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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.

 

 

 

Is my IBS actually SIBO?

Gas, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation – present to your medical doctor with any of these symptoms and you’ll likely get a diagnosis of IBS – irritable bowel syndrome. But what if it’s more than that? What if rather than having a cranky digestive tract you actually have a bacterial imbalance in your small intestines? What if you have SIBO?

What is SIBO?

SIBO stands for small intestine bacterial overgrowth, a condition where abnormally large numbers of bacteria (both the good and bad kind) are present in the small intestine. SIBO is a very common cause of IBS-like symptoms – studies have shown SIBO to be involved in between 50-84% of IBS cases. More importantly, when treated for SIBO, a 75% reduction in IBS symptoms has been found. For people who have been suffering for years (or decades!) with IBS symptoms, a proper diagnosis of SIBO can be life-changing.

Symptoms

While most people who experience digestive issues are given a diagnosis of IBS, the symptoms of SIBO are so similar that I recommend every patient who has been told they have IBS be tested for SIBO. Symptoms of IBS include:

  • Gas and bloating (often causing visible distention of the abdomen)
  • Flatulence (farting) and belching (burping)
  • Abdominal pain, cramping or general discomfort
  • Constipation or diarrhea (or both!)
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Nutrient deficiencies (due to malabsorption – vitamin D, B12, K)

The bacterial overgrowth in SIBO can cause significant gas and bloating – if you are experiencing severe gas or bloating, SIBO testing should be considered. With healthy normal bacteria levels, a single ounce of milk will cause about 50cc of gas to be created. With SIBO, that same amount of milk will cause up to 5000cc of gas to be created! And that gas has to go somewhere – filling the intestines and causing pain, or being released as gas and burping.

Many conditions may also be associated with SIBO, with the additional symptoms of those conditions being present. Some of those conditions include:

  • Hypothyroidism
  • Gallstones
  • Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Diverticulitis/ diverticulosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Celiac disease
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Rosacea
  • Diabetes

What Causes SIBO?

In our bodies we support a population of around 300 trillion bacteria. Living mostly on our skin and in our large intestine, these bacteria are powerful supporters of healthy human function. Producing vitamins like vitamin K and B12, producing neurotransmitters like serotonin, and regulating the function of our immune system – these bacteria are essential for optimal health.

SIBO occurs when the bacteria that should be in our large intestine migrate upwards into our small intestine. There they produce gases and disrupt nutrient absorption, leading the symptoms often attributed to IBS.

There are some specific triggers that can lead to this movement of bacteria into the small intestine. Some of those triggers include:

  • A stomach flu or food poisoning
  • Low stomach acid (or use of antacids)
  • Prior bowel surgery
  • Use of antibiotics (especially multiple courses)
  • Moderate or high alcohol consumption (greater than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men)
  • Use of birth control pills

One of the organisms involved in SIBO, Methanobrevivacter smithii has been linked to obesity in humans

Clues to SIBO

There are some clues that your IBS may in fact be SIBO. If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you should invest in SIBO testing now.

  1. Did your digestive symptoms start, or become worse, after a bout of the stomach flu?
  2. Have you experienced short term improvement in your symptoms after taking an antibiotic?
  3. Do your symptoms get worse when taking a probiotic or prebiotic supplement?
  4. Does eating a high fiber diet worsen constipation or IBS symptoms?
  5. Do you have celiac disease that has not sufficiently improved following a gluten-free diet?
  6. Have you been diagnosed with an iron deficiency, despite having an iron rich diet?
  7. Do you have IBS symptoms and take antacids more than once per month (including Tums, Rolaids, Nexxium or Prilosec)?
  8. Do you experience gas that has a strong “rotten-egg” odour?

Diagnosis

The overgrowth of bacteria seen in SIBO can be identified through a breath test. The bacteria produce high amounts of hydrogen, hydrogen sulfide, or methane gas. These gases are not produced by human cells, but only through the action of bacteria on carbohydrates in our intestines.

The most common (and effective) test for SIBO is a combined hydrogen/methane breath test. This test is readily available from your Naturopathic Doctor. This is the only test for SIBO – stool tests will not help to diagnose SIBO.

Next steps

If you suspect you may have SIBO, you should see your Naturopath for appropriate testing. Once a diagnosis has been made you can embark on a treatment plan that may finally resolve your symptoms and get you back on the path to optimal health.

The treatment of SIBO is multifaceted and individualized for each person. Some of the key areas we focus on are supporting small intestine motility, optimizing digestive acids and enzymes, healing the lining of the digestive tract, eradicating biofilm and promoting healthy bacterial balance in the large intestine. Addressing the lifestyle and diet for long term prevention of recurrence is also important. Discontinuing medications, like antacids and proton pump inhibitors that encourage SIBO must also be considered.

You don’t have to continue to suffer. Digestive health is essential for optimal health. Get yourself tested, and get on the path to wellness today.

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.

Bitch Redux

In my work in women’s health I see a lot of conditions impacting the lady garden, endometriosis, PCOS, fibroids, cervical dysplasia, yeast infections and UTIs. But the one issue a lot of the women in my practice complain about is bitchiness. It might not be a medical diagnosis, but it impacts up to 80% of women at some point during their monthly cycle.

Women’s Emotions

Women have evolved to have immense sensitivity, and their emotional variations allow them to be more responsive to the environment, people and connections important to them.

Women are naturally more empathic and intuitive than men (of course acknowledging the great diversity of individual personalities). Women have always been the caretakers, the gatherers, the life-givers. Women rely more on social relationships for their survival, and the survival of their children and communities. Women have great emotional intelligence, because they need to be able to intuit and empathize with those around them – their children’s needs, their community’s goals, their partner’s intentions.

Women’s Brains

Women’s brains develop different to men, hardwiring us to feel more deeply, be more attuned to the emotional states of others, and be more reactive to the needs of those around us. At 8 weeks gestation, the testes become functional and the resulting surge of testosterone kills neurons in the communication centre of the brain. The testosterone instead develops more neurons for action, aggression and sexual drive – ultimately taking up about 2.5 times the space in men’s brains than women’s.

In women’s brains more space is allotted for language, hearing and memory. The memory center, the hippocampus, is larger in women, allowing those early female gatherers to remember where to find the food. The insula, thought to be the seat of self awareness, empathy, and interpersonal relationships, is also noticeably larger in women. This may lead to an increased intuition, or gut feeling, in women.

Women’s Hormones

Women’s hormones DO make them more moody. For women being fixed and rigid doesn’t lend itself to survival. Our emotionality is our strength – we may not be as physically strong as men, we rely more on our emotional connections and strength of connections, community and family.

Unlike men, whose hormone production spikes at puberty and remains fairly stable across their lifetime, women’s hormones ebb and flow over a monthly cycle and wax and wane over their reproductive years.

At the beginning of our menstrual cycle, at the onset of our bleeding, estrogen levels climb to prepare an egg for ovulation at midcycle. Estrogen production is strongly linked to serotonin production – and as estrogen goes up, so too does serotonin.

As estrogen continues to climb to the midcycle peak, most women note a positive mood state. During this time our biology encourages us to be more social, to connect to our tribe, more confident, to meet people and more alluring, to try to find a mate to conceive a baby with.

Estrogen acts as a stress hormone, or an anti-stress hormone. Making us more likely to brush off things that at other points in our cycle may provoke a significant response.

At midcycle estrogen levels are at their highest, along with dopamine and oxytocin. This encourages pro-social, trusting behaviour, and we are more generous and connected to others in our social network. We also talk more and are more interested in intimacy than at any other time of the monthly cycle.

Immediately after ovulation, our estrogen levels start to decline, but the rise in progesterone catches us before our moods crash. Progesterone doesn’t increase serotonin levels like estrogen does, but it supports GABA production, leading to a sense of calm and low anxiety that persists for about 10 days while progesterone levels are high.

All hell breaks loose during the final 3-7 days of the menstrual cycle however, with estrogen levels at a low, and progesterone levels steeply declining. Women during this time are more depressive, more cautious – a way for nature to keep us from harm during a time when we may be pregnant without knowing it.

The low estrogen also makes us less resilient, experience more physical pain, more emotionally sensitivity, and makes us more likely to react or respond to triggers that we would ignore during our high estrogen first half of the cycle. It’s not that we have more stress – we’re just way more likely to call it what it is and not stand for any shit.

Estrogen is essentially the “whatever you want honey” hormone – you are so much more willing to give to others and sacrifice your own needs when estrogen levels are high. But when those levels drop we are more likely to react and share our opinions – good or bad. It is not that we are reacting to things that aren’t really there – we’re reacting to things that upset or anger us – we just might ignore them at other times. If you feel underappreciated, overworked, or overwhelmed, or that you’re not in balance with your partner – it’s probably all true.

Bitch Redux

I want to encourage women to recognize the power in our hormonal fluctuations – our mood changes are adaptive – they help us seek out relationships, build connections, and preserve our energy. The mood changes that occur during our premenstrual phase are normal, and temporary. I want women to reclaim our natural hormone and mood fluctations, and be empowered by our emotions, rather than struggling against them.

My recommendation is to learn your natural fluctations and use your bitchiness as a superpower. Track your cycle – using any number of excellent free apps – and plan your month accordingly. Plan for presentations, meetings, anything requiring verbal skills for your first half of the cycle (the closer to ovulation the better! Your personality is magnetic when you’re near ovulation!) Have a task that requires fine motor skills – an intricate art project or rewiring your house? Keep that to the first half of the month as well.

Leave the tasks best left for your OCD-self for the last month of the cycle. I think most women probably read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up during the last week of their cycle. So put “clean out the kitchen cupboards” on your list for the premenstrual week (maybe stay out of your closet though – many women feel less appealing during their premenstrual week and this could be a disastrous task.) Your pain tolerance is also lowest during your premenstrual phase – so skip the dentist or your tattoo appointment and get a mani-pedi or skin care facial instead.

Think of your PMS as a time to spend in reflection and personal contemplation. Your intuition is at its peak in the week before your period, so take time to do a mental health inventory – are you doing what you want? Are you where you want to be? Pay attention to the things you are critical about during your premenstrual phase – these thoughts are probably a lot more valid than you might want them to be. Write down the things that upset you/ anger you/ send you into a whirling passion of emotions and act on them in the beginning of the next cycle when you’re feeling energized and empowered again. Harness your bitchiness, it could end up being your greatest power.

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.

Problems with the Pill

There is no doubt that the birth control pill was a huge player in the feminist revolution. First released in 1960, the pill allowed women to delay pregnancy and focus on their career, transforming the lives of women and society. While the pill may be a political powerhouse, and be effective at preventing pregnancy, my belief is that it is being overprescribed, and women are under-educated on the impact that the pill can have on their health.

This article will share some of the concerns that I, as a naturopathic doctor and women’s health expert, have regarding the pill. The purpose is not to convince you to give up the pill, but to empower you with information so that you can make an informed choice as to whether this medication is the right choice for you.

Problems with the Pill

  1. The Pill Depletes Nutrients

One of the biggest problems with the pill is the nutrient deficiencies that result from use. From B vitamins to essential minerals, the pill changes the absorption, utilization and metabolism of a number of different nutrients. These nutrient depletions are the underlying cause of many of the negative side effects of the pill – things like weight gain, moodiness, fatigue and blood clots. You can read all about the nutritional problems with the pill in this article.

  1. Weight gain

The estrogen in birth control pills can cause an increased appetite and fluid retention, leading to weight gain, especially in the first few months on the pill. Long term weight gain on the pill is more likely due to the decreased levels of B vitamins, necessary for carbohydrate and fat metabolism (i.e. burning fat for energy).

  1. No glory for our guts

The pill is known to alter the balance of healthy bacteria in our guts. Estrogen affects gut permeability (a risk factor for autoimmune disease) and bacteria balance, a condition known as dysbiosis. Healthy bacteria are incredibly important for our overall health – especially our immune, mood and digestive health. The pill has been linked to symptoms of gas, bloating, IBS, and an increased risk of Crohn’s disease in women with a family history of the digestive condition.

