A couple of years ago, I spotted a bizarre headline in The New York Times. “The New Modern Woman, Ambitious and Feeble,” it read. The article criticized certain popular TV shows for creating heroines who were driven, neurotic, anxiety-prone and undernourished. The author of the article decried these shows, concerned that viewers would emulate the shows’ “ambitious and feeble” role models. I might have told him it was too late to worry. Although the headline was obviously a generalization about American women, it was not without merit. I am a Western woman who is also a doctor of Oriental medicine. Over the years, I have seen that the medical problems of most women who come to me are rooted in a hormonal imbalance brought on by doing too much while getting too little physical and emotional nourishment—not unlike the feeble heroines. What’s more, their hormones have been out of whack for an extended period of time. I’m not just talking about menopausal women. I mean women of all ages, women whose medical problems range from painful periods, mood swings, fatigue and insomnia to infertility, uterine fibroids, hot flashes, heart disease and osteoporosis. While Western medicine emphasizes the separate domains and functions of various kinds of hormones in the body, Eastern medicine emphasizes the context within which they exist and how they relate to each other. Combining Eastern and Western perspectives, we see two major types of hormones that affect a woman’s health: stress hormones and sex hormones. Having the right balance of these gives us plenty of energy, deeper sleep, healthier menstrual cycles, happier dispositions, easier menopause, healthier hearts, stronger bones and much more.
The yin and yang of hormones
Hormones can be separated into two easy-to-understand categories, which in traditional Chinese medicine are called yin and yang. Yang is the energizing, activating and motivating principle of life; yin is the nourishing and building principle. While some hormones (like our yang stress hormones) kick our bodies and minds into high gear, others (like our dominant yin sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone) lead us to calm our minds and slow down so our bodies can replace depleted energy. Throughout our lives, we need both yin and yang to infuse and irrigate our bodies, minds and emotions. If yin and yang are balanced, qi—our life force and vital energy—is robust. It flows smoothly, and we have sufficient nourishing fluids to irrigate our tissues and deliver nutrition to them. If yin and yang are out of balance, qi and nourishing fluids cease to function smoothly and disease arises.
Sex hormones: The ambassadors of yin
Estrogen and progesterone serve to lubricate, nourish and build us. They are yin. Estrogen is responsible for the development and maintenance of female sexual characteristics, like breasts, and stimulates the growth of the uterine lining. Because every cell in our body needs yin, or nourishment, it’s not surprising that we find estrogen everywhere in the body. Progesterone is a yin hormone that is more yang than estrogen. Progesterone prepares the uterus for the fertilized egg and maintains pregnancy, but perhaps its main function is to keep estrogen in check. While estrogen promotes breast development and growth, progesterone helps protect against fibrocystic breasts; excess estrogen increases body fat, fluid retention and blood clotting, each of which progesterone serves to counteract.
Stress hormones: The ambassadors of yang
Stress hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—are the major yang players. They set off our “fight or flight” response to real or perceived threats to our well-being and survival. This response causes us to be more alert and makes our hearts pump more blood to the big muscle groups that are responsible for helping us run, climb or fight our way out of trouble. Adrenaline and cortisol are closely related. In fact, whenever adrenaline increases, cortisol levels rise. Adrenaline provides a short-term stress response and decreases quickly. Cortisol increases when adrenaline does but stays active longer. If high stress becomes a way of life, cortisol becomes a permanent guest in your bloodstream. Ironically, the more cortisol we have in our bloodstream, the more sensitive we become to stressful events, leading to a constant state of feeling stressed out. Too much cortisol also hinders the optimal function of many other essential hormones, such as the sex hormones.