“I’m afraid to eat!” That’s what Gina said to me when she called for a consultation. I wasn’t sure what she meant, so I explored a little further, and she told me that she was having such trouble with her digestive system – bloating, belching, heartburn, and other uncomfortable symptoms – that her food choices were becoming more and more limited. She didn’t want to eat in public, because she was never sure what would happen afterwards.
So many women I know battle digestive problems. If this sounds like you, know that you aren’t alone!
Digestive issues have become more and more common. In the last few years that I was seeing patients, almost every single one complained of bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea, abdominal pain, embarrassing gas, uncontrollable belching, or other digestive complaints. These women had often been told by their primary care physician that they had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or another condition they couldn’t do anything about. Working with me, they discovered that simply wasn’t true!
There’s always something we can do about our health. Sometimes, it takes a lot of persistence, and a little better understanding of your body to get to the root of the problem. As a functional medicine practitioner, that’s exactly what I helped women do – and I can help you too!
My patients were often surprised when I told them that hormonal imbalances could be behind their digestive distress. In my newsletters, I’ve talked a lot about gut health and weight. Now, let’s 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. Though many people think digestion happens solely in the stomach, 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 your body can use. 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 I’m going to focus on digestion. This is where things can go awry and impact your hormones the most!
Digestion is where large pieces of food are broken down into the chemicals your body needs. It begins with chewing, and 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?
It’s so hard to answer this question! That’s because digestive disorders can have any number of root causes – some that begin even before you are born! Genetics play a role, as do many other 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 all other things that can cause djigestive issues. There’s not much you can do about many of those things – especially since many are 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 your overall health.
Digestion and Hormones: the Delicate Balance
Digestive issues can cause hormonal imbalances, and hormonal imbalances can cause digestive trouble — it’s a crazy cycle, and if you want to heal, you must break it. The first step is understanding how the digestive process and hormones are connected.
The Importance of a Balanced Microbiome
Remember that bacteria I talked about earlier? It can really make a difference in how smoothly your digestive system functions. Beneficial bacteria can help metabolize and eliminate excess hormones, but unhealthy bacteria can do exactly the opposite. This bacteria sends the hormones right back into your system, upsetting the delicate balance required for good health.
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.
A 2019 review of research detailed the role of estrogen and estrogen receptors in a wide range of gastrointestinal diseases. This review illustrates just how important balance can be when dealing with GI 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
I have talked about stress a lot, because it’s so pervasive in our culture. The expectation that you’ll be under an immense amount of stress is so expected that women feel guilty complaining about it, and often feel powerless to change it. If they do bring it up, they often get commiseration, maybe even sympathy, but no concrete suggestions on how to combat that ever-present stress.
This is a huge problem. 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 a primary 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 leads to 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. This leads to imbalances in both sex hormones and hormones 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. Too much insulin in your system may make you unable 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. But mood disorders and lack of sleep can cause gut issues, skewing the production of serotonin. And not enough serotonin leads to poor sleep and feeling lousy. 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
Information is great, but practical strategies are even better! Here are three tips for improving digestion and balancing hormones that you can put into practice today!
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. So many people think that being selfish is a bad thing – but its absolutely necessary to take time for yourself. That’s not being selfish – it’s necessary self-care!
And let me be clear: I don’t mean 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.
So what specific steps can you take to eliminate stress? Meditation, mindful practices, gratitude practice, activities you adore, connecting with friends and family, and learning the fine art of saying no are all great options. 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
One of the best things you can do to combat digestive issues resulting from an imbalance microbiome is to increase the good bacteria in your gut.
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 you pay attention to healthy habits, 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!
So what do healthy lifestyle habits look like? 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!
And it doesn’t have to be boring! 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
You have so much personal control, but you might need a little help along the way. I told Gina all of these things and helped her develop healthier habits. She also added some probiotic support to her daily vitamin regimen. To her delight, she was soon able to go out and enjoy a meal with friends, worry-free! My goal for you is that you can do the same. I want you to realize you don’t have to suffer!
There’s a wealth of information available in my health library to help you find the path to better health. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for more support – or to share your successes. I love to hear from my readers!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD