Hormonal problems are common, even typical, in our society. These imbalances show up as menstrual pain and menopausal problems in women, fatigue, poor sleep, depression, anxiety and chronic pain. They also contribute to an inability to lose weight, as our weight and appetite are controlled more by hormones than by the number of calories we eat (more on that in a future column).
I treat many patients who rely on medication for hormone imbalances, such as thyroid hormones, estrogen, testosterone, insulin, etc.
Why are these hormone imbalances so common? The problem is not that we have inherently weak thyroids or wimpy ovaries. The problem is we have been stressing our hormonal systems throughout our lives, and these problems are just “the chickens coming home to roost.” Our hormonal system can only take so much abuse before it starts to get out of whack. And it is happening earlier and earlier — I have seen girls in their early teens prescribed birth control pills to control menstrual pain and irregularity.
As is often the case, there is a common thread through all of these problems: lifestyle. The No. 1 hormone imbalance in our society, which is the driver for most other hormone imbalances, is chronically high insulin levels. This primary problem is directly related to our diets. We all know that sugar will cause insulin levels to rise, but any carbohydrate-dense food will do the same. Most carbs are, at their core, sugar; starches are simply thousands of glucose molecules chemically strung together.
For this reason, I strongly disagree with the current dietary advice to eat a lot of whole-grain foods. Grain-based foods cause insulin release, period. Even whole grains are 70 percent carbs, which means they are basically 70 percent sugar. The worst culprit by far is wheat, but all grains are “carb dense.”
These chronically high insulin levels, and fluctuating blood sugar levels, are a major source of stress on the body. These imbalances can in turn upset the regulation of other hormones. Cortisol levels are raised, with effects such as increased belly fat, poor sleep and inability to concentrate. Thyroid levels can be affected, leading to fatigue and weight gain if the thyroid becomes underactive, or anxiety and weight loss if the gland is pushed in the opposite direction. Sex hormones also become unbalanced, with the results mentioned above.
This whole series of events is triggered by a diet heavy in foods that trigger insulin release — processed foods and grain-based foods.
Some patients claim that their problems are hereditary because their grandmother, aunts and mother all had the same problem. But research suggests hormone imbalances are one of the “diseases of civilization.” If you go back enough generations to when our ancestors lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, without any processed foods and minimal grains, there were very few cases of these problems. (This does not apply to true genetic diseases such as type 1 diabetes; however, these problems are more rare than problems such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and other lifestyle-based hormone imbalances.)
The medical treatment for these imbalances is to supplement any hormone that is deficient, with shots, creams or pills, and reduce production of any gland that is overproducing. If the thyroid gland is overactive, it can be destroyed by injections of radioactive iodine, which is one of the most common treatments for hyperthyroidism in the U.S. (Of course once the gland is destroyed, patients need thyroid hormone pills for the rest of their lives.) There are many drugs to control blood sugar, with the strongest being insulin.
Treatment is different from a wellness perspective. As I mentioned, most hormone imbalances stem from chronically high insulin levels. So the first approach is to counsel the patient to stop eating carb-dense foods, especially soda, pastries, sweets and foods composed mostly of grains. We also use “whole food” supplements, as most patients’ diets cause a serious lack of many nutrients (I do not consider highly processed mineral and vitamin additives helpful; they supply only a fragment of the whole vitamin complex.)
Tackling nutritional problems will help eliminate the underlying cause of the hormonal imbalance, but if the problems are chronic or severe, it usually takes active treatment to restore balance and ease symptoms. Acupuncture is very effective at improving hormone balance, easing pain and stress and restoring a sense of well being.
My experience in helping patients to improve their diets shows that many lack the energy to start this major lifestyle change; getting a boost from supplements and acupuncture, along with support, improves success rates a lot. If the patient is successful and able to eat a healthy, low insulin-stimulating diet for a good period of time, the need for the treatments is reduced or eliminated. Many notice their hormone balance is restored or at least improved.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.