As my friends see it, one of my more unusual passions is functional endocrinology. Even my friend and business partner, an internal medicine specialist, was somewhat astonished that I would forego a hiking adventure on the coast to spend an entire California spring weekend delving into the mysteries of human glandular function. She’s a convert now, though, and as we walk the Sierra trails, our conversations often wind through hormonal conversions and hormonal effects on human lives.
Just what is functional endocrinology? Functional endocrinology is the study of the ebbs, flows, and complex interactions of hormones, and their effect on mind, body, and spirit. In functional endocrinology, rather than dosing a body with single, synthetic hormones, we use diet, lifestyle, herbs, nutrients, and other medicines to support, balance and optimize the functioning of the entire endocrine system. No one gland functions independently of the others. As I often explain (sing) to my clients, just as the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, ankle bone connected to the shin bone…. the ovaries are connected to the adrenal glands, the adrenal glands connected to the thyroid, thyroid connected to the pituitary…
Functional endocrinology is an interest that makes sense in the context of my life. I have a professional interest as well as a personal interest. In my practice, as my clients and I have grown older, my work has evolved through a concentration on premenstrual syndrome and fertility to aging ovaries, sluggish thyroids, stressed out adrenal glands, and loss of libido. In the mid 70’s, my fascination was with lunaception, a study of the influence of natural and artificial lighting on the hormonal control of the female fertility cycle. We slept in tipis then, and wrote odes to ovulation consciousness and papers on fertility awareness.
In my home now, I am a peri-menopausal woman living in a house with an andropausal husband and an adolescent son. My fascination is with the compelling power of raging hormones, and the potential they bring for chaos and creativity. One quickly realizes that though the physical transformations each one of us undergoes are perhaps the most apparent of the changes that these life altering hormones put us through, they are not half the story. As hormones wash over us, they affect every system in our bodies. We are profoundly affected physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
In other times and in other cultures, pathways were and are provided for understanding and celebrating the changes we undergo. These days, though, many of us more or less muddle through, imposing new lifestyle patterns on physiological systems which evolved in the days in which we were not bearing babies in our forties, creating new careers for ourselves in our fifties, changing partners in our sixties and living through our eighties. Since when have sons and daughters been entering puberty as parents were entering retirement?
We are challenged to both recognize what it is that is happening to ourselves, and to find harmonious, life enhancing ways to work with our newly functioning, differently functioning and even dysfunctioning bodies, minds, and emotions. We’re not talking pathology here. A trip to a conventional endocrinologist will not net you a diagnosis for which you can swallow a pill and feel better. And (now that Premarin and Provera have been so thoroughly discredited) a trip to your gynecologist will no longer result in an automatic hormone replacement pill. Although a trip to a psychologist will quite possibly result in a prescription for Ativan or Prozac, it will not address the underlying issues.
We’re talking process… a dynamic and shifting balance among those biochemical messengers that govern all physiological events in the body. We’re talking learning ways to respect different rhythms, to enjoy enhanced sensitivities, to compensate for changing capacities. We’re talking supportive lifestyle changes. We’re talking becoming more aware of who we are in each moment, as biological entities and as evolving human beings.
Fortunately for us, assessment tools which were not available to our parents, are available to us. Many women have been made aware of the salivary hormonal testing which allows cyclic or pre and post hormonal replacement therapy measurements of estrogen and progesterone, and of testosterone and DHEA. Salivary tests are available as well for andropausal men, giving indications which are useful not only for correcting the imbalances experienced as symptoms, but also for addressing, for example, the risk of prostate cancer. Salivary tests are also available for looking at the diurnal rhythms of cortisol and the effects of adrenal exhaustion on immunity, blood sugar and gastrointestinal function; and for assessing thyroid function and pituitary function. Salivary hormonal tests, though still considered fringe by the ultra-conservative medical establishment in the United States, are the World Health Organization standard for hormonal measurement.
We also have available to us urinary tests which look at our bodies’ abilities to convert hormones to protective rather than cancer-causing metabolites; and tests that evaluate the liver’s ability to detoxify toxins that otherwise disrupt hormonal functioning. And we have genomic profiles, which allow us to look at our genetic ability or lack of ability to accurately process certain hormones. Conventional laboratory testing is yet another tool we have for information gathering.
Clearly, we don’t need to stumble in the dark. Armed with information, we can make intelligent choices as to therapeutic options. What part do hormones play in the fatigue, the depression, the anxiety, the insomnia, the mood swings, the weight gain? Is the lack of libido a result of a hormonal imbalance that could be corrected with botanical medicine or bio-identical hormones? Is it a result of tissue discomfort and would it respond to essential fatty acids and other nutritional interventions? Is the decreased sexual drive reflective of a fatigue that is based in anemia and would it respond to iron or B-12 or folic acid? Is the lack of passion energetic and would it respond to homeopathy or a flower essence? Is it a relationship issue and would the best treatment option be counseling? Or is the disinterest a lifestyle issue and would the best treatment be an evaluation of exercise, meditation, or work and play patterns?
As the tides and seasons of the ocean reflect the cycles of the moon, so do the hormonal tides of our bodies reflect the cycles of nature, within us and around us. Understanding those cycles, we can flow with them and move into greater health, harmony, and happiness.