Gut dysfunction is often associated with certain digestive symptoms such as indigestion, heartburn, bloating, constipation, etc... Less often is it associated with other symptoms like energy levels, mood, cognition, period health or fertility. All of which may be directly or indirectly related to an underlying gut issue.
The gastrointestinal system is intimately connected with nearly every internal organ system and enzymatic function of your body. Because of this, issues with your gut can most definitely cause complications in other areas of your health that you might not be aware of.
Let’s say for example that you experience symptoms of hormone imbalance such as period-induced mood swings, pelvic pain/cramping or irregular cycles… your first thought might not necessarily be to take a look at your gut health & function. Rather, you might consider taking over-the-counter pain medication or perhaps even the birth control pill to manage your symptoms.
However, when looking at this from a functional nutrition perspective, we always want to make sure that we take a step back and evaluate the bigger picture of what’s actually going on. If you simply chock up those symptoms to just being a ‘hormone imbalance’ without figuring out what the root cause of that imbalance is (i.e the gut), then you could potentially miss out on the opportunity to successfully correct your issues.
More often than not, women get prescribed birth control for their period & hormone symptoms. In fact, about 1 out of every 3 women who take hormonal birth control take it for reasons other than contraceptive purposes. This is very counterproductive if a hormone imbalance is actually stemming from a gut dysfunction. If that’s the case, hormonal birth control usage may actually make things a whole lot worse.
From an outside perspective, your hormonal and reproductive health might not seem connected to your gut, however, once you get down to the biochemistry of how these systems work, you realize that they are very much interconnected. In fact, your gut has just about everything to do with your hormone balance and vice versa.
Symptoms of Hormone Imbalance
Many hormone imbalances go unnoticed. It’s commonly assumed that hormone imbalances will primarily present themselves as PMS, painful periods, cycle irregularities, ovulatory failure and/or infertility. However, they can also show up in many other shapes, forms & fashions. Because of this, they frequently go unnoticed or are potentially confused for different conditions. Unfortunately, many women are often informed that their symptoms are either entirely normal or that they are completely unrelated to their hormones when this couldn’t be any farther from the truth.
Symptoms of a hormone imbalance include:
Hormone imbalances can be difficult to control once established. However, they are entirely possible to correct with the right strategy & approach. A fundamental part of that strategy is to support your gastrointestinal health. However, hormone imbalances can also have a negative impact directly on your gut health, therefore, if you experience stubborn digestive disturbances, you may want to consider your hormonal health as well. The tricky part is that hormone imbalances and digestive disturbances can cycle into each other and potentially turn into a catch-22 situation. The question then becomes do you support the gut or the hormones? The answer is, both.
How Hormones Influence the Gut
Hormones and the gastrointestinal system are very closely tied. Have you ever noticed constipation right after ovulation or looser bowels right before or during your period? It is said that women are more at risk for IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) than men, but could this actually have something to do with hormonal fluctuations? You bet!
The gut lining contains numerous hormone receptors which allow for the gut to sense and react to hormonal fluctuations. This definitely has an impact on your gut motility (how often you go to the bathroom).
Estrogen & Progesterone both have an influence on the peristalsis function of the gut - the constriction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles which push the contents of food down the intestines and eventually out of the body.
Both of the dominating female sex hormones, Estrogen & Progesterone, have been shown to have an influence on bowel transit time. Although there isn’t much research showing the direct effects of estrogen on gut motility, progesterone has been well researched and proven to directly inhibit peristalsis by relaxing the smooth muscles of the intestine. For many, this can result in the onset of constipation during the luteal phase. Similarly, constipation is a common symptom during the 1st and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy, when Progesterone is at its highest. The increase in progesterone can also relax the lower esophageal sphincter in the upper GI tract, which can result in the occasional heartburn and reflux during pregnancy.
Right before your period arrives, sex hormone levels decrease to their lowest point and prostaglandins, which are hormone-like chemicals, begin to trigger contraction of the uterus to expel its lining resulting in your period. However, these prostaglandins can trigger the smooth muscles of the intestines to contract as well, resulting in looser stools, bowel spasms and increased rectal sensitivity.
