Do you find yourself worried every time you approach a meal? Or avoid eating in public because you simply don’t know what will happen after you eat? If you’re like so many of the women I know, you’re battling some kind of digestive problem. You certainly aren’t alone!
Digestive issues are so common these days. I can barely remember the last time a woman came to see me and didn’t complain of bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea, abdominal pain, embarrassing gas, uncontrollable belching, or other digestive complaints. All too often, these women are told by their primary care physician that they have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or another condition they can’t do anything about. But that’s simply not true!
There’s always something we can do about our health. But it takes a little understanding and a commitment to keep digging until you get to the root of the problem. As a functional medicine practitioner, that’s exactly what I do!
It still surprises my patients when I tell them that hormonal imbalances could be what’s behind their digestive distress. I’ve talked a lot about gut health and weight, but it’s time to look a little more closely at the relationship between digestion and hormones.
How Does the Digestive System Function?
Your digestive system is a vast and complex network of organs and processes. Most people think of digestion as what happens in the stomach, but it actually begins the moment you put food into your mouth.
The primary function of the digestive system is to convert food to energy that can be used by your body. There are six major functions that happen in your digestive system: ingestion; secretion; mixing and movement; digestion; absorption; and excretion. All of these are equally important to the overall process, but let’s look more closely at digestion. This is where things can go awry and impact your hormones the most!
Digestion is where food is broken down from large pieces into the chemicals your body needs. It begins with chewing, continues as your muscles mix the food and move it through your system. But it’s the chemical digestion that really impacts hormones. In order for this chemical breakdown to happen properly, you need to have the right balance of enzymes and acid in your stomach.
Your gut is also filled with bacteria – some good, and some that really shouldn’t be there (and certainly shouldn’t outnumber the good guys)! This bacteria can help, or hinder, the digestive process!
Where Do Digestive Issues Begin?
There is no easy answer to this question. Digestive disorders can have any number of root causes – some that begin even before you are born! Genetics play a role, as do many factors that are out of your control.
Being born by C-section or being formula-fed instead of breast fed can impact your digestive system. The overuse of antibiotics, a diet high in processed foods, environmental toxins, medications, and stress are several other things that can cause digestive issues. So many of those things are either absolutely unavoidable in certain circumstances, or normalized by the society we live in.
We can’t change genetics or how we came into this world, and if we were given a lot of antibiotics as a child, we can’t go back in time and undo the damage that may have caused. But we can heal, and we can control the choices we make right now! The first step is understanding the impact that gut health can have on the way you feel overall.
Digestion and Hormones: the Delicate Balance
Digestive issues can cause hormonal imbalances, and hormonal imbalances can cause digestive trouble — it’s a cycle that must be broken if you want to heal. Let’s take a closer look at how the digestive process and hormones are connected.
The Importance of a Balanced Microbiome
Remember that bacteria I talked about earlier? It can have a big impact on how smoothly your digestive system functions. Beneficial bacteria can help metabolize and eliminate excess hormones, but some unhealthy bacteria does the exact opposite. It sends the hormones right back into your system, upsetting the delicate balance.
Estrogen is a perfect example of this. In a balanced microbiome, excess estrogen is inactivated in the liver, then heads to the intestines to be excreted in stool. But if the bad bacteria gets ahold of it first, this estrogen can be sent back into circulation, causing estrogen dominance (too much estrogen in proportion to progesterone). Estrogen dominance can disrupt menstrual function, fat burning, mood regulation – and cause bloating and other uncomfortable gut issues.
Having excess hormones of any type in your system changes the way your body produces these hormones. When your system detects high levels of circulating hormones, hormone production may cease – even if your body needs them!
How Stress Impacts Hormones and Digestion
One of the topics I’ve focused on a lot lately is stress. That’s because stress is so pervasive in our culture. It’s so expected that you’ll be under an immense amount of stress that women feel bad even thinking about complaining about it. When they do broach the topic, often they get commiseration, maybe even sympathy, but no concrete suggestions on how to combat the ever-present stress.
This is a problem, because stress can create so many health issues – including hormonal imbalances and difficulties with your digestive system. There’s a reason we double over in pain when anxiety peaks!
