Pulling Back the Curtain – Understanding Your Hormones and Taking Control of Your Health
by Brenda S. Smith, M.D.
Ovaries, Thyroid, Adrenals, Oh My!
For too long how hormones work in a woman’s body has been deemed too complex for a woman to understand or manage. Women have been taught to view their hormones as that mysterious Wizard of Oz behind the curtain turning knobs and manipulating their bodies leaving them little if any control of their bodies. Well ladies, let’s pull back that curtain and learn what is happening in our bodies. Hormones are not to be ignored and tolerated when they misbehave. Learn how to recognize hormone imbalance and correct it, so that your quality of life is enhanced and your risk of disease is reduced.
Every woman should know certain basic facts about hormones and health, but it seems daily in my office I teach women things that they should have been taught at age 12. In the future I hope every woman is properly educated about hormones, but for those of you who have reached adulthood confused about hormones, here are the need-to-know facts.
Demystifying Hormones 101
If I only had more space and time, I could take you on such a fascinating journey through the world of hormones. Instead, I will have to give you some snippets of the hormonal story, followed by some insights I have gained after years of experience treating women and their hormones.
- Hormones are messengers in the body that tell your body what to do turning on and turning off cellular functions. When hormones are produced in your body, what makes each hormone unique is its chemical shape. Each hormone works by finding a receptor that matches its chemical shape. Then like a key in a lock, the hormone activates the receptor and a message is delivered to your body. Bio-identical hormones are man made from plants, but are shaped exactly like the corresponding hormone in your body, delivering the exact same message at the receptor. Bio-identical hormones, working as hormones were designed to work in the body, tend to give better results with fewer side effects. I see so many women in my practice who have blindly been using inappropriate hormones and suffering the consequences. Be choosey about any hormone you put in our body – remember its message can be powerful.
- There are many hormones in the body, i.e. ovarian, adrenal & thyroid to name a few and they all communicate with each other. Some hormones like the adrenal hormones are required for life; others like the ovarian hormones are important, but not required for life. It is always important when evaluating hormones to look at the big picture and not focus on one specific hormone. Hormones do not work in isolation. For years doctors diagnosed all hormone problems as ovarian deficiency ignoring the impact thyroid hormones, adrenal hormones and even the hormone insulin can have on a woman’s health. Most women I work with have multiple hormone imbalances that must be addressed to help her achieve optimal health.
- Hormones do not just willy-nilly send messages and do what they want, they are part of a complex communication system in your body designed to help you have quality of life and survive. Hormones act based upon messages they receive from other parts of the body and from the environment. The food you eat affects that message, toxins you are exposed to affect that message, exercise and your mental state affects that message. So don’t expect to be highly stressed, polluting your body with toxins and poor nutrients and have hormones that behave the way you “want” them to. In fact, most of the time hormones don’t just misbehave – we disrupt them by making poor choices. Bottom line – to truly have hormone balance you have to look at what I call “global” health, the many facets of your health that affect your overall well-being. Don’t be misled by clever marketing that claims a simple cream, pill or patch can solve all your health problems. In fact, I would have to tell you that some of the healthiest and attractive women I see have never used hormones – they have achieved their good health by living a healthy, balanced life.
- When hormone imbalance is suspected, careful evaluation and testing is in order. Ignoring what the body is trying to tell you and guessing about hormones is not acceptable. Since 1993 I have been listening very carefully to women because what their body is telling them is important information that I want to know. I have also been testing hormones to help verify the “impression” I have formed after listening to a patient’s story. This combination of listening and testing has proven to be invaluable in coming up with the correct diagnosis. If you suspect hormone problems, get help from a physician trained to diagnose and treat hormone disorders. Don’t let someone with minimal knowledge of your health prescribe hormones. Your hormones are not just pesky problems; they are an important part of your health.
- At every stage and every age of life hormones are required, but the correct recipe for hormonal health changes as we age. The set of hormones that are beneficial at one stage of life can actually be detrimental later in life. The body uses hormones wisely, not indiscriminately. Anabolic hormones that cause cells to divide like estrogen can be a risk for cancer. When we are young and need to reproduce, the advantages of these hormones usually outweigh the risks. As we age, however, continuing to stimulate cells to divide can be a bit riskier. Careful evaluation of each individual’s specific risks & benefits is important before using anabolic hormones. Read What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause /Menopause by John Lee, M.D.
Set the intention to be actively involved in your health. This means having a basic understanding of hormones and how they work. Read What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause/Menopause by John Lee, M.D. Realize that you can achieve balanced hormones by adopting a healthy lifestyle.
Don’t ignore symptoms that warn of hormone imbalance. See an informed physician who will listen and test to determine if a hormone imbalance exists.
Don’t dabble in hormone therapy. It’s important to look carefully at the risks & benefits of hormone therapy before initiating any treatment. When using hormone replacement therapy (HRT), insist on an individualized approach to hormone therapy that is comprehensive and has your safety in mind.
Accept that your health is complex. Don’t blame every health problem on hormones, take responsibility for your diet and lifestyle and don’t expect HRT to work without addressing other health issues.