Sunday August 5, 2012
A symphony of hormones
By DR NORASHIKIN MOKHTAR
We need to maintain the balance between all the hormones in our body to stay in good health, and to prevent diseases from developing.
REGULAR readers of this column will know that I write about hormones quite frequently. It is a topic that is close to my heart because I strongly believe that hormones are central in ensuring that all the functions and processes in the body run smoothly.
Hormonal balance is a complex subject because there are so many hormones in our body and we are still learning new things about their relationship with each other.
In this article, I will try to provide a basic understanding of what we call the hormone symphony – the harmony between many different hormones, each playing a different tune, but coming together to create a well-balanced melody.
Many people think that hormones are something that only women need to think about, or that they only affect us during menstruation or pregnancy.
In fact, hormones – in both women and men – have many important functions in all the organs, affecting all aspects of our physical and mental health.
What makes hormones unique is that they work in tandem with each other – they send messages to each other and to the organs that they control, constantly telling each other whether to release more or less.
There are many conditions that can interfere with the normal functions or production of a hormone. If you are in a situation where you have too much or too little of a hormone, or it is unable to send signals to other parts of the body, this can disrupt the balance of everything in the body.
Hormone imbalance can produce a whole host of symptoms in women, many of which we sometimes ignore or mistake for other conditions.
Signs like fatigue, weight gain, insomnia, hot or cold sweats, migraines and headaches, hair loss, low libido, depression and irritability could point to hormone imbalance.
While many of these are non-specific symptoms, you and your doctor should suspect a hormone problem if there are no other physical conditions that could be the cause.
Let us look at some of the major hormones that play important roles in the “symphony” that takes place in women’s bodies.
Oestrogen is one of the main hormones that concern women. It is a female sex hormone that carries out important functions for reproduction and sexual activities.
For the most part, women are largely unbothered by oestrogen, until they reach menopausal age. However, while many people believe that menopause is solely caused by decreased levels of oestrogen as the body produces less of the hormone, we now know that the bigger picture is more complex than that.
Not only do oestrogen levels naturally reduce as women approach menopause, but there is also interference from outside the body as well.
I have previously written about synthetic hormones and hormone disruptors. Among them are xenoestrogens, which are chemicals – mostly industrial compounds – that mimic natural oestrogen when we are exposed to it through the use of these chemicals.
When we use pesticides, detergents, petroleum products, plastic products and cosmetics, our body is exposed to xenoestrogens, which trick the normal receptors into thinking that they are normal oestrogens, and therefore cause abnormal hormone signalling.
Even though the body needs oestrogen, it does not mean that we need an excess of it.
This situation is compounded by the fact that a woman’s progesterone levels drop by up to 90% when she nears menopause, compared to the 40% oestrogen drop.
This causes a marked difference between oestrogen and progesterone levels, leading to oestrogen dominance, which is what causes menopausal symptoms.
Oestrogen dominance is thought to increase the risk of endometriosis, uterine fibroids, polycystic ovaries, breast cancer, uterine cancer and thyroid imbalances. It can also affect brain function and emotional balance, energy levels, libido and sleep.
Despite popular belief, testosterone is not found only in men. It is also produced by women, although at a much lower level than in men.
Even at lower levels, testosterone still plays a crucial role in women’s health, particularly in maintaining sexual desire, muscle and bone strength, and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
The thyroid hormone is another key aspect of the symphony in the body. This hormone is responsible for regulating metabolism in almost every cell in the body.
In other words, the thyroid is like the dimmer switch for your metabolism – it decides whether your body needs to increase or lower its metabolic rate.
When your thyroid levels are low, you may experience fatigue, chills, low libido, dry skin and hair, hair loss, memory loss, irritability, depression and constipation.
Thyroid problems can be easily missed if your doctor uses outdated laboratory reference ranges; only tests thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels; or does not take into account other factors that will affect thyroid function. The levels of iodine in your body, reverse T3 (a hormone that blocks the thyroid hormone from working properly), and your adrenal gland function are among the parameters that your doctor should investigate.
Apart from oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid, your hormonal symphony requires the balance of many other hormones, such as DHEA, cortisol and melatonin. By now, you should understand that even with one hormone out of balance, it can cause a ripple effect that results in total hormonal imbalance.
Stressing out your hormones
As I mentioned earlier, there are many conditions that can cause the production and functions of your hormones to become disrupted. These could include diseases or dysfunctions of the glands that produce hormones.
Another possible cause of hormone imbalance is stress – constant, low-level stress from our environment and within our bodies that places a lot of pressure on our glands and hormones to work beyond their capacity.
The stress that we are familiar with is external stress, stemming from work or personal problems, lack of sleep or traumatic incidents. These lead to mental and emotional stress, manifesting as anger, fear, worry, guilt, anxiety and depression.
Stress can also occur within the body, known as internal or physiological stress. These are caused by nutrient deficiencies, dietary imbalances, pain, chronic infections or inflammation, and can lead to more medical symptoms and problems.
If your body is under persistent “attack” by any of the above stress factors – perhaps due to unresolved problems in your life or a medical condition – you will suffer from adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue is believed to be a condition where the adrenal glands are exhausted and are unable to produce adequate quantities of hormones, including cortisol, DHEA, aldosterone, epinephrine and norepinephrine.
These hormones carry out many functions in the body, including helping to maintain blood sugar balance, providing precursors for the sex hormones, helping to control inflammation, modulating the thyroid, and maintaining fluid balance and energy levels.
Imagine what happens when the adrenal glands can’t perform at their optimal level – with so many hormones out of balance, it affects nearly all of the body’s functions.
Unfortunately, we are under stress all the time, due to the type of lifestyles we lead and the environmental factors we are exposed to. Can we try to eliminate or reduce these stress factors in our lives?
We should certainly make the effort to introduce more balance and harmony into our lives, by resolving the problems causing us emotional and mental stress, addressing nutrient deficiencies, as well as treating chronic infections and pain disorders.
As hormones are also related to the aging process, it is believed that maintaining optimal hormone balance could potentially delay any premature effects of aging.
A new approach to the management of aging is to treat aging as a disease caused by a process of mental and physical deterioration, resulting in age-related dysfunctions and disorders.
This approach requires you to assess the levels of DHEA, testosterone, oestrogen, progesterone, thyroid and IGF-1 in your body first. These hormone levels will tell you whether you are beginning to show major signs of aging, and which hormones need to be treated or replaced.
Hormone tests can also be carried out for women in menopause, so as to rule out other diseases that may be causing the same symptoms.
Talk to your doctor about therapies that include lifestyle modification, nutrition therapy, stress reduction techniques, vitamin supplementation, exercise, as well as hormone optimisation with bioidentical hormone replacement therapy to restore the hormone balance in your body.
Starting an anti-aging programme can help you develop lifelong habits for healthy living, and boost your enjoyment and quality of life during aging.
When your hormones are in balance, they will create wonderful music again and rid your body of all the symptoms that have been plaguing you.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician & gynaecologist (FRCOG, UK). For further information, visit www.primanora.com. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.