What do hormonal imbalances have to do with the brain? Everything. – Dr. Datis Kharrazian, DHSc, DC, MS
I am a huge fan of Dr. Kharrazian’s work. He just released an incredible book called Why Isn’t My Brain Working and I HAD to share with you some of the interesting tidbits that I pulled from the book.
When your hormones become imbalanced your neurotransmitters stop functioning the way they should. Hormonal imbalances also impact brain inflammation and degeneration, which speeds aging – in the brain and throughout the body. How you feel, act, and think become distorted and you end up not even recognizing yourself. It is as if you are stuck in someone else’s body.
Thus the quote, “It’s not YOU, it’s your hormones.”
According to Datis Kharrazian, most hormone imbalances for PMS are due to stress physiology, adrenal imbalances, blood sugar imbalances, compromised liver biotransformation of hormones, or essential fatty acid responses. As you can see, many of these imbalances can be treated by lifestyle factors or simple supplementation.
Perimenopause/Menopause and brain inflammation
As women go into perimenopause/menopause, communication between the ovaries and the brain’s pituitary gland often loses coordination and becomes disorganized. This results in abnormal spikes and drops of estrogen levels which affects brain function, personality, and behaviors. If estrogen declines too rapidly, depression, loss of cognitive function, spaital memory, and fine motor skills can become compromised. Ever walk into and a room and completely forget what you were looking for?
A summary of Dr. Kharrazian’s’s theory of how low estrogen increases brain inflammation and degeneration:
- Since estrogen has a powerful dampening effect on the brain’s immune cells, low estrogen allows microglia cells (immune cells) in the brain to be constantly active – promoting brain inflammation
- Low estrogen levels lower the body’s ability to make glutathione, a powerful antioxidant
- Low estrogen skews fatty acid balance towards a pro-inflammatory state regardless of diet
- Low estrogen increases bone marrow activity, raising the risk of osteoporosis
- Low estrogen enhances the stress response
- Low estrogen degrades the intestinal lining and blood-brain barrier (leaky gut/brain)
It certainly makes sense why menopause (a time of low estrogen) raises the risk of inflammatory conditions such as heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, arhritis, and autoimmune diseases. If you are a women already dealing with inflammatory conditions, unfortunately these tend to get worse with the onset of menopause, IF you do not take steps to reduce the underlying inflammation.
Perimenopause/Menopause and brain neurotransmitters
Estrogen is important for serotonin activity in the brain. When serotonin levels drop, women may experience depression, an inability to sleep well, unprovoked anger, and a loss of enthusiasm for favorite activities. While low serotonin is predominately a factor in how a woman feels during this time, all neurotransmitters can become disrupted by low estrogen levels.
A drop in dopamine may cause a woman to feel feelings of worthlessness, anger under stress, become easily distracted, have a short temper, or an inability to handle stress.
GABA function could also be thrown off causing a women to feel anxiety, feelings of dread, feeling overwhelmed for no reason, guilty about decisions, have disorganized attention, and a restless mind.
Acetylcholine disruptions could lead to declining memory, difficulty learning, diminished comprehension, slower mental response, difficulty calculating numbers, difficulty recognizing objects and faces, constantly forgetting where you left things, and excessive urination. The woman may also have a disrupted circadian rhythm and have trouble falling asleep, feel tired in the morning, or crash around 4-5 pm.
So how can we bring back balance to our hormones?
Sure, we could go the traditional medical route and just go with hormone replacement therapies, but that shouldn’t be the first step. It’s important to work with an integrative practitioner that can run multiple lab panels (adrenals, neurotransmitters, full thyroid and endocrine labs) to see what your baseline levels are and go from there. Natural supplementation can also be a great tool to help get neurotransmitter levels back into proper levels, but PLEASE don’t do this without consulting a health care practitioner first. You do not want to be messing with neurotransmitter balancing supplements alone, even if they are sold over the counter.
Let’s take a look at THREE simple, natural approaches you can implement right now! While there are many things you can do, these are the biggies!
1. Diet = Blood sugar imbalances.
For men, eating too many carbohydrates leads to insulin surges. Insulin surges increase an enzyme called aromatase (found in body fat) that converts testosterone into estradiol. So if you are a male taking exogenous testosterone, be careful! If you have excess aromatase activity, that testosterone will just end up as estrogen…hello man boobs, and padded hips.
Often times for men, the problem is too little testosterone accompanied by too much estrogen.
For women, elevated testosterone is common. This elevation is also spurred by a diet high in carbohydrates. The higher carbohydrate diet can also lead to insulin resistance. Women may develop PCOS, excess facial hair, extreme PMS symptoms, lack of drive, and mood disorders.
Take away = Take an honest look at the level of carbohydrates in your diet. Are you consuming a diet heavy in breads, pastas, rice, corn, potatoes, processed grains, fruit, and yogurt? Each meal should have a nice balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat-based food. If you’re an athlete, your body can certainly handle a higher level of carbohydrates. If you are relatively sedentary, your body doesn’t need a huge wack of carbs at each meal.
I am not advocating for a low-carbohydrate diet for everyone, just in comparison to the standard American diet where carbohydrates are worshipped. Start focusing on meals with plenty of vegetables, quality protein and fat.
2. Diet = Low cholesterol and fat intake
In order to make hormones, our body needs cholesterol. In fact, if our cholesterol level gets too low (under 150) we are walking a dangerous line with our ability to make healthy levels of hormones, among other things. Men and women may experience depression, poor immune function, and decreased cognitive function without adequate cholesterol levels.
Healthy fats (coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, fats from organic/pastured animals) are important to consume throughout the day as they supply the brain and body with the building blocks it needs to make cells and hormones.
Omega 3’s rock! Make sure you are eating a few servings of fatty fish each week. This could be wild salmon, sardines (don’t roll your eyes at me), herring, or other fatty fish. White fish such as tilapia doesn’t apply here. If you’re not eating fish, I would consider adding a clean fish oil supplement.
Take away = Eat fat! A sliver of avocado doesn’t cut it. I make sure to have some sort of fat at each meal – to the order of 1-2 T. oil, 1/2 an avocado, or an ounce of nuts. Skip the low-free dairy while you’re at it too please, ok?
3. Cut down/eliminate processed foods
If it has a label with ingredients you don’t understand, toss it! Sure there are a few “processed” items that I still buy (such as olive oil, coconut oil, frozen vegetables, sardines), most of what I purchase at the grocery store will expire in less than a week.
Let’s face it, if you can’t understand what the ingredient are, how will your body understand what to do with it? There is no place for artificial anything in the diet. It’s interesting how we can spend so much time and money taking care the OUTER beauty “needs” in our life (getting our nails done, showers, hair cuts), but we neglect our INNER physical needs. Just because that artificial sweetener or color may not immediately cause a noticeable visual change with your body doesn’t mean that it isn’t causing trouble on the inside.
Keep it Real 🙂 Your brain will thank you.