Balance Your Hormones for International Women’s Day!
Real talk: I had no idea where my thyroid was or what its function was until I got diagnosed with hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis in my 30’s. I had no idea that one tiny, butterfly shaped gland at the base of my throat would have such a profound impact on my life, but it absolutely has and does.
When I was pregnant with my first child I had all of the symptoms of hypothyroidism—fatigue, trouble sleeping, weight gain, heart palpitations and hair loss. The problem is that most of these things are also symptoms of being pregnant. But, when my entire pregnancy is looked at there are several things that should have tipped off my doctors to do some further investigating—I had hyperemesis that lasted my entire pregnancy, I also had pre-eclampsia, preterm labor/delivery, placental abnormalities and I hemorrhaged during labor. Every single one of these things is a complication related to untreated hypothyroidism in pregnancy. And, not ONCE did a doctor talk to me about my thyroid, the importance of thyroid health in pregnancy for mom and baby or even suggest I have my thyroid tested during pregnancy or in the post partum period.
Poor thyroid function in pregnancy can have severe and dangerous consequences for both mom and baby. Sometimes I can’t believe that no doctor ever talked to me about my thyroid in all of my pre-pregnancy planning, pregnancy and post-partum appointments. Then, I remember that in the United States we have one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. So the failings and egregious error of my doctors make sense in that context. And, due to their error I went on to struggle with undiagnosed Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis for five years, which impacted every aspect of my health and future life plans. My thyroid problem was literally hiding in plain sight, but I couldn’t have known that because I didn’t even know what or where my thyroid gland was.
What Does the Thyroid Do?
The thyroid is part of a highly sensitive system that every body has—the endocrine system. This system plays an integral role in regulating metabolism & energy, balancing circadian rhythms, controlling growth & development and governing the reproductive system. An easy way to think of the endocrine system is to liken it to an orchestra where all the players need to sync together for harmony. The most important players in the orchestra are the pituitary, the thyroid, the gonads and the almighty adrenals. If one of these players gets out of sync then it can cause dysfunction for the other players in the orchestra.
Often, the player that gets the most attention in this system is the thyroid. The thyroid is extremely sensitive to many different types of stress and toxins. Things like physical and emotional stress, heavy metals, pharmaceutical drugs, hormone imbalances, foreign substances (like bisphenol-A (BPA) or pesticides), blood sugar imbalances, fatty acid deficiency, dehydration, mineral insufficiency, dehydration, poor digestion and food allergies. That’s a long list of things to worry about. So, what’s the number one thing you can do to support your thyroid and thereby overall endocrine health? Balance your blood sugar.
Why Blood Sugar Matters
You may be wondering how the thyroid can be helped by managing blood sugar. Well, remember one of the other big orchestra players mentioned above is the almighty adrenal glands. Our adrenal glands get stressed and overworked every time our blood sugar plummets or spikes. And, our glucose levels can go up and down due to more than just eating too much sugar or not enough. For example, when our body goes into fight or flight due to a life stressor, like our boss being upset with us or we get cut-off in traffic, our glucose levels can dive, which makes our adrenals have to kick in to bring our blood sugar back to stability.
In addition, if the body is in a prolonged or chronic state of stress then response to that stress is its number one priority. This is because long-term stress puts the body into fight or flight mode, which it interprets as a need for survival. The body is so powerful and intelligent. But, one thing it can’t do (for better and worse) is differentiate between reasons why the body is in fight or flight. For example, the body will register that it’s going into survival mode and respond appropriately, but it can’t tell the difference between going into this mode from an actual tiger chasing you or you having traumatic memories while lying on the couch or you working 80 hour work weeks. So, when the body believes it’s in survival mode—for whatever reason—it favors survival over everything else. This means that when the adrenals are stressed the body down regulates the rest of the endocrine system, which impacts things like reproduction, metabolism, sleep, immune system activities and more. If this goes left untreated it can lead to autoimmune diseases like Graves disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
International Women’s Day
As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8th with the theme being “Embrace Equity,” I encourage all women, non-binary folks and femmes to view their hormonal health as a powerful tool for social justice and equity.
