Roberte Hinks just wasn’t herself last summer. The normally energetic single mother of two teens felt perpetually weak. She started having trouble swallowing. Then the Vancouver Island resident noticed that one side of her throat was swollen.
Doctors eventually told Hinks that the way to deal with her debilitating fatigue was to remove her thyroid gland. Located in the lower part of the neck, it produces hormones that regulate metabolism. Too many of those hormones can result in nervousness, among other symptoms; too few, as in Hinks’s case, can lead to listlessness.
A former nurse, Hinks wanted to explore her options before going under the knife. She learned about something called bioidentical hormone treatment and a naturopathic office in Vancouver that offered it. She made an appointment at Enerchanges health clinic, hopped on a ferry, and has been having the therapy regularly ever since. She says she’s been astonished to see how balancing her hormones has improved not only the symptoms that brought her to the mainland in the first place but also her overall physical and mental well-being.
“I am feeling fantastic; I’m just raring to go,” Hinks says in a phone interview. “My body is feeling healthy and I feel strong. I liked the holistic approach instead of the way the conventional system is always Band-Aid–ing problems, masking things.
“I want my hormones to be at optimum levels,” adds the 49-year-old. “I don’t want to deny aging, but I want to age with quality.”
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through the blood to tissues and organs. They affect everything from growth and development to sexual function and mood. Produced by the endocrine glands, hormones are extremely potent. It only takes a small amount to cause drastic changes in cells, which is why an excess or lack of any given hormone can result in health problems, including migraines, depression, and weight gain.
Keeping hormones in check is a delicate balancing act.
Low testosterone, for example, can contribute to heart disease in men, loss of muscle tone, and difficulty making decisions, while an excess can lead to shrinking breasts in women, prostate enlargement in men, and acne.
Hormones might not exactly be sexy stuff, but there’s no denying the increasing attention being paid to them in medical circles and popular media. Suzanne Somers is a proponent of bioidentical hormonal treatment, as she outlines in her best-selling Breakthrough: Eight Steps to Wellness (Crown, 2008). Toronto naturopath Natasha Turner’s 2009 book The Hormone Diet: Lose Fat. Gain Strength. Live Younger Longer (Random House Canada) is also a bestseller. Even John Gray, the Californian relationship expert who declared that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, wrote the just-released Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance—The Key to Life, Love, and Energy (Mind Publishing).
The role hormones play in overall well-being is tremendous—and often overlooked, according to Vancouver naturopath Brian Martin. The clinical director of Enerchanges, which specializes in anti-aging medicine as well as in fitness training, says that people tend to focus on eradicating their symptoms instead of addressing the underlying problem of imbalanced hormone levels. The consequences can be dire: an increased risk of such illnesses as cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
“Hormones are so powerful,” Martin says on the line from his office. “They affect how you think, and how you think affects your hormones. They affect every cell.”¦They can affect how a person sleeps, how their immune system functions, their digestion, their skin, their thyroid function.”
Hormone levels change with age, a phenomenon that Martin says accelerates the aging process and reduces quality of life.
“Around age 40 or 50, when hormones drop so drastically, it’s an awakening point for a lot of people: they start feeling their age.”
Clearly, men and women have to do more than address wonky hormone levels to age well: fit in regular exercise, eat a balanced diet low in saturated fat and high in fibre, and get plenty of rest, among other things. But hormonal treatment can help, says Martin, noting that although imbalances affect men and women alike, 95 percent of his patients are female. Many of those are going through menopause, which can be marked by hot flushes, night sweats, fatigue, and decreased sex drive.
Martin—who’ll be giving a free lecture called Aging Without Getting Old”¦Through Hormone Balancing, at Enerchanges on July 11—uses individually customized bioidentical hormones, which match the molecular structure of substances that the body produces naturally. Synthetic hormones, he claims, contain elements that are not found in the body, causing them to interact with hormone receptors and result in negative side effects.
The most glaring proof of the potential danger of synthetic hormones came from the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s 2002 Women’s Health Initiative. The “estrogen plus progestin” component of the study had to be stopped early because of the increased risk of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, and other serious health conditions.
