We invited Nicki Williams, award-winning nutritionist, author, speaker and women’s health expert to discuss four major hormones that can dictate how you look, feel, think and perform. Meet your Feisty 4 Hormones!
When we hear about menopause, we are often hearing of symptoms and issues associated with declining levels of oestrogen. And when we are debating the pros and cons of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), we are talking about oestrogen and/or progesterone replacement.
The thing is, the symptoms of menopause are not just down to those two hormones.
Out of the 100 or so hormones that are swimming around your body, there are four major ones that can dictate how you look, feel, think and perform. I call them the ‘Feisty 4’ as they really can be tricky to control, especially after the age of 40. Unless you are looking after them, they can sabotage your weight loss efforts, keep your metabolism on hold, crash your energy levels and cause hormone mayhem!
1. Cortisol – your STRESS hormone
Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands to wake you up in the morning, keep you alert during the day and help you manage any dangers or threats that come your way.
In caveman times, stress hormones saved your life from a lion attack or a famine. Your ‘fight or flight’ response would kick in – the brain would send a message to the adrenals to release adrenaline (the big initial rush), and cortisol (to keep you on high alert).
A really important life-saving mechanism when you’re being chased by a lion. Not quite so useful when you’re sitting in a traffic jam, or feeling overwhelmed!
Of course, you still need your ‘fight or flight’ response for emergencies, but these days, it’s modern-day stresses like demanding bosses, deadlines, relationship issues, traffic jams, kids, money worries and more, that switch it on.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature only gave you ONE stress response. That’s the ‘fight or flight’ one that evolved to keep you alive. I guess she couldn’t imagine a time when we would have 24/7 technology, long working hours and the other modern-day stresses that we all face.
Why your evolutionary stress response can be problematic:
It’s designed to be temporary – once you escaped or killed the lion, you could rest in your cave and recover. You can’t escape from modern-day stresses – there is no rest and recover time – it’s unrelenting.
Cortisol has priority over everything. When you are in danger, all your reserves are diverted to survival mechanisms. That means no energy for:
- digestive processes – digesting and absorbing vital nutrients
- fat burning – your metabolism is stalled to conserve energy and fat stores
- immunity – fighting infection and toxins
- sex hormones – reproduction, monthly cycle, menopause, sex drive, bone health
During the transition years of perimenopause (and often beyond), these symptoms can be exacerbated due to the extra stress of hormone fluctuations.
- Feeling wired/overwhelmed
- Mood Swings
- Belly fat
- Energy slumps
- Poor sleep
- Brain fog/memory loss
- Digestive issues
- Frequent colds/infections
- Low sex drive and/or infertility
- Hot flushes
2. Insulin – your fat-storing hormone
Will that spare tyre around your middle just not go, no matter what diet you try or how much exercise you do?
Insulin is one of the hormones responsible. It’s your FAT-STORING HORMONE! You absolutely need insulin – it has a life-saving job of regulating your blood sugar levels, but your diet and lifestyle can contribute to overly high levels of insulin, which can be problematic.
The blood sugar roller coaster
When you eat too many carbs or you are majorly stressed, the resulting blood sugar surge stimulates large amounts of insulin, which in its super-efficient job of removing the sugar can lead to a blood sugar crash a little while later (hypoglycaemia), and another uncontrollable craving for a biscuit, pastry or bar of chocolate. And here we go again…!
And on top of storing more fat, crashing your mood, energy and brain function, it makes you AGE FASTER! All that sugar in the blood causes something called glycation – it sticks to proteins in your body and causes damage and ageing.
- High waist:hip ratio
- Sugar/carb cravings
- Early hours insomnia
- Afternoon slump
- Headaches, irritability, shakiness, poor concentration (relieved by eating)
- Excessive thrist and/or frequent urination
- Family history of diabetes
3. Thyroid – your METABOLISM regulator
Your thyroid hormones are vital for every cell in your body to function properly (every single cell has a thyroid receptor). Thyroid hormones are a bit like a thermostat for our cells. They either turn you up (increase your metabolism, energy, temperature, alertness) or they turn you down (slow down your metabolism, conserve energy, decrease temperature, shut down non-essential functions), depending on how much hormone you have available.
