Estrogen Dominance, Cortisol, and Trauma
Last weekend I discovered something that I feel is VERY important for trauma survivors. Unfortunately, I only know the women’s side of things, since I’m a woman. I’m not familiar with the implications of all this for men, so you’ll have to do your own research on that. Also, in that light, some of this may feel like TMI for my guy readers. Sorry about that, but it’s important or I wouldn’t bother posting about it. If you work with women trauma survivors, or know any in a capacity in which you can inform them, you might want to read this anyway.
I’ve suspected that I’ve had hormonal imbalances and adrenal issues for a long time, but it’s a long and expensive road trying to get medical providers on board to do their job and try to figure things out. I believe there are many doctors out there in the USA who sincerely want to help their patients, but they’re just not trained to look at the big picture, nor are they trained to prioritize the most natural, inexpensive, least invasive ways to heal people. It’s not a lack of compassion, it’s just not how a lot of them are trained. Which is unfortunate. So I’m pretty much left to do my own reading.
I have a medical history of: mononucleosis, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, sinus infections, uterine fibroids, depression, anemia, endometriosis, adenomyosis, and the list goes on. I would tend to add fibromyalgia to the list as well, even without a formal diagnosis, because I do struggle with those kinds of symptoms…I just don’t see a doctor for it. Most of the time I feel like I live my life with a dead elephant chained to both legs; I am absolutely exhausted most of the time. Everything – even small daily life tasks – requires enormous effort to pull off. AND, I work a full-time job, am still in the therapeutic process for SRA myself, and somehow manage to juggle a myriad of other responsibilities.
Do not ask me how I do this. I’m not being prideful about it; I truly don’t know and couldn’t answer that question. I’m just as confused as anyone else. I have no idea how I manage. But, I do…mostly. Except for the times when I don’t, which is another topic and I’m trying not to get too sidetracked right this second. But suffice it to say that I have complete sympathy and understanding for those who cannot manage to function in this state. And I have no judgement toward you. I truly empathize. Moving on…
So last fall sometime, I started charting my menstrual cycles, along with my basal body temperature, in attempt to evaluate my thyroid function. Because guys, I AM SO TIRED. ALL THE TIME. THIS CAN’T POSSIBLY BE NORMAL. And I’m also on a budget. Have I mentioned that I’m not rich? Yeah, I can’t just skip off to the doctor anytime I have a problem. I can’t miss work, I can’t pay the co-pays, I can’t pay the out-of-pocket, I can’t pay the ER visit. So if I’m going to the doctor, I damn well better be dying. So all my medical issues tend to get put on the back burner until they reach emergency states. Unless I want to do the sleuthing myself, which I suppose is the solution, since I have so much free time on my hands to become a medical expert and doctor myself (sarcasm).
So I read somewhere about how your BBT can indicate thyroid deficiency, and decided it would be a good thing to start tracking. As things do, one thing led to another and I discovered that – at least for the last few months – I have a somewhat low LH surge from month to month. (All of these links will usually be discussing the topics in relation to fertility but they all ALSO mention thyroid and adrenal diseases as potential causes.) Luteinizing hormone (LH) deficiency – like all other hormone imbalances – has a domino effect. LH deficiency often leads to Luteal Phase Deficiency (LPD) which is super important to females trying to conceive children. But for MY purposes, it matters because it means that the next domino to fall is progesterone, and after that, an unhealthy imbalance of estrogen.
As is typical of body chemistry, the interplay of hormones is a dance that has to have a balance to it. Everything is needed for everything else to work properly. Progesterone is needed because it has a balancing effect on estrogen.
Estrogen has gotten a lot of attention because of its relationship to menopause, but it’s actually super important way before menopause is on the horizon. And as many of the articles I read state, estrogen dominance is not as simple as just not producing enough progesterone to balance it out…although right here, right now, in this blog post, that’s where I’m going to start out.
Progesterone, Estrogen, and Cortisol
It’s NOT that simple, but a starting point for understanding all this is the relationship between progesterone and estrogen. You have to have progesterone in order to keep estrogen levels in check. For trauma survivors this becomes especially important, because it’s fair to say that we are – or have been – awash in a sea of cortisol. Remember cortisol? Cortisol is “the stress hormone” released by the adrenal glands. We all have fluctuating cortisol levels at all times, but when someone is repeatedly exposed to trauma, those cortisol levels skyrocket. Which is a life-saving response in the short-term, but those levels cannot stay sky-high.
