Hormone Imbalance – is it a real ‘thing’?

The Hormone Whisperers  

In 2023 I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture given by Lara Briden and Dr. Nicky Keay in Oxford, entitled ‘The Hormone Whisperers.’ These two women are at the top of women’s hormone expertise.  

If you are a friend, relative or patient of mine and have mentioned hormone issues, hormone imbalance, menopause, infertility, then I have no doubt recommended Lara Briden’s books and social pages. Lara’s writing, I find easy to understand, very actionable with proven results. In her writing she provides the context, what happens and why, as well as why the hormone cycle is important to overall health and provides tips to help make life’s transitions as smooth as possible.  

This was the first time I had heard of Dr Nicky Keay. But a recommendation from Lara Briden gets my attention! It was obviously a success as they are both currently (Feb 24) holding talks in New Zealand too. 

I learnt so much at the lecture and looking back through my notes, I thought I would share some of them here. 

“General health affects hormones and hormones affect general health.” 

Hormone imbalance

Is there such a thing? According to Lara and Dr Keay, no! It has taken us millions of evolutionary years to get us to this point. The imbalance is in our lifestyle, it is our behaviours that affects our hormones.  

A woman’s monthly cycle is a monthly health check, therefore a chance to check-in on ourselves. Which is one way to reframe your view of your period positively.  

Every woman has 2 to 3 cycles per year where there is a bleed but not necessarily ovulation – an ovulatory cycle. With increased exercise and reduced nourishment (particularly low-carb diets) this number can increase. 

The sweet spot when it comes to exercise

We are all aware of the negatives of the lack of exercise, but equally too much exercise can negatively affect your hormones and health. 

Recovery and rest are equally important.

Some days are going to need more rest, so grab that book and put your feet up! Whilst there will be other days when you will feel you can take on the world – hit those PBs in the gym on these days! It is worth keeping a diary of when days are best for rest or activity in your cycle, so you can plan around them or help you to know your limits and better manage expectations.  

Women’s hormones love complex carbohydrates.

– You are what you eat, surely this is great news – we were meant to eat carbs! Now that I have your attention – these are the right carbs however! This also helps explain why we get the munchies during the cycle. 

As I have mentioned carbohydrates here, it is worth mentioning that cycle irregularity or absence of menstrual cycles is known as Amenorrhea. This can be the result of not eating enough complex carbohydrates and can cause Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA). HA is common in athletes, dancers and women with eating disorders. As well as those who are active and are strict with the calorie or carbs (or both) intake.  

Symptoms include no/missing cycles or very light bleeding, anxiety and depression, insomnia, always feeling cold, increased hunger and low libido. Many of these symptoms are also common with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS – more on this on another day). However, treatment for both is the opposite to each other. HA requires more complex carbohydrates in the diet. Whereas women with PCOS are 65-70% likely to be insulin resistant, susceptible to type II diabetes and should manage their carbohydrate intake. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3277302/ 

Dr Keay was keen to point out that she was instrumental in changing NICE guidelines for the treatment of HA, as a result it is no longer recommended to prescribe contraceptive for those with HA. The recommended treatment regime includes; body identical hormones as a temporary measure with emphasis to; eat more, exercise less, sleep more and better manage stress levels. 

So back onto hormones in general.  

Ovulation is how women make hormones, this is particularly key for teens and young women.

This is also the time when many seek contraception as the immature cycle bunny-hops about making a nuisance of itself. It can take 12 years for a cycle to mature fully. Maturity means gaining a robust peek of oestrogen – which in turn leads to optimal progesterone etc. As a teenager living with an unpredictable cycle, acne and more besides, all you want is to get it sorted out, with the emphasis on the here and now.  

There are several hormones within a menstrual cycle, their presence and levels fluctuate throughout the cycle. They ebb and flow, peak and trough in their turn. The level of one affects the level of another – Dr Keay described “it is a natural dance that has evolved over millions of years.” 

Average cycle length is 24-25 days for teens and the range extends to 21-35 days for a mature cycle.  

For 6 days you are fertile in each ovulatory cycle – for 1-day women are fertile but sperm can swim for 4-5 days!  

The contraceptive pill does not regulate the cycle – it overrules it so there is no cycle. However, contraceptive pills are often prescribed to ‘regulate the cycle’, what the pill does is ensure there is no ovulation and that there is a ‘pill bleed.’  

What is a ‘pill bleed’? The contraceptive pill overrules the body’s hormone production, so that natural hormone production is flat lined, there is no need for this bleed. This bleed is to help the prescriber and the patient feel that they have achieved a regular cycle – but it is not actually needed, it is artificial. 

Contraceptive pill has many potential side effects including:

  • Hair loss 
  • Depression – a Canadian study revealed that Progesterin (lab made progesterone) can have a long and delayed effect on the brain if used during puberty, with women 3x more likely to become depressed. 
  • Low libido 
  • Digestion problems 
  • Impaired bone health – bone health is laid down in our teen years 
  • Delay in maturing menstrual cycle 
  • Skin eruptions – can cause a rebound effect when no longer take the pill  

I attended the lecture with a friend who is a mum to two young girls, for us both this was all eye-opening stuff. There is a potentially big, long term health compromise that most young women or girls are not aware of when opting for contraceptive medicine – we certainly were not aware.  

Plus, when a woman stops taking the pill, their body needs to reawaken the pituitary gland and ovaries to start making hormones again, the entire process needs reawakening. Unfortunately, just because you are older this reawakening may not happen any smoother than when you were in your puberty. The cycle needs to practice and to mature. This helps explain rebound acne and other symptoms that are typically associated with puberty suddenly reappearing when you stop taking the pill.  

 The Hormone Whisperers are not ruling out the need or use of contraception but are keen that the many and varied potential side effects, to be better known so that informed decisions can be made when seeking help with menstruation and cycle regulation.  

The effects of hormones are far reaching

Hormones are not just about the cycle and bleed, or the lack of a bleed or the lack of a cycle. Hormones are vascular, they are present in the entire body and therefore systemic. Looking out for our hormones means we are looking out for our overall health whichever end of the scale – whether young, laying down foundations for adulthood or mature, seeking to enjoy life beyond the menstrual cycle.  

Much of the advice remains focused upon lifestyle, diet and the importance of a healthy active life which becomes even more important as we age, and our hormone levels reduce and our ability to guard against inflammation reduces and aches and pains creek in all too easily and frequently. Perhaps this is hard to hear (again); the adage of a healthy diet, healthy weight, moderate appropriate exercise, and destressing all helps when it comes to managing our hormones. Healthy hormones lead to a healthier and happier you. 

And the good thing is that I won a signed copy of Dr Nicky Keay’s book “Hormones, Health and Human Potential”. So once I have read that I will be once again brimming with learnings and no doubt feel the urge to share again!  

The Hormone Whisperers – Lara Briden (left) and Dr Nicky Keay (right) 

By Clare Scallon 

Traditional Chinese Acupuncturist MBAcC 

Written Feb 2024