That disastrous result created a lot of confusion about hormonal treatment, Martin notes: “A lot of people are fearful about hormones.”
There are other misunderstandings about hormone levels.
According to Jerrilyn Prior, UBC professor of endocrinology and head of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research, it’s not a reduction of estrogen that triggers hot flushes in menopausal women. In fact, she says, it’s quite the opposite.
“The working premise is that low estrogen causes hot flushes,” Prior says in a phone interview. “That didn’t make sense to me. Men have low estrogen, and so do kids, and they don’t have hot flushes.”
Prior researched the way estrogen and progesterone work in the brain within the context of addiction. “Hot flushes best fit with the brain being addicted to estrogen,” she says. “An addict used to having heroin reacts when they don’t have it. Same with cigarettes or alcohol. Having regular exposure to high levels of estrogen, or long duration of estrogen exposure—that fits with hot flushes.”
Progesterone, meanwhile, is an effective treatment for hot flushes, she says.
In the recent book Prior wrote with Susan Baxter, The Estrogen Errors: Why Progesterone Is Better for Women’s Health (Praeger, 2009), the authors question why estrogen has become the “quintessential” female hormone, given that the physiological balance in women requires estrogen and progesterone.
“An enormous amount of nonsense has been said and written about women’s ostensible lack of estrogen as they age,” they write. “For years, even women not experiencing any problems at all were told to take estrogen for their heart, their bones, or to keep their hair and skin youthful. Yet estrogen has been repeatedly demonstrated to increase heart disease, breast cancer, blood clots, and so on.”
However, people still perceive estrogen as a panacea, so much so that Prior writes about the estrogen “conspiracy” in the afterword of The Estrogen Errors. For proof, she points to the difficulties she had getting a randomized, double-blind, one-year trial published that compared the use of estrogen and progesterone to treat hot flushes and night sweats. It took nearly 13 years of repeated rejection before the study finally appeared in Clinical Science in 2007.
“The multiple rejections of this paper bring us back to my feeling that there is an estrogen conspiracy,” Prior writes. “I believe the key reason that this study was repeatedly rejected, despite the”¦clarity of its design, is in the results. The reason is that the data showed something unthinkable in this estrogen-centric culture.
“I believe that this exalted position for estrogen is intimately related to the inferiority of women in this culture,” she continues. “Estrogen occupies this position because it can be used by experts to fix women. That fixable-with-estrogen idea is based on the beliefs of a lot of scientists and physicians, and with support from billions of pharmaceutical company dollars.”
Despite the Controversy surrounding estrogen in particular, it’s clear that hormones in general can influence not just individual well-being but also interpersonal relationships, argues John Gray in Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice. Understanding hormonal differences between men and women provides a “revolutionary new perspective” on improving ways to relate to each other, he claims.
As an example, he points to the hormones oxytocin in women and testosterone in men. “Oxytocin is released in safe, cooperative, caring, supportive and nurturing situations,” Gray explains. “Testosterone is something of an emergency hormone, released in situations that require urgency.”¦This hormonal difference offers us a keener understanding of why men and women so often fail to ”˜get’ one another. It’s because men and women have very different biochemical needs when they seek to cope with stress.”
However, balancing hormones helps men and women—particularly those in long-standing relationships—stay compatible, he says. Reducing stress is one way to keep hormones in check; another is consuming the right nutrients. Gray is a booster of “superfoods” such as goji and acai berries, undenatured whey protein, maca powder, and aloe-vera juice rich in amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and “good fats”.
Getting adequate sleep and rest is crucial too, as is having sex, which boosts testosterone in men and oxytocin in women.
The Hormone Diet’s Turner agrees that sex is a great hormone-balancer. She encourages lots of it.
Other ways to avoid hormonal havoc, Turner suggests in her book, include deep breathing, cardiovascular exercise, strength training, visualization, meditation, and eating well at appropriate times of day.
People like Hinks, who have benefited from balanced hormones, acknowledge that optimal health involves a holistic approach.
“It’s a step-by-step process,” Hinks says. “But I don’t consider it work. It’s all worth it.”