An insight into the endocrine system
The endocrine system is a complex group of glands that secrete hormones into our systemic circulation. From glands in the brain, to our reproductive organs, the effects of these secretions are widespread, but interestingly, these are all interconnected and exist in a delicate balance! If one part is influenced, then this can throw other parts off – a bit like a domino effect.
Although many factors can influence our hormones, today we are going to focus on the possible effects of our body weight.
How can being overweight affect your periods?
You might be surprised to know that fat cells around your body are metabolically active. Adipose tissue or fat cells store excess energy for whenever we might need it, but these cells also act as an endocrine organ in themselves.
One factor to consider is that our fat cells are able to act as little reservoirs for oestrogen. This means that they store oestrogen and can release it into our system which can contribute to a hormone imbalance called oestrogen dominance. Once oestrogen dominance is in place, losing weight can also become trickier – so it can easily become a vicious cycle.
Oestrogen dominance is often characterised by heavy, painful, and more frequent periods (often coming sooner than every 28 days) and these symptoms may coincide with a number of other symptoms including painful breasts, bloating, irritability and mood swings.
However, it doesn’t stop there, what other problems can being overweight bring? Our diet can also affect our endocrine system, and as above, this can cause a chain reaction of endocrine effects! A diet centred around processed foods, sweet treats and refined carbohydrates will cause havoc with our hormones. We know that as high glycaemic index foods cause our blood sugar to spike, insulin is released in abundance to help manage this and sweep all that excess blood glucose into our tissues. And this is why; insulin itself is often associated with weight gain.
But further to that, insulin can also exert a number of other endocrine effects. Insulin is thought to influence the ovaries more directly and contribute to them releasing an excess of androgens.
Androgens are a group of ‘male’ sex hormones. Although all women have a small amount of androgens, in excess, problems can crop up and this pattern is often apparent in conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). As a result, women with PCOS often experience troublesome skin, excess hair, trouble losing weight and battling pesky cravings at the hands of insulin resistance too.
What if I’m underweight instead?
Just as with our fat cells being overzealous, if we are underweight and don’t have enough adipose tissue, this can also have detrimental effects too. This means we won’t have enough excess stores of oestrogen and could end up falling short. Low oestrogen symptoms can include light, infrequent periods, feeling low in mood and suffering from skin complaints too. Some of these symptoms are typical in the lead up to menopause, but these issues can also become apparent in younger women too who struggle with their body weight, or those have had some exposure to hormonal contraceptives in the past. This is becoming more and more common but can risk leaving your hormones off balance.
Interestingly, your fat cells aren’t the whole story; they can play a part yes, but being underweight could trigger a whole cascade of events elsewhere. Basically, being underweight is a stressful state for the body to be in. Stress hormones will have their part to play in this picture too, for example, but thinking about it in simple terms – if your body is struggling for extra reserves to even support yourself, then it doesn’t make sense for it to be fighting to support another life. As a result, functions important for survival are priority and reproductive functions are shunned. Putting on some weight if your BMI is on the lower end, could help to regulate your periods and increase your fertility.
What can be done to help?
If you suspect your body weight could be affecting your menstrual cycle and contributing to irregular periods there are a number of areas that could help.
Consider your diet
Contrary to popular belief, healthy fats may be an important part of treatment here, whether you are over or underweight! Healthy fats help support your metabolism, can blunt the harsh effects of carbohydrates on your insulin responses, and are also important for supporting the production of hormones in the body.
What if I’m underweight? If you are underweight, healthy fats will provide a healthy source of calories and why not opt for good quality omega-3 found in oily fish, nuts and seeds to help support your hair and skin as well as your delicate frame.
Or overweight? If you’re overweight, healthy fats shouldn’t necessarily be shunned – this is common misconception! Carbs and sugar are more likely to play havoc with your waistline and so aim to incorporate healthy fats into your healthy eating regime which will support a healthy metabolism and help to keep you feeling fuller for longer too – bonus!
Exercise is good, but not in excess
Exercise is beneficial but in moderation – too much and you’ll only risk putting additional stress on your body, regardless if you are over or underweight.
If you are overweight we want to set realistic goals – every little helps and even small changes when it comes to moving a little more can make a big difference to how you look and feel.
If you’re underweight, focus on doing a type of exercise you enjoy. This will be much more beneficial rather that pushing yourself to extremes.
When is Agnus castus a suitable option?
Agnus castus is often hailed the female herb – but I’m here to tell you that this isn’t necessarily the remedy for everyone. Agnus castus helps to gently support your progesterone levels which means it can be helpful in some cases of PMS where oestrogen dominance is thought to be playing a part. This remedy may help relieve some of the more typical symptoms of PMS including painful periods, bloating, irritability and mood swings.
What about supporting your oestrogen?
Firstly, if you aren’t quite sure what is going on with your hormones it might help to watch my video blog on ‘understanding your period and hormone imbalance.’ However, if infrequent, light periods are getting your down together with skin troubles and a mood that needs lifting – low oestrogen could be at the root of the cause. Aim to gently support your oestrogen levels with a source of soy isoflavones going forward, and hopefully you’ll start to feel the difference!