Hormone Health in the Reproductive Years

Hormonal health during reproductive years might play the most significant role in a woman gracefully moving through the different phases in her life, yet many doctors suppress women’s reproductive hormone production often as a matter of course, in some cases as soon as a young woman begins cycling. While the use of synthetic hormones is indicated in many cases, in just as many or more cases, practitioners prescribe it as an easy, quick, and short-sighted “fix” with long-term ramifications.

Many cases of difficult conception, as well as severely symptomatic perimenopausal years, could be prevented, or at least moderated, by focusing on hormonal health earlier in development. Rather than “controlling” menstrual irregularities, it would be of greater benefit to try to understand and address the underlying cause.

A Naturopathic Approach to Hormonal Health

A naturopathic approach looks to optimize biological functions. The human body exists not as a set of separate systems in isolation; its parts and roles are complexly interwoven, so suppressing one biological function will invariably affect the whole.

Additionally, naturopathic philosophy approaches the human body with an assumption that it possesses inherent wisdom in its functioning. Often, disrupted menses presents as an initial sign that some other less obvious function is experiencing duress. Biologically, fertility and reproduction are not required for survival, thus, they are considered higher functions—functions that can be neglected in challenging times, ie: when our bodies are dealing with more significant, even if yet unidentified, issues.

The body communicates to us with its symptomatology, asking us to pay attention. If you have struggled with hormonal health in the past or currently experience hormones gone awry and have concerns about your hormonal health for the future, read on, and consider working with a naturopathic doctor.

Oral Contraception Pill (OCP) Use

It may surprise you to learn that the prescription of oral contraception, or other delivery forms of synthetic reproductive hormones, often has nothing to do with contraception. Common reasons for prescribing synthetic hormones include:

  • Painful menses
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Irregular cycles
  • Amenorrhea (no menses)
  • PMS/mood swings
  • Hot flashes
  • Acne

The symptoms that a conventional medical approach would suppress in an attempt at hormonal “regulation” are the same symptoms that a naturopath would use to help understand how best to support the body in achieving balance on its own. Rather than seeking simply “regularity”, the goal is to seek health.

Synthetic Hormones Are Not Your Hormones

Instead of truly balancing a woman’s hormones, oral contraceptive pills turn off the body’s own hormone production, masking whatever the underlying issue might be by forcing “balanced hormones”. Naturally produced progesterone comes from ovulation, and in addition to reproductive health, progesterone does some amazing things for women:

  • Stimulates the thyroid
  • Helps regulate adrenal function
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Builds muscle mass
  • Promotes sleep
  • Protects against heart disease
  • Calms the nervous system

Synthetic progestins (in all OCPs as well as all other hormonal birth control) do suppress ovulation (prevent conception) and help regulate cyclic bleeding, but because they are chemically different from progesterone, they don’t follow the same biochemical conversions that progesterone does, and so they don’t offer the same global actions as your body’s own progesterone. Just take a look at the effects of progesterone, above, one more time – everyone can agree, those are desirable qualities.

Additionally, synthetic hormones come with side effects that can include nausea, weight gain, headaches, depressed mood, anxiety, heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and liver tumors. Many women will have trouble conceiving after extended use of an OCP because synthetic hormones turn the body’s own reproductive hormone production off, and it may take several months for that production to kick back in.

True Hormonal Health

The number one thing a person can do to support their entire endocrine system is to maintain optimal blood sugar control. All the different aspects of the endocrine system affect all the other endocrine functions. Reproductive hormones remain integral to the rest of the endocrine system, as well as to overall health.

Visualize the endocrine system as a three-legged stool (with the floor being blood sugar control – if not well-controlled and level, the stool will fall over – the whole thing becomes dysfunctional). The three stool legs are:

  • the thyroid
  • reproductive hormones
  • the adrenals (stress hormones)

Regarding blood sugar, consider that:

  • Diabetic patients or those with blood sugar dysregulation can have difficulty conceiving.
  • Blood sugar dysregulation is a big stress to the body, leading to adrenal/cortisol dysregulation.
  • Blood sugar dysregulation can induce changes in the thyroid gland.

When one leg of the “endocrine stool” isn’t working optimally, the other ones will be affected.

  • Note that hypothyroid patients have trouble conceiving.
  • Progesterone effects the thyroid and helps regulate the HPA axis (adrenal function).
  • The adrenal glands are responsible for managing stress, and when the adrenals are overworked and putting out a lot of adrenaline and cortisol, your body down-regulates functions unnecessary to fight/flight survival – the thyroid function to some extent and…reproduction.

