Stress, Hormone Imbalance, and PCOS
While more than 50% of my clients struggle with anxiety or depression, very few initially understand the critical role that hormones play in our mental health. As part of a larger strategy of designing a beautiful and healthy life, learning how to balance your hormones can dramatically improve your mood, your health, and your overall quality of life. Here’s the story of how I naturally balanced my hormones (and even aligned my cycle with the moon!)
2014 was a rough year for me. In June, I had a major disagreement with the co-founders of the social enterprise I had been building for the last 3 years, leading to my departure from the company and a dramatic and heartbreaking decline of the impact of our services. In July, after I wrote all boyfriend’s business school applications, he decided it was best for him to be single to fully “enjoy the MBA experience.” And in August, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I put my life in India on pause to come back to the US and be by her side through the treatment.
This whirlwind of change and disappointment took and enormous toll on my well-being. My body produced excessive cortisol and adrenaline, and these stress hormones led to the onset of PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) – a hormonal imbalance that sent my entire biochemistry for a toss. Consequently, my anxiety attacks resurfaced. My period stopped coming. I was quickly gaining weight (though I wasn’t eating any differently), and I even started growing facial hair. My gynecologist also told me that PCOS would diminish my ability to conceive in the future and increase my risk of miscarriage, endometrial cancer, diabetes and sleep apnea.
Treatment Options for Hormonal Imbalances
I knew I needed to start the healing process as quickly as possible. Every doctor I visited in the US had just one piece of advice: get on birth control. Desperate for relief, I followed suit. And indeed within a month, many of my symptoms were improving.
But I quickly began pondering the long-term consequences of this solution. I knew that birth control was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, which ran in my family, as well as an increased proclivity of blood clotting and a host of gallbladder or liver problems. Moreover, the pill was only handling the symptoms of PCOS without addressing the deeper hormonal imbalance that resulted in these symptoms. If I ever wanted to get off birth control, my doctor told me that all these nasty symptoms would promptly return.
I knew I could do better than this superficial, short-term approach. So I went off birth control and embarked on an expedition to learn how to naturally balance my hormones and restore my health. I moved back to India and worked with various naturopaths, Ayurvedic doctors, and yogic healers who approached my recovery through holistic assessments and tools. Within a year of testing out various healing methods, I had not only reversed my PCOS, but I had completely balanced my hormones and aligned my cycle with the new moon.
Natural Hormone Balancing
While I’m excited to share these tips and practices with you, I want to disclaim that I am not a medical practitioner, nor do I play one on the internet. I truly believe that all of our bodies are unique, and you’ve got to take the time to see what solutions work best for you. That being said, these solutions have helped both me and many of my clients and friends to balance their hormones and dramatically improved their clarity of mind, energy levels, and overall well-being.
The most powerful herbal supplement for balancing my hormones has been Vitex
The chaste tree is a small shrub that is native to the eastern Mediterranean. Its fruit has been used for over two thousand years; at least since the time of the Greek physician Dioscorides who recommended it to help the wives of soldiers remain chaste while their husbands were in battle. While Vitex doesn’t supply hormones to the body, it restores the functioning of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, helping to balance out the ratio of progesterone to estrogen.
Another miraculous herb is Ashwagandha, revered in ayurveda for its adaptogenic benefits. Adaptogens help the body cope with external stresses such as toxins in the environment and internal stresses such as anxiety and insomnia. Ashwagandha helped control my insulin levels and lower my cortisol levels – which were the initial triggers of my PCOS.
Another key component of balancing my hormones was changing the way I ate. Now, I could write 10 posts on this topic alone, but here are the key principles to a hormone-balancing diet:
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet: this means eating a combination healthy fats, clean protein, vegetables (especially green ones), whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
- Reduce sugar: Eliminate sugary, processed foods completely. Keep your fruit intake on the low side, and when you do consume fruit, eat ones that have a lower glycemic index, like blueberries and acai.
- Eliminate dairy: Dairy has over 60 hormones that can contribute to imbalances, and is often a trigger for inflammation
- Reduce alcohol & coffee: Caffeine raises your cortisol levels, and alcohols inhibits your liver from detoxing — both of which agitate your hormonal balance
Exercise is also an extremely potent tool in hormone regulation. Getting your body moving helps you reduce inflammation, maintain a healthy weight, lower stress, and regulate your appetite. The most important criteria in designing your exercise routine is to practice something you actually enjoy, as you’re much more likely to consistently work out when it doesn’t feel like…well, work.
With PCOS specifically, I prefer the kind of fitness that feels nourishing to my reproductive organs, rather than strenuous. Yoga, swimming, and light jogs (especially in nature!) are both rejuvenating and restorative.
The other angle of a healthy, horomone-balancing lifestyle is a regular sleep schedule, ideally between 10pm and 6am. According to Doctor Axe, “A lack of sleep or disturbing your natural circadian rhythm can be one of the worst habits contributing to a hormone imbalance. How so? Because your hormones work on a schedule! Case in point: Cortisol, the primary “stress hormone”, is regulated at midnight. Therefore, people who go to bed late never truly get a break from their sympathetic flight/fight stress response.”
Cheat Sheet: Beating Anxiety with Self-Talk
Are you hijacked by your anxiety? Constantly making mental lists of all the ways that you could fail – and all the things that might go wrong?
Use this Cheat Sheet to transform your negative thoughts into loving and constructive self-talk – so you can ditch your anxiety once and for all!