When it comes to our hormones, it may seem like there are a lot of moving parts. It can certainly get overwhelming trying to understand which glands make which hormones, how many hormones do we have? What do these hormones do? How are they connected?etc. The endocrine system is complex, in this article we are going to start decoding your body and how your hormones work as a woman. This will help figure what’s going with your skin, weight, libido, fertility, periods and well, everything!
The main endocrine glands are hypothalamus,pituitary, thyroid, pancreas, ovaries (in women), and the adrenal glands. To understand how these glands are all connected through various axes, read this previous article.
The OAT(Ovaries-Adrenals-Thyroid) axis is the foundation to a woman’s hormonal balance and overall health. From mood to metabolism, bone health to brain function, fertility to fabulous skin. This axis lies at the core of our vitality, instability anywhere in the axis will affect our wellbeing.
Consider it a 3 legged stool, when one leg is rickety the other two lose stability and the whole stool becomes unstable.
The oat aXis
To better understand the importance of this axis and why it’s imperative to keep it functioning smoothly let take a quick look at the functions of each gland plus the symptoms it raises when it starts misfiring.
- Ovaries– A woman’s main reproductive gland, they produce oestrogen and progesterone as well as eggs needed for fertilisation to take place. Oestrogen, which is dominant in the first half of the menstrual cycle is responsible for all our beautiful curves, perky breasts, glowing skin, it keeps our vagina well lubricated, our bones strong, our memory sharp and our hearts beating in a perfect rhythm. Despite the slack it gets, this is an essential hormone, just to be clear, I’m describing endogenous oestrogen, the one your body makes, not man-made synthetic oestrogen. It’s possible to have too little or too much oestrogen within the body which causes different problems or can indicate underlying conditions.
- Too much oestrogen.(Oestrogen Dominance)
-painful periods, PMS and PMDD
– fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, anaemia, breast, ovarian and uterine cancers
- Too little oestrogen
-amenorrhoea (missing period)
-POI(Premature Ovarian Insufficiency)
-PCOS ( Poly-cystic Ovarian Syndrome)
- Adrenals– Situated on top of each kidney, these glands help the body manage stress and regulate our blood sugar. I call them ‘the zen masters’. They make cortisol(stress hormone) along with the other steroid hormones; oestrogen , pregnenolone, progesterone, DHEA(dehydroepiandrosterone). All these hormones are made from cholesterol this is why women on low fat diets tend to experience amenoorrhea and other hormonal problems. Good fats are necessary in a woman’s diet to ensure healthy hormone production. For women in menopause or low Oestrogen output from the ovaries, taking care of your adrenals is paramount since they also make oestrogen. Cortisol helps the body manage stress be it, chemical, physical, emotional or digestive, this is a good thing. However, when there is chronic stress the adrenals are forced to make more cortisol than usual, this leads inflammation, lowered immunity and fertility problems, these are common symptoms of adrenal fatigue(see the full article here on how stress compromises your fertility) .
- High cortisol basically means your adrenal glands are trying to keep up with the bombardment of stressors by producing more and more cortisol, they even go as far as high jacking pregnenolone at the expense of progesterone to make more cortisol. This means you will likely have trouble conceiving or maintaining a pregnancy. You may have stubborn belly fat, restlessness especially at night, trouble staying focused or feeling fatigued in the morning. I put together a quick quiz to help you match your symptoms with those of adrenal fatigue. (Take quiz). If this feels like you, the ‘hormone heist’ article will help you with some tips to start supporting your adrenals.
- Low Cortisol often occurs as a result of having been in a state of excess cortisol for a long period of time and now your adrenals are too burnt out to produce sufficient cortisol. If you fall in this category see a doctor, get your Adrenal function tested and start rehabilitating your adrenals! A four point salivary or urine cortisol test will reveal a lot about your adrenals.
- Thyroid– Though located in your neck, the thyroid is intimately connected with your ovaries and adrenals. It regulates our body temperature, mood, metabolism, energy levels. It plays a role in our menstrual cycle and our immune system. This endocrine gland is vital! Unfortunately it’s often overlooked when women complain of hormonal irregularities when in fact women are about 8 times more likely to develop thyroid disease than men. This also suggests why autoimmune conditions are more prevalent in women because many thyroid conditions are autoimmune related. Infections, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune conditions, nutrient deficiencies, gut issues like, stress, heavy metals and fluoride can alter thyroid function causing hypothyroidism(underactive) or hyperthyroidism(overactive) depending how little or how much Thyroid hormone is available.
