8 THINGS THAT HAVE HELPED ME BALANCE MY HORMONES NATURALLY
15 years on The Pill + PCOS + hypothyroidism + chronic stress + 2 decades of disordered eating = a perfect hormonal storm that turned out to be the second biggest factor affecting my health since adolescence (see this post for more on the factor that get's top billing). Below is a list of things that have helped me navigate the complicated journey back to some semblance of balance and sanity without synthetic hormones.
- CHANGING TO & STICKING WITH A HORMONE-FREE IUD was definitely not the easy choice given the wacky things I experienced for years after going off ortho (see below), but I know it was the right choice for my body. Although I was tempted many times to pull the ripcord and deal with the lymph edema consequences, increased risk of breast cancer, etc in the interest of my sanity (see more below), I can honestly say I am glad I chose to do the hard work to honor what best supports my overall health longterm.
- ACUPUNCTURE: I have no idea what harried state I'd be in without my remarkable Acupuncturist, Michelle Kuroda. Her truly singular style of acupuncture blends ancient wisdom and healing modalities with a refreshingly modern sensibility and perspective. It has always been evident in our sessions and in the results I see in my health, that she is constantly deepening her knowledge around women's health and fertility. When I went to Michelle a few months after my PCOS diagnosis, I hadn't had a regular period in about three years. After 2 months of bi-weekly sessions and Chinese herbs, I got my period without having to take synthetic hormones or do a cleanse. I can't recommend her, or acupuncture, enough. It has helped me with a number of health issues when nothing in modern medicine has. I don't know how or why it works, but I know it does.
- LEARNING WHAT IS AND ISN'T NORMAL throughout our monthly cycle and during the various hormonal transitions in our life was an important turning point for me. I'm still not quite sure why we're not provided with basic information around what healthy vs. irregular hormones and cycles look like as soon as we "become women," but what I am sure of is this: 99% of women have no idea what to expect and how to tell when something is wrong. I certainly didn't, and it made this journey far longer and more complicated than it needed to be. Empower yourself with the knowledge you need to be an expert on, and advocate for, your hormonal health so you don't miss important red flags. I love The Hormone Cure and Woman Code and think they're good places to start. I've also heard good things about Taking Charge of Your Fertility and Dr Jolene Brighten.
- RECOGNIZING AND RESPONDING TO THE CHANGING NEEDS OF MY BRAIN & BODY throughout my cycle and as I age has been a game changer. Until I read WomanCode, I never understood that there are very real biological reasons women experience varying energy levels, mood, appetite, and even desire to socialize throughout our cycle. I chastised myself for being inconsistent, weak, antisocial, unmotivated if I wasn't "on" in every area of my life 100% of the time. I always ignored any signs that I needed rest or anything different than what was planned or required of me. Holding myself and my body to this standard of performance was unrealistic, unnatural and an added stressor on my system, which in itself can effect hormones. I am so much calmer, healthier, happier and less anxious when I listen to what my brain and body are trying to tell me during my cycle (especially during PMS). My symptoms feel more manageable when I accept, embrace and work with these natural shifts and my cycle lengths are more likely to be consistent if I have the presence of mind to be kind to myself in these ways.
- MAKING DIETARY CHANGES TO SUPPORT HORMONE HEALTH: I learned a little too late how much caffeine and sugar impact our hormone balance, but once I started reducing/eliminating them instead of relying on them to survive my cycle, I noticed significant improvements in PMS and menstrual symptoms including cravings and mood swings. I switched to matcha with collagen and nut milk to slow the release of caffeine into my system and don't consume any other caffeine. I use the tactics I this post to help manage blood sugar and I also load up on leafy greens, root vegetables and cruciferous vegetables to help my liver and intestines flush out excess estrogen. Together, these dietary modifications (when I comply) make my cycle more bearable and more predictable.
- BEING STRATEGIC ABOUT FEEDING INEVITABLE CRAVINGS is especially important for me for three reasons: having PCOS means managing blood sugar is imperative, I have a history of disordered eating that can be triggered by intense hormones and feelings of deprivation, and most importantly, I NEED chocolate chip cookies when I have awful PMS. Stuffing your face and belly with bags of Hershey Kisses and cookies actually makes PMS/menstrual symptoms worse and can throw your cycle off, but going overboard can feel inevitable if you completely ignore the very natural carb cravings that come around that time of the month. I tried to fight the cravings for about a year when my period started coming back and would end up overdoing it for days, only to watch my cycle (and gut) get all wonky the following month. My new approach? Add 1/2 Cup of sweet roasted vegetables or high-fiber fruits to each meal throughout the day to tame the intensity of cravings and choose healthier versions of treats like low-sugar Eating Evolved Dark Chocolate or Nourish Cafe chocolate chip cookies. Indulge mindfully, keep the portion size reasonable, and have compassion for yourself when you do land face down in a pile of M&M's.
