Gut Health and Hormones — what does one have to do with the other? As a Naturopathic Physician with a focus on female health, I see a lot of patients with hormone imbalances. They are often surprised when I start asking about their gut health and order comprehensive gut health labs as part of their hormone balance protocol.
The state of gut health affects almost every physiological process in the human body. An unhealthy gut causes hormonal disruptions and chronic inflammation, which can precede serious diseases such as diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s.
Recent studies are making it more and more clear that the state of your gut, healthy or unhealthy, has a definite impact on your hormone levels and imbalances. Researchers are finding that your gut microbiome may be the most important player in the endocrine system. That’s because your gut microbiome acts as a conductor at the center of the orchestra, leading your symphony of hormones. Not only does the gut microbiome produce hormones, but it can also signal to the glands in your body, letting them know how much of each hormone should be created and released.
Your gut microbiota influences nearly every hormone in the body, including:
- Your Thyroid Hormones
- Stress Hormones like Cortisol
The Gut is More Than Just Your Stomach
The human body has more bacteria cells than any other type of cell. A great deal of these microbes (bacteria) resides in the gut. A lot of times when I refer to the ‘gut”, people immediately think of their tummy. You might also think of the “gut” in terms of having a “gut feeling” or following their “gut instinct.” There’s actually some physiological truth to that because the gut is connected to the brain with thousands of nerves.
The “gut” actually consists of the entire digestive tract from your mouth through to your colon, containing 10-100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. These microbes are referred to as the gut microbiome. Functions of the gut include taking in and processing nutrients and defending against harmful agents. The gut is made up of all different types of bacteria, some good or “friendly, and some bad, as well as viral, fungal, and other microbes. Without the microbiome, we would not be able to survive.
The more good bacteria there are, the healthier we are. When the gut becomes imbalanced and has too many bad or harmful bacteria, bacteria in the wrong places (SIBO), or an overgrowth of fungus, this can lead to hormonal disturbances, inflammation, and other processes that take place which can lead to serious disease. So gut health and hormones are very definitely connected.
The wall of the gut is permeable, which is how nutrients from food are able to pass through to the rest of the body and sustain our lives. If we are eating healthy foods and practicing good lifestyle habits, then the microbiome does its job effectively. However, factors such as eating the wrong foods, taking antibiotics, not managing stress well, and not getting enough sleep can throw the microbiome out of balance. The harmful bacteria become more prevalent and this creates problems.
Causes and Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gut
The biggest cause of an unhealthy gut is eating a diet high in sugars, inflammatory foods, the wrong kinds of fat, alcohol, and drugs (even prescription medications). Over time, not only does the gut not absorb nutrients as it should, but it can also leak toxins and harmful bacteria into the body. This is known as endotoxemia or “leaky gut.” Antibiotics can also throw off the microbiome balance since they do not discriminate against beneficial versus harmful bacteria and will kill everything, particularly when used often or for an extended period of time.
Other causes of gut problems include environmental toxins, stress, and chronic gut issues often present with symptoms or conditions such as:
- Diarrhea/Constipation or Alternating Bouts of Both
- Acid Reflux
- Food Sensitivities
- Sugar Cravings
- Skin Rashes/Eczema
- Depression/Low Mood
- Brain Fog/Memory Issues
- Vitamin D3 Deficiency
- Vitamin B12 Deficiency
- Autoimmune Disorders
- Compromised Immune System
- Hormonal Imbalances
- Chronic Inflammation
- “Leaky Gut” Syndrome
Chronic Dysbiosis (the imbalance of healthy to unhealthy bacteria) eventually leads to more serious issues such as Hypothyroidism, Fatty Liver Disease, Type-2 Diabetes, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and many other autoimmune disorders. Complications can also lead to life-threatening illnesses like Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer.
It becomes a vicious cycle because when the gut is sick, it causes hormonal imbalances that affect just about every system in our body. It also leads to chronic inflammation, which is a precursor to hundreds of diseases.
Gut Health and Specific Hormones
When gut health isn’t optimal, hormones become imbalanced.
There is new research showing that the microbiome plays a big role in estrogen regulation.
Your gut microbiota is a key regulator of the level of circulating estrogen in the body. Your microbes produce an enzyme, beta-glucuronidase, that converts estrogen into its active forms. Dysbiosis (an imbalanced microbiome) can change the number of active estrogens in the body.
There’s actually a specific group of microbes that make up what’s called your ‘estrobolome.’ Your estrobolome consists of bacterial genes that are capable of metabolizing estrogens, which is important because estrogen is a potent promoter of tissue growth throughout the body. Poor gut health increases the risk of estrogen-related diseases such as PCOS, endometriosis, and even breast cancer.
