormones.
Okay, so we have the estrogen that’s bound to SHBG, but what happens to the unbound or “free” estrogen roaming the bloodstream? Well, this estrogen can go anywhere in the body and attach to receptors. The highest concentration of estrogen receptors is in the breast tissue, by the way. That’s why they are so sensitive to fluctuating estrogen levels. So once an estrogen molecule attaches to a receptor, it switches “on” and cells will begin to divide at rates determined by the strength of that estrogen. Strong estrogens like toxins and estradiol speed up cell division, while weak estrogens like estriol slow this process down. (See my previous post on Female Hormones.) So, after locking into an estrogen receptor for awhile, the estrogen molecule begins to wear out and is then ready to leave the body. Next stop, the LIVER, where it must be broken down and prepared for elimination along with toxins and natural waste products.
2. Sluggish liver activity.
The liver is another critical point for estrogen metabolism. If the liver is not able to filter excess estrogen out fast enough due to a large toxic load, the hormones re-enter the bloodstream and circulate once again. The presence of certain toxins will actually turn any type of estrogen into the “bad,” quickly-dividing form, whereas compounds present from the intake of certain substances like cruciferous vegetables will result in its breakdown into good estrogen, slowing down cell division. So how estrogen metabolizes in the liver is under our control to a great degree. Keep in mind that if the estrogen metabolizes in an unhealthy manner here in the liver, it won’t even bother to head to the colon or bladder. Instead, it will turn right around and head back to the breasts and other receptors where it will continue to wreak havoc by speeding up cell division.
3. Sluggish colon activity.
The colon and the bladder are, ideally, the final stops for the estrogen. If it breaks down in a healthy manner in the liver, no damage will be done and it will simply exit the body at this point. It helps to have a nice flood of fiber, an abundance of good bacteria and plenty of water to push it out. If you tend toward constipation, the estrogen has yet another shot at returning to the bloodstream, increasing total estrogen load and upping cancer risk.
Keep in mind that STRESS IS A TOXIN. Whether emotional or physical, stress affects each aspect of hormone metabolism. The body shuts down or slows any non-essential processes when it is under perceived stress. (“Non-essential” meaning those things that aren’t necessary for survival at that moment in time.) Blood rushes to the essential organs and away from the skin. Increased oxygen goes to the lungs … basically, everything bit of energy is put into that which enables a person to respond to the threat quickly. Energy is taken away from digestion and the immune system so colon and bowel activity dysregulate. Energy is conserved in the liver, so filtering out of strong hormones becomes not so important during times of stress. To make matters worse, progesterone is used up to manufacture corticosteroids, the stress hormones like cortisol that help us respond to the perceived threat.
Summary of the body’s hormone-regulating mechanisms
- Negative feedback loop. When the brain senses there is enough of a hormone, it triggers the glands to stop making that hormone.
- SHBG. When there is a high level of a hormone circulating in the blood, additional hormone is bound to SHBG and thus inactivated.
- Receptor down-regulation. When the body senses that hormone levels are getting too high, it weakens how the receptors work when a hormone attaches to them.
- The liver. This important organ breaks down hormones and prepares them for elimination. To work properly, one must take in certain nutrients to assure that the hormones are in fact broken down and not strengthened into a highly proliferative form of estrogen and recirculated.
- The colon and bladder. Responsible for the excretion of broken down hormone metabolites out of the body. Again, to make this work properly, we must have enough good bacteria in our guts and consume enough fiber and water or else we are setting the stage for recirculation once again.
So there you have it. If you have any questions on any of this, or if you are having troubles of your own that you believe may be due to hormone imbalance, contact me to set up your free telephone consultation.
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