For a while now, I've been harbouring a frustration with the information out there on our sex hormones. More specifically, sex hormones in female health. It might come as a surprise that my frustration is not because of a problem with fertility or the menopause. In fact, it's precisely this common presumption that is the issue.
Our hormones are not just about fertility. They're fundamental for our overall health too. Yet, whether it's social media, product brand marketing or the headlines on TV, time and time again the reinforced message to women is that our hormones are about our ability to get pregnant. Motherhood or menopause. That's it. Well, if you ask me, that's just reductionist and a little too sexist for my liking.
Kay Ali, Registered Nutritional Therapist & Co Founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist
As an independent 30 year old businesswoman, family planning is not yet on my radar. As I'm sure is the case for many other women like me. My twenties were spent climbing the corporate ladder and fiercely dodging anything remotely related to motherhood. Not because of an aversion to it, but simply because I viewed pregnancy as a rites of passage to be experienced in the distant future once I was financially secure (and madly in love, of course). It also didn't help that as a single childless young woman, I was excluded from the 'mum club' at work. Often with condescending remarks, as if not yet being a mother somehow made my opinions inferior. In any case, it never mattered. Productivity, mental performance and stress resilience were my priority. My ambitions for success at work came first; motherhood and anything related to it was not yet worth thinking about.
It won't come as a surprise then that I didn't give my sex hormones much thought. After all, they're only there to help me get pregnant (or so I thought). In fact, a number of years before qualifying as a Nutritional Therapist were spent "suppressing" my periods with the contraceptive pill. As far as I was concerned my periods didn't serve my ambitions right there and then. If anything they were a nuisance. The achey tummy, tender breasts and emotional instability got in the way of my mental performance at work. Especially as anxiety became a factor to contend with. With the backing of my GP, I told myself that I could come off the pill once I was ready to have a baby. Before then, I could just take it everyday and miss my periods every month. Little did I realise that neglecting my female health would in fact be the biggest obstacle to my work ambitions. In short, it helped push me to the edge of a nervous breakdown.
You Need A Nutritional Therapist consultation room, photograph by Kay Ali
When we think of mental health and stress resilience, we often think of serotonin. It's our so called "happy hormone" that keeps us zen and chipper. In fact, its role in the body is a lot bigger then that. Serotonin helps regulate appetite, temperature, energy balance, platelet coagulation, bone remodelling, sleep cycles, emesis, the inflammatory response and our sexual behaviour too. In other words serotonin helps to keep me in my size 8 Frame denim jeans and Jimmy Choo peep toe pumps even in the dead of winter; it helps my skin glow, promotes my beauty sleep, supports my anti-ageing regimen (take that botox) and maintains my sexual appetite that could rival Samantha from Sex in the City (who am I kidding, I'm totally a Miranda). Basically, serotonin could give me the mental acuity of Elon Musk and the goddess-like beauty of Gigi Hadid. I'd be a force to reckon with in the conference room.
"What I didn't bank on all those years ago, was the effects the contraceptive pill would have on my oestrogen levels; and in turn the affects this would have on my mental health."
Here's the catch. To make all these processes happen, serotonin relies on communication from other key molecules - estradiol, testosterone, cortisol and Vitamin D being the main ones. Put simply, our sex hormones help shape serotonin’s molecular behaviour. So when they’re out of balance, efficient serotonin signalling is compromised and I don't get to be Elon Musk and Gigi Hadid's love child anymore. As a result we feel low, stressed out and anxious. That's exactly what happened to me and what I see so often in my clinic with women of all ages.
Kay Ali, Registered Nutritional Therapist. Image taken from @youneedant instagram account
What I didn't bank on all those years ago, was the effects the contraceptive pill would have on my oestrogen levels; and in turn the affects this would have on my mental health. Oestrogen is needed to get our brain to convert the protein tryptophan into 5HTP. 5 HTP is then transformed into serotonin, which keeps us balanced. The problem is, the contraceptive pill (amongst other lifestyle practices), can either cause our oestrogen levels to drop or rise too high. This is bad news because when there's too little oestrogen not enough serotonin is made to power us through Monday mornings, stressful meetings and work presentations. Cue life admin overload, cue anxiety. Throw two or three kids into the mix down the line and you have the perfect recipe for disaster. Equally, when oestrogen is too high (as was the case with me), it turns the precursor of serotonin, tryptophan, down a dark and ugly alley causing lower levels of serotonin too.
The truth is, whether we're avoiding pregnancies, family planning, new parents or heading into menopause we all should be supporting our sex hormones through the lifestyle choices we make (men too actually). The role our hormones play in our health and vitality is so much bigger than our ability to carry a child. At the very least, they're fundamental for our mental health without which there's not much we can do.
Here's the biggie. The latest Adult Psychiatric Morbidity survey summarised that 1 in 5 women experience some form of mental health problem. But what's alarming is that young women have emerged as the highest risk group. Of course the causes are multifactorial, but knowing that the state of our sex hormones directly impacts our mental health is powerful. As was the case with me, making this connection can be life changing. Yet the prevalence of mass communication reducing the role of our hormones to motherhood is excluding the interest of these high-risk young women. This needs to stop.
I think it's high time we stopped the sexual prejudices of our hormones so that we can promote a culture amongst women of all ages and ambitions that serves and strengthens our full potential.
Move over Elon Musk & Gigi Hadid, I'm coming for you.
Kay Ali x
Registered Nutritional Therapist & Co Founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist
If you would like to work with Kay Ali on balancing your hormones and/or supporting mental health you can contact her directly on firstname.lastname@example.org.