INTERVIEW: Hormones for better health

Gihan Shahine , Saturday 26 Oct 2019

In the first of a two-part interview, nutritionist and health coach Dana Dinnawi explains the role hormones play in our bodies and how healthy eating can help to reset them to improve our lives to Gihan Shahine

Dana Dinnawi, nutritionist and health coach

Before embarking on a clean-eating journey and health-coaching career, wellness coach and publisher of Empowered Wellness and Living Magazine Dana Dinnawi was not only overweight, but also depressed and unmotivated.  

She couldn’t seem to muster up enough energy or enthusiasm to do anything. Even waking up and preparing breakfast for the children was a chore. On the surface, there was no reason for Dinnawi to be unhappy, and she was happily married with three children. But then she was introduced to a nutritionist friend and a life-saving healthy eating programme that not only helped her to shed some stubborn weight and get a more glowing youthful look, but also to regain energy and motivation. It literally transformed her life.

Since then, Dinnawi has taken up health and wellness coaching as a career to help empower other women to take back control of their lives.

She explained her ideas in a two-part interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

Your programmes focus on getting healthy and gaining more energy rather than just losing weight. How can healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle help to reset our hormones, reverse mood disorders, and tackle beauty issues?

Hormones are chemical messengers in the body’s endocrine system, and they play a crucial role in regulating bodily functions and affect our emotions and mental outlook.

Hormones also control most of the physiological processes in the body, so keeping your hormones at peak performance is important for your overall well-being. An imbalance in any of your hormones can cause severe damage to the body and may lead to undesirable consequences.

The easiest way to maintain a proper hormonal balance is to eat more foods that combat specific hormone problems. Different foods can be eaten to regulate different hormones. They can either cause these messengers to send the right “messages” to the different systems in the body or “wrong” messages. Or the messages may be too strong or too weak. In every case, the wrong message is being sent by the hormones, and this starts to disrupt the bodily functions, whether physical or mental.
There has recently been talk about detoxing as a way of not just losing weight, but also of fixing health issues, and this is a major part of your programmes. Can you explain what detoxing means and how to do it?

A lot of the time, the types of food we think we love the most or those we’ve been eating all our lives are actually the types of food that our bodies have a sensitivity or intolerance to, keeping us from losing weight and making us feel tired and depressed.

When we eat a kind of food that we have an intolerance or sensitivity to, whether we know it or not, it causes an inflammatory reaction and floods our body with chemicals. It’s the chemicals our body releases that we can become addicted to and that could be keeping us from losing weight, causing us to be tired and starting a cascade of other symptoms. One reason is that our immune system attacks the food much like it would attack a foreign body, taxing the whole body and draining it of energy.

Food allergies and intolerances are much more common than most people realise. Millions of adults and children around the world suffer from allergic reactions to food and don’t know it because the symptoms can be hard to diagnose. The reason food intolerance is so difficult to identify is that there are so many different symptoms that are different for everyone.

There is also often a delayed reaction from eating the food, so you may eat wheat one day and feel fine, but then the next day you may feel bloated and tired.

The more common allergies cause symptoms similar to those of food sensitivity, such as bloating, poor digestion, headaches, lethargy, depression, and weight gain, for example. But most people don’t think these things are caused by the food they’ve been eating their entire lives. They just think that “there must be something wrong with me” or accept it as a “fact of life”.

The most common foods people have a sensitivity or intolerance to are dairy, wheat/gluten, sugar, processed oils and soy. (Gluten is the part of the wheat that causes the problems, and it is also found in other gluten grains such as rye, barley and oats). These are the foods that often end up being trigger foods for many.

When people don’t know that a food intolerance is the root cause of their health issues, they usually blame them on slow metabolism or bad genetics, and they just live with them as a result. But when your digestive system is not working properly and cannot break down these foods, it cannot focus on getting rid of toxins, and that means you cannot get rid of the bloating and the fat and the skin breakouts and everything that keeps you tired. In fact, toxins lead to inflammation, which leads to weak digestion.

The most common resulting gastrointestinal symptoms are abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, gas or bloating, fatty stools, mucous or blood in the stool, heartburn or reflux and nausea. But there are other “sneakier” symptoms that I believe many affected people have but may still go undiagnosed for years. The non-gastrointestinal symptoms include headaches, low energy, a low sex drive, bad skin, moodiness or depression, psoriasis, hives, itchy skin, dandruff, hives around the buttocks or neck, tingling in the hands or feet, poor circulation, anxiety, sensory issues, memory loss, joint pain, loss of menstruation and infertility in women, impotence and infertility in men, and weight gain or the inability to gain weight. In children you also commonly see behavioural disturbances including depression, anxiety, irritability, anger, sleep disorders, sadness and poor school performance.

Cleansing, or detoxing, eliminates these potential triggers until the symptoms subside. Once you have eliminated reactive foods from your life, you will be amazed at how quickly your energy and health will improve and, if needed, weight will effortlessly fall off. Your body will thank you for returning it to its natural state of radiant health. There is a clear difference, however, between a quick “detox” and detoxing as a way of life. One will give you short-term results, and the other will transform your health.

Many women are concerned with issues of hormones, especially when they reach their 40s. What are the main hormones that govern our lives and how can we know they are imbalanced?

There are three main categories of hormones: sex hormones, stress hormones and thyroid and metabolic hormones.  

The primary female sex hormones are estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen is responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system and secondary sexual characteristics. Basically, it’s what makes you a female. It’s the opposite of testosterone, which is the male equivalent hormone that stimulates the development of male secondary sexual characteristics. Your ovaries produce both testosterone and estrogen. Relatively small quantities of testosterone are released into your bloodstream by the ovaries and adrenal glands, and the reason for this is that women need small amounts of testosterone as part of the mix of hormones that keep mood, energy levels, sex drive, and bodily functions working smoothly.

If you have too much testosterone, you may have irregular or absent menstrual periods. You may also have more body hair than the average. Some women with high testosterone levels may also develop frontal balding. Other possible effects include acne, increased muscle mass, and the deepening of the voice. High levels of testosterone can also lead to infertility and are commonly seen in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Progesterone is the other female hormone, and it regulates the menstrual cycle and is crucial for pregnancy as well as for the survival and development of the embryo and fetus. Any disturbance in the normal release of sex hormones, such as too much estrogen or too little or too much progesterone, can cause problems like irregularity in periods, post-menstrual stress, mood swings, skin breakouts, weight gain, sugar cravings, bloating, the swelling of the breasts, low libido, and night sweats.

The second type of hormones, stress hormones, prepare your body for “flight or fight”. In today’s stressful world, however, our bodies sometimes stay in a constant state of flight, which puts unnecessary stress and strain on your body.

The first main stress hormone is adrenaline, which is produced in your adrenal glands that sit right on top of your kidneys. Adrenaline is produced when you’re feeling a strong emotion (such as excitement, fear, or anger), and it causes the heart to beat faster and gives you more energy. It also increases your blood sugars.

The other stress hormone is cortisol. In ancient times, when your body felt it was “under threat” this threat was usually an animal, a lion that wanted you for its dinner, for example, so you literally ran for your life. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about being chased by lions anymore, but this innate response is still alive and kicking. Today, the threat comes when you are constantly stressed, or eat foods your body is sensitive to, whether you know you have a food sensitivity or not. This causes your body to release histamines, causing inflammation.

Your sympathetic nervous system, in charge of this fight-or-flight reaction, signals your adrenal glands to secrete the same stress hormone, cortisol, that it produced to save you from being eaten by a lion.

This leads to an increase in the blood sugar designed to give you the energy to flee whatever’s “chasing” you. But because nothing’s actually chasing you, and your body doesn’t know the difference between a lion, a doughnut, and a fight with your spouse or boss, you are left with elevated cortisol and blood-sugar levels that can lead to a whole host of metabolic imbalances and reactions that diminish immune-system functioning.