- Too little Thyroid hormone– this often leads to Hypothyroidism,a very common condition in women of the child-bearing age, this can be due to a few scenarios; not enough production of TSH(Thyroid stimulating hormone) or T4(Thyroxine), low conversion rate of T4 to T3(Triiodothyronine) or thirdly, there is improper utilisation of T3 by the cells. Symptoms of a low functioning thyroid are weight gain, constipation, cold intolerance, cold hands and feet, menstrual irregularities, dry skin, brittle nails, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety and/or depression, a slow heart rate and delayed reflexes.
- Too much Thyroid hormone(Hyperthyroidism) common symptoms of this are rapid inexplicable weight loss, loose stools, excessive sweat, hair loss,heart palpitations, insomnia, agitation, anxiety and menstrual irregularities.
What does OAT Axis hormonal imbalance look like?
If you’re suffering from chronic stress, find it hard to fall/stay asleep, experience a late/ missing, or irregular period, feel tired all the time and tend to feel cold especially in your hands and feet. This is what an imbalance in the OAT axis looks like.
Another example, if you have digestive problems, irregular periods, have experienced recurrent miscarriages particularly 1st trimester, have depression/anxiety and can’t quite seem to get a handle on your weight, these are symptoms of OAT axis dysregulation. Keep this in mind your endocrine system is intricate and a malfunction in one gland will affect the rest. This may sound overwhelming but from an optimistic stand point, this also means that once you start to support one gland the rest will appreciate it. The key is to find the root cause of your symptoms and not just take medications like the birth control pill because you are experiencing irregular periods or adult acne. Or taking melatonin to help you sleep and caffeine to keep you awake. Or perhaps taking fertility drugs to promote fertility when it could be your thyroid that needs attention. These measures are short term but they do not address the root of the problem and may even worsen your condition in the long term.
7 things you can do to support your OAT AXIS
1. Support your liver– your liver metabolises excess hormones. If it’s sluggish, oestrogen will not be excreted properly leading to oestrogen dominance(excess oestrogen). Dandelion root, turmeric, and cruciferous vegetables support the liver in metabolising and excreting excess oestrogen.
2. Eat fats– your steroid hormones are made from cholesterol, a low fat diet can lead to hormonal imbalances and unstable blood sugar. Fats support the production of hormones, they also balance your blood sugar and leave you feeling satiated for longer. Good fat sources are nut butters, nuts, seeds, butter, ghee, olive oil, avocado oil and in moderation, coconut oil.
3. Ditch refined foods– bread, sugar, pastas, store bought juices and junk food spikes blood sugar and causes inflammation in the body further contributing to adrenal stress. Opt for whole foods that are minimally processed.
4. Avoid excess exercise– excercise is necessary but intense workouts cause the body to produce more cortisol exacerbating adrenal fatigue. Try more calming forms of excercise like walking, yoga or pilates if you are experiencinng many of the symptoms from the quiz
5. Create a bedtime routine- consistency helps to relieve nerves and anxiety. Make reading a physical book, journaling or meditating part of your night time routine. This helps to externalise the racing thoughts and ease the mind. STAY AWAY FROM BLUE LIGHT! Get rid of all screens at least an hour before bed time, the light on phone, laptops and screen of any kind disrupts the production of melatonin (your sleep hormone)and stimulates cortisol, the exact opposite of what should happen. If you’re not sleeping well enough forget about hormone balance! Adequate sleep is non negotiable if you want to balance your hormones.
6. Support your thyroid-The thyroid is a very sensitive gland, if your suspect your thyroid is not functioning normally see a doctor to get tests done, request a full Thyroid panel this will help you rule out the 3 scenarios mentioned in the hypothyroid section above. Never take supplements for the thyroid unless you have been diagnosed by a Doctor or Health practitioner. Selenium, Iodine and Copper support thyroid function, enrich your diet with foods rich in these like Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, leafy green vegetables and mushrooms. Use Iodated salt, and add some sea vegetables like spirulina to your meals.
7. Support the whole axis with a hormone supplement like HARMONY which promotes the production of progesterone(the hormone that opposes oestrogen and promotes a normal menstrual cycle). It contains herbs which supports the adrenals, reduce inflammation in the body and optimises liver function. HARMONY is well complemented by the VITALITY BLEND which supports adrenal function, balances blood sugar, boosts mental and physical function with superfoods Maca, Ceylon cinnamon and adaptogen herbs Ashwanganda and Shatavari. Interestingly enough, Shatavari translates to ‘she who has a 100 husbands’ all thanks to it’s reputation for boosting energy and restoring a failing libido.
Key point: Whatever symptoms you are experiencing, remember they are not isolated. It’s important to find the root cause of your symptoms then work to restore overall balance of your 3 legged stool; the OAT Axis.
Want to understand the root cause of your symptoms and how to reverse them? Get a personalised health plan to balance your hormones, regulate your OAT Axis and regain your health. Book an online consultation.