Emily Rowcliffe of Tonbridge Psychotherapy writes about her 18 month battle to quit the white stuff that is now responsible for more deaths than smoking....
In March 2018 I booked an appointment to see my Doctor; I was at my wit’s end with a whole host of seemingly unrelated symptoms that were combining to make all facets of my life, well, miserable. I had already suffered with Premenstrual Syndrome for as long as I can remember. The symptoms of irritability had slowly increased to what can only be described as rage; palpitations became a near -constant anxiety; weeping became hormone-related depression and temporary sleep disruption turned into insomnia for two weeks of every month. Other symptoms began to creep in slowly – a sudden feeling of dropping or sinking would hit me at random and result in me having to cling on to furniture. A panic attack grabbed me and knocked the air out of my lungs on a train after a lovely day out. My heartburn became so severe that I went to bed in an upright position most nights, although sleep would elude me whatever I tried.
My doctor was stumped - and that’s okay. I know how it is to feel stumped by someone’s presenting issue, both as a nurse and as a therapist. It’s OK not to know. What’s NOT ok, however, is to imply that the person is either a) lying b) exaggerating c) insane or d) a combination of the above. I will never forget how I felt when he laughed, sneered at me and said ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous’ when I suggested that my issues might all be connected to my hormonal balance somehow- when I showed him my ‘symptom diary’ and demonstrated everything seemed to happen during the last two weeks of each monthly cycle.
I left his office with a lump in my throat and a prescription for antidepressants, heartburn medication and a synthetic hormone replacement. I allowed myself to wallow in my humiliation for my journey home and then I channelled the energy from my anger in to taking action for myself. My first step? I shredded the prescription and threw it away.
And so began my journey in to research and self-discovery which I want to share with every single woman and every single person who has a woman in their life, because an imbalance in our female hormone levels, however minor, has a butterfly effect in disrupting our wider lives. It can impact upon our self-worth, our relationships, our jobs and our health.
I’m going to cut to the chase here and ask you to trust; trust that I have done the work, trust that I have used reputable information sources and trust that I have trial and errored my way through a process of exclusion and elimination to arrive at this point. I am 100% free from all of the symptoms I described above and PMS is a thing of the past: past menstrual syndrome, if you will. And the answer?
I QUIT EATING SUGAR.
I’ll give you a moment to return to the screen before I continue, because if someone had told me 18 months ago that no longer would I be able to stuff my face with the very ‘treats’ that I’ve used to soothe my soul for as long as I can remember then I would likely have thrown my laptop out of the nearest window and stuck my head in the sand. And by 'sand,' I of course mean 'cake'.
Perhaps that will give you an indication of how hard quitting sugar might have been for someone like me.... That annoying phrase ‘if I can do it then so can you’ doesn’t even cut the mustard here- but really: if I can do it, YOU can.
So where do you start? If you're still reading then I assume some if not all of what I've written has struck a chord with you or someone in your life.
First things first: I would encourage you not to become obsessed by the numbers here. The problem with a standard NHS blood hormone level test is that the results are based upon a ‘normal range’ rather than YOUR normal range- without your own baseline as a reference, it’s not possible for your doctor to tell you that your results are fine so instead of focussing on bloodwork, I’d urge you to focus on your own body and your internal experience.
As I tell my clients, YOU are the expert on you. Have you noticed any physiological changes sneaking up on you recently? Perhaps your family, partner or friends have commented that you seem different somehow?
As I tell my clients, YOU are the expert on you.
As women age, we naturally move in to a different hormone balance, where, temporarily, oestrogen will become more dominant before a steep drop in levels during and after the menopause. While a lack of oestrogen can cause temperature dysregulation (hot flushes), weight gain, dry skin (inside and out), hair loss, urinary incontinence and a whole host of other uncomfortable issues, it is a relative excess of oestrogen that caused the symptoms I experienced. And please don’t decide that, because you are nowhere near the ‘age of menopause’ this couldn’t possibly apply to you. Oestrogen dominance is occurring in teenage girls through to peri-menopausal women of 50 and above. It occurs naturally to some degree as we get older but for the reasons outlined below, we are commonly creating this condition in our own bodies.
While an oestrogen dominance can be caused by conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, the most likely culprit of this hidden illness is our diet. This is great news because unlike our ovaries, our diet is something that (with a little work and a lot of willpower) we can change. I’ll get to the sugar part in a moment, but I need to mention the two biggest culprits after the sweet stuff, just to even out the playing field.
Firstly, if you are experiencing any of the things I’ve talked about, you need to seriously reconsider your soy consumption. You might be reading this part of my blog and thinking it doesn’t apply to you- I assure you it does. In a moment, I’d like you to stop reading, go to your kitchen cupboards and fridge/freezer and start reading labels. Because of its bulking and binding properties, its versatility and availability, soy is added to over 60% of all non-whole foods. That is over 60% of all food that has gone through a process before arriving in your supermarket. Soy is HIGHLY oestrogenic (not to mention one of the most common food allergens in the world) and can be absorbed through the skin- a problem since it’s also in most skin care products. You can do your own research if you so choose- for now, we need to touch upon animal products as culprit number two.
Dairy produce and beef in particular are high in oestrogen as the animals are naturally producing high levels of the hormone due to being pregnant during or before the milking process. Reducing your dairy intake by making simple substitutions (such as coconut or almond milk and yoghurt) and having the occasional ‘plant-based’ diet day is a great start- and as a bonus, you’ll also be helping the environment, so you can feel extra smug. Avoiding soy wherever possible means reducing your processed food intake and learning to check labels. These are two fantastic habits that will improve your general wellbeing immeasurably and I will happily answer any questions you have pertaining to a wholefood diet: again, I would encourage you to do some reading because the topic is so broad and as passionate as I am about ALL food, I’m here to talk to you about the sweet stuff.
So, how does sugar raise your oestrogen levels, you ask?
In a nutshell, it’s the relationship between oestrogen and the body’s most powerful hormone that is at play here: insulin. When a diet high in sugar causes insulin levels to spike and drop over and over throughout each day, the body eventually moves in to an insulin resistant state.
The constant spike and drop of insulin and mismanagement of blood sugar is perceived by your body as a stressor; your body responds to this by firing up your adrenal glands and sending out a load of stress-hormones. These stress hormones disrupt ovulation- without regular ovulation we cannot produce sufficient progesterone and therefore our relative levels of oestrogen become dominant instead of balanced.
The excess sugar that your body is unable to use gets stored in your liver as fat- just like in alcoholism. Oestrogen is eliminated and regulated through the liver and a fatty, over-worked liver is simply unable to get rid of excess oestrogen which means that the levels of the hormone in our bodies rise.
We take in more oestrogen through our soy and dairy-rich diets and our damaged bodies are then unable to process and get rid of it.
On top of all of this, our fat cells also produce oestrogen! The more sugar we consume, the more fat cells we produce and the more oestrogen they secrete.
And just one final piece of bad news while I'm at it: carbohydrates are sugar. Yes, that means bread and pasta and potatoes too. While I'm not necessarily suggesting that you give up this entire food group cold turkey, I would encourage you to take a step back and review your carbohydrate consumption. Perhaps download an app such as Carb Manager or My Plate so that you can start to see food the way your body sees it. Simple carbohydrates will perpetuate your problems, whereas cutting sweets, sugary drinks, fruit juices, smoothies and carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, potatoes and carb-loaded snacks will level your blood glucose levels, stop the sharp spikes in your insulin, heal your overworked liver and stabilise your hormones.
Give it six weeks. Just forty-two days. Keep a journal and make a note of how you're sleeping, how your moods are, how you feel about your body, how your sex life has changed, how your skin looks, how your energy levels are throughout the day. If you feel no better then you've lost nothing- but I gave myself six weeks and that was fifty-two weeks ago. Yes I've had the occasional fall from the wagon in to a mountain of crisps and chocolate but it has been so easy to dust myself off and get back on that wagon because I can honestly say I have never felt better. Try it for yourself and see.