Reproductive Hormonal Health is a Marker for Whole Body Health

As revealed, a smooth monthly cycle with minimal symptoms cannot happen if other systems are stressed. In this way, the monthly cycle heralds the need to pay attention to and take care of other aspects of your health. Therefore, if the monthly cycle is not regular with minimal symptoms, it warrants an investigation of blood sugar, thyroid, and adrenal function. Because it takes three months for an egg to reach full maturity before ovulation, the progesterone-making ability during any given month depends on the overall endocrine health of the previous three months. In other words: With appropriate treatment, it may take several months to achieve hormonal health.

You Need Birth Control

Of course, an unwanted pregnancy poses some life and health challenges of its own and should not be minimized. How can a woman achieve optimal hormonal health and also avoid pregnancy? I encourage you to explore all the contraceptive options available with your doctor and your partner, if you have one, and consider doing what you can to maintain ovulation – the source of your progesterone.

Perimenopause – The Great Change

Perimenopause can start anywhere from 2-12 years before menopause and is when you will experience the most symptoms. Symptoms are due to the now-inconsistent levels of estrogen as well as a decline in the production of progesterone and all of its benefits outlined above. Symptoms include:

  • Heavy or longer flow
  • Shorter cycles
  • Sore breasts
  • Mid-sleep waking
  • Increased menstrual cramps
  • Hot flashes
  • Headaches
  • Increased premenstrual mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Weight gain
  • Heart palpitations

If you have worked towards hormonal health before perimenopause begins, you will likely have an easier time. At menopause, symptoms will quiet down as the body settles into its new normal. This does not mean, however, that you have to wait for menopause for relief.

A Naturopathic Approach to Perimenopause

Hormonal health throughout your reproductive years can reduce perimenopausal symptoms. Remember how progesterone effects the rest of the endocrine system? These other aspects of your endocrine system are what your body will “lean-in” on during the swings of perimenopause. The health of the entire endocrine system will make the transition to menopause easier. Hormonal health during reproductive years provide you with resilient endocrine health during perimenopause. Additionally, the naturopathic approach to perimenopause is similar to the approach for reproductive health – essentially supporting the entire endocrine system with the foundation being blood sugar stabilization.

Work with Meghan Van Vleet, ND in Boulder, CO on Optimizing Hormonal Health

If you are interested in exploring how your monthly cycle and symptoms can help direct optimal healthy habits and lifestyle choices, if you experience an irregular and highly symptomatic cycle, if you are having difficulty conceiving, or if you find yourself in the midst of perimenopause and all of its symptoms and are needing support, give me a call. I can help

 

 

 

On the first Monday of the new school year I found myself taking two calls from two different schools telling me that both my kiddos were feeling crummy and needed a ride home. Yes, already. Before long, everyone in our house felt under-the-weather.

While no one wants to be sick or see their children get sick either, becoming ill from time to time is actually important. Catching a cold is an educational exercise for our immune systems. The ability to mount an appropriate healing response is a sign of good health. While getting sick all the time is problematic, getting sick occasionally is reassuring and an opportunity to slow down, reflect, and reassess.

As a naturopathic doctor with two kids and a partner that works in the public school system as well, my family has ample opportunity to contract illness. Given that, I still aim for prevention. Healthy lifestyle habits go a long way to minimize risk, and decrease the severity and duration when illness does strike. Here are my recommendations to weather this cold and flu season well.