Cortisol is the main stress hormone, and it’s very useful when there’s real danger to contend with. Unfortunately, our bodies send out distress calls for any kind of stress – whether it’s a matter of survival, emotional distress, or even mild annoyances like being stuck in traffic. These signals prompt the (over)production of cortisol, which causes a wide range of health problems.
One of the things that happens under stress is that the production of the enzyme 17/20 lyase is blocked. This matters because the hormone-producing function of sex glands and adrenal glands is impaired if you don’t have enough of this enzyme, leading to imbalances in both sex hormones and those produced by the adrenals.
Another problem is that chronically elevated cortisol levels can actually slow down digestion – and that means painful symptoms including constipation, gas, and bloating.
Other Hormones That Influence Digestion
If insulin levels are skewed, blood sugar regulation is more difficult. If you have too much insulin in your system, you may not be able to control sugar cravings. And consuming too much sugar leads to even more health issues – including uncomfortable gut symptoms.
Your gut also produces most of the serotonin in your body. This hormone helps you both feel happier and sleep better. And like many of the other complex relationships going on in your body, mood disorders and/or lack of sleep can cause gut issues. It goes round and round.
The relationship between hormones, hormone producing glands, and your microbiome is truly complicated. The good news is that balancing hormones can even out digestive distress, and taking good care of your digestive system can help balance hormones. So we can create a new, more positive cycle if we have the right information!
Top 3 Tips for Smooth Digestion and Hormonal Balance
I always want to leave you with some practical tips that you can implement starting today. Here are three tips for improving digestion and balancing hormones.
1. Banish Stress
I can’t say this often enough. Research is showing more and more often how severely excess cortisol can affect your body. It’s far past time we all stop the madness and listen!
You simply cannot keep up the crazy pace indefinitely and feel good. Taking time for yourself isn’t selfish – it’s necessary!
When I talk about decreasing stress, I want to be clear that I don’t mean you get a massage and then get right back on life’s crazy treadmill. A massage can be great, but addressing stress once a month – or even once a week – isn’t often enough. You have to pay attention to stress every single day and do whatever you can to let it go.
Meditation, mindful practices, gratitude practice, activities you adore, connecting with friends and family, and learning the fine art of saying no are all great ways to eliminate stress from your life. Pick one thing that you can do each day – even if it’s five minutes of deep breathing, or a quick walk around the block at lunchtime, and then do it!
2. Increase Beneficial Bacteria
Since an imbalanced microbiome can cause so much chaos when it comes to hormones, one of the best things you can do to combat the digestive issues that result is to increase the good bacteria.
Menopause can mean a decline in both estrogen and progesterone, which help the healthy bacteria flourish, so it might be even more crucial to give your body a boost if you’re in perimenopause or menopause.
The best support for a balanced, healthy gut is to consume plenty of fermented foods. Sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, yogurt and kombucha are all great choices. A good probiotic supplement is also something to consider, since it can be hard to get enough from food alone.
3. Embrace Healthy Lifestyle Habits
The more attention you give to living a healthy lifestyle, the more likely you are to keep hormones balanced and digestion flowing smoothly. I know that you’ve heard this all before, but I can’t emphasize it enough – your personal choices make the biggest difference!
Fill your plate with fresh, whole foods as often as possible. Avoid processed convenience foods – the time savings isn’t worth the health cost. Eat plenty of fiber (split peas, lentils, black beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, berries, and whole grains are all great sources).
Stay well hydrated, well rested, and active. Quit smoking, and indulge in alcohol sparingly, if at all.
I can almost hear some of you groaning, calling me a “killjoy.” But I promise you – it’s just old habits that have you thinking that way. When you let them go and build new, healthier, habits I think you’ll feel so great that you’ll agree the change is worth it!
Healthy habits don’t have to be boring, either. The internet is full of delicious recipes that use nothing but whole foods and spices. Water infused with fresh fruit or cucumber is a refreshing change. Trying something new to stay active could lead to a whole new social group – it did for me when I began dancing!
You Don’t Have to Be Held Hostage By Digestive Issues
There is so much that is within your own personal control – but you might need a little help along the way. My goal for you is that with my help, you’ll realize you don’t have to suffer!
I have so much information available in my health library to help you find the path to better health, and I’m available in person at my clinic or online for consultation. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for support – or to share your successes. I love to hear from my readers!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD