The 411 on hormone health with holistic nutritionist Ellie Thomas
Hormones are getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason.
So when I met Holistic Nutritionist, Ellie Thomas, at a the Almost30 Podcast event in Chicago recently, I knew I wanted to pick her brain for the KB Fitt Tribe.
After years of interest and devotion to healthy living and using nutrition to improve her health, Ellie returned to school to become a holistic nutrition consultant. She currently works with women one-on-one and in her innovative group detox, where she passionately accompanies them as they begin to understand their bodies on a deeper level, and kick their symptoms and period problems naturally.
And lucky for us, today she's answering all the juicy questions you might have about hormone health!
What exactly are hormones?
I love this question because I deeply believe that education and awareness are the first steps in finding long term success in our health and wellness, but NO ONE teaches us this stuff!
I like to explain hormones as amazing little chemical messengers in the body that help our cells communicate with each other and with our brain, and vice versa. There are all types of hormones that all serve different purposes; some signal us to eat and then stop eating when we are full, and they help move that food through the bloodstream to fuel our cells. Others help us sleep, build muscle and grow, regulate our internal temperature, keep us alive and help us react when we are stressed, and hormones allow us to reproduce!
Both men and women have the same hormones, but in different ratios. For example, men have a lot more testosterone than women, and women have a lot more estrogen than men. The hormones that help us menstruate and reproduce are often referred to as our “sex” hormones.
While we might think that they all work independently in the body, the cool thing about hormones is that they are actually all intertwined! When our “hunger”, stress, or thyroid hormones are out of balance, our sex hormones are also affected, and vice versa.
For example, for women dealing with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), more often than not it can be linked to imbalances in stress, thyroid, and “hunger” hormones (like leptin and insulin). And when our stress hormones are elevated, it can take quite the toll on our sex and thyroid hormones.
The reason that we often think of hormones as a “woman’s issue” is because we have a very unique natural hormonal cycle compared to men, and it can be quite a sensitive one at that! While men tend to cycle most of their hormones throughout a 24 hour period, female hormones levels cycle over a 26-35 day period usually. This means that throughout our cycle, our different hormone levels are constantly fluctuating.
What affects women’s hormones the most? Stress? Diet? Exercise? Toxins in the environment? Something else? (gasp!)
I know you probably wish I had one perfect answer for you here, but the truth is that everything you mentioned greatly impacts our hormones! And when we are addressing hormone balance, it is extremely important to consider all of these areas of our lives for lasting results, including the individual’s genetics and detoxification, her digestion and gut health, and her possible history with hormonal birth control.
Knowing that there are so many areas of life that affect our hormones can be little overwhelming at first, and maybe it feels like hormone balance won’t ever be attainable. But think of it this way, once we understand all the different things that can affect our hormones, all of a sudden understand how much power we can have in supporting them!
There are so many actionable steps each of us can take for happier hormones, isn’t that cool?!?!
Women, you are NOT alone in this, and you are NOT powerless at all when it comes to your health. Now take a deep breath and repeat that to yourself ;)
How do you know if your hormones are out of whack? What are signs to look for?
Another thing we aren’t taught is what a healthy period looks like (this would have been really helpful to know around age 13, right?!). Instead, the world teaches us that our periods are a detriment, that they are painful and a hassle and we just have to deal. Or that our hormones make us crazy, and that monthly suffering is just what comes with being a woman.
This isn’t actually true. Our hormones aren’t meant to cause us issues, and actually when they are balanced (being produced in the right amounts, at the right times, and signaled correctly) they don’t wreack havoc at all.
On the other hand, when we are dealing with hormonal imbalances, we can be dealing with a lot of pain-in-the-butt symptoms every month, or maybe even everyday.
Some of these symptoms include:
PMS & Moodiness
Life disrupting menstrual cramps
Feeling constantly hungry or unsatisfied by a good sized meal
Energy crashes after eating or need for a nap after meals
The “afternoon slump”
Energy fluctuations & fatigue, or feeling like you’re on a “daily energy roller coaster”
Hot flashes or night sweats
Undesired weight fluctuations, including weight gain, puffiness or bloating that won’t go away no matter what you try
Hair loss or hair growth in undesired place
Anovulation (lack of ovulation)
Irregular periods (meaning that you can never predict when your period will come, or it changes from month to month)
Long cycles, consistently over 36ish days
Cysts or fibroids
Amenorrhea (lack of a period) or infertility
Feeling constantly cold, especially always having cold hands and feet
Headaches or migraines
Extremely heavy bleeding during periods (or periods that last more than 7 days)
Extremely light bleeding during periods (or periods that last for 2 days or less)
Spotting throughout the menstrual cycle
Some women experience multiple symptoms, others just experience one or two. The important thing to note is that symptoms aren’t there to be covered up or ignored, they are there as a warning sign and a signal from your body that something isn’t right and it’s time to take action.
In your practice, have you seen an increase in female hormonal issues throughout the past few years?
There has definitely been a major increase in the discussion around hormones in the past few years. It used to be a topic that was only discussed in the realm of pregnancy and menopause, but thankfully we are slowly becoming more aware of the importance of hormonal health throughout our lives!
Rates of hormonal issues and conditions seem to have spiked in recent years too, such as rates estrogen related breast cancers, thyroid problems, infertility, and even young girls getting premature periods. My belief is that the increase in exposure to environmental toxins and stress, lack of proper rest, and nutrient poor diets all play a big role in the state of our hormonal health today!