If your thyroid hormone isn’t functioning properly, it can affect almost everything, resulting in symptoms pretty much anywhere in the body.
It’s really important to get your thyroid properly tested (read why ‘normal’ may not mean optimal!).
Common symptoms of hypo (low) thyroid:
- Weight gain
- Mood swings, anxiety or depression
- Brain fog/memory loss
- Hair loss, dry skin, flaky nails
- Low sex drive and infertility
4. Oestrogen – your SEX hormone
Over 80% of women experience symptoms due to the changes and fluctuations in their sex hormones and menstrual cycles between the ages of 40 and 55. And the changes in oestrogen levels can be particularly problematic.
After 40, your reproductive capability decreases. Your egg reserve, which started out as millions when you were born, dwindles down to the last few hundred during this time. You’re coming to the end of your fertile years and to add insult to injury, this transitional time can result in huge hormone fluctuations and debilitating symptoms.
‘I’m too young for the menopause’! Many women don’t realize their bodies are preparing for menopause – either they don’t associate the symptoms (especially if they’re not having hot flushes) or symptoms could be very similar to other hormone imbalances (such as hypothyroidism or adrenal stress).
Progesterone is the first hormone to decline as you age. As levels go down more quickly than oestrogen, the balance between the two can tip into oestrogen’s favour – this is often referred to as oestrogen dominance. Progesterone is mainly produced after ovulation, so if you don’t ovulate (which can happen frequently during perimenopause), production will be low and oestrogen will be dominant.
High oestrogen (or high oestrogen: progesterone)
Oestradiol is the strongest of the oestrogens we produce before menopause, and while essential in the right amounts for heart, brain, skin, bone and reproductive health, this is the hormone that is also growth promoting. It is there to help cells multiply in order to thicken the uterus wall to prepare for pregnancy. This is why too much of it can lead to proliferation of cancer cells.
When progesterone declines, you can have too much oestradiol and that can cause all sorts of symptoms, mainly relating to menstrual issues – heavy periods, bloating, lumpy or tender breasts, headaches, cramps, but longer term can lead to more serious conditions such as fibroids, cysts, endometriosis and breast and ovarian cancers.
Low levels of oestrogen, either due to fluctuations during perimenopause, or more permanent low levels post-menopause, can be equally damaging. Symptoms can include hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, depression, dry itchy skin, wrinkles, insomnia, brain fog and memory loss. Longer-term risks of more serious conditions include osteoporosis, heart disease and cognitive decline.
- Hot flushes/night sweats
- Mood swings, crankiness
- Weight gain
- Memory loss/brain fog
- Low libido/painful sex
- Joint pain and bone loss
- Irregular periods
- Breast tenderness
- Bloating/water retention
- Headaches or migraines
The standard medical treatment for menopausal symptoms is HRT (hormone replacement therapy), which can be helpful for balancing your oestrogen/progesterone (do make sure you are taking the body-identical form though).
However, HRT does not address any of the other Feisty 4 imbalances.
As you can see a lot of these symptoms cross over each of the 4 hormones. That’s because your adrenal, thyroid, insulin and sex hormone function are closely interconnected. An imbalance in one is likely to affect the other. It’s important to check all sets of symptoms, see your doctor or a health practitioner and get yourself properly tested.
Balancing all of the Feisty 4 hormones through food, lifestyle choices and targeted supplements can make a huge difference.
Download my free Hormone Balancing Guide for women over 40 to find out what simple steps you can take to balance your Feisty 4!
Contact us for more details about our hormone testing or 1-1 coaching
This article is taken from Nicki’s book; It’s not you, it’s your hormones – the essential guide for women over 40 to fight fat, fatigue and hormone havoc. Available on Amazon.