The change in healthy bacteria balance, combined with the estrogen in the pill, also makes women more susceptible to vaginal and digestive yeast infections. If you get frequent or recurrent yeast infections, or significant gas or bloating symptoms, consider if your pill may be part of the problem.

  1. Moodiness

Any woman can tell you that hormones can have a significant impact on your mood. The rises and dips in estrogen and progesterone that occur over a woman’s monthly cycle can lead to moods and behaviours that foster relationships, encourage sexual intimacy, and make women weepy, emotional and volatile. While some women on the pill notice very little difference in their mood states, other women find their normal emotional states become heightened in intensity and more difficult to manage. The reasons for this are very individual – some women don’t tolerate the high levels of estrogen and others find the high progesterone problematic. In either case, if the pill makes you moody switching to another pill is unlikely to help.

  1. Blood clots

Possibly the most well known side effect of the pill, the risk of blood clots is highest in women who are obese, are smokers or who have a family history of blood clots. The estrogen in the birth control pill is the most likely culprit, increasing the production of clotting factors and increasing a woman’s risk of blood clots by three-to-four fold. Deficiencies of key nutrients can also contribute to an increased risk of blood clots, most notably vitamin B6, vitamin E and magnesium – all of which are depleted by the pill.

  1. Thin endometrial lining

The endometrial (or uterine) lining is necessary for a successful implantation and pregnancy. In women wanting to have a family, long term use of oral birth control pills could thin the endometrial lining, leading to difficulty conceiving or maintaining a pregnancy. The underlying cause of this change is thought to be a down-regulation of estrogen receptors in the uterus, resulting from long term use of synthetic progesterone. The upside to this situation, is that this same mechanism is thought to be the reason why the pill reduces the risk of endometrial cancer.

  1. No sex drive

Never mind a thin endometrial lining if you can’t get up the urge to have sex at all. Many women report a low libido as a major issue they have with taking the pill. The pill lowers androgens and the lowered testosterone is likely responsible for the lack of sex drive. Around ovulation women typically experience a small, but significant, testosterone surge, causing them to seek out sex. On the pill you don’t experience this testosterone surge and your urge for sex can all but dry up. On a positive note – this decrease in testosterone is the reason why the pill can improve acne. But there are other ways to clear acne than giving up your lusty libido.

  1. Ignoring Mr. Right

Some of the most intriguing research on the pill surrounds a woman’s decision making around possible partners. Women who are on the pill tend to be attracted to more masculine, macho men with more ‘manly’ physical characteristics, and ignore men with softer, more ‘feminine’ features. Dr. Julie Holland, in her book Moody Bitches, refers to this as the “dad-or-cad” dilemma – women on the pill are more likely to be attracted to the bad-boy, rather than the more sensitive man who may be more acceptable as a long term partner and father to her children. Dr. Holland suggests it might be a good idea to get off the pill if you’re entering the dating pool, to prevent later regrets!

As if that wasn’t enough, another study found that women on the pill tend to seek out men with more genetic similarities to themselves, increasing their risk of miscarriage and genetic issues in their offspring. Women off the pill tend to choose men that are more genetically dissimilar – a pairing that tends to result in healthy pregnancies, happier relationships, more satisfying sex, and an increased likelihood of female orgasm.

  1. Masks symptoms

One of my biggest concerns with the pill is that it is used by conventional doctors as a band-aid for every female reproductive issue. Got PCOS? Take the pill! Got endometriosis? Take the pill! Got fibroids? Take the pill! PMS or menstrual cramps? Take the pill! Perimenopausal? You get the pill too! In no way does the pill address the underlying issues of these women’s health issues. The pill just provides a steady state of synthetic hormones, suppressing and masking the symptoms of the underlying imbalance. When you get off the pill you are no better than when you started – but you are older. And if you want to try and start a family you still have to address the underlying imbalance. The use of the pill as a way to suppress and deny the imbalances in women’s hormones is a disservice to women and I deplore it.

  1. The pill is a carcinogen

Ok. I get it, this sounds scary. But it’s true. The International Agency for Research on Cancer includes oral birth control pills as a carcinogen on its list of known human carcinogens. Studies have shown that birth control pills can increase the risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer and liver cancer. It can reduce your risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers, however. In general I’d suggest using the pill for as short a duration as possible and consider other forms of contraception for the majority of your reproductive years.

We have to keep in mind that the pill is not without problems. It contains synthetic hormones at levels much higher than our body produces on its own. Some of the side effects like acne, breast tenderness, or moodiness might be manageable, but I think women need to be empowered with knowledge to decide if the pill is the right choice for them.

If you have concerns about using the pill, want to balance your hormones naturally, or discuss natural forms of non-hormonal contraception, book an appointment now. Your hormones are in your hands – strive for hormone harmony!

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.

 

Female Hair Loss: Lab Testing

My expertise in treating hair loss in women started with a personal experience of hair loss in my 20s. After being dismissed by my Medical Doctor who assured me it was “totally normal” I persisted in understanding why a healthy woman in her 20s would start losing hair.

Laboratory Testing for Female Hair Loss

As I discuss in my article, Getting to the Root of Female Hair Loss, treating hair loss can only be effective if you understand the root cause – why is a woman losing hair? Through laboratory testing an answer can often be found.

When I am working with women with hair loss I generally advocate for a tiered approach to lab testing for hair loss – starting with the most likely causes and progressing to the more complex.

For myself, the issue was an iron deficiency. By correcting that iron deficiency I was able to resolve my hair loss in under a year and it hasn’t recurred since.

Use the checklist below with your Medical Doctor or Naturopathic Doctor to determine the root cause of your hair loss. And if you’re ready to work with someone experienced in hair loss in women, get in touch and book an appointment today.

Female Hair Loss – Printable PDF

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.

Are Menstrual Clots Normal?

One of the “joys” of womanhood, our monthly menstrual flow, can sometimes come with some surprises. One of those occurrences for many women is menstrual blood clots. Most women want to know if this is normal – and why it is happening.

Your Period

During your monthly cycle the lining of your uterus (endometrium) grows thick and increases the blood supply to support a potential pregnancy. When a pregnancy does not occur the drop in hormones (especially progesterone) leads to a release of the innermost lining of the uterus and we experience a period. In an average period women lose 30-40ml (6-8 tsp) of blood, with women experiencing heavy periods losing more than 60ml (12 tsp).

Blood Clots During Your Period

In a typical menstrual flow, the blood is not clotted due to the release of anticoagulants. The contraction of the uterus also stops further bleeding from the remaining blood supply to the uterus, and helps to expel the menstrual blood. After 3 to 4 days of bleeding, most of the inner lining of the endometrium (the “stratum functionalis”) has been released and blood loss slows considerably.

Blood clots are often a consequence of heavy menstrual flow. When the blood loss is too much, or too fast, the anticoagulants produced are not adequate to breakdown the lining of the uterus and prevent further clotting. Most women who experience clotting do so on the heaviest days of their menstrual period.

Possible Underlying Causes of Menstrual Blood Clots

  1. Miscarriage

Sometimes clots are actually a very early stage miscarriage. These clots may be found along with small gray clumps of tissue. If you experience other signs or symptoms of pregnancy along with clots, you may consider having your beta HCG levels tested to determine if it was, indeed, an early miscarriage.

  1. Uterine Fibroids (Leiomyomas)

Uterine fibroids are benign (non-cancerous) growths that occur in the muscular layer of the uterus. Some women with fibroids experience no symptoms at all, but for many women with fibroids they experience heavy periods (and blood clots) as a result. Fibroids are more likely to occur as we get older, especially after having children. Fibroids are also more common in women of African descent, those who are overweight and those with a family history of fibroids.

  1. Adenomyosis

Adenomyosis occurs when the endometrium breaks through into the muscular layer of the uterus (the myometrium). This can cause cramping, bloating, heavier menstrual periods and the presence of blood clots. Adenomyosis is also more common with age, in women who have had children, and in those who have had uterine surgery (such as a Caesarean section).

