When I was going through naturopathic medical school, there was an old saying: “Heal the Hole.”
I quickly learned that the “hole” that was being referenced was the one that starts at our mouth and yes, ends all the way down our backside! This saying has carried much value for me as a health practitioner because that “hole,” better known as your digestive system, plays a vital part in so many aspects of health and well-being.
This is where we take in nutrients, then digest, assimilate, and absorb them to allow our bloodstream to carry them to every one of our cells so our bodies can function properly. Later on, we eliminate waste products created by this amazing process (hopefully at regular intervals).
I am consistently amazed that when I work with patients to heal their digestion, the more systemic symptoms (like pain or skin disruptions) that they originally came in for simply disappear. I have seen this happen over and over again.
Dr. Pankaj J. Pasricha, chief of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at Standford University School of Medicine states, “The gut is important in medical research, not just for the problems pertaining to the digestive system but also problems pertaining to the rest of the body.”
But what about hormones? Can having disruptions in your digestive system have anything to do with hormonal transitions like menopause? Absolutely.
Let me tell you a story of one of my patients. I’ll call her Dolly.
Dolly came into my office self-diagnosed. She exclaimed, “I have menopause”! She was adamant that this was her chief complaint, and that everything she was going through (hot flashes, hair thinning, weight gain, etc.) had to do with the fact that she had not had a period in over 16 months, and that her body was succumbing to what she thought was menopause.
But as I went through my questions to Dolly, I kept getting “pulled” to her gut. She had a history of extensive antibiotic use, she complained of frequent urinary tract infections and vaginal yeast infections, she was constipated with intermittent bouts of diarrhea, she experienced gas and bloating, and she admitted to “following a standard American diet.” She also mentioned a very stressful last decade with difficulties sleeping.
When I suggested that along with some hormonal testing I would like to confirm a clinical suspicion that she had a probable yeast overgrowth, hyper-permeability (leaky gut), and poor digestion, Dolly shouted, “What does digestion have to do with hormones?”
Dolly was very uncomfortable; she had been through a lot. She had seen many practitioners, been given different kinds of hormones at different doses as well as anti-depressants. She told me she watched “Dr. Oz” religiously and even tried detox patches to help, but nothing did.
So when she saw me going in a direction that she thought had nothing to do with her symptoms, she became irritated.
But with some education and encouragement, Dolly agreed to the recommended testing. On our follow up, the testing revealed what I had suspected: Through years of a less-than-ideal diet, antibiotic use, and other contributing factors, Dolly’s digestion was definitely impaired. She had a Candida overgrowth and a bacterial overgrowth in her gut with poor colonization of good bacteria, and she had a severe case of “leaky gut.”
Effects of Candida overgrowth in the bowel can lead to disrupted digestion, hypoadrenia, under-funtioning adrenals (which happen to be the built-in back up system for menopausal hormone production), hypothyroidism, and liver dysfunction.
Having leaky gut leads to inflammation and immune activity that results in hot flashes and night sweats when women are going through normal hormonal transitions like perimenopause or menopause.
The good news is that with simple diet and lifestyle modifications, along with targeted supplements, you can truly “heal the hole” and improve your hormones.
Dolly and I focused on her diet, in particular eating more plants and whole foods while decreasing her intake of refined foods. I also made sure I reminded her to chew her food thoroughly, as this function is very important in digestion.
We worked on lifestyle interventions to decrease her stress and aid in getting better sleep. I recommended some digestive assistance in the form of plant and acid stable digestive enzymes along with a probiotic to help balance yeast, and the amino acid glutamine to help heal the mucosa of her intestinal lining.
I also recommended safe, natural symptom relief in the form of a clinically studied isopropanolic extraction of black cohosh to help with her hot flashes while her digestion was healing.
On her six-week follow up Dolly said she was sleeping better at night with less stress during the day, stating “my fuse is longer.” She was also having fewer hot flashes and less digestive disturbance and constipation, but still some continued diarrhea. She’d lost six pounds, too, and was feeling more energetic.
On her three-month follow up, Dolly said she felt remarkably better, with no hot flashes, and was nearing her ideal weight. She was even having healthy bowel movements. My favorite thing she mentioned is that she was feeling “happy again”!
So, what does digestion have to do with hormones? Everything, and then some!
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