I have recently chatted to a few women who have been convinced that hormonal changes in their bodies have given rise to their MS and also play a role in their relapses. Some women complain that at certain points in their monthly cycles, they experience the same irritating and sometimes debilitating symptoms. This means that the complex physiological processes of the disease could be very closely related to the ups and downs of our hormones, in particular, our sex hormones. It also implies that if we can keep our hormone levels in balance and at optimum levels, then we have a greater chance of keeping MS at bay and staying well for the rest of our lives.
Women And Hormones
It is a well known fact that MS affects two to three times as many women as it does men (tweet this). This is especially true of women diagnosed between the onset of puberty and menopause. This is the time of a women's life when she experiences a flood of hormones as her body prepares for child bearing. Is it a coincidence that far more women than men are diagnosed during these peak hormonal years? Interestingly, once women reach menopause and post menopause, there is an equal ratio of MS in women to men.
During pregnancy, on average, women also experience significantly less relapses and MS activity and most report feeling much healthier. This is because estrogen levels are much higher during pregnancy and seem to have a protective effect. As estrogen levels fall after the birth, there is an increased risk of a relapse in the following three to six months.
[blockquote width="270" align="left"]pregnancy helped my MS[/blockquote]
I can certainly relate to this pattern with my pregnancies. It was so much more obvious with my second pregnancy because I knew about my diagnosis then. I had a minor episode at the start of my pregnancy but after this minor hiccup, I felt fantastic for the rest of my pregnancy. I was full of energy, clear headed and not a symptom in sight. It definitely helped that I had just started my MS diet. My hormones were obviously in just the right balance. After the birth, I did have a return of some numbness but nothing to write home about. My MS diet has definitely helped me recover beautifully from my pregnancy and has hopefully helped to avoid any major flare ups since. More on diet and hormones to come!
First if all, let's take a closer look at the role hormones play in our bodies.
Understanding The Role Of Hormones
Hormones have an incredibly important part to play in helping our bodies to function effectively. Hormones are the little messengers that travel between cells and organs making sure every part is doing what it is supposed to. These amazing chemicals control processes such as growth and development, metabolism, sexual reproductive functions and mood. We need just the right amount of our hormones at any one time to keep things working smoothly and effectively. Problems begin when there is too much or too little of a certain hormone. Usually an imbalance results from an unhealthy lifestyle dictated by too much stress, too many refined foods and not enough exercise. We need to make sure that we stay healthy and fit in order to keep the delicate balance of our hormones in check.
As women, it is important to understand the role that hormones play in our monthly cycles. This can help us anticipate the effects of the various hormones on our energy levels, mood and MS symptoms. Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are the main sex hormones that peak and dip throughout our cycle. Estrogen is our feel good hormone and we feel great when we have plenty of it, in phase one of our cycle. We could possibly feel a bit low when it starts to dip in phase two. Let's have a brief look at what we can expect during each week of our cycle.
Week 1 (Day 1-7)
At the start of your period, estrogen and testosterone levels are their lowest which may cause you to feel fatigued and a bit down in the dumps. However, they both start to rise within a few days, which should lead to improved mood and energy levels.
WEEK 2 (Day 8-14)
In week two, estrogen and testosterone continue to rise. This should help you to feel positive, energetic and upbeat about life. This is usually a good week!
Week 3 (Day 15-21)
This week marks the start of ovulation and progesterone levels start to rise as estrogen and testosterone take a dip. They do recover within a few days, however, you may feel a little on the grumpy side as they fall. You may feel slightly fatigued during this week from the rising progesterone as it is known to have a sedating effect.
WEEK 4 (Day 22-28)
This is the dreaded premenstrual week when all three hormones take a nose dive. As we all know, during this week, we can often experience feelings of irritability and become frustrated and stressed out over little things. This is a result of the plunging levels of estrogen, our 'pick me up' hormone.
It is good to be aware of where you are in your monthly cycle so that you can plan to get a little more rest when you need to or do something fun and energetic when you know you are going to have the energy. Not that our lives should be dictated by our monthly cycles or anything but it is just good to know what is happening and when! Now you that you are familiar with the effects of these important hormones on our minds and bodies, we can discuss how they can play a role with MS.
Can Hormonal Changes Give Rise To MS?
There seems to be a growing body of evidence to suggest that abnormal hormone levels play a role in Multiple Sclerosis. Interestingly, both estrogen and progesterone are critical in nerve health and remyelination. So, it stands to reason that if these levels are too high or too low, this could have a negative effect on our nervous system, allowing inflammation and damage.
A recent research study published in The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry has shown the effects of various hormones on MS. In this study, researchers compared levels of a range of hormones in healthy people and those with MS. The average age of the participants was 32, and those with MS had had the relapsing-remitting form of the disease for an average of six years. Women were tested during both phases of their menstrual cycle, to account for variations in hormone levels.
[blockquote width="270" align="right"]the right hormone levels is what matters[/blockquote]
Testosterone and estrogen, appeared to have the most significant connection to Multiple Sclerosis. The women with MS had lower testosterone levels than the healthy women. This was the case throughout their menstrual cycle. Women with Multiple Sclerosis and abnormally low testosterone levels had more brain inflammation than women with multiple sclerosis and normal testosterone levels. However, irreversible brain tissue damage was more common in women with MS and abnormally high levels of testosterone. So, it seems that women with MS need to have testosterone levels which are 'just right' to avoid symptoms.