They need to come back down. If they don’t come back down, chronically high cortisol levels can often set the stage for PMS, PMDD, and estrogen dominance. The purpose of a surge of cortisol is to help the person survive; but when survival is repeatedly threatened over a long period of time (or the person perceives this), the elevated cortisol levels become constant. Chronically high cortisol levels can cause a myriad of physical issues of their own.
But back to estrogen dominance…guess where cortisol comes from? Progesterone, the estrogen-balancer.
So in normal circumstances where stress levels are not unusually high, for women, your body would produce progesterone with minimal levels of cortisol. The progesterone would in turn regulate the amount of estrogen in your body and keep it from taking over. But for those who are under chronic stress, progesterone gets converted to cortisol to help deal with the stress. Progesterone is broken down and turned into the stress hormone by necessity. So without adequate progesterone, estrogen levels get too high. This is also especially true in America because our environments and foods are so loaded with chemicals that mimic estrogen – actually called xenoestrogens – and which are processed the same way by our bodies.
Some symptoms of estrogen dominance include:
weight gain/inability to lose weight (with a concentration of the weight you’re carrying being around your midsection)
fibrocystic breast tissue
irregular menstrual periods
increased symptoms of PMS
cold hands and feet
difficulty with memory
fatigue – including chronic fatigue
…and a lot of others
FREAKING HELL. Need I say more???
And the clincher is the fact that this is so easily fixed – when it truly is the problem, which everyone will have to determine for themselves.
My Miracle Turnaround
If you don’t believe me, here is my miracle turnaround story, which is in progress. Since the recent burglary of my house, which I wrote about in the last couple of posts, I’ve had an intense struggle to get back on my feet emotionally speaking. It’s unusual for me and my system to be derailed this severely, but it happened. It’s been ROUGH. I’ve had days I couldn’t understand much of anything being said to me, because the brain fog was too thick. I’ve had days where I couldn’t function. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve had some of the more acute PTSD symptoms pop up in reference to the robbery.
Some of this is normal, and could be expected. But the rest of it was not normal. The extreme, severe, emotions-spinning-off-into-space…it wasn’t normal for me. *I* – myself – was confused about why I was in a tailspin. It didn’t make sense to me. The struggles did, but the severity did not. The confusion, the breakdown of my ability to function, the degree to which everything spun out of control caught me completely off guard.
And the thing is, it sounds so simplistic, but I think at least half of it was caused by out of whack body chemistry. Which in some sense is embarrassing. I want to think that being suicidal is “about” something much more deeply meaningful than a simple hormone imbalance. It’s embarrassing to think that all those terrifying, overwhelming thoughts were simply the product of a few rogue chemicals and not actually anything I need to address in therapy by way of an emergency session.
It makes me feel like I must be pretty damn shallow if I can’t differentiate between genuine emotional distress, and body chemistry-induced distress – as if one were more valid than the other. Guys, we gotta challenge these concepts…even if only in our own minds. Anyone who thinks hormones don’t or shouldn’t have a powerful overall influence on a person should just go spend some time with a pregnant woman, or a woman who is newly postpartum. Hormones drive us as human beings. As much as I hate to admit it, we are at the mercy of our hormones much more than we probably realize.
So get this: I was doing all the reading that I have summarized in this post last weekend. At the end of it, I made an educated guess about what supplements I probably needed to start taking. I went to CVS on my lunch break on Monday and bought an OTC natural hormone supplement.
Monday, Day 1: Life did not feel as hard as it’s felt for the last few months. Immediately. It took effect immediately. So either I was SEVERELY in need of this stuff, or it’s just that good on its own.
Tuesday, Day 2: I started to seriously perk up. I thoroughly cleaned almost my entire living space, which I haven’t had the ability to do in months. I already hate to clean. When I’m depressed, stressed out, sick, and exhausted, it’s all I can do to keep the laundry and dishes cycling. They don’t get put away (I regularly dress myself straight from the dryer), but they’re clean. For me to actually dust and vacuum and organize? Unheard of. Especially when I don’t even want to under normal circumstances.
Wednesday, Day 3: I finished the 2nd book in the Dear Little Ones series and started writing another (unrelated) story that may or may not go to print – but I was doing it because I was enjoying writing. Not because I felt obligated or compelled or was forcing myself to do it for humanitarian reasons. The fact that I was enjoying ANYTHING in the last few months, other than the idea of a short walk off a tall cliff, was notable.
