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Pregnancy and Thyroid Health

Pregnancy is a time when we expect a lot of hormonal changes – but not every woman is aware of the changes that can occur in her thyroid function – and what that can mean for both her health, and the health of her baby.

A Brief Introduction to your Thyroid

Your thyroid is a hormone-producing gland, located at the front of the neck. It produces thyroid hormones (T4 and T3) that regulate our metabolic rate – our ability to make energy in our cells.

Thyroid Hormone Changes in Pregnancy

During pregnancy the body has a significant increase in metabolic activity – a lot of energy is required to make a baby! As such, the need for thyroid hormone increases. Women need approximately 40% more thyroid hormones during pregnancy to sustain the increases in energy needed for a healthy pregnancy.

Many women with thyroid disease are not immediately identified in pregnancy, as many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) are the same as symptoms of pregnancy. Weight gain, depression, fatigue, constipation and dry skin are all common in pregnancy and are also signs of an under-performing thyroid gland.

If you know prior to pregnancy that you have an underactive thyroid (half of people with hypothyroidism don’t know it), then increasing your thyroid medication soon after a positive pregnancy test is recommended. An increase in the medication dose of 25-40% is suggested for most women.

An underactive thyroid, challenged by the increased energy demands in pregnancy, may also be exacerbated by the increased clearance of iodide by the kidneys in pregnancy (all those increased trips to the bathroom have consequences as well!) Many prenatal supplements still do not contain adequate amounts of iodine to address this issue, worsening an already delicate hormone balance in pregnancy.

Consequences of Thyroid Disease in Pregnancy

Hypothyroidism in pregnancy is a serious health concern. Recurrent miscarriages have been found in women with even mild and asymptomatic thyroid disease. Increases in fetal death, birth defects, premature birth, low birth weights, placental abruption and intellectual disability have all been linked to hypothyroidism in pregnancy, especially in early pregnancy.

Hypothyroid is not the only thyroid concern that is problematic in pregnancy. The presence of autoimmune antibodies against the thyroid (TPO or anti-TG) can also increase the chances of miscarriage – in some studies doubling the risk of an early miscarriage.

Thyroid Testing in Pregnancy and Pre-Conception

Unfortunately, thyroid testing is not standard care for women who are trying to conceive, or who are pregnant. It is not even standard for women who have experienced an early miscarriage, in spite of the association of hypothyroidism and autoimmune thyroid antibodies and miscarriage.The demand for thyroid hormone in pregnancy increases most in the first half of pregnancy – especially in the first 6-12 weeks. This means we need to be testing women sooner – ideally before pregnancy, and certainly after a positive pregnancy test. Most experts believe that testing should be done before 9 weeks gestation – within the first month after a positive pregnancy test.

More comprehensive thyroid testing should also be offered to women trying to conceive, or who are pregnant. A simple TSH is not enough to fully assess the thyroid – autoimmune antibodies, T3 and T4 levels should also be tested.

And please keep in mind, the lab ranges for “normal” on thyroid testing are not the same as those that are optimal for pregnancy. Even mild or asymptomatic hypothyroidism, or any elevation in thyroid antibodies, can increase risk for an unsuccessful pregnancy.

If your doctor is unwilling to run these tests for you, speak to your Naturopathic Doctor. They can advocate for you, or run the tests to ensure you are getting the optimal support you need both before, and during, pregnancy.

The risks of not identifying a thyroid condition in pregnancy are significant. Don’t let a lack of knowledge, a lack of testing, or a lack of an appropriate diagnosis impact your pregnancy. Speak up, get the testing, and have a healthy, happy pregnancy.

Disclaimer

The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.

Select References

Alexander EK, Mandel SJ – Diagnosis and Treatment of Thyroid Disease During Pregnancy. Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric 7th Ed, 2016. Chapter 84; 1478-1499.

 

 

 

PCOS Types

Syndrome of PCOS

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is condition impacting up to 1 in 10 women in North America. PCOS is a “syndrome” – a medical term for a condition that can have different symptoms in different people. In PCOS we can see a wide variety of presentations. Some women have many symptoms, while others have few. Some of the symptoms that can present in PCOS are:

  • Irregular periods
  • Long time between periods (prolonged cycles)
  • Infertility
  • Hair growth where you don’t want hair (chin, upper lip, neck, chest, back, breasts, buttocks)
  • Hair loss where you do want hair (scalp)
  • Weight gain
  • Oily skin
  • Acne

Diagnosis of PCOS

Ultimately the diagnosis of PCOS is based on the Rotterdam criteria – you must have 2 of the 3 criteria (irregular periods, cysts on your ovaries, signs or laboratory evidence of elevated androgens) to be diagnosed. To learn more about diagnosis, read this article by Dr. Lisa on PCOS Diagnosis.

