This great guest post was written by Brett Hawes, CNP. I encourage you to go check out his website!
Hormone balancing seems to be one of those topics that seem to be gaining a lot of attention these days – and for good reason. The effects of hormones on the body are so widespread; they literally affect every organ and tissue in your body. While men usually suffer from things like low testosterone and imbalanced adrenal hormones, women usually have a lot more going on when hormones are out of whack. We’ll get to that a little further on.
What are Hormones?
Hormones are essentially chemical messengers that tell organs, tissues or other hormones to perform (or stop performing) a specific function. They are produced in various glands throughout the body and all have different messages. The endocrine system is arguably one of the most complex systems in the body and, due to the widespread and fluctuating effects of hormones; it is often very difficult to pinpoint exactly where the imbalances are. Many doctors and holistic practitioners look at signs and symptoms and take it from there.
But, different hormone imbalances may also produce similar symptoms, often leaving practitioner and patient in confusion. So, while symptoms provide us with some clues, they don’t quantitatively measure what the levels are. This is why I prefer to use saliva hormone testing (not blood) alongside symptomology to accurately evaluate what the levels are and come up with an appropriate plan.
How are Hormones Metabolized by the Body?
All hormones work on what’s called a negative feedback system. Let me give you a rudimentary example. The hormone TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) is produced by the pituitary, and, as the name suggests, ‘tells’ the thyroid to produce thyroid hormone (TH). TH then travels throughout the body and tells the cells to produce energy. Once we have enough energy a message is sent back to the pituitary to slow down/stop producing TSH which tells the thyroid to slow down/stop producing TH. This perpetual ebb and flow are true for all hormones in the body. Some hormones are diurnal, meaning they fluctuate between day and night (think cortisol, serotonin, and melatonin). Others like estrogen, progesterone, FSH and LH cycle monthly. These are what drive and mediate the menstrual cycle.
Despite their production and effect, all hormones must ultimately be broken down and ‘excreted’ from the body or be recycled and repurposed. This is no simple one-step process and involves a lot of organs, nutrients, and energy. There is however, one common denominator: the liver.
The Livers Role in Hormone Metabolism
The liver is without a doubt the busiest organ in the body. It has over 500 functions, the most well-known being that of detoxification. When most people think of detoxification they automatically assume toxins, poisons and all the nasty stuff out there. But, there are a lot of metabolic by-products that are made by the body that also have to be detoxified and eliminated. These include cellular waste, broken down blood cells and – of course – hormones.
I like to think of the liver as a mail sorting room. Substances enter at one end, are sorted according to what they are, and then eliminated out the body down various pathways. Without getting too complicated, the liver has 2 phases. Phase 1 processes everything and then passes most of its contents to phase 2 (the mail room). Phase 2 has 7 different pathways. Each pathway requires different nutrients and detoxifies and metabolizes certain types of compounds. From the liver, everything will either be eliminated via the gallbladder and bowel, or the blood and kidneys. These are the primary routes of exit. As you can imagine, if our liver is overworked and overloaded with toxins, everything gets jammed up, elimination decreases and we start experiencing signs and symptoms.
When it comes to hormones and the liver, estrogen is most often the focal point. This is a hormone that is intricately involved with the menstrual cycle and all things female. Estrogen metabolism gets tricky but for now, all you need to know is that if the liver pathway that processes estrogen (sulfation pathway) is jammed up, estrogen will remain in the body and start to build up. Also remember that we are producing our own estrogen and there are ‘fake’ estrogens coming in from the outside in the way of chemicals, perfumes, and plastics. As time goes by, our estrogen levels become elevated, causing a general hormone imbalance. This is a major underlying factor that drives things like PMS, PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian cysts and many other health issues women face. Breast cancer can be driven by estrogen as well.
Signs of Liver Imbalance
Because the liver is involved with so many bodily processes, there are literally dozens of symptoms that could indicate liver dysfunction. I’ll keep it brief and relevant. If you are in any doubt or want more info, I encourage you to get some lab work done.
Gas and bloating
Intolerance to alcohol and/or fatty foods
Indigestion and reflux
Pain under the right shoulder blade (gallbladder enlargement)
Pain under the right rib cage (you should be able to squeeze your fingers under your rib cage, if not, your liver is enlarged)
Blood sugar problems (hypoglycemia and diabetes)
Yellowing of the skin and/or skin rashes, blemishes, etc
Dark eye circles
Strong body odor
How to Support Your Liver and Balance Your Hormones
There are many different strategies that can be taken to correct liver dysfunction. Some nutrients offer more of a protective role while others are powerful detoxifiers. When it comes to estrogen and hormones such as thyroid hormone, epinephrine (and other adrenal hormones); the sulfation pathway must be supported. As the name suggests, sulfur is key.
Amino Acids: Glutathione, N-Acetyl-cysteine (NAC), methionine and taurine are all sulfur-containing amino acids that have both antioxidant properties but are also powerful liver detoxifiers. They will open up multiple liver pathways and flush compounds out
Foods: There are many foods that affect liver function but these are my top picks. Brassica family vegetables have been long revered for their positive role on liver function partly due to their high sulfur content. These include cabbage, kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, collards, turnip, rutabaga and Brussels sprouts. Other beneficial foods include onions, garlic, eggs, flax, and beets
Herbs: Milk thistle, turmeric, artichoke, dandelion and chanca piedra (aka “stone crusher” – amazing for gallstones!) are all widespread in their action. They are powerful detoxifiers and rejuvenators. Milk thistle is also a liver protector, while turmeric offers additional benefits like anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory.
Nutrients that support general liver detoxification: vitamin C, B-complex, zinc, magnesium, and omega 3 oils.
Nutrients specific to estrogen metabolism: It is important to take these together.
Indole-3-carbinol (I-3-C) & DIM (diindolylmethane) – brassica vegetable extracts that contain sulfur and directly target the estrogen pathway.
Fibre – binds estrogen in the colon and prevents reabsorption
Probiotics – prevents bound estrogen in the colon from becoming unbound and reabsorbed
Calcium-d-glucorate – prevents pathogenic bacteria from converting bound estrogen in the colon to becoming unbound and reabsorbed
This might be a lot to take in at once. If you are unsure of anything you should seek the help of a knowledgeable professional. It is also important to give things time. While the liver can be cleansed relatively quickly, hormones take much longer to come back into balance.
S. Lord, B. Bongiovanni, and J. A. Bralley, “Estrogen metabolism and the diet-cancer connection: rationale for assessing the ratio of urinary hydroxylated estrogen metabolites,” Alternative Medicine Review, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 112–129, 2002.
Xu, C. Y. Li, and A. T. Kong, “Induction of phase I, II and III drug metabolism/transport by xenobiotics,” Archives of Pharmacal Research, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 249–268, 2005.