  1. Iron deficiency

In one of the great injustices in women’s health one major consequence of heavy periods, iron deficiency, can also lead to heavy periods. If you are experiencing heavy periods it is vitally important to test your hemoglobin, hematocrit and ferritin (iron) levels and build up your iron levels if needed.

  1. Hormonal imbalances

Imbalances between the two main female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, can lead to increased thickening of the uterine lining, resulting in heavy menstrual periods and blood clots. Imbalances in these hormones can occur at any stage of the reproductive life span, but are most common during adolescence and through the 40s and perimenopausal years.

  1. Thyroid imbalances

The thyroid is a small, butterfly shaped gland in your neck that controls your metabolic rate and has significant impacts on your hormonal health. An underactive thyroid can cause many symptoms – fatigue, difficulty losing weight, hair loss, and heavy periods. And with these heavy periods may come menstrual blood clots.

Recommended Testing for Menstrual Clots

If you regularly experience blood clots during your period, having some laboratory and imaging studies done is a good idea. It can help you understand why you are experiencing blood clots and your Naturopathic or Medical Doctor can work with you to determine an appropriate treatment plan.

Complete blood cell count – including hemoglobin and hematocrit to look for healthy red blood cells

Ferritin – to assess for iron deficiency anemia

TSH and complete thyroid panel – to assess health of the thyroid

Female hormone panel – to compare levels of estrogen and progesterone, along with other reproductive hormones, to ensure balance

Transvaginal or pelvic ultrasound – to identify uterine fibroids or other abnormalities of the uterus and uterine lining

MRI – a further visual assessment of the uterus if ultrasound is not adequate

If you are experiencing heavy periods and menstrual clotting, speaking to your Medical or Naturopathic Doctor can help you understand why you are experiencing these symptoms and develop a treatment that is as unique to your body and your period.

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.

References:

Young, B. Wheater’s Functional Histology, 6th Edition, 2014.

Melmed, S. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology, 2016.

 

Understanding Spotting Between Periods

“Why am I spotting?” is a common question that comes up in my naturopathic practice, impacting up to 1 in 3 women at some point in their reproductive lifespan. Spotting is most common in women during adolescence and during the transition to menopause, but can occur at any point in a woman’s life. While most women are told spotting is not significant, speaking to your doctor is suggested to determine the underlying cause.

What is Spotting

Spotting, also called intermenstrual bleeding, or even more technically “metrorrhagia” occurs when there is bleeding from the uterus at irregular intervals, most often between expected menstrual periods.

Causes of Spotting

  1. Ovulation

Ovulation is the most common cause of spotting in women. Around ovulation estrogen levels drop off slightly as an egg is released from the ovary. This drop in estrogen can lead to bleeding that is most often significantly lighter than a period and lasts for a shorter time. The blood may also be a different colour – brownish or pink. This ovulatory spotting is considered to be normal, but you should discuss with your health care provider to ensure nothing else is causing this symptom.

  1. Birth control pill

Birth control pills, and other forms of hormonal contraception (IUDs, patches, injections and implants), commonly cause spotting (called “breakthrough bleeding”) during the first few months of use. Most common in the first three months, for some women it doesn’t improve – if this happens a higher dose birth control or different method of contraception may be needed. Breakthrough bleeding is also common if you don’t take your pills as directed (missing a day or not taking at the same time each day). Women who smoke and take birth control pills are more likely to experience breakthrough bleeding (and should consider other forms of contraception due to the increased risk of blood clots.)

Other medications have also been found to be associated with intermenstrual bleeding, including anticoagulants (warfarin, heparin), antipsychotics, corticosteroids, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs.)

  1. Polycystic ovarian syndrome

One of the hallmarks of PCOS is irregular periods. In PCOS women do not ovulate, which leads to a lack of progesterone production and unopposed estrogen causes continued growth of the uterine lining. The lining will continue to thicken until it outgrows its blood supply and degenerates. Different sections of the lining may outgrow their blood supply at different times, causing spotting.

This lack of ovulation can also have similar results in adolescent girls who do not yet have a mature reproductive hormone cascade, resulting in spotting.