As a Naturopathic Doctor I think we should move beyond mere diagnosis, and really get to the underlying causes of PCOS. And this is where the PCOS Types come into play.

Types of PCOS

Type 1: Insulin-Resistant PCOS

The classic presentation of PCOS – a woman experiencing weight gain, irregular or no periods, acne and facial hair – is represented by Type 1 PCOS, a condition associated with insulin resistance. The lack of response of the ovaries to insulin leads to a hormonal cascade that results in increased testosterone levels, the underlying cause of those unfortunate symptoms.

Women with insulin resistant PCOS have an increased risk of developing diabetes and depression – two other conditions associated with insulin resistance.

Treatment for insulin resistant PCOS involves improving the body’s response to insulin. Supplements such as inositol, chromium and cinnamon can be helpful. Spearmint tea can help to decrease testosterone levels and reduce facial hair growth and acne.

Weight optimization and following the PCOS Diet can also be part of this process. However, please keep in mind that not all women with insulin resistant PCOS are overweight. Slender women can also have insulin resistance as a result of their diet.

Type 2 PCOS: Non-Insulin Resistant PCOS

What once was a rare occurrence, I am now seeing many more women in my practice with non-insulin resistant PCOS. This can be caused by a number of different causes including:

  • Inflammation
  • Immune system challenges (including autoimmune diseases)
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Iodine deficiency
  • Thyroid hormone imbalance
  • Stress
  • Low dose chronic environmental exposures
  • Discontinuation of the birth control pill
  • A diet inconsistent with your body’s individual biochemistry

This type of PCOS requires more investigation and understanding that the classic insulin-resistant PCOS. Often I will run more extensive blood work than is typically offered to a woman with PCOS. Depending on the woman I may look at nutritional levels, hormone balance (prolactin, thyroid, LH, progesterone, cortisol, DHEA, testosterone), autoimmune antibodies, inflammatory markers, and food sensitivity testing.

The approach to managing non-insulin resistant PCOS is a personalized medical approach. It is essential that we uncover the root cause of the PCOS and address it directly with an approach that encourages balance and optimum function. Often women respond quickly once the cause has been identified and balance is restored.

Disclaimer

The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.

 

Hormones in Weight Loss

We believe we can get healthy by losing weight – but we need to be healthy to lose weight

Weight loss is a lot more than just watching what you eat and how much you exercise.  While diet and exercise are essential components of a weight loss program, if your hormones are not in balance you will always be fighting against your body to lose fat and improve your body composition and health.

In this article I discuss some of the most important hormones for weight loss – our hormone helpers, and our hormone haters.  For a more in depth look at your personal hormone balance, consider booking an appointment with a naturopathic doctor for individual testing and hormone assessment.

Weight Loss: Hormone Helpers

Thyroid Hormone

Thyroid hormones are our metabolism masters – they control the rate of energy production (metabolism) throughout the body. When thyroid hormones are too low symptoms of fatigue and weight gain can occur. When thyroid hormones are too high symptoms of anxiety, jitteriness and weight loss are common.

The optimal range for TSH (a measure of thyroid function) for weight loss is 0.75-2.5.  Outside of this range can alter metabolism and make weight loss difficult.

Glucagon

Glucagon hormone works with insulin to balance blood sugar – insulin rises when blood sugar is high, glucagon rises when blood sugar is low. Improving glucagon levels helps us to keep our blood sugar stable and support weight loss.

Not surprisingly, activities that support stable blood sugar can improve glucagon levels. Specifically exercise and healthy protein consumption can increase glucagon levels while a diet high in sugar decreases glucagon.

Growth Hormone

Growth hormone is produced throughout our lifetime although it’s production is highest during our younger years. Growth hormone is necessary for tissue repair, muscle building and improving the density of bone.

The majority of growth hormone is produced overnight but it is also produced during exercise. Low levels of growth hormone (associated with poor sleep, eating too close to bed and lack of exercise) can lead to fatigue, depression, cholesterol imbalances, and abdominal weight gain.

