A hormone is really a chemical messenger (a bit like email) produced by glands via a trigger (specific hormones produced by specific glands) and then travel through the bloodstream to act on target organs (cells) in order to create a specific action.
This system is known as the ‘endocrine system’.
Main endocrine organs/glands : adrenals, thyroid, ovaries, pancreas and parathyroid. These produce hormones that are responsible for stress management, reproduction metabolism, bone health and the balance of glucose, sodium and our pH (Acid/Alkaline).
We know there is a link between gut health and our hormones – particularly in regards to insulin (glucose control and diabetes) cortisol (stress) and thyroid hormones. There is also a fascinating 2-way relationship between our reproductive hormones specifically oestrogen and testosterone and our gut.
Let’s first look at the role of these hormones on our gut:
Oestrogen and the gut
Oestrogen itself is important for gut health, Whilst we might think of oestrogen as a being a purely reproductive hormone it actually has a much broader role and has a key role in
- bone density,
- brain function,
- cholesterol mobilization,
- electrolyte balance,
- skin health,
- the cardiovascular system,
- the central nervous system.
We now know that oestrogen also plays an important role in the health of the gut and prevention of various gut conditions including gastroesophageal reflux, esophageal cancer, peptic ulcers, gastric cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer.
Both men and women make oestrogen and we make it in various places in our body, not just our ovaries. We are still making oestrogen even after menopause because of all these other roles.
Testosterone and the gut
We also know that testosterone is also important for gut health and digestion because it maintains motility in the colon (moves food through), reduces pain in the digestive tract, decreases inflammation in the gut, reduces the negative effect of cortisol on the gut and also may protect the gut from inflammatory bowel diseases, IBS and SIBO.
Both men and women produce testosterone because it is also important bone health, plus muscle mass and strength, fat distribution, production of red blood cells as well as our libido and general drive.
As I said, not only do these hormones affect our gut but this is a 2-way street and our gut also affects our hormones and their balance.
The gut and oestrogen
Specific gut microbes secrete an enzyme called beta- glucoronidase which puts oestrogen back together after it has been pulled apart in the liver (detoxification). (Think back to Mr. Potato head). This effectively means the gut is a key regulator of circulating oestrogen.
When we have a healthy gut with a good balance of gut bacteria then oestrogen levels are at that sweet spot – not too much, not too little.
A disruption to the gut microbiome can create too much oestrogen or not enough oestrogen.
Too much circulating estrogen has been associated with endometriosis, endometrial hyperplasia, breast and endometrial cancer. Too little oestrogen has been associated with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
In summary, dysbiosis (which is imbalance of gut bacteria – lowered diversity, low amounts of gram negative bacteria and increase in gram positive bacteria) causes inflammation in the gut which effects oestrogen regulation and metabolism this has been shown to lead to endometriosis, PCOS, endometrial hyperplasia, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, endometrial, breast and gastric cancer plus brain function and infertility.
The gut and testosterone
Testosterone is also thought to be mediated by the gut. Bacteria called clostridium scindens which convert glucocorticoids such as cortisol into androgens in the gut (testosterone is androgen). So, again dysbiosis can cause an increase in androgens such as testosterone.
Dysbiois and intestinal permeability (leaky gut) endotoxins (toxic substances made by bacteria) end up in our bloodstream and may travel to the testicles and possibly can cause a reduction in testosterone and sperm production.
What can we do about this?
If you have any hormonal imbalances or conditions or are menopausal then look to improve your gut health. Even if you don’t have hormonal imbalances then improving your gut could prevent imbalances in the first place and will certainly improve your general health in the long term.
My top tip which is an easy thing to start with is to increase the variety of plant foods in your diet – the more diverse the plants the more diverse the bacteria. It really can be as simple as that. Don’t just live on carrots and broccoli or cos lettuce every day – change up the veggies, change the colours, try new veggies, add different herbs and spices, be experimental and have fun. Your gut and hormones will thank you for it!
There is a YouTube video of this blog. Head over to Sarah’s You Tube Channel if you are interested in watching rather than reading.
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