Canaries in the Coal Mine

http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=4061Today I want to write about a topic very close to my heart: women’s reproductive health.  As anyone can tell you, recent years have seen a dramatic increase in rates of women’s hormonal disruptions.  These include a variety of syndromes and symptoms such as early puberty, difficult menopause, uterine abnormalities such as fibroids and endometriosis, the incidence of PMS and PMDD, and perhaps worst of all, infertility.  Why are we having such difficulties?  What is contributing to the disruption of a system that  is so basic to the survival of our species?  And perhaps more importantly, what do we do about it?

Dr. Mark Hyman, functional medicine physician and frequent contributor to the journal Alternative Therapies refers to women as “canaries in the coalmine.”  He writes in his article The Life Cycles of Women: Restoring Balance:

“The history of women’s health in this century (and throughout the ages), illustrates how we, as healthcare professionals, blame women and medicalize their complaints rather than looking inward at the ways our culture and our environment create imbalance and illness.  We treat the canary, keeping it in the coalmine, supporting it with oxygen and medication, hoping it survives, while ignoring the poison gases all around.”

The causes of hormonal imbalance are many, including stress, the presence of hormone disrupting chemicals in our foods, personal care products, water, and air.  Most people now know that estrogens in conventionally raised animals contribute to early puberty and alterations in body composition.  But did you know that insulin resistance and being overweight also put you at risk for hormonal disruption?  Or that your diet can greatly affect not only which hormones you produce, but how well your body processes them?

  • Obesity and excessive intake of high glycemic foods contribute to the conversion of naturally occurring androgens such as testosterone to estrogen, leading to estrogen dominanace.  (Yes, women make testosterone too, just not in the same amount as men do.  Men also do have some naturally occurring estrogen; its the amounts and the balance that contribute to the development of each gender.)
  • Hyperinsulinemia, your body’s natural response to an excessive intake of carbohydrates and processed foods, actually makes your ovaries produce more testosterone than they should.
  • Diets that are low in antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables lead to increased production of toxic molecules made from oxidized estrogens.
  • Alcohol is processed by your liver, which also processes and detoxifies estrogens.  When the liver is busy with too much alcohol, it can’t process the estrogen.  Estrogen levels rise, and so does your risk of breast cancer.
  • Lastly, antibiotics present in our food change the naturally occurring bacteria in our intestines.  This leads to decreased elimination of estrogen through fecal matter, and increased circulating levels of estrogen in our bodies.

So what do we do about this?  Herein lies the beauty of looking at health from a holistic, functional medicine perspective.  You don’t need the latest pill, expensive procedure, or even an extensive course in nutrition.  The answer is intuitive, and though it may require some big changes in your life, the concepts are simple and easy to remember.

As Michael Pollan would say “Eat real food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.”  By real food, I mean food the way it occurs in nature, the way it was always intended to be eaten.  Avoid processed foods and excessive amounts of sugar.  In fact, eliminating white sugar entirely will do a world of good for your health, no matter what the issue is you’re facing.  Make sure you get a wide variety of fruits and veggies, eating as many different colors and types as you can get your hands on.  Visit your local farmers market and eat what’s in season.  Plant some tomatoes and collards in your backyard and be amazed at how much food you can produce in a small amount of space.  Eating meats that are grass fed and fish that is wild caught will help you get the right ratios of essential fatty acids that aren’t found in CAFO beef and poultry and farm raised fish.  Eat grains that are unprocessed, and learn to make new recipes in your own kitchen using these whole ingredients.  Start with that, and you’ll have made a giant leap towards avoiding a whole host of chronic diseases.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, don’t be discouraged.  Check out websites like Eat Wild and the Weston A Price Foundation to find sources in your local area.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

Hyman, Mark. The Life Cycles of Women: Restoring Balance. May/June 2007, Vol. 13, No. 3; 10-16.

 

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