Leptin

One of our weight-loss helpers, leptin is our appetite-suppressing, full-sensation hormone. It is released by fat cells and communicates with our brain that we have had enough to eat.

We can improve our leptin levels through our lifestyle. Sleep, regular exercise, sufficient calories from our food and weight loss all help to balance leptin and improve our body composition.

We can also sabotage our leptin balance through our lifestyle choices. A regular intake of excess saturated fat and sugar leads to “leptin resistance”. When this occurs the brain no longer respond to high circulating levels of leptin and allows you to keep eating despite not being hungry.

Weight Loss: Hormone Haters

Ghrelin

Ghrelin works very closely with leptin to maintain our body weight. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone, produced when your digestive tract is empty. If you stomach is growling, ghrelin is being produced.

Ghrelin tells our brain when we’re hungry, and leptin tells us when we’re full.

Cortisol

Cortisol is most commonly known as our “stress hormone”. It is produced in high levels during stress, but our bodies produce varying levels over the course of every day.

High levels of cortisol can influence our eating habits and our hormone balance. People with elevated cortisol often crave sugary and salty foods, leading to an increase in insulin levels and all the symptoms associated with that imbalance.

Cortisol also stimulates a process in the liver known as “gluconeogenesis” – our body makes sugar to provide us fuel to get away from our stress. If we don’t use this extra sugar (by exercising) it gets deposited as fat around our midsection.

Insulin

Insulin helps our cells get energy in the form of sugar. When we eat foods that contain sugar (fruits, vegetables, grains, processed foods) our body releases insulin as a way of controlling blood sugar levels – getting the sugar out of the blood stream and into our cells.

When insulin levels are too high our cells can become less sensitive to it’s effects – leading to ‘insulin resistance’. This then leads to cravings for more sugar to meet the needs of our cells. And more insulin is released, and a vicious cycle ensues.

High levels of circulating insulin are associated with weight gain (especially around the belly). When you have excess insulin you can not burn fat as energy – your body will just demand more sugar to bring the insulin levels down. This makes losing abdominal fat almost impossible.

Serotonin

Serotonin is one of our feel-good neurotransmitters (along with dopamine and norepinephrine). When serotonin is out of balance symptoms of anxiety and depression are common. These emotions contribute negatively to weight loss by altering our motivation, drive, commitment and self esteem.

The depression associated with low serotonin leads to increases in inflammation and cortisol levels – both of which make it harder for our body to burn fat as fuel and lose weight.

Low levels of serotonin also decrease mood and lead us to crave foods that are rich in carbohydrates – a source of tryptophan, which our body uses to create serotonin.

Estrogen

Estrogen is the most common female hormone (although men have it too!) It is produced mainly in the ovaries but fat cells also produce large quantities of estrogen. High levels of estrogen, or “estrogen dominance” is as great a risk factor for obesity as having a poor diet or not exercising.

Estrogen balance is greatly impacted by our lifestyle and environment. Exposure to chemical estrogen-mimicking compounds, alcohol consumption, a high fat diet, lack of exercise and sleep deprivation can all lead to abnormally high levels of estrogen.

Hormones are incredibly important for our overall health, energy and metabolism.  If you are struggling to lose weight, or are stuck at a weight loss plateau, perhaps hormones are your issue.  Book a free 15 minute consultation now to discuss your options, and get your hormones back in balance.   

Disclaimer

The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.

Hormone Harmony in PMS

Welcome to the first installment of the “Hormone Harmony” series. In this series I’ll be exploring some of the most common states of female hormone imbalance, how your hormones can explain your symptoms, and some simple hormone hacks to help bring your body back into a state of hormone harmony.

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

While a definition of PMS may not be necessary if you are reading this (it’s likely you’ve had first hand experience), I will try to give one that encompasses exactly what PMS is.

PMS is a recurrent set of physical and/or behavioural symptoms that occurs 7-14 days before a period and negatively impacts some aspect of a woman’s life

There have been over 150 (seriously!) symptoms of PMS identified. Some of the most common include:

  • Low energy
  • Mood changes – anger, crying, irritability, anxiety, depression, bitchiness
  • Food cravings
  • Headache
  • Low sex drive
  • Breast tenderness
  • Digestive upset – constipation, bloating, diarrhea, gas
  • Difficulty sleeping

Unfortunately we don’t really know what causes some women to experience PMS more than other women. But hormone imbalances are a common proposed cause, and in my practice I see balancing hormones as the most important means of decreasing symptoms of PMS.