So often our hormones are pitted against us as problematic and we are told that the symptoms of unbalanced hormones—PMS, PMDD, fatigue, night sweats, acne, brain fog, pain, mood swings, hair loss, unexplained weight gain, etc.—are “normal” and all that can be done is to endure and/or take pharmaceuticals. This is not true. Endocrine disruption and hormone imbalance is common, but it is not normal. And, though taking pharmaceuticals may be part of the plan there so much we can do outside of that to feel good again.
Hormones as Equity
Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry, studies menopausal women and reports on how they are an underserved population by the medical community and says they are “one of the great blind spots of medicine.” She also says, “[This blind spot] suggests that we have a high cultural tolerance for women’s suffering.” Though I’m not in menopause, my life experience says that this and all of women’s health is a blind spot to society and medicine. The maternal death rate in the U.S. is one of the highest amongst developed countries (it being the worst for women of color), there is a lack of research around women’s health issues, often women are not believed about what is happening to their own bodies and are then told that what is happening to their bodies is “normal,” which is the ultimate form of medical gas-lighting.
When a woman has brain fog or fatigue or is in pain month after month and society accepts this as okay then it is clear that women do not have equity. So, if you are struggling with symptoms related to hormone imbalance now is a good time to learn the language and workings of your body in order to heal, feel as good as you can every month, give your body what it needs and ultimately be able to fully advocate for yourself in a world that actively tells you not to. A woman who has mental clarity, sustained energy, sleeps well, has stable moods and is informed and knowledgeable about her own body holds so much power and furthers equity in this world for herself and everyone.
What to do
If you want your body to be a source of healing, equity and power in this world then start by nourishing your endocrine system and balancing your hormones with the five steps outlined below.
5-Steps to Balance Your Hormones Today:
Try to soothe your nervous system throughout the day by pausing to take deep breaths periodically (set your watch if you have to), hugging your friends or family, taking a short walk outside (especially after a meal), listening to joyful music while you return emails or taking a mid-afternoon rest. By doing these things you are taking your body out of fight or flight mode, allowing your adrenals to rest, and halting blood sugar spikes and dips, which thereby brings all of the players of the endocrine system into better balance.
Manage chronic stress if possible. I know this is a hard one and I always get mad when someone tells me I have to lower my stress, which often feels impossible. So, I’m not saying lower your stress or get rid of it. I’m saying try to manage it or mitigate it. See a therapist. Do body work regularly if you can like massage, acupuncture or tapping (taught by a therapist who specializes in emotional freedom technique—EFT). Start saying “no” more often to things that stretch you too thin or feel only like obligation. And, let go of people, things and activities that bring you down more than bring you up—including cleaning up your social media pages by unfollowing others or blocking people from your page. When you bring your body out of chronic stress you’re telling it that it can rest and not just be in survival mode, which halts your adrenals from stealing nutrients and down-regulating the functions of other endocrine organs. This can mean less PMS, enhanced fertility and other life giving processes to thrive in the body.
Interrupt blood sugar spikes and dives by eating your meals in this order: first vegetables, second fat & protein, third carbohydrates and (if you must) sugar comes last. By having fiber filled vegetables first you slow down the absorption of glucose in your digestive tract, which prevents spikes. Then, the fat & protein flattens the overall blood sugar curve during a meal as it goes up and comes back down. This takes stress off of the adrenals and supports other endocrine organs to maintain balance.
If you’re a person who gets low blood sugar, hangry or sleepy between meals try to eat small snacks every 2-3 hours to maintain blood sugar stability. Blood sugar happy snacks are: meat sticks, cheese, guacamole, nuts, nut butters or olives. Try to avoid: fruit (unless slathered in nut butter), carbohydrates like crackers (unless smeared with healthy fat), caffeine and sugary treats.
If you think you’re having thyroid issues please advocate for yourself by asking your doctor to run a full thyroid panel. Then, when results are reported don’t accept what is considered normal, instead ask your doctor about what the ranges are for optimal thyroid health. And, if your doctor doesn’t know what this means then find one who does.