It began as some minor bloating the day before my menstrual period started. Then came the headaches. Finally, a few days of minor discomfort turned into something that I had to plan my schedule around because of my symptoms.
I was not alone. Jane* suffered from backaches and headaches so severe that she had to take off from work. Susan developed cravings for sugary and salty foods and began having breakthrough bleeding and bleeding mid-cycle. These symptoms have been classified as PMS - premenstrual syndrome. Frequently dismissed by doctors as “normal” hormonal fluctuations and scoffed at on bumper stickers and advertisements; PMS has become widely accepted.
In an era where woman strive to break through the “glass ceiling” and assert their position alongside their male coworkers, demonstrating a weakness linked to their gender is taboo. So women have suffered in silence when they have been unable to convince anyone that their symptoms may not be “normal”.
I was one of those people. For years, I was dismissed by doctors while my symptoms increased. Unable to find the answers I was seeking, I finally stopped asking and accepted my fate. That was until I started going to Dr. Daniel Bies, a wellness practitioner of chiropractic, acupuncture and nutrition. While treating me for an unrelenting low backache, he asked me if I experienced headaches before the onset of my period.
Understanding the Results of a Hormonal Imbalance
Suspecting estrogen dominance, he suggested I take a diagnostic test to measure my hormone levels throughout my cycle.
An average cycle consists of 28 days, starting with approximately 4 days of menses - blood flow - during which time the hormone estrogen builds up in the woman’s body. It peaks mid-cycle, triggering ovulation, when an egg is released.
Progesterone, another hormone, starts increasing as the uterine lining builds up and the cervix becomes more receptive to fertilization. If the egg is not fertilized, the lining breaks down as estrogen decreases in the body. The delicate coordination of these hormones is controlled by another chemical, DHEA.
All three of these, along with minor doses of testosterone must be in perfect balance. Upsetting that balance can cause numerous symptoms, including bloating and weight gain, headaches, backaches, mild to severe cramping, cravings for salty or sweet foods, sensitivity to temperature, allergy flare-ups and numerous other symptoms. Not all women will experience the full range of symptoms and some may be milder or more severe than others.
Because of the ambiguity of the symptoms, the age in which these symptoms present themselves, and the degree to which they are felt varies widely, it has been difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. But since Bies and his wife, Erin, (also a nutritionist) attended seminars on estrogen dominance and began treating patients for it, the results have been amazing. In my own case, I took a natural vitamin formula made by a medical laboratory and sold only to physicians, to flush out the excess estrogen.
Then in the second half of my cycle, I used a natural progesterone cream made from wild yam extract, which I applied to my skin. This was to supplement the lower than normal levels my own body was making. Finally, I took a DHEA supplement to make up for the shortage of DHEA in my body so my hormones could become regulated again.
Treating Hormonal Imbalance
I was astounded by the difference it made. The headaches, cramping and bloating disappeared my first cycle after using these products. Each month thereafter, the symptoms remained blessedly non-existent. The most convincing evidence for me was when I took a trip to Italy for two weeks. The trip would overlap with the second half of my cycle, so I packed the progesterone cream with me. I left the DHEA home because I was concerned about the effects that temperature changes during travel may have on the fragile capsules.
With the excitement over travel and my time schedule thrown off, I neglected to use the cream until I got home. That month, my symptoms returned. The following month, I was back on the program again - and voila! - my symptoms again disappeared.
My story is far from unique. Dr. John Lee, who has written a score of books including What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Perimenopause, has documented the same results in scores of women.
Oral contraceptives and genetics may play a role as possible causes of hormone imbalance. What really amazed me was that estrogen dominance could also mimic hyperthyroidism, a disease more common in women. For years, I had all the symptoms of this disease - and since thyroid disorder runs in my family - I was extensively tested. Blood work, CAT scans, radioactive isotope testing - you name it - I was tested with it. But all the tests came back negative.
My symptoms were considered classic hypothyroidism - weight gain, constant fatigue, dry skin and eyes and a strong sensitivity to cold. Other diseases that produce some of these symptoms - iron deficiency anemia, Epstein Barr, Lyme disease, etc. were also ruled out. But upon taking the progesterone cream and DHEA, my hypothyroidism-like symptoms also dropped off.
The changes were obvious to those around me as well - I wasn’t wearing layers of clothes in well air-conditioned rooms and I had more energy.
Jane and Susan also reported similar findings. Jane was able to maintain a normal work schedule and even received a promotion because she was more dependable and productive at work. Susan lost weight when her food cravings diminished and she was finally able to stick to a sensible weight loss plan without her efforts being sabotaged by her cycle.
More and more people are discovering - and demanding - natural health treatments. But like their synthetic counterparts - being “natural” does not mean without side effects. Those who have jumped on the health food craze have discovered that any chemicals - manmade or occurring in nature - can alter the delicate chemical balance of our bodies. In some cases, this is beneficial - when an imbalance is corrected or a deficiency is addressed. But one must always proceed with caution - reading labels, becoming informed, and staying under the advice of a medical doctor. Herbs and vitamins can also cause or aggravate existing conditions such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.
The best advocate for your health is you. You know your body better than anyone and when you recognize that you feel different from before - your energy levels have dropped, you have a pain that won’t subside - ask questions. Keep a diary and become observant. Are you working longer or different hours that may be causing the fatigue? Have you recently been sick - or developed a rash, been bit by a tick?
The more knowledgeable you are about your condition - when it started, what makes it worse, what improves it if anything, how long does it last, etc., the better able you will be to provide your doctor with the clues he needs. And if you do not feel your doctor is taking you seriously or listening to your complaints, don’t be afraid to seek a second - or third or fourth - opinion.
You can also investigate your symptoms on the Internet - it can literally put a whole world of research at your fingertips. But again, proceed with caution. Check the references of who is posting the information. Anyone can put up a website and blurt out information. Investigate as many different sites as you can - so you are pulling from a wide source of information and not just a few limited viewpoints.
You may even consider posting your symptoms on an on-line bulletin board. Often you can do this anonymously by creating a sign-in name, and see what responses you get. You may just hear from someone who has experienced similar symptoms and find out what worked and what didn’t.
You may hear from sources from the other side of the world or in your own backyard. My mother went to a new doctor for a second opinion, but the recommended treatment was very different than originally suggested. She felt very confident with the second doctor and what he said, but she had been going to her original doctor for years and hesitated to question his treatment.
So she hopped on the Internet and found a news article on his practice - not a paid advertisement - and one of the women quoted in the article lived nearby. She contacted the woman by phone and she told my mother that she had been very satisfied with his treatment. My mother opted to go with the second doctor and had excellent results.
It’s your body, and ultimately only you can keep it running right. You need to take charge of your symptoms and whether it’s a hormonal imbalance or something else - you have to decide what treatment and methods you are willing to accept or reject.
So learn to become an expert on your own health - your body may just thank you for it later.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2013 and has been revamped and updated for comprehensiveness.
*Names have been changed.