  1. Local infections

Infections of the vagina, cervix and endometrial lining can all cause spotting between periods. The infection is most often secondary to a sexually transmitted infection, but can also occur with pelvic inflammatory disease. Inflammation of the cervix (cervicitis) or uterine lining (endometritis) can also cause bleeding after sexual intercourse.

  1. Uterine or Cervical Polyps

Polyps are soft growths that can occur on the inside surface of the uterus or on the surface of the cervix. These growths are benign but may cause irregular bleeding, especially after intercourse.

  1. Perimenopause

The changes in hormone balance that occur in the years prior to menopause can lead to irregular periods and spotting between periods. With the transition to menopause comes a decrease in egg quality, resulting in less progesterone production and shorter menstrual cycles. The decline in successful ovulation can also lead to longer cycles. And both of these states of hormonal imbalance can lead to spotting.

  1. Thyroid hormone imbalances

The healthy function of the thyroid directly influences the healthy function of the reproductive organs. Under functioning of the thyroid (hypothyroidism) has been known to cause menstrual spotting, and correcting the underlying imbalance typically resolves the symptom.

  1. Pregnancy

Spotting in pregnancy can be an alarming symptom, but for many women it is totally normal. Some women experience spotting associated with implantation that can be very similar to a menstrual period. If you do experience spotting in pregnancy, see a doctor immediately to ensure optimal safety for both mom and baby, and to rule out an ectopic pregnancy which can be life-threatening if not treated.

  1. Uncommon causes

Less common causes for intermenstrual spotting include foreign bodies in the vagina (most often toilet paper or tampons) and certain types of reproductive cancers, including cervical, ovarian, endometrial and vulvar cancers. Clotting disorders can also worsen spotting and should be considered in teen girls with heavy periods or frequent spotting.

Testing for Spotting

While most spotting between menstrual cycles is benign and normal, it is important to try to identify an underlying cause, and correct it if possible. Achieving hormone harmony is possible, and can be done with the support of your Naturopathic Doctor.

Discuss this checklist with your Medical or Naturopathic Doctor to help you achieve your personal hormone balance.

Menstrual spotting checklist

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.

Natural Treatments for Tinnitus

Tinnitus impacts nearly 400 000 Canadians and can severely impact the quality of life. Tinnitus is defined as the perception of sound without an external source. It may be described as a hissing, ringing, or whooshing noise.   Many individuals diagnosed with tinnitus are told that the condition is chronic, will never improve, and they will just have to learn to live with it.

While Naturopathic Medicine can not guarantee a successful treatment of tinnitus, there may be hope in some of the integrative treatments available.

Cause of Tinnitus

The exact underlying cause of tinnitus is not known. It can be associated with noise trauma (explosions, loud noises), physical trauma, post-inflammation, anxiety and other conditions. In many cases an underlying cause is not identified.

The symptoms of tinnitus may be processed by different parts of the brain than typical auditory pathways. The amygdala and limbic system – parts of the brain responsible for memory and emotions – seem to play a significant role in tinnitus.

Diagnosis of Tinnitus

Diagnosis of tinnitus is generally clinical – the presence of a reported noise with no external source. An audiologist assessment should also be performed. A contrast MRI is also a useful tool and can identify possible underlying causes of tinnitus. Blood work for autoimmune antibodies, vitamin B12, inflammatory markers (ESR), cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, thyroid-stimulating hormone and comprehensive hormone testing can also provide useful information in identifying metabolic, hormonal, or autoimmune cases of tinnitus. Questionnaires can also be valuable in tracking progress with integrative treatment options.

Conventional Treatment Options

There are several different treatment options offered by qualified audiologists. Many involve sound therapy, masking, hearing aids or tinnitus retraining devices. A referral to an experienced audiologist is necessary for these treatments.

Correcting underlying causes of tinnitus will be helpful in a patient-by-patient basis. If the tinnitus is caused by a hormonal imbalance, such as thyroid disease, correcting the thyroid dysfunction can lead to resolution of symptoms. Antidepressants (impacting serotonin and/or dopamine) and GABA-enhancing medications have also been used in some individuals with success.