Lastly, we are in a very interesting place in history regarding the birth control pill. Women that were put on the pill as teenagers for acne, painful periods, or as a contraceptive, have now been on it for 8-10 years or more! Now many of them want to start families, but when they quit the pill, some have issues with getting their periods back naturally and restoring their fertility.
The good thing is, this is creating space for more conversations about hormonal birth control, the side effects and issues with it, and for non-hormone based options that are still effective for women that desire a different option.
What can women do to keep their hormones in check?
The good news is, there is so much we can do :)
As a nutritionist, I always start with diet with my clients. More specifically, breakfast! Yep, simply upleveling your breakfast is an amazing first step for hormone balance and my clients almost always notice positive changes in their energy, focus, sleep, cravings for sugar and coffee, etc. within a few days of doing so.
I actually created a free template that helps you build a hormone friendly breakfast plate, bowl, or blender. Check it out and download it for free here.
Beyond breakfast, focusing on reducing or eliminating sugar (and refined carbohydrates) from the diet, reducing or eliminating caffeine or other stimulants and alcohol, and adding in whole foods that are full of easy to digest protein, lots of healthy fats, loads of leafy greens and veggies, and some whole food carbohydrates (in the right proportion for you!) supports hormone balance.
However, diet isn’t the only area we want to look at! Here are some other tips to keep in mind to keep your hormones happy:
Find the right kind and amount of exercise for you! Both under and over exercising are stressful on the body. Often times I see women doing high intensity workouts 5+ days a week that actually feel a lot better when they move it to 3 and hike, walk, or practice yoga other days
Swap out chemical laden products (including food products!) from your home and beauty routine to reduce the toxic burden on your body, which can wreak havoc on our hormones!
Reduce or eliminate the use of plastic (the compounds in plastic have extremely negative effects on our hormones!)
Start addressing all areas of stress and trauma, one by one, and create more space for rest in your week. If you are a woman that is go-go-go all of the time, start to check in with yourself about where you could take a few breaks and slow down to give your stress hormones a chance to calm down
If you are coming off of the pill, or have recently stopped the pill, or have experienced digestive issues at any time, it is extremely important to address any nutrient deficiencies that you might have and supplement to help restore your body’s nutrient stores. Common nutrient deficiencies are vitamin D, zinc, selenium, magnesium, and all B vitamins.
Start tracking your cycles! Start to learn the different phases of your menstrual cycle so you aren’t constantly fighting the natural hormone fluctuations that makes us women!For me it has been very helpful to embrace being a women and the fact that some times of the month I’ll need more sleep than others, or feel better in my workouts than others, etc.
How have you helped women improve their hormone health?
I have had the honor of supporting women as they get rid of bloat and weight, restore their glow after dealing breakouts and rashes, ditch cravings and find steady energy, reduce their period pain, get their periods back after quitting the pill, eliminate migraines and PMS before their periods, feel more satisfied and nourished by their meals, and maybe most importantly, feel confidant, healthy, and powerful when it comes to their health! I believe every woman deserves to feel that way, no exceptions!
I even had a client write me last week to say she no longer is experiencing allergies around dogs after continuing on with the principles taught in my group detox program. It’s pretty incredible to see the transformations that happen when we deeply nourish our bodies and allow them to come back into balance!
What inspired you to get into the wellness space?
As a kid, I had a lot of health problems that none of my friends seemed to deal with. I experienced Eczema and hives, allergies and sinus issues, low immunity, and lots of bloating and gas. My mom has also had 3 recurring diagnosis of breast cancer throughout my lifetime, which impacted me and influenced my emphasis on healthy eating and living.
When it comes to hormonal health, in my early twenties I tried many different kinds of hormonal birth control, and felt horrible on all of them! I felt exhausted and not myself at all, and I dealt with weight fluctuations, recurring urinary tract infections (UTIs), low libido and low zest for life!
Six months after quitting the pill, my period went haywire after I started a stressful job. After a few months of dealing with irregular periods and horrific cramps that kept me home from work each month, I took things into my own hands and invested in an online program that connected the importance of diet and deep wellness to our hormones! It was revolutionary for me; until this point I had no idea that what I was eating (even healthy foods!) and the amount of stress I was under played into my hormonal health.
Immediately after starting the course, I was obsessed with learning more about my body and all the connections between my hormones and all parts of my life. It all finally made so much sense! Quickly after I knew I needed to go back to school for nutrition and to study holistic hormone balance more so I could teach other women what I had learned and guide them in their journeys!
So, here I am! I’m thankful to report that I don’t suffer from any of the those crazy period symptoms anymore either!
Any tips you’d like to share that have helped you improve your overall health and wellness?
My top 3 tips would be:
Go step by step. This isn’t and all or nothing journey and making small shifts consistently will be the most impactful in the long run.
Give your body time. My clients often see small changes very quickly, but the deep changes take time and there can be a lot of fluctuations along the way. Commit to your health everyday, and don’t become discouraged when it takes 3 to 6 to 12 months to see the big shifts happen! It likely took years to get here, so give yourself time to re-balance!
Get yourself a guide! It’s really easy to feel alone and unsupported in this process so find a practitioner that jives with you and can help guide and support you as you incorporate changes! Getting guidance over time has truly deepened my transformation on so many levels, which is why I love to provide such guidance for other women now.
Ellie loves chatting and teaching about the female cycle and how nutrition contributes to hormonal balance and fertility. Schedule a complimentary consultation on her website. You can also follow Ellie on Facebook and Instagram.
Thank you, Ellie, for providing us with a wealth of knowledge!