- INCREASED AWARENESS AROUND THE INTERDEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HORMONE, GUT AND MENTAL HEALTH AND LIFESTYLE factors like stress, sleep and diet is probably the biggest thing that has helped me stay on the right track. Hormone balance is a constantly moving target. Understanding how delicate it is and making lifestyle changes to support stress management and adequate rest especially has helped me regulate cycle length, decrease PMS symptom severity and feel much more balanced overall. My mindful morning routine that includes meditation and journaling before even peaking at my phone has been a big part of this. Prioritizing sleep, even when on fun vacations with friends has been huge too.
- INFORMED, CAUTIOUS SUPPLEMENTATION under the guidance of my doctor and acupuncturist. The custom Chinese herbal blend prescribed by my acupuncturist got rid of my night sweats almost immediately. They were so severe I would have to strip out of my PJ's in the middle of the night and lay towels down on the bed before getting back in, so I was shocked and delighted with how effective they were. Vitex Berry (otherwise known as Chaste Berry Tree extract) has helped me with water retention and bloating and I believe this has had the biggest impact on my lymph edema. My body doesn't flush out estrogen effectively, so I also found Estrodim helpful for a while when my hormones were at their craziest about 2 years ago. These were all particular to my imbalances and other health conditions, so please keep in mind that you should always discuss any supplements or herbal remedies with your caregivers and remember to check back in regularly on necessity and dose when they do prescribe them!
THE BACK STORY
I was on The Pill (ortho) for about 15 years and never experienced any pre-menstrual or menstrual symptoms of note. Barring a few cysts when I was young, I never had any reason to worry or think much about my hormone health. My mother had endometriosis and fertility challenges, but because I never so much as experienced a heavy period, I didn't even consider that I might have some issues lurking underneath the birth control's artificially induced normalcy.
About 6 years ago, when a specialist at Stanford suggested I go off synthetic hormones to help manage my lymph edema, I immediately stopped taking the pill. Initially, I was pleased with the results. I dropped a few pounds of water weight and no longer had to wear compression stockings on my right leg (something a previous doctor said I would have to do 24/7 for the rest of my life). My digestion seemed to improve, my skin stayed clear, all seemed well. For a time.
Since I had been warned off synthetic hormones, I decided to get the Paraguard IUD - a completely hormone free copper device with high efficacy and almost no risks or side effects associated with it. We were to wait until my next period to implant the device. Only catch? My period never came.
For almost two years, I saw no signs of PMS or my period. I actually kind of enjoyed amenorrhea - my moods were more even and I never had to deal with feeling "hormonal." This was also around the time I had back surgery, so I honestly didn't have any desire to go looking for another problem to deal with when I already had my plate full with a painful recovery. My OBGYN wasn't a big fan of the avoidance approach, however - failure to bleed drastically increases your risk of uterine cancer - so she eventually sent me for blood work and an ultrasound and said I'd need to do a "forced bleed" with progesterone if I didn't get my period soon.
After the ultrasound, I was diagnosed with PCOS, or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a hormone disorder that affects fertility and increases your risk of type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. The only "treatment" option I was presented with was synthetic hormones, which wasn't an option for me if I wanted to manage my lymph edema and prevent it from getting out of control.
For the next year I relied on 14-21 day Clean Program cleanses to bring on some kind of a cycle every few months. I knew this wasn't a sustainable approach, but it bought me time without having to take synthetic hormones. Eventually I returned to the acupuncturist I had seen previously for the lymph edema and back pain. She was a miracle worker with those things, so I had faith that if anyone could help it would be her.
By the time I went to Michelle (see more on her in the list above), I was starting to experience signs that something funky was happening with my hormones. The most alarming symptoms were cyclical depression, anxiety and mood swings worse than I had experienced since I was 15 years old. I didn't realize it was my hormones when it started, but after looking back through my daily journal entries, I recognized that the mood swings and depression always came right around my self-induced cycles, about every 3-4 months. And the uncontrollable outbursts of anger, never fail, came the night before I'd get my period.
I also experienced awful night sweats, pretty bad brain fog, severe bloating and water retention, acne on my neck and back, and weight gain in areas where I never had gained weight before (upper arms, tops of thighs, hips). Because I didn't have a "normal" or predictable cycle length, some of these symptoms would last for weeks at a time, but always came leading up to a period.
Although the physical symptoms were uncomfortable for me, nothing alarmed me more than when I felt overwhelmed by and overcome with emotions. We were raised by a traditional, stoic father that taught us to control ourselves and our emotions and keep it together no matter what. I was proud of the way I conducted myself as a grown woman and controlling my emotions made me feel in control of my life, so it REALLY freaked me out on many levels when I started to lose my sh&t every few months. I had also experienced a lot of shame around the depression I battled as an adolescent and teenager, so the threat of that returning and cloaking my daily life in a grey fog was worrisome.
Needless to say, Michelle had her work cut out for her. She worked her magic and within 2 months I started to get my period more frequently without having to do a restorative cleanse to induce it. This was really only the beginning of my hormone balancing journey though, because as I learned pretty quickly, hormone health is a delicate and often elusive thing.
Over the next few years I learned the hard way that without synthetic hormones inducing predictable, controlled cycles, you have to make choices everyday to support your hormone health. Some of us have more delicate constitutions than others and therefore have to be more proactive and diligent, but everything listed above can benefit any woman looking to support her body in holistic ways.