Your gut is home to trillions of microorganisms. As in, we’re more bacteria than we are human. And everything we interact with can change those microorganisms. Your lifestyle is either helping or hurting your delicate yet powerful gut health! But you may be thinking, where does the gut-hormone connection come in? After all, gut health and hormones are two completely separate systems in the body, right?
Well, the two involve a little overlap—scratch that, a lot. As a health and wellness expert, I’m here to tell you that everything in your body is connected. (Another reason cycle syncing can be so key.) Your hormone health influences every system in your body. And as growing research shows, your microbiome does, too. Your gut health and hormones influence each other daily. At the end of the day, improving your gut health and balancing your hormones are pillars of overall wellness. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Featured image from our interview with Jules Acree by Michelle Nash.
The Power of a Diverse Microbiome
Throughout the day, your hormones ebb and flow. A surge of cortisol wakes you up in the morning (boosted by your cup of coffee). At night, melatonin lulls you to sleep. Throughout the day, leptin signals that it’s time for food. And while you’re eating, ghrelin tells you when you’ve had enough.
All of these hormones—along with estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—are influenced by the bacteria in your gut. Hence why it’s important to have a healthy microbiome. When gut health isn’t optimal, neither are your hormones. Hello, imbalances. Generally speaking, an optimal gut is a diverse gut. In other words, a diverse microbiome is the goal. The more species of bacteria you have, the more health rewards you reap.
How to Improve Your Gut Microbiome
Given that we all want balanced hormones, let’s dive into simple ways to improve your gut microbiome.
Eat a diverse array of whole foods
This includes those rich in fiber and antioxidants. A diverse diet (sans nutrient-devoid ingredients, like industrial seed oils) can lead to a more diverse microbiome, which is beneficial for your health. When in doubt, cook the rainbow.
Prioritize the Mediterranean diet
There are a variety of reasons to eat like the Mediterraneans do. But mainly because of its emphasis on vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes. These are high-fiber, gut-friendly foods that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Eating a range of fresh, whole foods, mainly from plant sources, is shown to improve gut health.
Choose fermented foods
Fermented foods, like plain yogurt, kimchi, and tempeh can benefit the microbiome. They enhance its function and reduce the abundance of disease-causing bacteria in the intestines.
Add in prebiotics
Many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain prebiotics, but they can also be found on their own. Resistant starch (like an unripe banana) can also be a prebiotic. If eating an unripe banana sounds unappetizing, you can also benefit from prebiotics by eating cooked and cooled potatoes and rice. The cooling turns some of the digestible starches into resistant starches.
Peek this list! Beyond food, opt for a probiotic supplement. In essence, probiotics are often referred to as the “good”—or “helpful”—bacteria. They help keep your gut humming along. In addition to supporting digestive health, probiotics can also help with overall immune function.
Last but not least, we want to keep blood sugar balanced. After all, chronically elevated glucose levels can reduce beneficial bacteria, leading to unwanted conditions like leaky gut syndrome. Consider a meal plan to balance blood sugar as well as swapping common sources of sugar for their lower-glycemic alternatives.
What is the gut-hormone connection?
In terms of how gut health impacts your period, there’s a growing body of research that your gut microbiome may be the most important player in the endocrine system. Aka, your body’s system of hormones.
Think of your gut microbiota like a conductor at the center of the orchestra. Around the clock, it leads your symphony of hormones.
Not only does your gut microbiome produce hormones, but it also signals to various glands in your body to create—and release—certain hormones. Your gut influences estrogen, melatonin, cortisol, thyroid hormones, and more.
How the Gut Impacts Your Thyroid
Speaking of thyroid hormones, our gut and thyroid are very well-connected. In fact, research shows that low microbial diversity is linked with high thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. And too much TSH can lead to hypothyroidism. Furthermore, our gut microbiota influences the absorption of minerals that are important to the thyroid. Think: iodine, selenium, zinc, and iron. All of these are essential for thyroid function.
Inevitably, thyroid issues impact your period. Too much or too little thyroid hormone can make your periods very light, heavy, or irregular. Thyroid issues can also cause your periods to stop for several months or longer—a condition called amenorrhea. Bottom line: if you suffer from a thyroid issue, gut health should be a top priority. Work with your healthcare provider to support thyroid health.
Have you heard of the estrobolome?
Let’s talk about estrogen. Often overlooked, estrogen can make or break your digestion. Research shows that the gut microbiome and estrogen levels act as a two-way street. In essence, the gut microbiome plays a central role in regulating estrogen levels. This is called the estrobolome. The estrobolome is a collection of gut microbes, capable of modulating the metabolism of estrogen.
Without a healthy estrobolome, your risk of developing estrogen-related diseases—such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, breast cancer, and more—increases.
To back up, estrogen is made primarily by the ovaries. It circulates through your body, eventually reaching your liver. This is where it’s inactivated. Inactivated estrogen is then sent to the intestines. Here, it should stay inactivated, so it can exit the body. That is normal, healthy estrogen metabolism! However, when unfriendly bacteria make an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase, this re-activates estrogen in your gut. And this can be problematic.
When re-activated estrogen re-enters your body, it causes excess estrogen. In turn, this negatively impacts your menstrual cycle (hello, intense PMS and cramps!). Fortunately, you can improve the health of your estrogen metabolism by eating more vegetables, reducing alcohol consumption, and taking a probiotic.
Can your digestive system affect your menstrual cycle?
To bring this full circle: yes, your digestive system affects your menstrual cycle. Vice versa, your menstrual cycle affects your digestive system. Understanding how gut health impacts your period will help you make more mindful choices when it comes to nutrition. Ultimately, if you’re looking to balance your hormones, start with your gut.
Begin by cutting out refined sugar. It’s one of the most powerful ways to heal your gut (unhealthy bacteria love sugar!). Furthermore, increase your filtered water intake and focus on fiber-rich foods. Last but not least, make sure you’re paying attention to your stress levels. This goes without saying, but psychological stress and sleep deprivation can upset the microbiome. Incorporate regular movement and any other self-care you’ve found effective.