What Does Digestion Have to do with Hormones Anyways?
By Holly Lucille, ND
When I was going through naturopathic medical school, there was this ole' saying: "Heal The Hole." I quickly learned that the "hole" that was being referenced was the one that starts at our mouth and yes, ends all the way down our backside! This saying has carried much value for me as a practitioner because that "hole," better known as our digestive system, plays a vital part in so many aspects of health and wellbeing. This is where we take in nutrients—digest, assimilate, and absorb them to allow our bloodstream to carry them to each and every one of our cells so our body can function properly. Later on, we then eliminate waste products created by this amazing process (hopefully at regular intervals.)
I have been consistently amazed that when I work together with patients to heal their digestion, the more systemic symptoms (like pain or skin disruptions) that they originally came in for, simply disappear. I have seen it over and over again.
Dr. Pankaj J. Pasricha, chief of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stanford University School of Medicine states, "The gut is important in medical research, not just for the problems pertaining to the digestive system, but also problems pertaining to the rest of the body."
But what about hormones? Can having disruptions in our digestive system have anything to do with symptoms associated with hormonal transitions like menopause? I would say, yes!
Let me tell you a story of one of my patients. Let's call her Molly. Molly came into my office self-diagnosed; she exclaimed, "I have menopause!" She was very adamant that this was her chief complaint and that everything she was going through (hot flashes, hair thinning, weight gain, etc.) had everything to do with the fact that she had not had a period in over 16 months and that her body was succumbing to what she thought was the dreaded menopause.
As we continued on with our visit, what was interesting to me was that as I went through my questions, I kept getting "pulled" to her gut. She had a history of extensive antibiotic use; she complained of frequent urinary tract infections and vaginal yeast infections; she was constipated with intermittent bouts of diarrhea; she experienced gas and bloating and admitted to "following the Standard American Diet." She also mentioned a very stressful past decade with difficulties sleeping.
When I suggested that along with some hormonal testing that we do some testing to confirm clinical suspicion that she had a probable yeast overgrowth, hyper-permeability (leaky gut) and poor digestion, she actually shouted, "What does the digestive tract have to do with hormones anyways!?"
You see, Molly was very uncomfortable and she had been through a lot. She had seen many practitioners, been given different kinds of hormones at different doses as well as anti-depressants. She told me she watched Dr. Oz religiously and even tried detox patches to help, but nothing worked. So, when she saw me going in a direction that she thought had nothing to do with her symptoms, I can see why she became irritated.
Let's fast-forward. With some education and encouragement, Molly agreed to the recommended testing. Molly's digestion was definitely impaired. She had candida overgrowth as well as bacterial overgrowth in her gut, with poor colonization of good bacteria, all leading to severe "leaky gut."
Effects of candida overgrowth in the bowel can lead to disrupted digestion but also hypoadrenia (underfunctioning adrenals), which happens to be the built-in back up system for menopausal hormone production, hypothyroidism, and liver dysfunction. Hyper-permeability, known as leaky gut, leads to inflammation and immune over-activity. This directly results in vasomotor symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats when women are going through normal hormonal transitions like peri-menopause or menopause.
The good news is that with simple diet, lifestyle modifications, and targeted supplements, you can truly "heal the hole" and improve your hormones!
Molly and I focused on her diet, in particular, incorporating more plants and whole foods while decreasing refined foods. I recommended some digestive assistance in the form of plant and acid stable digestive enzymes along with a probiotic to help balance yeast and the amino acid glutamine to help heal the mucosa of her intestinal lining.
I also recommended safe, natural symptom relief in the form of a clinically-studied isopropanolic extraction of black cohosh to help with her hot flashes while her digestion was healing.
On her six-week follow up, she had an improved ability to fall asleep at night and less stress during the day, stating, "my fuse is longer." She had a decrease in the incidences of hot flashes, digestive disturbance, and constipation, but had some continued diarrhea. She lost six pounds and was feeling more energetic.
On her three-month follow up, she said that she felt remarkably better with an absence of hot flashes, was nearing her ideal weight, and felt she was having healthy bowel movements. My favorite thing she mentioned is that she was feeling "happy again!"
So, what does digestion have to do with hormones? Everything, and then some!