GUT STUFF: The link between female hormones and digestion
The health of your digestive system and hormone balance are very strongly connected. If you think about it- this is logical. Everything in the body is intricately connected and as a result, a disruption to balance in one area often leads to a disruption of balance in another.
First, I’ll discuss how the digestive system becomes compromised and how it can affect your hormones, and secondly I’ll discuss how your hormones can in turn, impact your digestion.
What Compromises Your Digestive System? A compromised digestive system can either start at birth or become compromised through outside influence, or a combination of both.
Being born via a C- section, being bottle fed (both of which may not always be avoidable), taking antibiotics, eating processed food, stress, medication, and toxins are just some of the things that can contribute to poor gut health over time.
Sometime symptoms of a compromised digestive system aren’t even present or can show up in subtle ways. The typical signs include constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pains, bloating, excess or smelly gas, excessive burping, skin issues like eczema, acne, rashes, or psoriasis, and food intolerances.
Other symptoms can include headaches, mood swings, fatigue, coughing, sinus congestion, agitation, anxiety, depression, joint aches, autoimmune conditions and more.
So how does your digestion impact your hormones?
One way in which digestion impacts hormones is by way of how the good bacteria in your body metabolizes and recycles hormones.
For example, estrogen, circulates the body and when it reaches the liver is inactivated. In a normal functioning digestive system, this inactivated estrogen is then sent to the intestines where it will be excreted in stool. But if there is an imbalance of bacteria in your microbiome the estrogen can REACTIVATE and be released back into your body where it continues to circulate and can cause estrogen dominance.
On the flip side, when your digestion is working well and things are moving smoothly (normal and appropriate elimination) excess hormones like estrogen can be excreted out of the body in your stool instead of being reabsorbed.
The inability to properly excrete hormones can lead to problems like excess circulating hormones. Since the body likes BALANCE, an excess of one hormone can then lead to overproduction or underproduction of another hormone. Remember everything in the body impacts something else. Using the estrogen example- the body will acknowledge that free circulating estrogen is elevated and then may shut down the ability to make new hormone or may adjust production of other key hormones as a result.
Another factor of digestion that impacts hormone balance and production is stomach acid. Many people today are dealing with low stomach acid and can be experiencing heartburn, GERD, or undigested food in their stool. Your stomach acid helps to digest proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The process of breaking down these macronutrients makes the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) available for hormone production. If you aren’t digesting properly, breaking down food well, or even poorly absorbing nutrients, your hormones can suffer.
A third factor has to deal with intestinal permeability. Intestinal permeability (popularly called "leaky gut") is when the junctions (or space) between the cells of your digestive system lining remain open allowing toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles to leak into your bloodstream.
This leakiness is a stressor and that can raise cortisol (stress hormone), which is produced in the adrenal glands. When stress is high, the body puts priority on trying to deal with that stress instead of on your other hormones.
Intestinal permeability also causes nutrient deficiencies by way of malabsorption issues, which means that your body doesn't get the raw materials essential for it to properly execute and run vital processes- one of which includes the balance and manufacturing of hormones.
What about how hormones affect digestion?
Female hormones themselves can influence the digestive system. This is why changes in bowel habits can be experienced with menstruation, peri menopause and menopause. Imbalances of estrogen and progesterone or even just fluctuatuons in these hormones can influence the movement of food through the intestines. They can either speed up the process (causing diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain) or they can slow things down (causing bloating or constipation).
Altered estrogen levels can also cause hyper-responsiveness to stress and a stress response can often cause changes in vowel habits as well. For example estrogen declines around menopause. When it does, you may notice that you feel more anxious. This is because estrogen helps regulate cortisol — the “fight or flight” hormone triggered by stress. When estrogen drops your ability to regulate cortisol declines. Not only does this cause your reaction to stress become more extreme, but the ramped-up cortisol has the add-on effect of slowing down the digestion of food. That can lead to gas, constipation, and bloating.
A drop in estrogen can also promote a heightened or prolonged immune system response and that type of inflammation can contribute to intestinal permeability. And intestinal permeability (as I already mentioned) can cause nutrient deficiencies which can then also impact the balance of your body's hormones.
It’s important to mention that this drop in estrogen doesn’t just happen in perimenopause and menopause. It also happens during your period. At the beginning of the luteal phase of your cycle, estrogen takes a nose-dive. Progesterone also kicks in. Some of the effects of progesterone — when it’s high, like during the luteal phase of menstruation, right after ovulation — include what doctors call “delayed GI transit time”, which means exactly what you think it does: food moves more slowly through your intestine, resulting in constipation and bloating.
So what do all of these connections mean?
Through coaching my own clients I have observed the importance of hormonal balance and digestive health over and over. MANY of the women I work with are typically dealing with some combination of both of these, and so much of what we focus on is not just what to eat and how to train, but how to heal and optimize the hormone and digestive systems so that the body is adequately primed to lose weight healthfully.
We do this by taking herbs that specifically nourish the glands int he body that make estrogen, by utilizing strategic nutrition to help bolster natural estrogen production, by supporting the liver and the body’s natural detox mechanisms, getting adequate sleep, reducing stress, and balancing intense training with adequate recovery.