The adrenal glands and cortisol are needed to respond to stress. But they were designed to deal with stress in small spurts (like a lion chase) rather than in periods of days or months (or even years) such as what happens with the daily intake of toxic food or being stuck in an unfulfilling career or unsupportive relationship. So, if you are exposed to these stressors often the body will produce cortisol in response all the time. Eventually, the adrenals will become fatigued from producing too much cortisol to the point of exhaustion, and they will fail to fulfil their other functions like maintaining blood pressure, helping you sleep properly and producing other key hormones to meet the basic needs of the body.

If you also regularly consume foods you’re sensitive to, your adrenal glands are again constantly working to maintain elevated cortisol levels, and your body expends more energy than normal trying to combat this inflammatory effect, leaving you with less energy to function. Your adrenal glands (and you) become chronically fatigued. And because your body can’t expel this amount of cortisol being released on a regular basis, it collects it in your mid-section. This is called a cortisol or “stress” belly. If your stress hormones are imbalanced, you may experience symptoms like adrenal fatigue (muscle weakness, salt cravings, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia), fatigue, anxiety, an inability to sleep, panic attacks and cortisol belly.

Another type of hormones are the thyroid hormones, the main ones being T3 and T4. These are hormones that are produced and released by the thyroid gland and are primarily responsible for the regulation of the metabolism.

The thyroid gland acts as an energy thermostat for the body, so when your thyroid is operating smoothly, so do you. A disturbance in the levels of the thyroid hormones can cause multiple symptoms that can vary depending on whether your thyroid is overactive or underactive.

Insulin is another important hormone. When glucose levels rise in the body, the pancreas secretes the hormone insulin. Insulin helps move glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells, where it can be used for energy and keep our blood-sugar levels stable. However, this process can go awry if the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin, or if some of your cells stop responding to insulin, which is called insulin resistance. In either case, blood-sugar levels remain elevated, because the blood sugar has nowhere to go. It’s supposed to go to your cells, but it can’t, and this puts you at risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Due to modern diets and lifestyles, nearly everybody produces more insulin in their pancreas than they should. This is a problem because if blood insulin levels have been high for years, the cells of your body start to ignore it. The insulin becomes less and less effective at its important job in the body of getting glucose inside your cells so you can burn it for energy as a result. The other important fact about insulin is that if you’re consuming the wrong kind of sugar (not natural glucose from fruit), it takes this sugar and turns it into fat. But because it can’t actually turn this type of sugar into useable fuel for the body, the body has no use for this type of sugar. So, if insulin is not doing its job properly, less glucose will be burned for energy and more of it will be converted into fat. As a result, insulin is also known as the fat-storage hormone.

Symptoms of chronically elevated insulin or insulin resistance are varied, and they include a fatty liver, abdominal obesity, hunger and cravings for sugar or carbohydrate-rich foods, elevated blood sugar, acne and large pores on the face, polycystic ovarian syndrome, scalp hair loss in women in the male pattern (front and sides), skin tags, high blood pressure and swollen ankles
What triggers hormonal imbalances?

Some of the causes include obesity, stress, the use of contraceptives, an excessive intake of sugar, ageing, perimenopause and menopause, pregnancy, candida overgrowth, and the Epstein Barr virus.

Do we have control over our hormones? Can we reverse any symptoms naturally without the need for medication?

The answer is yes, there are solutions that will definitely help a woman going through perimenopause or menopause. Women should manage their diets, eat healthily, avoid consuming excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, and, of course, quit smoking even before they reach the premenopausal and menopausal stages. Women who are either overweight or underweight should also try to attain a reasonable weight to help eliminate uncomfortable premenopausal and menopausal symptoms.

Eating healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables that are rich in protein and vitamins also help hormones remain balanced. Meanwhile, removing foods we call “inflammatory”, such as wheat, gluten, processed sugar, and processed oils like sunflower and corn oil and soy, is equally essential. Regular exercise also keeps your body and mind fit. Swimming, walking, and cycling are some of the exercises that have been recommended by experts. For mental health, experts suggest doing yoga along with some other natural therapies.

