The Paleolithic diet, sometimes referred to as the Paleo diet for short, or also known as the caveman diet, stone age diet or hunter-gatherer diet, is based on the assumption that human beings should be eating the foods that our ancient ancestors ate, because that is the diet that we were genetically designed to eat.
By Dr. Mercola
Your hormones have far-reaching effects in your body, and hormone deficiencies can therefore wreak total havoc on your health. The effects, of course, are dependent on the severity of your deficiency, and which hormone is being under-produced.
One of the most commonly known hormone deficiency scenarios is menopause, when hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help combat bothersome symptoms like hot flashes and mood changes.
But many doctors are also looking at hormone replacement as a general anti-aging strategy. Dr. Thierry Hertoghe, featured in the video above, is one of them.
Hormones also appear to influence age-related cognitive decline according to both previous and more recent research, which I’ll review in a moment. But first, I want to bring your attention to a critical point Dr. Hertoghe makes in his talk, which is that you can address many of your hormonal issues through proper diet.
In fact, addressing your food choices should be your first step, before you do anything else to reverse a deficiency.
To Balance Your Hormones, Address Your Diet FIRST
Here are some of the highlights from Dr. Hertoghe’s talk. I highly recommend taking 20 minutes to listen to it in its entirety, as he covers quite a bit of ground in a short amount of time:
- The Paleolithic diet, which includes fermented and cultured foods, promotes healthy hormone levels, even as you age.
- Unsprouted grains, sugar or fructose decrease seven of the 12 most important hormones.
- Alcohol decreases your human growth hormone (HGH), one of your most potent built-in anti-aging hormones. Having just one alcoholic drink per day can decrease your HGH by 75 percent.
- Magnesium supplements improve your sex hormone levels, including your testosterone and HGH.
- High-quality protein from meat and fish, as well as healthy fats such as egg yolk, lard, and butter, will improve progesterone and DHEA secretion, as will an otherwise healthy Paleolithic (read: unprocessed, nutrient-rich organic) diet.
Progesterone can also be increased by several nutritional supplements, including vitamin A. As a general rule, fat-soluble vitamins will have a beneficial effect on sex hormones.
Estrogen Found to Restore Memory in Aging Brains
Side effects of hormone deficiencies really run the gamut depending on the hormone in question. DHEA deficiency, for example, leads to premature aging and lowers your ability to handle both physical and mental stress.
Common premenopausal challenges include PMS and painful cramps, while the most common menopausal complaints include hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Physical signs of HGH deficiency include droopy eyelids, saggy facial skin, thinning hair, and abdominal fat. Other signs include anxiety and chronic exhaustion.
But as I mentioned at the outset, research suggests that what is typically thought of as “age-related cognitive decline” brought on by atrophy may actually be the result of estrogen deficiency.
Research published late last year shows that the health of your brain’s synapses is closely linked to cognitive decline, and that the female hormone estrogen actually restores synaptic health, thereby improving memory. As reported by Medical News Today:
“Age-related cognitive decline and changes in the nervous system are closely linked, but up until recently, they were thought to result from the loss of neurons in areas such as the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain important in working memory. A series of papers have shown that the “loss of neurons” concept is simply not true.”
The researchers studied the prefrontal cortex mitochondria of rhesus monkeys, and found that declining memory in aging monkeys was associated with a higher incidence of malformed mitochondria in the animals’ presynaptic terminals.
The mitochondria—which are the powerhouses that fuel your body's cells, including your brain cells—were doughnut shaped rather than straight, causing a weaker contact between synapses. Interestingly, estrogen treatment reversed this mitochondrial malformation, and improved working memory. One of the study’s authors, John Morrison, PhD, said:
“We are increasingly convinced that maintenance of synaptic health as we age, rather than rescuing cognition later, is critically important in preventing age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease.”
“We were excited to see that the occurrence of these donut-shaped mitochondria could be reversed with estrogen, which has known antioxidant effects,” co-author Yuko Hara, PhD added.
Hormone Replacement—A Complex Topic
For all its benefits, hormone replacement is perhaps one of the most challenging areas of medicine. It’s a very complex topic, made even more challenging by the fact that medical recommendations have fluctuated back and forth when it comes to replacing hormones like estrogen in women suffering from symptoms of menopause and surgically induced medical menopause following a hysterectomy.