Naturopathic Treatment Options

While no guarantee of success exists in the treatment of tinnitus, the lack of conventional treatment options leads many people to seek out natural and integrative therapies. The majority of these options are safe and may provide some degree of relief to people suffering with tinnitus. Working with a knowledgeable Naturopathic Doctor is advised as these treatments may have side effects or interactions with other medications.

Ginkgo biloba

One of the most commonly sold botanical medicines worldwide, ginkgo is used to increase blood flow to the head and treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and vascular tinnitus. ginkgo has antioxidant, neuroprotective and platelet-inhibiting effects. Studies suggest that ginkgo may have a positive impact on patients with tinnitus, by increasing blood flow to the ear and may be especially useful in the elderly. The use of ginkgo may be limited by its interactions with medications, especially blood thinners, aspirin and seizure medications.

Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral with significant actions in the central nervous system, including the hearing pathway, as well as in hormone production, enzyme function, and synthesis of DNA and RNA. Studies have suggested that zinc deficiency impacts between 2-69% of individuals with tinnitus. Giving zinc to individuals with tinnitus is a low risk intervention, and measuring serum zinc levels may identify those in greatest need for supplementation.

Melatonin

Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland during the night, regulates sleep/ wake cycles and acts as an antioxidant. Some studies have found that supplementing melatonin may improve tinnitus, especially in individuals with sleep disturbances. Melatonin may also help in individuals with stress by balancing cortisol production, another hormone often involved in tinnitus.

Vitamin B12

An important nutrient, and common deficiency, there have been studies showing a relationship between vitamin B12 deficiency and abnormal function of the hearing pathway. For every individual experiencing tinnitus, vitamin B12 levels should be assessed and optimal levels should be achieved through dietary and supplemental means.

Garlic

The flavourful garlic bulb is useful for many cardiovascular conditions. It has cholesterol-lowering effects, lowers blood pressure and can decrease blood clot formation. It may be useful for tinnitus by improving blood flow to the inner ear. There are no current studies on the use of garlic for tinnitus, but the possible benefits are evident.

Pycnogenol

Preliminary research suggests that the antioxidant, pycnogenol (pine bark extract) can decrease symptoms of tinnitus after one month of use. It is suspected that it’s influence on inflammation and the cardiovascular system may lead to improvements in tinnitus.

Hormone Modulation

Hormonal imbalances have been identified in many individuals experiencing tinnitus, with imbalance in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis being most common. This HPA axis is involved in the stress response, with abnormal cortisol production being a common feature. One study found that individuals with tinnitus had a blunted cortisol response after stressful events. Identifying and correcting underlying hormonal imbalance can improve tinnitus in some people, especially those with stress.

Acupuncture

Several studies have demonstrated improvement in tinnitus symptoms with acupuncture treatment. Improvements with acupuncture have not been found in all studies, and improvements may be short lived (average of 100 hours in one study). Acupuncture is a very safe treatment, with limited side effects and no interactions with medications. Administered by a qualified naturopathic doctor or acupuncturist, it may be a valuable option for the treatment of tinnitus.

Taking an integrative approach, managing stress and balancing your hormones may help to improve the symptoms of tinnitus, and also improve the quality of life of people suffering with tinnitus. To learn more, speak to a qualified Naturopathic Doctor.

References:

The sound of stress: blunted cortisol reactivity to psychosocial stress in tinnitus sufferers. Hébert S, Lupien SJ. Neurosci. Lett. – January 10, 2007; 411 (2); 138-42

Diagnostic value and clinical significance of stress hormones in patients with tinnitus. Kim DK, Chung DY, Bae SC, Park KH, Yeo SW, Park SN. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol – November 1, 2014; 271 (11); 2915-21

Hormones and the auditory system: A review of physiology and pathophysiology Neuroscience, 2008-06-02, Volume 153, Issue 4, Pages 881-900, Copyright © 2008

Complementary and Integrative Treatments for tinnitus Gregory S. Smith MD, Massi Romanelli-Gobbi BM, Elizabeth Gray-Karagrigoriou Au.D and Gregory J. Artz MD  Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America, The, 2013-06-01, Volume 46, Issue 3, Pages 389-408

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.