How gutsy are your hormones? Linking your gut health to hormone balance
Photograph by Artem Bryzgalov.
It’s quite often my clients look back at me with a blank stare when I suggest that the primary step towards sorting out their hormones is to test their gut. I get it, what on Earth does your digestive tract have to do with all your sex hormones? While at face value it might seem irrelevant, I assure you it’s not. In fact, without a healthy happy gut, there’s very little I can do to help balance your overall wellbeing, nevermind your hormones.
Allow me to put this into perspective. There are between 100 million to one trillion microorganisms per gram of fecal matter we produce. As if those numbers aren’t mind blowing enough, our microbiome has about 3 million genes. That’s approximately 150 times more than the human genome, making us more bacteria than human. And if that’s not impressive enough, our ecology of bacteria is as unique to every one of us as our own fingerprint. Hence why testing it is essential; there’s simply no room for guesswork when it comes to your gastrointestinal health.
1. Nutrient absorption
Photograph by Calum Lewis.
But why is your gut health so important for hormone balance specifically? Well, firstly we rely on a robust gut for optimal nutrient absorption. In fact, some of those nutrients, like B vitamins, are made by our bacteria. We need nutrients to make and then breakdown the hormones we don’t need.
2. Hormone detoxification
We also rely on our gut for healthy hormone detoxification. Ultimately, when your liver has broken down hormones that are no longer needed, they’re thrown out in your stools, urine and sweat. Full, daily bowel movements mean that these hormones are being properly thrown out.
But here’s the thing, it’s not just about whether you’re constipated or not. Bacterial imbalance in the gastrointestinal tract can drive hormonal imbalance too. In fact, we have a group of bacteria that are responsible for this; we call them the ‘Estrobolome’. Bacteroides fragilis, Bacteroides vulgatus, Bacteroides uniformis, Clostridium paraputrificum, Clostridium clostridioforme, Clostridium perfringens, Escherichia coli, Eubacterium, Peptostreptococcus, Ruminococcus, and Staphylococcus (yikes, that was a mouthful), have the ability to make an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase. This enzyme captures detoxified oestrogen in your stools and reabsorbs it back into circulation. In short, it undoes all the hard work your liver has just carried out, driving oestrogen dominance. Excess meat, toxins, antibiotics, stress and a low fibre diet are just some of the factors that can cause the estrobolome to overgrow and wreak havoc with your hormones.
But that’s not all. Some strains of bacteria have been linked to common hormonal disorders. For example, have you ever heard of the microgenderome? It’s a novel concept that relates to the bidirectional roles our hormones have with our microbiome. A study on mice found that the composition of microbes in males and females changed at puberty. This means that our sex hormones influence our gut bugs. However, significantly, the study found that when strains of bacteria were removed, testosterone levels increased amongst female mice and decreased in males. This lead researchers like Tremellen and Pearce to hypothesize that microbial imbalance could lead to conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder characterized by high testosterone. In fact, in 2017 a microbial fecal transplant successfully decreased androgen levels in mice and improved their oestrus cycles.
I could go on. But let me finish with just one more important influence our gastrointestinal health has on our hormones. Inflammation. About 70% of our immune system resides in our gastrointestinal tract. The immune system is responsible for making key inflammatory chemicals that help to clear out an infection and communicate to localized cells that the body is under attack. If this isn’t carefully controlled, the inflammation can become systemic. That’s big trouble in the world of hormone balance. And I’m not just talking about your sex hormones – neurotransmitters and your thyroid too! Inflammation has the ability to disrupt hormone communication all together increasing risk of reproductive issues, depression, anxiety and slower metabolism.
Photograph of Kay Ali talking about the microbiome and its role in hormone balance. © You Need A Nutritional Therapist Ltd 2019.
The good news is a diverse community of beneficial gut bugs help ward off infections, making lighter work for our immune system. In other words, it helps keep inflammation at bay. It’s called “colonization resistance”. Immune protection from our microbiome is so effective, that animal studies have shown that even in the presence of pathogenic bacteria, infection and symptoms of ill health and disease may not occur.
So what does this all mean? If you’re concerned about your hormones and experience symptoms like:
You should get your gastrointestinal health tested. In fact, many of these symptoms especially long term, require the attention of your consulting medic. Depending on your symptoms and medical history, I use functional stool and breath testing to get to the root causes of your gut problems, as well as your hormonal imbalance too.
If you’d like to work with hormone specialist and Registered Nutritional Therapist Kay Ali dire