"I knew that something probably wasn't right when my hands and feet started to go numb," explains Lindsey Clayton, a popular celebrity trainer in New York and Los Angeles.
When she began her fitness career, Clayton was training clients five hours a day at a luxury boutique fitness studio in New York City. "Because I had to do cardio all day long, I immediately lost a rapid amount of weight. I looked great initially, but after a few months training at that level I stopped seeing results. My body kind of plateaued."
So Clayton cut her calories, upped her workouts, and expected to see her body change. And it did, but not how she expected: "My skin started to get super dry, my hair and nails were breaking off. I had bags under my eyes because I would crash as soon as I got home, but I'd wake up at 2 a.m. and not be able to fall back asleep." The six-pack abs she'd sculpted during her first few months training turned into a "skinny girl fat tire"—a layer of fat that the talented personal trainer couldn't seem to lose. The final straw? Clayton lost her menstrual cycle for months.
Her fatigue, weight gain, thyroid dysfunction, and severe PMS are all glaring signs of a hormonal imbalance; and these symptoms are all too common for so many young women who are trying to balance a career, family, and social life.
What Is Estrogen Dominance, Exactly?
“There are two main hormones that control your menstrual cycle: Estrogen and progesterone,” explains Dr. Libby Weaver, holistic nutritionist and biochemical researcher. Estrogen and progesterone work together to balance each other as your body cycles through the month. But when these two hormones fall out of sync, the results can be catastrophic.
Symptoms of estrogen dominance vary greatly: irregular periods, water retention, breast swelling and tenderness, headaches, mood swings, depression, weight gain, cold hands and feet, hair loss, fatigue, insomnia, and PMS. Yep, sounds pretty awful. And for lots of women—familiar.
Dr. Weaver breaks down exactly what happens in the body to cause estrogen dominance: “When estrogen has done its job, it gets transported to the liver, where your body eliminates it. But if you have other toxins in your body like alcohol, sugar, or synthetic substances, the body tries to detox those compounds first. That means that excess estrogen gets stored up and recycled in your liver.”
Another reason the body might overproduce estrogen is because progesterone levels are too low. When the body is constantly in high-stress mode, it stops producing progesterone. This can happen when you’re overstressed, not getting sufficient sleep, or not eating enough calories, because the body basically thinks that it’s under attack. Instead of producing progesterone, the hormone that women need for fertility, the body produces cortisol and adrenaline because it believes that you’re unsafe. Direct side effects of low progesterone include anxiety, fluid retention, fatigue, acne, sugar cravings, and irritability.
In Clayton's case, all of these factors were at play. The final straw? When her ACL ruptured mid-workout, forcing her to step back from her insane training schedule.
"I see this in my clients constantly," says Clayton. "They think that more is better, that if they can run on the treadmill for two hours instead of one hour that they're doing themselves a favor. But the truth is they're hurting themselves, and not getting any closer to the body they're working so hard to get."
Experiencing Similar Symptoms? Here's What to Do.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s a good idea to get your hormone levels checked out by a doctor or naturopath first, to see what the specific issue is. Some women are estrogen dominant, some have progesterone and adrenal issues, and many have both.
Overproducing estrogen? Good news—there are many ways to treat the condition naturally. First, get back to a diet based on whole, unprocessed foods; by eliminating excessive toxins and eating clean, the liver will be more likely to process excess estrogen organically. Weaver also recommends increasing your intake of brassica veggies like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts because they can support liver detoxification.
Try switching over to safe beauty products too, because skin absorbs chemicals that can affect hormones.
Low progesterone, on the other hand, is often caused by excess anxiety, stemming from either emotional stress or physical stress (like overtraining). If your doctor suspects this is you, you might want to wave goodbye to coffee for a while; caffeine causes the body to produce adrenaline, which inhibits progesterone production. Also take a look at your training routine. Clayton noticed that as soon as she knocked her workout schedule down to 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of resistance training three to four times a week, her body transformed.
"I was less sore, I had more energy, and I looked and felt better. It seems obvious now that what I was doing wasn't healthy, but I needed to be forced to see what my body was already trying to tell me," Clayton says.
Once you've eliminated the sources of your excess stress, examine the supplements you're taking. Magnesium, vitamin C, and B vitamins are all used up too quickly if progesterone is low, so supplementing with these compounds will ensure that the body gets all the nutrients it needs. According to Weaver, fatty acids and zinc convert cholesterol to progesterone, so add foods rich in omega-3s and omega-6s like fatty fish and nuts, too.
Our hormonal balance is delicate, and sometimes because we can’t see what’s happening in our body we forget that everyday happenings like excess stress and lack of sleep have some pretty serious consequences. Take care of your body, inside and out.
Illustration by Karley Koenig