Tag Archives: hormones

Natural Approaches for Insomnia

013
One of the most common problems my patients report is difficulty with sleep. Whether they have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or waking frequently, not getting the rest our bodies need is frustrating and significantly impacts the severity of other ailments. Poor sleep or insufficient is linked to weight gain, cardiovascular disease, decreased immunity and poor healing. The reasons for insomnia are varied, so natural treatments need to address whatever it is that is out of balance. When thinking about insomnia, we have to make sure that three different systems are ready for sleep; the hormones, the nervous system, and the muscles. Having good bedtime habits such as stopping screen time one hour before bed, stretching, yoga, or meditation before bed, and a cup of herbal tea are all great first steps, but if sleep remains a problem, the primary places I look to regain balance are Hormones, Neurotransmitters, Blood sugar, Muscle tension, and pain. Here is how I approach this issue:
Hormones
In my practice, the most common reason I see for persistent insomnia is an imbalance in the hormones. There are several hormones that can be out of balance that will contribute to poor sleep. Often we will have to test to see which of these is the culprit:
Estrogen/Progesterone: Especially after childbirth and during menopause, when these reproductive hormones are not produced in balance with each other, sleep can be effected. Most commonly, this imbalance is accompanied by hot flashes and night sweats.
Thyroid: When thyroid function gets too low or too high it can impact the sleep. If thyroid levels are too high, often there are heart palpitations or agitation along with the insomnia. When thyroid is too low, people often will wake feeling insufficiently rested no matter how long they have slept.
Cortisol: This is our primary hormone that tells us we are awake. It is a stress hormone that helps the body to mobilize blood sugar for fight or flight situations (aka, so we can run from a bear). If we have too much stress over a prolonged period of time, though, the body will sometimes start making cortisol in the middle of the night–when this is the culprit people often will wake at 3-4am and won’t be able to go back to sleep.
Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are amino-acid based chemicals produced by our nervous system that tell our brain and nerves how we feel–sleepy, awake, excited,happy, sad, etc. The three neurotransmitters that are most associated with deep, relaxing sleep are melatonin, serotonin, and GABA. GABA is derived from the amino acids glutamine or glutamate, and serotonin and melatonin are made from tryptophan. For people who are experiencing persistent or severe sleep difficulties, we can test to see what your levels are and if the more excitatory neurotransmitters are too high to allow your brain to calm down. Many of our best natural sleep aids are made from these neurotransmitters or contain precursors to them.

Blood Sugar
This category is directly related to the discussion on cortisol, above. For people who have difficulty keeping their blood sugar stable (either from hypoglycemia, metabolic syndrome, or diabetes), and especially for people who do not eat regularly, eat dinner very early, or eat sweets after dinner, this can impact sleep. For instance, if you eat dinner at 6pm, by 3am it has been 9 hours since you last ate. Although cortisol is primarily a stress hormone, its other function is to mobilize glucose from storage when the blood sugar gets too low. When cortisol spikes at 3am, then the brain wakes up and it becomes difficult to go back to sleep. In this case, a light protein snack right before bed such as an apple with peanut butter will greatly improve sleep.

Muscle tension and Pain
For people with chronic pain, it isn’t sleep itself that is the problem, but the pain that keeps them up. If there is chronic pain we have to get to the root of it and fix this issue. Often, however, there can be muscle tension that causes pain or headaches and leads to poor sleep. Tight muscles also may just keep the body so tense that sleep is difficult regardless of pain. The simplest options for helping the muscles relax before bed are stretching, deep breathing, hot baths and hydrating during the day (not so it keeps you up having to use the restroom). Other very effective options are taking some minerals such as Calcium or magnesium or drinking coconut water which is high in potassium before bed.

Insomnia can be a brief, transitory concern that is related to a specific event or a problem that can last many years. Persistent insomnia can lead to or exacerbate a host of other health concerns. By narrowing down the causes, we can individualize a plan to help put you back to sleep!

Beans and Hormone Health

photo (24)

There is nothing more fun than returning from a few days away from the garden and finding what has sprouted and ripened in my absence.  This morning, after a weekend away camping, I discovered about 30 pounds of zucchini and a bumper crop of yellow string beans.  I love planting beans and peas in my garden both for the delicious harvest and the nitrogen they give back to the soil.  Let’s talk a bit about their specific health benefits as well:

Just about everyone has become familiar with the controversy surrounding soy and its effect on hormones.  We know that soy contains a class of compounds called isoflavones, which have a phytoestrogenic effect on the body.  Soy and soy products, particularly concentrated soy proteins (frequently found in bars, protein powders, and vegetarian “meat” products), are particularly high in these compounds, and can significantly impact the body’s hormone balance.  Why is this important when we are talking about beans?  While soy is particularly high in isoflavones, all members of the bean or pea family will contain some amount of these compounds.