Hormone Imbalances in PMS

The relationship between estrogen and progesterone is one of the most important hormone balances in a woman’s body. Imbalance in estrogen and progesterone levels is thought to be the primary cause of PMS.

Estrogen is produced throughout the month by the ovaries, adrenal glands and fat cells. It main action is growth – growth of breast tissue in puberty, and growth of the endometrial lining in the uterus during menstrual cycles.

Progesterone is produced during the second half of the menstrual cycle – after ovulation – by the ovaries.  Progesterone helps to balance the effects of estrogen and prepare the uterus for a possible pregnancy.

A too high estrogen level, or a too low progesterone level is thought to be the most likely cause of PMS symptoms in most women. This state, commonly called “estrogen dominance” is the most common hormone imbalance in women between the ages of 15 and 50. Estrogen dominance is becoming more common in North America due to increasing exposure to xenoestrogens (chemicals in our environment that mimic estrogen), high rates of obesity, decreased ability of our livers to detoxify and overwhelming amounts of stress.

The important thing to remember with PMS and hormone balance is that it is the relationship and balance of estrogen and progesterone that leads to symptoms. You may have normal levels of estrogen, but if your progesterone is low you will still experience symptoms. Progesterone levels are low in women who do not ovulate, and in those with significant stress (your body will convert progesterone into cortisol, leaving you deficient in much-needed progesterone).

Hormone Hacks for PMS

If you are a woman experiencing PMS, taking charge of your hormones and getting them into balance can make a huge difference in your quality of life. Below are some simple Hormone Hacks to get you started.

  1. Follow the PMS diet

There have been some significant findings in the diets of women who suffer from significant PMS. Compared to women who do not have PMS they eat 275% more sugar, 79% more dairy and 62% more refined carbohydrates. Avoiding these foods – and instead choosing fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins – can diminish PMS symptoms significantly and promote healthy hormone balance.

  1. Cut the caffeine

No one wants to hear it, but drinking caffeine-containing beverages increases the severity of PMS. And those effects are worsened if you add sugar to your tea or coffee. So cut back, or cut it out all together if you want to decrease your PMS.

  1. Exercise

Women who exercise regularly have less PMS. Multiple studies have found this to be true, and the more frequently you exercise the better the boost. Exercise is known to decrease estrogen levels – so get out there and get moving.

  1. Get your nutrients in

Deficiencies in many nutrients have been found in women with PMS. Some notable ones include magnesium, vitamin B6, and zinc. All of these nutrients can be found in nuts and seeds – also known to be excellent sources of vegan protein.

  1. Get tested

Understanding your hormone imbalances can be incredibly valuable to managing symptoms like PMS. Testing your hormone levels will give you a clear understanding of what is happening in your body during a specific phase of your menstrual period. For PMS we test hormone levels (estrogen, progesterone and prolactin) about 7 days before your expected period.

  1. Herbal hormone balancers

There are some phenomenal hormone balancers in the world of herbal medicine. Vitex agnus-castus (also known as chaste berry) can improve progesterone levels, helping to balance estrogen dominance. Phytoestrogens, like those found in black cohosh, soy and flaxseeds, can also help to normalize estrogen levels by decreasing the action of our body’s own estrogen in favour of the milder estrogen signal from plant estrogens.

  1. Bioidentical progesterone

When all else fails in hormone balancing for PMS, your naturopathic doctor can prescribe low dose bioidentical progesterone in a cream that you can apply during the final weeks of your menstrual cycle. This will be helpful if your progesterone levels are low, or if your estrogen levels are high. Be sure your ND is qualified to prescribe bioidentical hormones, as additional training is required.

Don’t suffer with hormone imbalances like PMS.  You can achieve hormone harmony, and working with a Naturopathic Doctor can get you there.  Book an appointment, or a meet and greet now to find your personal balance.

Disclaimer

The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.           

Love and Happiness: Hormone Hacks for a Happy Life

Hormones are chemical messengers that influence essential aspects of our health and wellbeing. The emotions of love and happiness are included as essential components of our lives. Three key compounds are involved in love and happiness – oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. Today I’ll discuss the action of each and give some Hormone Hacks to help you boost your love and happiness in your day-to-day life.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is often called the love hormone or the cuddle hormone. It is produced during times of bonding – during labour, breastfeeding and intimate contact with loved ones.