In the past, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was also widely prescribed for preventive purposes, based in part on early observational studies that had suggested it could help protect women against heart disease, weak bones, as well as dementia, which the study discussed above seems to confirm yet again. However, this analysis was done with non bioidentical human hormones.
All of that changed in 2002, when the 15-year long Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) abruptly ended its combination of estrogen and progestin therapy study, three years ahead of schedule. The reason?
Their data revealed higher rates of breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots in the population taking the hormones, compared to those receiving a placebo. By 2003, prescriptions had dropped by 38 percent. Between 2001 and 2011, estrogen replacement therapy in women aged 50-59 dwindled by a whopping 79 percent.
Then, a study published last year suggested that denouncing the use of HRT across the board may have been a mistake, especially for women having undergone a hysterectomy. It found that conjugated estrogen therapy (Premarin) for women in premature surgical menopause was associated with “a decisive reduction in all-cause mortality,” primarily by reducing deadly heart attacks and deaths from breast cancer. The researchers estimated that anywhere from 18,600 to as many as 91,600 women in medical menopause may have died prematurely over the last decade as a result of avoiding estrogen replacement.
There’s no one blanket recommendation that will apply to everyone. It’s a highly individual situation, where you’d be well advised to work closely with a skilled endocrinologist, and ideally someone well versed in nutrition and complementary strategies. There are several factors to seriously evaluate when considering hormone replacement, including the following:
- Surgically-induced menopause vs. natural menopause vs. using HRT for preventive purposes
- Your age
- The form of hormone you take (bioidentical vs. synthetic)
- The manner in which you administer the hormone
New Guidelines Issued for Treatment of Menopausal Symptoms
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently revised its guidelines for the treatment of menopausal symptoms. The new guidelines address two of the most common consequences of menopause: hot flashes and vaginal atrophy, which can result when your body stops producing estrogen. As reported by the New York Times:
“The new bulletin… examines the various claims and scores of studies. It offers treatment recommendations based on the best available evidence for preserving the health and well-being of women experiencing menopausal symptoms… [E]strogen alone, or in combination with a natural or synthetic progesterone (progestin) for women who still have a uterus, is the ‘most effective therapy’ for curbing hot flushes… ‘Data do not support the use of progestin-only medications, testosterone or compounded bioidentical hormones,’ the report also said… [T]he guidelines recommend ‘against routine discontinuation of systemic estrogen at age 65.’”
Other Alternatives to Consider Before Taking Hormones for Menopause
Natural bioidentical hormones can offer relief from menopausal symptoms, but I recommend not using them as your first go-to option. Addressing your diet should be your first step. Other strategies you can try before resorting to bioidentical hormones include the following:
- Phytoestrogens: Consuming plenty of phytoestrogens (plant-estrogens) such as licorice and alfalfa before menopause can also help moderate your day-to-day estrogen levels so that when menopause comes, the drop won't be so dramatic. Just don't make the mistake of using unfermented soy, which can wreak havoc on your health in a number of different ways.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels: This is a must for gene regulation and optimal health.
- Polyphenols: Certain polyphenols have also been shown to have some HRT-like benefits without the drawbacks, and are associated with a lowered risk of heart disease. Royal Maca seems to be an amazing adaptogenic herbal solution for menopause that has helped many women. Be sure to avoid the inexpensive varieties, as they typically don't work. If you chose this option, make sure to obtain the authentic version from Peru.
- Animal-based omega-3 fat: You'll also want to get plenty high-quality animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil.
- Black cohosh: While dismissed by ACOG as having no scientific foundation, Black cohosh may indeed help regulate body temperature and hot flashes in some women.
It's important to understand that eating Paleo is about developing a new way of living, not just following a diet. You are making permanent lifestyle changes and embracing a different set of values; not a temporary change in food choices. It is most effective when it is combined with other changes in lifestyle that simulate behaviors of our ancestors, like managing stress, engaging in mild to moderate physical activity, getting adequate sleep and sunshine and communing with nature.