Hormones influence every organ, system and process within the human body, and the digestive tract is no exception. It’s no wonder so many women feel a rise and fall in appetite and weight control as they move through their menstrual cycle. Today we are going to uncover the link between hormones and the gut to shed some light on why supporting digestion is such an important route to supporting hormonal balance.
Most of the sensations we feel around mood, hunger and energy are influenced by hormones. The relationship between hormones and the digestive tract, or more specifically hormones and our gut bacteria is called the estrobolome.
The female cycle
The female hormonal cycle is the continuous rise and fall of many hormones that influence all of the body.
Within the subject of digestion, the three hormones known as oestrogen, progesterone and cortisol come into play, stimulating both changes in hunger and in bowel movements as well as stress levels. As our appetite and bowel movements shift, more work is created for our detox organ, the liver, leading to skin outbreaks, hair problems and difficulties digesting protein and fat. Inside our gut, the world of gut bacteria known as the microbiome shift in response, leading to changes in our mood and appetite. Oh, what fun!
The ovarian cycle
The ovarian cycle is the period of time it takes for a woman to release an egg, which may or may not be fertilised to form an embryo. This process is driven by a rise and fall in hormones which have a secondary effect on other parts of our body.
From the end of week 1 to week 2 of our ovarian cycle, oestrogen is steadily rising. At week 3 and week 4 oestrogen begins to decline, as progesterone and cortisol begin to rise in preparation for implantation. As these hormonal changes occur, adjustments are made to the digestive tract.
All the symptoms that females experience during their hormonal cycles are related to their digestive system but may not be experienced as digestive distress. These experiences include skin outbreaks, greasy hair, mood swings, fatigue, bloating, constipation, loose bowels and headaches. Underlying all of these experiences is the change in hormone levels, which affect the digestive system particularly the liver and the gut.
During the ovarian cycle, the body goes through a rise and fall of two hormones in particular, oestrogen and progesterone. This fluctuation can have a significant impact on how we feel, what we want to eat and how we digest.
Hormones at their lowest level – week 1
On average the female ovulation period is four weeks in length. In week one of our menstrual cycle, oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest.
For the first two weeks oestrogen levels are steadily rising and will peak at the end of week 2.
Oestrogen – week 2
Oestrogen keeps cortisol, our stress hormone, in check. Low cortisol means we feel relaxed, our appetite is stable, and we find ourselves free from cravings. We may also get a boost in libido around this time, as our bodies get ready for pregnancy.
At the end of week two of the ovarian cycle, there begins a steady decline in oestrogen as progesterone takes over. The stress hormone cortisol begins to increase, and we may feel the symptoms of what we call “PMS”. As cortisol is rising, digestive capacity is reduced. We produce less stomach acid but feel hungrier and may begin seeking that quick sugar fix to respond to the increase in cortisol. This can translate into cravings for carbohydrates or sugar.
The mix of high carbohydrate cravings and reduced digestive capacity means many women may feel constipated or have very loose bowel movements, they may also be bloated and moody. As our digestion slows in response to the fall of oestrogen, our need for digestive assistance increases and fatigue after eating can become more frequent. To reduce those feelings of bloating and food craving, a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme such as Digest Gold™ or Digest Complete™ can offset some of the digestive stress by helping food to break down more efficiently.
Progesterone – weeks 3 - 4
When oestrogen begins to decline progesterone, the hormone that is responsible for maintaining a pregnancy begins to rise. Just as it does during pregnancy, progesterone acts a smooth muscle relaxant, and so we can become constipated due to relaxed bowel muscles. During this time, a digestive enzyme can help to reduce the severity of constipation to keep the bowels moving.
As the bowels slow down, our ability to detoxify our circulating hormones is decreased. This is the time we need to eat plenty of fibre, drink plenty of water and take digestive enzymes to facilitate easier movement of the bowels.
Progesterone also increases our basal body temperature, and our metabolism begins to speed up. Our energy level increases, and the bloating that we felt in the oestrogen phase begins to abate – we no longer feel the need to wear stretchy trousers!
Perimenopause and menopause – falling levels of oestrogen
The journey to menopause is marked by a steady and consistent decline in oestrogen. Now that we know oestrogen keeps our bowels moving and our stress hormones in check, it’s easier to understand why a steady decline of oestrogen will cause an increase in stress and bad moods as the body tries to balance itself.
The average age of menopause is between 45 and 55, a time when our digestive capacity and stomach acid secretion is also declining. Around this time, the foods that we would normally handle with little problem begin to generate heartburn and constipation. A good digestive enzyme is a must for this period of life, to facilitate the healthy breakdown of proteins and fats – two food groups that are essential for health.
Nutrients and hormones
Nutrients play a huge role in overall hormonal balance, and this increase and decrease in digestive capacity will reduce the level of nutrition a woman is receiving at any stage of her cycle. Once a female begins to menstruate, her nutritional needs become a vital part of maintaining hormone balance as her body goes through continuous cycles of change and renewal.
As hormones rise and fall throughout life, a woman falls pregnant, breastfeeds, and then moves into perimenopause then menopause and beyond – her nutritional status is the stabilising factor that will keep her hormonal fluctuation from negatively affecting her.
All nutrients come from adequate digestion of food which is why in addition to eating well, females must tend to digesting well as they move through life. The easiest way to ensure we are getting full nutrition from the food we eat is to supplement with a good digestive enzyme.
The rise and fall of hormones is an inevitable fact of life for females, and an imbalance can trigger substantial discomfort. Utilising the nutrition enhancing effects of a digestive enzyme supplement can help provide the nutrition that is needed to support our bodies through the process and reduce the more negative experiences such as the bloating, reflux and constipation that accompany changes in the menstrual cycle.
Written by Leyla El Moudden, Naturopath and Director of Education for Enzymedica UK