In this modern world, we tend to think of our energy levels, mood, metabolism, skin, gut health and hormone imbalance as completely separate “things” that have totally different functions. Most people even go to see a different doctor for each category!
However, from a functional nutrition and functional medicine standpoint, we know that gut health and hormones (reproductive system and endocrine system) are intimately synced up…
(December 13, 2021: This post has been medically reviewed by Dr. Omar Akhter, MD.)
The gut-hormone connection
First, let’s talk about the gut. (Sexy, I know!)
The gut lining
- The “gut” constitutes our entire digestive tract which actually starts in the mouth, then connects into the esophagus, stomach, intestines, colon and finally the rectum.
This may be hard to believe, but technically each of us has enough total gut tissue in the body to cover the dimensions of an entire tennis court!
If we’re connected on Instagram, you may have also recently seen me reference a few times that the microbiome (ecosystem of trillions of microbes unique to each of us) in the gut actually outnumbers human cells by 10:1. :-O
Gut health and skin: as within, so without!
Okay, time to really nerd out now!
Our gut is one of 5 primary detoxification systems in the body (alongside the liver, kidneys, lungs and the skin).
- Technically the gut (like the skin) is considered to still be OUTSIDE of the body… much like the donut hole in the middle of a glazed donut is part of the outside of the donut.
As a reminder, the main job of both the gut AND the skin is to allow the RIGHT things into the body, and keep everything else OUT that doesn’t belong in there! (#boundaries)
You may now be wondering, how could the gut OR the skin impact hormones if they aren’t even considered inside the body?!
The “good” bacteria (probiotics) in the microbiome are like our first line of defense. So when our good bacteria aren’t up-to-par, it leaves opportunity for “bad” stuff to overgrow, and for unwanted particles to start getting past the gut barrier…
Leaky gut and the liver
The gut starts to have a negative impact on hormones when it becomes excessively permeable, or “leaky”… meaning it’s not doing the primary job of keeping certain things out of the body. This is usually accompanied by something called “dysbiosis”, which is a fancy functional nutrition way to describe a state of not enough “good” and subsequently too many “bad” microbes in the gut. (I’m sure you can see where this is going!)
- The skin also plays a major role in hormone health among other things – but that’s a conversation for another time!
The significance of the gut impact on hormones has to do with what gets let into the body which doesn’t belong in there… which then over time starts to burden the liver.
The gut- liver-hormone “domino” effect
One of the many responsibilities of the liver (being our primary built-in detoxification system 24/7) is to help eliminate excess estrogen and hormone metabolites form the body.
When the gut isn’t doing its job (being “selectively permeable” via healthy boundaries), this means our gut starts letting more things “leak” into the bloodstream beyond what belongs in there. Yikes!
Over time, much like an under-staffed restaurant that maxes out at a certain number of customers (weird analogy, I know), our liver will “max out” when we hit a certain threshold of unwanted/unrecognized substances that need to be cleared out. Beyond this point, when those unwanted substances begin to build up beyond what we’re equipped for, our natural detoxification system within the liver starts to become overwhelmed and “under-staffed”.
If this is left unchecked for many consecutive days/weeks/months/years, as time passes it can become exceedingly difficult for the liver to keep up with the burdens caused by a leaky gut.
Excess estrogen and other hormonal metabolites in line to be cleared out of our system will start to build up over time.
The result: hormonal havoc/ ”hormonal imbalance”… a modern-day epidemic. ☹
What can hormonal imbalance look like?
Hormonal imbalance can show up in the reproductive or endocrine system.
When it comes to hormones we need to look at the forest versus just the frees, and we also must keep in mind our hormone levels are not static; they fluctuate each day/week depending on where we’re at with our cycles. (Men go through a daily 24-hour cycle with their hormones, while women go through a monthly 28-day cycle.)
What I see most often as a result of gut health issues is a state of estrogen dominance, accompanied by a subsequent progesterone deficiency among many women – or a state of reduced testosterone levels in men (many other factors can contribute to these states as well!).
- Estrogen dominance in women is often followed by a chronic state of iron-deficiency anemia… The caveat? Treating iron deficiency with iron supplements will amplify gut issues such as constipation/dysbiosis… again with the domino effect!
Thyroid hormones and thyroid function in general are also highly impacted by gut health (or lack thereof), but to rebalance an unhealthy thyroid would involve addressing the immune system and an entirely separate set of protocols.
Gut health and hormone imbalance: The chicken or the egg?
It’s hard to gage which comes first (since each of us is totally unique), but typically in my practice I see gut health issues tend to precede hormonal imbalance. (Of course there are many, many other modern-day contributors to hormone imbalance which are beyond the scope of this post!)
What most people don’t realize is you don’t need to be doubled over in pain, or suffering from debilitating digestive distress to meet criteria for “leaky gut” or a gut health imbalance.
Gut health, liver and hormonal imbalance: signs and symptoms
Some early warning signs and symptoms of an unhealthy gut, hormonal imbalance, and/or an over-burdened liver that you may want to investigate sooner rather than later include, but are not limited to:
- Frequent stomach aches
- Noticeable bloating after eating, more often than not
- Constipation: small bowel movements, or infrequent bowel movements (less than 1x/day)
- Loose stools
- Adverse food reactions
- Unexplained vitamin/mineral (micronutrient) deficiencies
- Chronic fatigue
- Brain fog
- Memory issues/focus problems
- Irregular periods
- Low libido (men/women)
- Severe PMS/cramping
- A chronic tendency towards depression/anxiety
- Autoimmune symptoms/autoimmune disease
- Skin eruptions (acne, eczema, etc.)
- Joint pain
If you said “yes” to any of the above symptoms, you’re probably wondering- now what?
Hormone balance: fundamentals
- First and foremost: assess and address your self-care routine and relationship with food.
- Are you practicing the nutrition fundamentals? (Because if we aren’t doing the basic things like eating balanced and getting most of what we need from food, no fancy supplements, testing etc. will “work” for us!)
- A few questions you can ask yourself about your current diet/lifestyle (ideally your answers should be “yes” to all of these more often than not!):
- Is it balanced?
- Is it nourishing?
- Is it enjoyable?
- Is it working for me?
- Is it realistic/sustainable?
- Assess and address your gut health and hormonal cycles at the root-cause level.
- Check on your nutritional status, and supplement as-needed with the right foods/vitamins/minerals which will help to nourish and support your gut, reproductive organs and endocrine system.
- Work with a functional medicine doctor and functional dietitian nutritionist who understand the gut-hormone connection so you can address this from ALL angles and stop your digestive-hormonal “domino effect” in its tracks!
If any of this resonates with you and you’d like to take proactive steps to reverse your gut health issues in their tracks (so hormones and immune system stay in-check), I invite you to join me in the Complete Gut Repair Roadmap group program the next time enrollment opens!