Anything you put in or on your body or absorb from your environment, otherwise known as environmental factors, account for about 90% of the autoimmune equation. Your genes only contribute maybe 10% of the risk. Your hormones are greatly affected by external factors and have a profound influence of autoimmune disease. Some of these influenced hormones include insulin, cortisol, sex hormones and vitamin D levels to name a few. Identifying your personal triggers can help to minimize your autoimmune disorder(s).
One of the 6 major autoimmune trigger categories I’d like to address that has a profound influence, is hormonal imbalances. Even though we can’t see them, you can certainly feel them when they’re out of whack. These tiny messengers of the body may be the most critical keystones of our health and wellbeing. Studies show that hormonal imbalance is directly correlated to the development and perpetuation of autoimmune conditions. The intersection of autoimmunity and hormones is a vast and complicated topic, so let’s simplify things by focusing on the two main root cause culprits in your control: sugar and stress.
2 Stories of Sugar and Stress that Led to Hormonal Imbalances
Katie was a vivacious working mom of three when the worst happened. Her eighteen-month-old son died in a tragic accident. After her excruciating loss, Katie’s deep grief, lingering depression, and mounting stress showed up on her body and lab tests. She gained eighty pounds, lost her hair in clumps, and went into premature menopause and ovarian failure. Doctors offered her anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and a painful prediction that she would never get pregnant again.
Katie refused to accept the doctors’ orders, and instead relied on her inner strength to prove them wrong. She herself was a triple board–certified doctor after all! Katie’s research and hunt for natural solutions led her to adapt a “green” version of the ketogenic diet, which meant limiting sugar and starchy carbs, and adding nourishing fats along with loads of green vegetables and moderate amounts of protein. Katie also discovered the power of oxytocin — the love and bonding hormone — and set out to cultivate it as much as possible by prioritizing hugs, connection, and laughter. By ramping up her oxytocin production and changing her diet, Katie’s insulin sensitivity improved, she lost those eighty pounds, ran a triathlon, and with great joy, conceived and gave birth to a healthy baby girl at age 41.
For decades, I wrestled with severe endometriosis, migraines, and cystic ovaries that followed me into adulthood, and lupus-like symptoms (although never an official diagnosis) that worsened with stress. A well-meaning OB/GYN put me on the birth control pill at age 16 to help mitigate my endometrial pain, and over the years, I was told me there was no harm in staying on the pill until menopause. I was never educated on the possible causes for my endometriosis or migraines—let alone made any connection between my hormonal challenges and lupus. I had no idea my Standard American Diet (SAD) of high sugar and excess carbs coupled with an always-on stress reaction could throw my hormones into a tailspin, or that my hormones might be contributing to the mess I found myself in. While I proactively addressed the stress best I could with various relaxation efforts, I didn’t learn of the harm that I was doing to my body by consuming gluten, sugar, and synthetic hormones until I was in my forties. When I embraced a low inflammatory diet and learned to manage my stress in addition to ditching the pill, I not only eased my hormonal misery, I also stopped the expression of lupus in my body.
Katie and I have very different stories, but the broad strokes are similar: sugar and stress wreak havoc on our hormones. Given enough time, as several studies have shown, hormonal imbalances often lead to, or worsen, any number of devastating conditions including insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune conditions, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Hormones may be small, but these molecules are mighty. The chemical messengers of the endocrine system, hormones are released by various glands (the pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, etc.) to communicate to your cells, prompting numerous vital functions, like triggering the onset of puberty, regulating appetite and blood sugar, and repairing damaged tissues. With so much at stake, it is no wonder that hormone imbalances have the potential to cause so much trouble.
When your hormones communicate correctly, referred to as “hormonal homeostasis,” you sleep well, your energy’s high, your optimal weight is easy to maintain, your immune system is strong, and you’re more likely to be in a good mood. That’s “hormonal harmony.” But too much or not enough of even one hormone can throw the whole thing off balance and leave you more susceptible to autoimmune conditions or other chronic illnesses. Think of it like a lock-and-key formation; the hormones are the keys that bind to receptors on or inside cells, unlocking critical processes within your body. If your glands do not produce enough hormones (keys) or your receptors (locks) are too clogged with toxins, the gate to hormonal harmony and good health stays locked, and the misery begins.
If you have decreased energy, brain fog, moodiness, or trouble managing your weight, you may be one of the millions of Americans in a state of hormonal imbalance. And if you are a woman, you are three times more like to develop an autoimmune disorder.
If you go to the doctor with any collection of these symptoms, you’ll undergo a few tests and end up with some prescription medications, but eventually, you’ll be told that whatever you have going on is just part of getting older. While it is true that hormones decline with age, our modern lifestyle—daily high stress, a diet based on refined sugars and carbohydrates, and constant exposure to environmental toxins only serves to speed up the process. The fact is that developing autoimmune disorders, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses is not normal, and hormonal imbalance is not inevitable.
The fastest way to establish hormonal homeostasis is to address the other top autoimmune triggers: food, infections, gut health, toxins, and stress. For most people, when all other aspects of your health are in in tune, your hormones naturally fall in line.
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