Months after a tumultuous, capital-B breakup, I still couldn't sleep more than four hours at a time. I nearly jumped out of bed with every night noise. And, most perplexingly, I craved any kind of crunchy snack—the saltier, the better. I chalked it up to a broken heart, but my chiropractor helped me address the root physical cause: A longtime overdose of stress had depleted my adrenal glands' ability to produce stress-management hormones.
Although we often think hormones relate only to PMS, pregnancy, or menopause, these powerful little chemicals have a much more far-reaching effect. "Hormones work in minute amounts to control everything from how our body functions to our emotions," explains Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, author of Natural Choices for Women's Health (Three Rivers, 2005), so when they get off kilter, it can be difficult to diagnose—symptoms can range from dry skin to depression. But it's not all bad news. "Using natural remedies to coax your hormones back into balance can make a dramatic improvement in your quality of life," Steelsmith says. Read on to learn about the most common imbalances and natural remedies that correct them.
Do you have low thyroid?
Overwhelming fatigue; whole-body weight gain that is difficult to lose; constipation; constantly feeling cold; dry skin; swollen neck, face, hands, or feet; low blood pressure; thinning of the outer edges of the eyebrow; insomnia; headaches; and irregular periods.
Thyroid imbalance can be triggered by prolonged stress. "It's as if someone took their foot off the gas pedal of your body," says Mary Shomon, low-thyroid sufferer, patient advocate, and bestselling author of The Thyroid Diet (HarperCollins, 2004). "When the body is under extreme stress, a lot of the hormones will shift to producing stress hormones, so metabolic [thyroid] and reproductive hormones get out of whack," she says. Thyroid imbalance, which can be hereditary, is also frequently tied to autoimmune disorders.
- Assess your iodine levels. Iodine is a building block of thyroid hormone. The body needs this nutrient to produce appropriate amounts of accessible thyroid hormone. However, taking too much could make immune problems worse. If you don't regularly eat seafood, seaweed, or iodized salt, be sure your multivitamin contains 100-150 mcg, the standard dose.
- Add selenium and zinc to your supplement regimen. These minerals help the body convert thyroid hormone into an accessible form. Steelsmith recommends taking a daily multivitamin that contains 200 mcg of selenium and 40 mg of zinc.
- Eat more rosemary. The woodsy herb is a good source of carnosic acid, a compound that helps thyroid hormone do its job within cell nuclei. Add 1/4 teaspoon dried or 1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary two or three times per week to your cooking, recommends Richard Shames, MD, author of Feeling Fat, Fuzzy, or Frazzled? (Plume, 2006).
Do you have adrenal fatigue?
A short fuse ("You did what?!"); a tendency to catch every virus that crosses your path; light-headedness when going from sitting to standing; a tendency to avoid stressful situations; depression; a need to eat frequently to ward off feelings of shakiness and spaciness; chronic allergies. "People with adrenal fatigue just can't get going in the morning. They're ready to go at night—your typical night owl," says Steelsmith.
Acute stress can cause your adrenals to produce an excess of stress hormones. If the stress persists long enough, the adrenals can become fatigued to a point at which they don't produce enough stress hormones, like a car running out of gas.
- Boost your B vitamins. Vitamin B5, found in whole grains, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and salmon, is essential to the production of adrenal hormones. Take 500 mg a day. Shames also recommends taking 100-150 mg of B6 a day in addition to your multivitamin.
- Take vitamin C, another key component in manufacturing adrenal hormones. Steelsmith recommends 1,000 mg twice a day.
- Succumb to salty cravings. Surprisingly, increased salt intake can help alleviate adrenal challenges because depleted adrenals often don't signal the kidneys to retain salt.
- Try licorice. Licorice extract (not the candy or the tea) in liquid or capsule form increases the body's ability to utilize cortisol, one of the major adrenal hormones. Licorice extract can cause high blood pressure, so consult a health care practitioner.
Do you have insulin resistance?
Significant weight gain around the abdomen; high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides; skin tags (small, benign polyps of excess skin); and infertility.
Insulin resistance occurs when cells throughout the body refuse to accept glucose from insulin, forcing the sugar to be stored in fat cells instead. It's triggered by a combination of stress, a diet high in refined carbohydrates, and a lack of exercise. "It's the end result of a string of bad choices that make you a more likely candidate for heart disease and type 2 diabetes," Steelsmith says. "But with lifestyle changes and a little help from supplementation, people can come out of it."
- Start with your diet. Eat small meals four to six times a day to keep blood sugar levels even. Focus on low-glycemic foods, such as beans, legumes, whole grains, and fibrous fruits and vegetables, such as apples, pears, and sweet potatoes.
- Take chromium. It helps insulin deliver sugar to cells. Steelsmith suggests 500 mg twice a day.
- Boost your biotin intake. This little-known B vitamin makes your cells more receptive to insulin. Chicken, milk, cheese, whole wheat, soybeans, cooked eggs, and saltwater fish are all good sources of biotin. Or take a 5 mg supplement twice a day, recommends Steelsmith.
- Get moving. Steelsmith suggests exercising at least four times per week to reduce stress levels and help regulate blood sugar.
Do you have estrogen dominance?
Intense PMS with painful, swollen breasts and bloating; heavy periods; lumpy breasts; PMS-associated depression and headaches; grouchiness; anxiety; and fuzzy thinking.
There are a range of reasons why your estrogen levels might be too high. Your thyroid-hormone levels could be low; your liver could be struggling to process and eliminate excess estrogen effectively; you could have too little progesterone (which balances estrogen); you may have been exposed to chemicals that mimic estrogen production (such as those commonly found in pesticides); or chronic constipation could be causing your body to reabsorb estrogen from your stool that would otherwise be excreted.
- Take a lipotropic complex. Lipotropic complex—a commonly available supplement formula—contains vitamins (such as B6), essential nutrients (such as choline), and herbs, including milk thistle (Silybum marianum), that work together to boost the liver's ability to process estrogen. Steelsmith recommends taking a supplement three times a day until your symptoms subside.
- Add a squeeze of lemon. Chinese medicine hails lemon's natural astringency for its ability to detoxify the liver. Add a twist of fresh lemon to your water.
- Eat more cruciferous vegetables. They contain indole-3-carbinol (I3C), a compound that helps the liver break down estrogen into a more easily metabolized form. You can also buy I3C in supplement form. Shames recommends 200 mg per day.
- Pump up your progesterone. This calming reproductive hormone acts as a counterbalance to estrogen. You can buy natural progesterone cream at your health food store; apply 1/4 teaspoon of cream to your chest, neck, or upper arms during the second half of your menstrual cycle to bring your estrogen-progesterone ratio into better balance.
How to proceed
Although assessing your symptoms can shine a light on a likely hormone imbalance, the best way to know exactly what you're dealing with is to get your hormone levels tested. Saliva tests are accurate indicators and are less expensive and more convenient than blood tests. Your doctor can order saliva tests that assess your levels of thyroid, sex, and stress hormones from any of these labs: Aeron Life Cycles, www.aeron.com; BioHealth, www.biohealth info.com; Diagnos-Techs Lab, www.diagnostechs.com; Genova Diagnostics, www.gdx.net; ZRT Labs, www.salivatest.com.
Find an expert
If you don't have a provider who is open-minded about diagnosing and treating hormone imbalance, your lab can often supply you with a list of nearby practitioners.
Resolving hormonal imbalance takes time, and changes are often gradual. "Try one remedy at a time and see how it affects your whole system for a couple of weeks before you add something else," Shames advises.
Brooklyn-based writer Kate Hanley teaches yoga and is the founder of www.msmindbody.com.