Why do you remove wheat and sugar from your hormonal and beauty plans?

Both processed sugar (not sugar from fruit) and wheat are considered inflammatory foods and toxins. They are at the root of chronic conditions, not simply hormonal imbalance and ageing skin.

It is important to cut down the sugar intake. Any kind of sugar, including corn syrup, white sugar, and brown sugar, is known for worsening hormone imbalances, specifically in women. Moreover, eating sugar can increase the chances of developing insulin resistance, and an imbalance of insulin can result in several health issues in both men and women. Not only will avoiding sugar help to maintain a hormonal balance, but it will also be helpful for losing weight. (This does not apply to the natural sugar from fruit).

You also have substances in your body called Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) that are responsible for speeding up or slowing down the aging process, and that includes aging and damage to your organs, your joints and, of course, your hormones. One of the factors that causes the increase in AGE levels in the body is elevated blood-sugar levels, or more specifically continuously elevated blood-sugar levels. When you consume wheat, even whole-wheat, which is widely believed to be healthy and is recommended over conventional white flour, your blood-sugar level spikes and then crashes. And it spikes even higher than if you were to consume white table sugar, the other skin-aging culprit.

Your plans also remove dairy foods, which have been widely perceived as a main source of calcium. You even suggest that consuming dairy products could cause osteoporosis. Can you explain this?

The main ingredient in dairy products is lactose, another form of sugar. And this raises blood-sugar levels in the same way as wheat or ordinary sugar, leading to an increase of AGEs.

The other problem with dairy products is hormones. The vast majority of commercial dairy products today carry the hormones of the cow that produced them, as well as the additional hormones given to the cow so that it can produce abnormal quantities of milk to fulfil commercial needs. In addition to wrinkles and dull skin, these hormones contribute to hormonal imbalances.

This makes dairy products toxic or acidic to our body. It’s very important that we maintain alkalinity in our bloodstream: if the blood is too acidic, we create a terrain for disease to set in.

The other concern with an acidic bloodstream is that the body will then work very hard to defend itself against this acidity by pulling in its own sources of alkaline minerals in an attempt to “put out” the heat created by acidic foods. Our bodies contain their own supply of alkaline minerals like calcium and magnesium. When we consume dairy products, which are acidic, this raises our blood’s acidity, and the body reacts by releasing its stores of calcium in response. Over time, this depletes the body’s reserves of calcium, leading to weak and brittle bones and potentially osteoporosis.
But many people may find it challenging to sustain clean eating of this sort. How can we sustain these types of plans? How can we control our cravings?

This is where the mindset comes in. Sustaining clean eating is possible when you look at it as a way of life and not as a temporary process. It’s crucial not to see it as another “diet” or something you do for a certain period of time and then it’s over. It is important to understand that our modern way of eating has not been serving us, and that on the contrary the way we’ve been eating for the past 100 years or so has contributed to disease and chronic conditions. We have a choice and the power to change our health by using food. This is a very powerful realisation and the best form of motivation.

Tips for staying healthy and cleansing naturally:

- Upon waking, drink warm or room-temperature water with lemon.
- Start your day by being positive. Find a daily affirmation formula that gets you fired up. I love the work of authors Louise Hay, Geneen Roth, Gabrielle Bernstein, and Marianne Williamson.
- Try being quiet with yourself, even for just one minute, and say, “I release what does not serve me.”
- Drink fresh, green juices or make a green juice with one tablespoon of chlorophyll and lemon, lime and water.
- Aim for one meal that is super easy on your digestion per day. Try a smoothie, green juice, or soup to give your digestion a rest.
- Get moving and shaking. Exercise is one of the best ways to detox your body.
- Drink plenty of water and add lemon, lime, or grapefruit to flush out toxicity.Tongue and skin brushing is another good way to support the liver and get rid of toxins.
- Finally, aim to be happy and grateful for life.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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