Updated: Oct 20, 2022
When we think about gut health, the digestive system usually comes to mind before anything else. We tend to focus on how well our bodies are breaking down and absorbing the foods we consume each day, and whether we’re experiencing not-so-fun gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, heartburn, and constipation. However, something we don’t often think about is how the health of our gut microbiota (the bacteria and other microscopic organisms residing in our digestive tracts) could be impacting our endocrine glands and hormones.
Our major endocrine glands (such as the ovaries or testes and thyroid, pituitary, adrenal, pancreas, thymus, and pineal glands) are responsible for making optimal amounts of hormones. When gut health is poor, hormonal imbalances can occur, and our thyroid hormones, estrogen, progesterone, insulin, melatonin, cortisol, and other types of hormones are impacted. After all, there’s a good reason researchers refer to the gut microbiota as an endocrine organ! The diverse ecosystem living in our intestines affects everything from our digestion and weight to our periods and fertility.
While many of us are still unaware of the role our guts play in balancing hormones, maintaining a diverse gut microbiota is one major key to regulating estrogen levels, maintaining a healthy weight, and supporting the endocrine system overall. I know it’s a complex subject that isn’t talked about nearly enough, but I’ll do my best to break it down in a way that’s easily understood. And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!
Read on to learn more about the relationship between gut health and hormones.
Wait, What is the Endocrine System?
Before we dive right in and start talking about gut imbalances and how they affect our hormones, let’s take a closer look at the endocrine system: the bodily system that’s made up of hormone-producing glands such as the ovaries, testes, thyroid, pituitary, pancreas, adrenals, pineal, parathyroid, and hypothalamus. These glands are responsible for making hormones that affect our metabolism, weight, sexual function, emotions, sleep patterns, skin, physical development, energy levels, and fertility.
You might already be familiar with some of the more common endocrine disorders such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, osteoporosis, and thyroid disease (including hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism). However, other endocrine conditions include gestational diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease (such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia, and Cushing’s syndrome.
With that being said, our endocrine health and hormones are heavily affected by the microscopic bugs living in our guts. So if you’ve ever experienced diarrhea or other digestive issues during your period (and really, who hasn’t dealt with period poops at one time or another?), this is just one example of how your gut impacts your hormones — and how your hormones impact your gut.
So, what’s the solution to healthy hormones and endocrine glands? A balanced gut microbiota, of course!
How Exactly Do Gut Imbalances Affect the Body?
Having a diverse gut microbiota keeps us healthy, happy, and free of disease, as the good bacteria living in our colon and intestines help to break down foods and protect the body from pathogens and immune dysregulation. Nearly everything from the foods we eat to the medications we take can positively or negatively influence our gut microbiota. However, our genetics, way of living, cosmetics and personal care products, and home environments also come into play.
Though gut microbial diversity is certainly a good thing, imbalances of intestinal bacteria (known more commonly as intestinal dysbiosis) have been linked to diseases and disorders of various bodily systems. Symptoms that may result from having poor gut health often include one or more of the following:
Increased intestinal permeability (also known as leaky gut)
Intestinal dysbiosis, as highlighted in Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal (IMCJ), also increases our risk of developing gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — as well as various other health issues such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and allergic diseases. Examples of allergic diseases include eczema, food allergies, asthma, and hay fever (which is also known as allergic rhinitis).
Gut dysbiosis has even been shown to cause mental health issues such as depression and anxiety; drive HIV infection; and increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer, liver disease, and autism. Who knew your gut health could be responsible for so much?
According to a 2021 article published in Gut Microbes, gut dysbiosis may also play a role in infertility, pregnancy-related complications, and the development of endometriosis, PCOS, bacterial vaginosis (BV), and certain types of cancers. The trillions of bacteria living in our guts have the ability to influence distant organs; affect our behavior, metabolism, and immunity; and interact with our hormones — including our androgen, insulin, and estrogen levels.
Furthermore, the gut microbes responsible for metabolizing estrogen in the body (known more formally as the estrobolome) are also affected by dysbiosis. Gut imbalances can impair the metabolism of estrogen, lead to elevated estrogen levels, and increase the risk of developing certain types of breast cancer.
Needless to say, gut health is a foundational component of our overall health and well-being. And fortunately, there are lots of different things you can do to support your gut; balance your hormones; and reclaim your health after months, years, or decades of feeling like crap and struggling to find answers! Your symptoms aren’t all in your head, but a BIG part of the solution could be living in your gut!
My Advice for Supporting Your Gut Health and Hormones
Now that you’ve hopefully learned a bit more about the human gut microbiota and how the microorganisms living in your intestines can affect your body, mind, and hormones, you may be wondering how to best support and improve your own gut health.
Adopting a well-balanced diet is a great starting point, as foods such as leafy greens, fatty fish, and cruciferous veggies can all help to balance hormones and support overall health. Taking probiotics, eating plenty of probiotic and prebiotic foods, and exercising regularly are some other ways to improve your gut health and hormones. A healthier diet and lifestyle can go a long way!
Whatever symptoms you’re experiencing, finding the root cause will help you uncover exactly what you should do to improve your health (no more guessing and Googling!). Whether it’s gut dysbiosis, nutritional deficiencies, hidden infections, or hormonal imbalances, I will assist you in finding the root cause of your symptoms and making the lifestyle changes necessary to improve your health and well-being. Contact me today to learn how I can help you to reclaim your health!