A Quick Look At Hormones & Gut Health

By: Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC

Ah… the great topic of hormones! When you think of hormones, things such as mood swings, weight gain, puberty, menopause, or stress might come to mind. These are all very real effects of hormones working in the body. Hormones are a necessary part of your body’s total functioning. Without them you wouldn’t survive. Around 50 different hormones are working in your body to keep it functioning as it should. In fact, they control most of your body’s major systems, telling them what to do and when. At least, until those hormones become imbalanced. One hormone in particular, cortisol, can be easily disrupted and that can have a tremendous impact on the way that your gut health works (or doesn’t!).

Think of cortisol as nature’s built-in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress response hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear.Your adrenal glands – those triangle-shaped organs at the top of your kidneys – make cortisol. Cortisol is best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis, but it also plays an important role in a number of things your body does. For example, it:

  • Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
  • Keeps inflammation down
  • Regulates your blood pressure
  • Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
  • Controls your sleep/wake cycle
  • Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward

So what can make cortisol levels rise in your body? Any type of stress! And stress in the body can be presented in multiple ways. It can be mental or emotional distress; it can be presented as musculoskeletal pain; dietary stress has an impact on cortisol levels; and even exercise can cause the stress response system to activate, increasing cortisol levels. If you believe you might have elevated levels of cortisol, you will want to get tested. If you go for testing make sure that you have multiple readings throughout the day. Going to your doctor to get tested only in the morning can provide a false positive reading. Because cortisol levels change throughout the day, the timing of a cortisol test is important. A cortisol blood test is usually done twice a day – once in the morning when cortisol levels are at their highest, and again around 4 p.m., when levels are much lower.

Consistently elevated cortisol levels can have major impacts on the body. If cortisol levels never decrease in the evening as they should, this is an indicator of some type of regular stress on the body. When this happens, one area it can affect is your gut health. An increase in cortisol suppresses a substance called Secretory Immunoglobulin A (or SIgA for short). Since SIg A produces mucosal antibodies and is an index of immunity, it helps protect the lining of the small intestine. When SIgA is suppressed by stress, even briefly, it can result in a condition known as Leaky Gut. Leaky Gutcan be thought of as increased “intestinal permeability.” This means the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, causing undigested food particles, toxic waste products and bacteria to “leak” through the intestines and flood the blood stream. When this happens, either important nutrients are not absorbed by the body or the body reacts to the toxic substances in the bloodstream. For many of you who struggle with gut distress, it is like no other stress, as it is always present, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. This is mainly because, according to the Harvard Medical School Health Blog, “There is emerging evidence that the standard American diet, which is low in fiber and high in sugar and saturated fats, may initiate this process. Heavy alcohol use and stress also seem to disrupt this balance.”

The main things that can cause gastrointestinal distress include:

  • Alcohol – Increases gut permeability, as well as decreases blood sugar and increases cortisol in the middle of the night, resulting in poor sleep and thus more stress.
  • Certain Medications – Antibiotics, hormonal medications (such as birth control), and acid suppressors (PPIs or heartburn medications).
  • Food – Poor diet, as well as those with sensitivities/allergies to certain foods.
  • Exercise – Blood is shunted away from digestive system during exercise, resulting in GI distress. Usually this occurs more often with ultra-endurance type athletes, but it can also can occur with short-term high intensity style workouts (it depends on the individual!) – so if you’re under a lot of stress already, less is more! Consider a more relaxing type of exercise for the day or until your stress levels are reduced.

Food allergies, as mentioned above, can also cause GI distress. If you believe you might be sensitive to certain foods, 2 good sources for food sensitivity testing are: Vibrant Wellness & Cyrex Labs. You can also try an elimination diet for 30-60 days and reintroduce one of the top 6 allergens at a time to determine which foods may be causing GI distress. These include: corn products, soy, eggs, legumes, dairy, and wheat. All in all, remember that hormones, such as cortisol, are impacted by what you consume. If your body’s stress response system is kicked into high gear because of the foods you’re eating regularly, then it may be time to address what’s on your plate and get those hormones back into balance.