Of course, there are many potential reasons why one might experience gastrointestinal discomfort or bowel irregularities such as nutrition, stress and food intolerances, however, we mustn’t ignore how hormones have an influence the health & function of the gastrointestinal system.
Thus, a bad case of hormone imbalance could potentially lead to an inaccurate IBS diagnosis. If that’s the case, taking medication to suppress IBS symptoms might not help the situation at hand, in fact, it could potentially make the situation worse.
How the Gut Influences Hormones
Oftentimes a very symptomatic cycle can be the result of a hormone imbalance called Estrogen Dominance. Estrogen Dominance can result due to increased levels of estrogen and/or decreased levels of progesterone.
Estrogen can be damaging to the body if not detoxified properly. Click here to learn more about estrogen dominance & detoxification/elimination. In the 3rd stage of detoxification (once the excess estrogen has bypassed the liver) it gets sent on to the digestive tract through the bile to be eliminated through the bowels.
Within the gut resides a plethora of various bacterial species. These beneficial bacteria live in symbiosis with our own bodies. They help us to break down our food, produce vital nutrients and protect us from foreign pathogenic invasions. They comprise what we call our gut microbiome.
The gut microbiome can have a huge influence on hormone balance, specifically when it comes to the detoxification process of estrogen. The estrogen-regulating function of specific bacteria in the microbiome is called the Estrobolome.
A healthy estrobolome helps to keep estrogen in check so that it is able to be eliminated properly and doesn’t recirculate through the body. However, if there’s a case of dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance) within the gut, this can result in a disrupted estrobolome. Certain nonbenficial bacterial species commonly found in cases of dysbiosis contain beta-glucuronidase activity which allows them to deconjugate & reabsorb estrogen back into circulation. This in turn can result in worsening cases of estrogen dominance and increased levels of toxicity.
The internal stress of dysbiosis (and other pathogenic gut invasions such as yeast overgrowth or parasites) causes an increase in inflammation which triggers even more prostaglandins, resulting in more painful periods, as well as an increase in cortisol levels (the body’s stress hormone). An increase in cortisol can directly lower progesterone levels, resulting in various hormonal and reproductive complications.
This is why supporting the health & function of the gut is absolutely fundamental to correcting a hormonal imbalance. 9 out of 10 times a hormone imbalance can be traced back to poor gut function and an unhealthy microbiome.
As you can now see, both the gut and sex hormones depend upon each other’s proper function in order to stay healthy and in balance – if something goes wrong with either system, it can create a whole host of problems and can spell trouble for the other.
How to restore gut health & hormone balance
When it comes to restoring gut health & function, I always like to recommend the 5R approach.
When it comes to restoring hormone balance and menstrual health, supporting gut function is typically the first step in the process. Likely, once underlying gut issues are taken care of, it becomes a lot easier to support and maintain hormone balance.
There are also many other beneficial ways to support hormonal health & harmony such as balancing blood sugar, supporting the detoxification pathways, improving ovulatory function, improving your nutrient status and managing stress appropriately. Becoming attuned to your hormonal patterns and fluctuations throughout your menstrual cycle has also proven to be highly effective for many women.
To learn more about balancing your hormones naturally, download a free copy of The Ultimate Hormone Balancing Nutrition Guide.
In conclusion, gut health and hormones are a lot more connected than we may realize. Each have an influence on each other in various ways and can play a role in the health outcome of the other. By supporting your gut health & function, you are both directly and indirectly supporting your hormone balance, and vise versa.
If you suspect that you have a hormone or gut imbalance and want to get to the bottom of your issues, I invite you to book a free discovery call with me to see how I can help you become more clear about your symptoms & the approach you need to achieve the results you’ve been looking for in your hormone balancing journey.
Article sources available upon request
Ashe Milkovic, NTP is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Functional Hormone Specialist focusing in the field of women's reproductive health.