Thursday, Day 4 (today): I feel completely human again. Brain fog is gone. Emotional range is back. My sense of humor, which was almost completely blighted by the events of the last few months, is back and en pointe (not sure whether to apologize or smirk about that one). I’m talking to people because I WANT to, because I’m interested once again, not because I feel obligated or it’s unavoidable or because I know I must convince them not to commit me to an inpatient facility. I care about things again that I temporarily stopped caring about. FOUR DAYS. With no expensive blood work or lab testing or doctor visits or hospitalizations or psychiatric meds that take 6-8 weeks to do anything, if they end up doing anything at all. No side effects. No co-pays. My supplements cost me around $30 – but there were cheaper options, I just went for the combo. And I have one more that’s coming in the mail for $12. That’s it. If they didn’t help, I was only out LESS THAN $50, and I can stop them at any time without any risks.
I know I still need to continue with therapy/ministry. There’s no doubt I’m not done with the healing process. But there’s this idea out there that chemical imbalances are a secondary thing, or that they’re not a thing, or somehow irrelevant to (or at best separate from) the healing process. But when you try to separate a person’s emotional state from their physical state, things get difficult – because you can’t. They’re intertwined. It becomes a question of which came first – the chicken or the egg – and you can’t answer that question because there is no answer.
Are you depressed because something frightening and overwhelming happened to you or are you depressed because your body chemistry got flooded with an excess of hormones that threw everything off balance and your brain can’t right itself? Did you start out with a deficiency that made the event(s) overwhelm you unnecessarily or did the events trigger an imbalance that made the overwhelm move in, and never leave, till you started to drown?
It’s not always either/or; sometimes it’s both/and. You have to look at both things. And for those of us in America, when we go see a medical doctor, they are probably not going to bring up the topic of hormones. They just won’t. They’re not trained that way, they don’t think that way, they’re not going to go that route unless you ask them to. So bear in mind, you are probably going to have to be your own advocate and do your own research.
I’ve tried to give you a bunch of links to get you started. You can do your own Googling from here, but please read this link if you don’t read anything else. Some doctors will do the tests IF YOU ASK. More to the point: if you insist. Some will refer you, if you’re lucky, and some may try to debunk and dismiss your questions right out of the gate. Some of them will even recite the same “supplements are not FDA approved” mantra to try to scare you out of trying all-natural methods. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want to believe them or not.
Do whatever is best for you and don’t let anyone else – not me, not a doctor, not anybody – talk you out of it.
I would advise you to keep in mind that a lot of birth control (FDA approved) has a shit ton of horrific side effects (including serious medical issues and death), compared to ummm where are the statistics for all-natural supplements’ (not FDA approved) side effects and deaths (<- not a real hyperlink bc I couldn’t find anything worth linking to)? Rarely, supplements can harm you if you take too much of the wrong thing – but these cases are unusual and extreme. They mostly pertain to 1) too much calcium, 2) too much iron (iron overdose actually can kill you and is a very common cause of accidental poisoning in children), and 3) supplements that contain DRUGS, unbeknownst to the consumer…usually related to body-building. I can find nothing concerning about chaste berry (vitex), which is the main thing I started taking.
But the point is…doctors may try to falsify the risks of the natural stuff because the natural stuff doesn’t put money in their pocket. So be aware up front that you may have to insist on the bloodwork, and do your own interpretational analysis of the results. Even if your doctor discovers an imbalance they are likely to still suggest pharmaceuticals (synthetic hormones). There are safer things you can try.
Now, let me also give you a word of caution: I am not a doctor. There is some overlap between symptoms of having too much estrogen vs. having too little. If you have the means, ask a doctor to get your hormones tested via blood work. But the beauty of natural methods is that if you’ve read enough to suspect that you have a good idea what you need, you can try them on your own and if they don’t work, you’re no worse off. And really, the bottom line is, you must follow your own instincts.
I’m not a die-hard believer in any one thing in particular, nor do I need to be as part of my identity. People are all different and need different things and different combinations of things. I’m just putting the concept out there to get you thinking. With such a dramatic story, I couldn’t not share, just in case it helps anyone else. This time last week, I whole-heartedly believed an involuntary hospitalization was coming, and soon. I didn’t think I would be able to avoid it. Either that or I was going to kill myself, possibly even accidentally, because everything was so out of control. Today I am WELL. And I am enjoying being myself again. So I can’t not share this kind of info, just in case it makes a difference. Cheers. ~J8