An imbalanced gut microbiome is also one of the causes of a low performing thyroid.
Low microbial diversity — when you don’t have enough different types of gut bacteria — has been linked with high thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. Too much TSH may cause your body to produce lower levels of thyroid hormones T3 and T4, sometimes leading to hypothyroidism. An imbalanced gut microbiome is also associated with hypothyroidism (when your thyroid produces too little TSH). Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, sensitivity to cold, dry skin, constipation, and poor memory.
The bottom line: thyroid hormone production and your gut are connected, making gut health a top priority for anyone dealing with thyroid issues.
Melatonin and Serotonin
You may think of melatonin as “the sleep hormone”. That’s because melatonin makes you tired, and it helps you fall and stay asleep. For your body to make sufficient melatonin, it needs plenty of serotonin, the hormone that regulates your moods. Over 90% of your serotonin is produced by bacteria in your gut.
Researchers have found that shift workers tend to suffer from gut imbalances. It turns out, insufficient sleep can cause negative effects on the intestinal microbiome. Shift work has been shown to increase inflammation in the body and raises the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type II diabetes. Imbalances in the gut also mean lower serotonin levels, which can lead to anxiety and depression.
You need sufficient melatonin to be released at the right time so you fall asleep easily at night. Melatonin helps your body maintain healthy sleep and wake cycles, and can promote a sense of calm. Sticking to a regular wake-up and bedtime schedule helps your body, and your microbes, maintain natural rhythms essential to your health.
Cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are hormones that put your body on high alert. Your body typically releases them during your fight-or-flight response, causing your heart rate and blood pressure to increase. In times of emergency, these hormones can be a good thing. But when they remain at high levels for too long, they can change the dynamics of the gut microbiome. This is why stress can make you literally sick to your stomach.
High levels of stress hormones have also been shown to trigger harmful gene expression in some microbes. This can then raise inflammation, lower immune response, and create imbalances in gut microbes.
Vitamin D3, which is a precursor hormone, is not absorbed well by the body if gut health is not optimal. This vitamin is crucial to health on many levels and chronic deficiencies lead to a host of other problems.
Progesterone and Estrogen Balance
Gut health also influences healthy cholesterol levels. These are precursors to maintaining the balance of Progesterone and Estrogen.
Get a Gut Test
At Glow Natural Wellness, we take a science-based, holistic approach to determine exactly what is causing your gut to be sick. Testing can be done to determine whether or not you are absorbing nutrients as you should be or whether or not you have any food sensitivities. We also offer testing which can give a comprehensive view of your gut health.
How to Improve Gut Health and Hormones
Consume Probiotics Regularly. Probiotics contain living, healthy bacteria, and ingesting them through food or drink immediately improves the balance of friendly flora. These are found in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha. You can also take a high-quality probiotic supplement. Not only do probiotics increase healthy bacteria numbers, but they also help prevent diseased bacteria from sticking to the intestinal wall.
Feed that Friendly Flora by Eating Foods Containing Prebiotics. Just as the bad bacteria thrive on sugar, prebiotics feed the good flora, which allows them to stay healthy and multiply. Fibrous vegetables and fruits are the best sources of prebiotics. They are especially high in green bananas, pistachios, asparagus, garlic, onions, oats, quinoa, millet, and chia seeds.
Take Antibiotics Only When Absolutely Needed. Antibiotics can throw your gut flora out of balance since they don’t discriminate when killing bacteria. Always take a probiotic a couple of hours apart from your antibiotic to help restore health and double up on probiotics as soon as you are done taking your antibiotics.
Try an Anti-Inflammatory Elimination Diet Specifically Designed to Balance Hormones. This type of diet will include a colorful array of organic plant-based foods, healthy fats, and protein. I created the 21-Day Metabolic Rehab and Hormone Makeover specifically for this purpose. Click here to learn more about this 21-Day Plan to balance your hormones and microbiome.
Eliminate Artificial Sweeteners. Studies have shown that sweeteners like aspartame stimulate the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut.
Consume Polyphenols Regularly. These are plant compounds found in red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, and olive oil and they stimulate the digestive system.
Drink More Water! Water benefits the lining of the gut and helps keep balance.
Test Your Gut
To fix your gut (and subsequently, your hormones), it helps to know what’s going on in there. That way you can make the necessary changes to bring your gut back into balance. At GLOW Natural Wellness, we use science-based comprehensive tests like the GI Map that can analyze what the microbes in your gut are doing and if they are causing an imbalance. We can also pinpoint markers of immune health, parasites, yeast, and fungal overgrowths.
Additionally, all of our lab tests include a professional analysis by one of our skilled clinicians, and easy to understand interpretation of your results, and a comprehensive lifestyle and natural medicine protocol to help you get back into balance.