The real question is: How do we keep our hormones at normal, healthy levels? Let's explore some of the most effective ways to do this with our diet.
MS Diet And Hormones
Here is the fundamental fact: the food we eat has a direct effect on our hormones (tweet this). Eating a highly nutritious diet with zero refined and processed foods is the best way to keep your hormones at healthy levels. The various food groups each have their own unique effects on hormones.
Fruit And Veg
Eating a MS diet rich in fruit and veg helps you to avoid all those nasty hormone disrupting foods. Most importantly, it gives your body the tools it needs to create hormones and produce them in perfect amounts at just the right moment. Try to eat a large variety of green, brightly coloured and white fruit and veg. Juicing is an amazing way to get those nutrients into your system quickly!
The right fats are of particular importance when in comes to the hormonal system. It simply will not work properly without Omega 3 and Omega 6 essential fats. The majority of people are consuming the wrong types of fats which only helps to throw things out of balance even more. Make sure you are eating fats such as flaxseed oil, nuts, avocado, extra virgin olive oil and salmon, as well as reputable supplements.
Another good example of a hormone disrupter is sugar. Refined sugar causes more insulin to be released into the blood stream than what is ideal. Insulin, in its attempt to keep blood sugar levels in balance, stores the excess sugar as fat in our bodies. When insulin levels increase, so do cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that also raises blood sugar levels and it steps in to make sure insulin doesn't drop our sugar levels too much. Unfortunately, cortisol decreases thyroid hormone which can lead to thyroid problems. Just by eliminating refined sugar from the diet this entire vicious circle can be avoided. You can clearly see that removing refined sugar is one of the most important things you can do for your hormones and MS.
Gluten, the only protein found in grains, has been shown to have a negative effect on the hormonal system. Many women, especially those with MS are gluten intolerant. This means they experience weight gain and increased MS symptoms when consuming gluten. Gluten needs to be removed for at least six weeks for an improvement to be seen. You will also see a difference in your skin and bowel movements.
Chemical additives in food can interrupt the way hormones work. Be very careful to avoid processed foods with artificial colourants and flavourants, as well as preservatives.
Dairy And Meat
For someone with MS, "non-organic" meat and dairy products should be avoided at all costs. Most almost certainly contain chemicals and artificial hormones, which can remain in the human body long-term, left to concentrate in the fat cells. Even "non-organic" animal byproducts contain hormones that have made their way through the system. These can unbalance your delicate hormonal system. As with gluten, if you have a sensitivity to dairy, any amount you consume will cause a change in your hormone levels.
Soy products are also a "no no" on the MS diet because of the potential allergic reaction the body may have towards them. Many people with MS have a sensitivity towards soy products which can cause an activation of the immune system and lead to MS symptoms. They also contain high levels of phytoestrogen which mimics the functions of the female sex hormone estrogen. Estrogen is great but in just the right amounts - too much estrogen can lead to:
- weight gain
- menstrual irregularities
- thyroid dysfunction
- poor reproductive system functioning
Soy isoflavones are known to be endocrine disruptors, and have the potential to cause negative effects on reproductive health, fertility, infant development and even brain development. On the other side of the coin, in post menopausal women, soy products have been shown to actually help with hormone replacement. I do still feel that soy products need to be approached with caution even at that stage of life as they may still cause an imbalance in other important hormones.
What About Hormone Replacement Therapy?
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been described by Kathryn Simpson, the author of 'The MS Solution' as essential for resolving the inflammation associated with MS. It seems that hormone replacement therapy may actually have great benefits for women with MS who are going through menopause. Women lose 90% of their estrogen and progesterone production within a short two-year period during menopause which can be quite a shock for the body. This is usually the time of a women's life in which her MS can suddenly worsen and she is hit the hardest with the "progressive" stage of the disease. This is obviously related to the steep drop in estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. It seems that hormone replacement therapy may have tremendous benefits for women of this age, helping to calm inflammation and keep MS symptoms at bay. This does need to be done in a very controlled way with expert medical help, and in the context of an extremely healthy lifestyle.
There has been a lot of hype, in recent years, about HRT contributing to breast cancer. Research has shown that the risk differs slightly according to the type of HRT. For instance, combined HRT (oestrogen and progestogen) accounts for three extra cases of breast cancer in every 1,000 women who use it for five years between the ages of 50-59.
There appears to be no increased risk if it is taken for less than three years. Oestrogen-only HRT has a lower risk than combined HRT. The risk with tibolone (a synthetic HRT) appears to be similar to that of oestrogen only HRT.
Having a risk factor doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman will develop breast cancer. And even if a risk factor is identified in a woman with breast cancer there is no way of proving that this was the cause. Cancer Help UK states that any cancer risk associated with HRT reduces to a normal level five years after you stop taking HRT.
Summing It All Up
I do think that it is beneficial to have your hormone levels tested so that you know what is happening in your body. However, if you have not yet reached the age of menopause yet, your body is still capable of producing healthy hormonal levels when given the right tools to do so. Eating highly nutritious foods, paying attention to possible food allergies and taking nutritional supplements are all more natural ways to keep your hormones in balance and at the right levels.
Phew, so much to talk about! I think we are just scratching the surface when it comes to hormones and MS. So much more research needs to be done! Hope this has helped to convince you to keep going with your MS diet. It is the only long term solution to keeping your hormones in check!
Respect the hormones!