So, what is a phytoestrogen?  To understand this, we need to know a bit about estrogen.  Estrogen is a hormone–a chemical produced by the body that stimulates a receptor on a cell and tells the cell what to do in a specific way.  Estrogen is a growth stimulator, so it tells your body to change from a kid’s body into a grownup’s body.  During the menstrual cycle, estrogen tells your uterus to grow the lining that will support a pregnancy.  It also helps to maintain the strength and integrity of the bones.  A phytoestrogen is a chemical that comes from outside the body that will stimulate an estrogen receptor. Phytoestrogens are generally not as strong as estrogen, so it stimulates that receptor weakly.  So, for people who have very low estrogen levels a phytoestrogen will help the body feel like it has “more” estrogen, but for those with very high estrogen levels, a phytoestrogen may block those receptors and help the body feel like it has “less” estrogen. Because of this moderating quality of these compounds, it can be useful to help balance hormones for those who are both deficient in or have excess estrogen.

As with many botanical families, the legume family has these isoflavones in common throughout its members.  This means that some amount of these compounds can be found in a wide variety of plants that belong to this family: licorice root, alfalfa, clover, lentils, dried beans, peas, and even those fresh green beans.  It is important to keep in mind that isoflavones are only one class of chemical among many found in these foods.  This phytoestrogenic effect will generally be gentle and will be accompanied by all the other benefits of legumes:  fiber, minerals, protein, starches, and green energy in those beans that are eaten fresh.

Soy does tend to contain isoflavones in higher amounts than other members of the legume family, and they will be particularly concentrated in processed soy protein products and soy extracts.  In this case, there will be a more specific medicinal effect because they are being used in a more drug-like manner.  For people who are concerned about a history of estrogen-dependent cancers, this will be more relevant with soy protein products than with other legumes.  Soy protein can also be inappropriate in large amounts for those who would normally have a very low amount of estrogen in their systems, such as young children and men.

Hormone Testing

In my practice, I often see patients with a variety of symptoms that may seem unrelated but may all be somehow connected to either the reproductive (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone), stress (cortisol and adrenalin) or thyroid hormones. Some of the issues that are often related to hormone imbalance include menstrual problems, insomnia, migraines, anxiety, weight gain, fatigue, and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and low libido. As a woman approaches menopause, the production of the reproductive hormones (estrogen and progesterone) will shift from the ovaries to the adrenal glands, which also produce our stress hormones. If the adrenals are already fatigued from a lifetime of other stressors, giving them this extra job can make this transition particularly uncomfortable. Additionally, shifts in the reproductive or stress hormones can also throw the thyroid out of balance.
Usually, just getting some good objective information is the best first step towards resolving the issue. Most of these hormones can be evaluated using a simple saliva test, with the exception of thyroid hormone which is best evaluated through the blood. Once we know which hormones are out of balance, either in excess or deficiency, then we have many natural options to help bring things back into balance and get you feeling better. Please feel free to call or email me if you have questions regarding hormone testing!

Kale and Hormone Balance

This piece was written as a contribution to Chef Lilly Allison Steirer’s weekly newsletter “In Season”

I think of kale as an amazing vegetable, primarily because of its hardiness in my garden. Kale is one of the very first vegetables in my garden ready for eating in mid-to-late April; it weathers the heat of the summer and stays hardy all the way through late November when we till everything up for the winter. Frankly, if we didn’t so get many feet of snow each year I think it could go year-round. Given the wide variety of temperatures and weather here in Colorado I think of this as nothing short of remarkable.
One of the interesting aspects of the vegetables in the cabbage (also called crucifer) family is their affect on the endocrine, or hormone, system. All of the members of this family including kale contain some amount of indole-3-carbinol, a chemical that has been getting a lot of press lately. Indole-3-carbinol helps the body to metabolize our most potent estrogens into a less active form, which can be quite useful therapeutically for those who would benefit from reduced estrogen levels. This can include problems with uterine fibroids, menopausal symptoms due to high estrogen and low progesterone, fibrocystic breast disease, and prevention of breast cancer. Although this chemical can be found in an isolated form in a nutritional supplement, eating whole foods from the crucifer family will give you the added benefit of fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and chlorophyll.
On the flip side, cruciferous vegetables also can inhibit absorption of iodine which will decrease production of thyroid hormone. This can be of some use to those with hyperthyroidism, but people with low thyroid should be wary of consuming these too frequently. That said, many sources note that heat destroys the component of kale that inhibits the absorption of iodine so if you prefer your kale cooked, this should not be too big of a problem.