  • SLEEP: Sleep is critical to overall health and immune system function. Make sure that you and your family members prioritize the appropriate amount of sleep.
  • HYGIENE:
    • Wash your hands. Whenever anyone comes home from work or school, make sure they wash hands upon entering the house. Note that research is conclusive: old fashioned soap and water work just as well as antimicrobial soap or hand sanitizer and have the added benefit of not being harmful to us (carcinogenic, endocrine disruptor, create lethal superbugs).
    • Remind yourself and your kids how to effectively cover your cough and sneezes: Use the crook of your elbow, not your hand.
    • Keep the house on the cooler side as germs like warm environments.
    • Air out the house briefly (ie: open up all the windows and maybe doors) daily or at least weekly, even in the cold of winter.
  • EXERCISE: Regular moderate exercise enhances immunity.
  • GO OUTSIDE: Whether this is for exercise specifically or just to get out, do it. Fresh air and sunlight is good for us. Cold air is not bad for us. Dress and layer comfortably for the weather and keep your neck and ears warm. If you have a young child, dress them the way you dress to keep comfortable; i.e., if you get cold and put your hood up, put theirs up too.
  • HYDRATION: Sufficient water intake is critical to every function in our body, not the least of which is expelling pathogens. Being adequately hydrated can tip the scale from successfully staving off full-blown illness or succumbing to it.
  • DIET: A whole foods diet supports optimal health. Highly processed foods or “food-like substances,” and those with added sugar, actually suppress your immune system.
  • STRESS: Throughout these months when life doesn’t slow down and we are additionally exposed to so many pathogens, it is more important than ever to have routine coping mechanisms such as mindfulness, breath work, and yoga  – as well as any other exercises or activities that bring you joy.
  • SUPPLEMENTATION: I am not actually a big fan of taking supplements myself or for my children, however, you may find us taking them this time of year:
    • PROBIOTICS: Ideally, you will be consuming probiotics in the food you eat – from your garden or the farm your food came from, from yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, and any other of the varieties of fermented foods now available at many grocery stores. If you feel like you are not good at getting probiotics into your diet, consider taking a potent probiotic supplement.
    • VITAMIN C: Vitamin C helps prevent and/or reduce the duration of the common cold (Note: It only works as prevention if you regularly take it). Food sources of vitamin C include: papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwi, cantaloupe, and cauliflower.
    • ZINC: Zinc also helps reduce the duration and severity of the common cold, and many people are deficient in zinc. Food sources include: beef, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, garbanzo beans, cashews, turkey, quinoa, and shrimp.
    • BLACK ELDERBERRY: Taken as a syrup or even better as a warm tea, this is a delicious fall and wintertime routine. Black elderberry is an antiviral useful in preventing the flu.
    • TULSI TEA: This is a readily available (at most grocery stores) herbal tea that helps your body simply adapt to the various stressors of life, including a change in season. For best results, drink it daily.

Here’s to our beautiful weather, and may you weather it beautifully!

If you feel run down or need immune system support, please call to make an appointment.

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The never-ending school-year task

Even the best-intentioned parents can get burned out on this never-ending school-year task. And with all of the allergies in the classrooms, you might have a challenge getting your child a yummy snack they will eat, not to mention something appropriately balanced to meet their nutritional needs, healthy, and also, safe for their peers.

Fortunately, this article should help. We know a healthy diet is critical to optimal learning and getting things done, yet it also helps with other executive functions like organization and decision making.

What should your child be eating?

First tip, only offer foods that you really want your kids to be eating. If you don’t want them eating something, don’t buy it and keep it in the house.

While in our house we are omnivores, I do not stock much in the way of “snacky” foods: crackers, chips, puffed things, pretzels – these foods, when they are in our home – disappear quickly. Kids, like many adults, love the quick hit of a simple carb (yet it is important to remember, they turn to sugar in the body).

(Resource: Here is a fun class coming up with Laura McCall at The Birth Center – Foodies For Life!)

Foods to increase satisfaction and balance blood sugar

I counsel all my patients to have a little bit of protein every time they eat in order to increase satisfaction and maintain optimal blood sugar. This extends to snacks for our kids. Good choices for classroom friendly proteins include: seed butters, cheeses, greek yogurt, leftover meat, nitrate-free deli meats, summer sausage, or jerky.

Fresh v. non-perishable snacks

If I could, I would always stick to fresh foods, but I know that convenient, non-perishables sometimes win. When I buy pre-packed non-perishable snacks, I let my kids know they are for away-from-home snacks, and not to eat them at home.

Instead we stick to fresh foods, even when we go out as a family on excursions. Creative and portable home-packaging, like reusable wax cloth or metal containers, will work for most fresh items.

I like to have fruits and veggies readily available, and accompanying complementary proteins (see above). My no-brainer school snack looks like this: fruit + veggie + protein (see photo).

A word on snack bars

A common question that I get is about snack bars. They are almost universally shockingly loaded with carbs and have relatively little protein.

What to offer for lunch

Lunches can be tricky too, so just keep it simple. Honestly, dinner leftovers make the best school lunches. Yet, my kids don’t like leftovers for lunch, which is fine because I love them ;-).

Sometimes my kids have packed sammies with lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, shredded carrots, cheese or meat – mmmm! Other times, I take the ingredients of a sandwich and put them in separately, like little appetizers, adding up to a complete meal.

As long as it is well-balanced and has veggies and protein, I let them eat what they want, and it is usually pretty simple. A great benefit to packing lunches for kids is that when they get home, they can finish what they didn’t eat at lunch, before grabbing a new snack from the fridge. This will also reduce food waste.