The release of oxytocin increases empathy and sensitivity to the emotions of others. It increases trust, caring for others and positive social interactions. It can make you feel more extroverted, and may even encourage you to lie for the benefit of a group!

Oxytocin also influences other hormones, leading to decreased stress hormone production and strong anti-anxiety effects.

Levels of oxytocin are high during the first six months of a romantic or significant relationship, but we can carry on that oxytocin high by focusing on these Hormone Hacks.

Touch and warmth – massage has been found to increase oxytocin, as has cuddling, holding hands, kissing or petting an animal

Give and receive hugs – some experts suggest both your immune system and oxytocin levels will benefit from 12 hugs per day

Eye contact – positive eye contact can increase oxytocin significantly, especially during intimate conversations and physical contact

Positive smells – smells associated with positive memories can increase oxytocin

Practice gratitude – focusing on the blessings in our lives can improve our mood, well being, and oxytocin levels. Simple steps like keeping a gratitude journal or sharing gratitude at the dinner table can go a long way towards improving happiness

Participate in something great – volunteer work, social movements, and any activity that benefits society and the greater good can boost oxytocin and social connectivity

Orgasm – the most direct line to increased oxytocin, it is produced by both men and women at orgasm. The boost is especially pronounced in loving relationships

Interesting fact: oxytocin is being studied for its potential benefits for autism and increasing empathy and social interaction. It may also be useful for tinnitus, but only preliminary studies have been done.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter and hormone that is produced during new and novel experiences. It is a reward based neurotransmitter that increases desire, focus and attention, short term memory, boldness and delight in small details. It can also lead to a lower need for food or sleep and increase risk taking.

It is also a hormone associated with addiction. Dopamine feels good, so we repeat behaviours that encourage dopamine production, even if they have damaging effects on our lives.

Knowing this aspect of dopamine we can focus on building habits that are positive to our overall wellbeing.

Below are some Hormone Hacks to increase the beneficial effects of dopamine.

Try something new – engaging in a new activity will boost dopamine. Traveling to new places, visiting art galleries and trying new and novel activities

Eat something spicy – eating seemingly dangerous foods – spicy, hot, icy, fermented – will all trick your body into a dopamine boost

Take a healthy risk – riding rollercoasters, watching scary movies or playing video games, basically any mildly thrilling activity will increase dopamine

Achieve a goal – even small goals like finishing a book, finishing a chore, winning a game against friends can give you a dopamine edge

Meditation and visualizationmeditation has been found in studies to increase dopamine. And if you aren’t feeling adventurous enough for a rollercoaster, just visualizing the activity can trigger a dopamine release – just as if you were actually doing it!

Serotonin

Another feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin is essential to a balanced, happy mood. It is also necessary for will power, to create long term plans and delay gratification. Serotonin makes us feel like anything is possible.

Serotonin is made both in the brain and in the digestive tract (80-90%). Not only does serotonin impact mood and memory, but also appetite (especially carbohydrate cravings), nausea and bowel function.

Low levels of serotonin are found in impulsivity and depression – but we don’t know if the low serotonin is a cause or effect of depression.

Increasing serotonin is often done through medications (some legal, others not), but there are many natural ways to increase serotonin.

Sunshine – outdoor light, or light boxes (available at some Toronto area libraries, or for personal home use) stimulate serotonin production and vitamin D synthesis, an essential nutrient for serotonin action

Exercise – in addition to making us feel good, exercise improves the function of serotonin in the brain

Massage – another kudos to massage therapy – massage can increase serotonin levels by 28% and decrease the stress hormone cortisol by up to 30%

Eat your greens – vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), found in leafy greens, cauliflower, fish and lean poultry, is an essential nutrient for the production of serotonin. Low levels can lead to low serotonin

Eat legumes – legumes, particularly chickpeas, are high in tryptophan – the amino acid necessary for serotonin production. Other foods high in tryptophan include nuts, seeds, tofu, turkey, lentils, eggs and dairy

Remember happy events – surrounding yourself with positive memories – photos and mementos of happy moments, special occasions, and loved ones, can give you a serotonin surge every time you see them and remember happy times

Hormones really are essential components to our health and happiness. Use these Hormone Hacks to help increase the love and happiness in your life. Got a tip I didn’t include? Please leave it in the comments below.

And if you’re interested in achieving your personal Hormone Harmony, book an appointment now.

Disclaimer

The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.