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How gut health impacts hormone health

At first glance, you might think that gut health and hormone health are two distinct, unrelated entities. After all, don’t we have gastroenterologists to deal with GI issues and gynecologists and endocrinologists to deal with hormones? That’s only because medicine operates in distinct silos here in the US, with specialists for everything you can think of. And while these specialists certainly have a place, there’s no substitute for whole-body health and wellness.

Today, we’re diving into the gut - hormone connection, and talking about how healing your gut just might balance your hormones in the process. 

What is gut health anyway? 

As humans, we actually have more bacterial cells than any other type, and most of them reside in the gut. The gut refers to the entirety of the digestive tract, from your mouth all the way to your large intestine. The digestive tract is home to trillions of microbes, forming the gut microbiome. These microbes generally fall into a couple of different camps - the “good” guys that are largely beneficial, and the “bad” guys like viruses, fungi, and yeast, which can overgrow in some cases and cause body-wide symptoms. The goal is to have more good bacteria than bad and have a good balance overall, but unfortunately that’s not the case for many people.

That’s because a lot of different food and lifestyle factors can lead to an imbalance of the bacteria in your gut, including:

  • Eating high sugar and carbohydrate foods, highly processed foods, processed vegetable oils, or alcohol
  • Living a higher stress lifestyle
  • Taking antibiotics or other pharmaceutical drugs (like hormonal birth control)
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Exposure to environmental or other toxins

As you can probably imagine, many people fit into at least one of these bullet points. Over time, any of these issues can lead to an imbalance in gut bacteria as well as intestinal permeability (leaky gut), along with a host of symptoms like bloating, gas, acid reflux, sugar cravings, skin issues, depression or anxiety, brain fog, and so much more.

How gut health and hormones are related

When you have gut issues, hormone issues typically follow. The gut is responsible for absorbing nutrients, which then help your body make hormones, and break down the ones that you don’t need. Once the liver (our natural detoxifier!) has packaged up excess hormones for excretion, the gut is responsible for moving those hormones out of the body. 

The majority of the immune system (about 70-80%) is also in the gut, so any inflammation in the gut impacts the immune system and leads to systemic inflammation, which disrupts your hormones.

There is some research to suggest that the microbiome plays a role in regulating estrogen, which means that poor gut health might increase the likelihood of estrogen-related issues like PCOS, endometriosis, and certain cancers. 

Your gut also produces and stores the majority of serotonin in the body (about 95% of it!). This hormone influences mood and feelings of well-being, so it makes sense that poor gut health may increase feelings of anxiety and depression. 

Gut health also impacts a slew of other hormonal processes and issues, including hypothyroidism, insulin and diabetes, vitamin D status, and cholesterol levels (which then influences the balance of progesterone and estrogen). 

Tips for improving gut health

Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Fill your plate with plenty of veggies, high-quality proteins (including wild-caught seafood and eggs), green tea, turmeric, and plenty of leafy greens. At least for the short-term, stay away from potentially inflammatory foods for the gut, like gluten and excess grains. 

Heal your gut. Diet tweaks like the anti-inflammatory diet above will help, but it’s also important to work on adding in foods and supplements that support a healthy gut. Bone broth, collagen, gelatin, glutamine, and soothing options like aloe and marshmallow root all help to soothe the gut lining. Eating prebiotic-rich foods (think lots of veggies!) and probiotic-rich foods like kefir, kombucha, and fermented veggies will help support your good gut bugs. 

Get enough high-quality sleep. Not getting enough sleep is a pervasive issue, especially in the US. But sleep loss leads to inflammation, higher levels of insulin resistance, and even poor food choices, which will all negatively impact the gut microbiome. Aim for 7-8 hours of sound, uninterrupted sleep. We know - it’s easier said than done!
Practice stress management. Is stress good for anything? Well, maybe running from a tiger. But in our modern world, it does so much more harm than good, and it negatively impacts the gut microbiome too. Manage your stress by making time for things you enjoy. This might be spending time with friends, using the sauna, getting a massage, reading, practicing meditation, or many other things. 

Get moving! It’s wild to think about, but getting enough movement in your day actually supports your gut microbiome, while sitting too much has a negative impact. So choose something you like doing and get moving as you’re able.