School hot lunches

A word on school hot lunches: It is a good idea to offer your child some control and choice. Years ago, I started letting my kids look at the school lunch calendar and pick out what day they wanted to eat a school lunch. Last October, my mom passed away and some of my “what should the kids eat at school tomorrow” bandwidth just fell by the wayside. As a result, my kids ate hot lunches for almost the entire year last year.

I am grateful that we have such a good lunch program where I live. I often inquired what they had for lunch, and at least at the elementary level, my son was sent back on more than one occasion to get another “food color” or to choose a protein…to my absolute delight! These are things that our kids have learned at home, and it is wonderful to see them reinforced at school.

Still, taking the time to pack food for your child (or letting them pack it with your guidance or within your guidelines), feels right and offers all the benefits discussed above, not the least being optimal nutrition. However, if you need to use the school lunch program, here in Boulder Valley anyway, we have it pretty good.

Coach your kids at home to make good choices on their own. And then relax about it.

If you would like more support, call to make an appointment or

Book Now.

There are more sunscreens on the market today than there have ever been before. If you don’t know just what you are looking for, or not looking for, the task of choosing the best sunscreen may be daunting.

About sun protection

First of all, realize that it is now widely accepted that sunscreen alone cannot afford adequate sun protection in order to prevent skin cancer or the aging-related effects of the sun. In fact, research shows that sunscreen may give a false confidence to users, especially those sunscreens with high SPFs, leading users to stay in the sun longer than they would otherwise without reapplying. SPF refers to a sunscreen’s ability to block out UVB rays, which cause sunburn. While UVA rays do not cause sunburn, they do promote skin aging and skin cancer, including melanoma. Most sunscreens in America today do not offer adequate UVA protection. The best way to protect your skin is a combination of appropriate sunscreen application and covering up.

Choose the best sunscreen

  • Chemical sunscreen or mineral sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreen goes on so easily and just the way you want it to – like a lotion. Chemicals in chemical sunscreens though (as opposed to mineral sunscreens) are unstable in sunlight, are known to contribute to skin damage and cancer, are hormone disruptors, have a shelf-life, and require strict adherence to application instructions for safety – and even then usually don’t provide the broad spectrum of protection users think they are getting (Note: Sunscreens claiming “broad spectrum protection” is misleading. Very few protect adequately from UVA rays). Chemical sunscreens are harmful to oceanic and freshwater life as well.

Mineral sunscreens offer more stable broad spectrum (UVA & UVB) protection, but historically have been much more difficult to apply and leave a chalky or white appearance on the skin and are difficult to wash off. Tinted mineral sunscreens rub off on light colored clothing and bathing suits and can leave stains. With the advent of nano-particle mineral sunscreens, some of this has changed. These sunscreens go on much more easily and don’t leave the same white layer….but lost is some of the UVA protection. (NOTE: Zinc oxide – think lifegaurds with white noses – provides the best UVA protection in sunscreen).

  • Spray or rub on application?

Spray applications, while extremely convenient, are problematic. Research shows that they do not provide adequate or even coverage – leading to further misplaced confidence in the sunscreen application. Additionally, it is inevitable that some of the sprayed sunscreen gets inhaled into the lungs becoming a respiratory irritant and increasing the risk for lung disease over time.

Rub-on application has improved some over time. Many kids (& adults!) dislike having cream applied. It can be hard to rub on evenly without making a huge mess as well. Enter the handy stick applicator. This allows dabbing and then rubbing, or with some more recent stick applicators on the market, can afford a smooth glide-on application. Then a little spreading with hands and done. These are compact and fit in a pocket,  purse, or backpack; are easy for kids at camp to independently reapply; and are far less likely to make a mess. This year, our household favorite is the MyChelle SunShield Stick SPF50. (I have no affiliation)

Wash it off!

Soap and water tend not to work so well at washing mineral sunscreen residue off. What does work though is oil. Most any oil will do: olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil all work effectively. Before bathing, apply oil all over and rub it in. Bathe as usual. BONUS: Not only will the sunscreen be washed away, but your skin will be moisturized.

Summary

Use a combination of rub-on mineral sunscreen, hats, and clothing to adequately protect yourself and your littles from the sun. For more information on sunscreen safety, visit the EWG 2018 Sunscreen Guide. Additionally, get your vitamin D checked! To learn more about vitamin D and how to strategically expose your skin to sun in order to produce more vitamin D, visit my previous blog post: Vitamin D and Sun Exposure.

Here’s to a summer of sun!

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