How to Balance Your Hormones: Advice from Claudia Welch (Part 1)
Yep, we’re talking hormones again.
Has anyone here ever stopped getting their period for seemingly no reason? Suffered from chronic cystic acne, or had the kind of PMS where you just want to cry all the time and can’t get out of bed? Have you been told to go on the pill by a doctor for something other than contraception?
In western medicine, hormone imbalances are often said to be unexplainable—or at least that’s been my personal experience. You shift this perception by bucketing hormones into two categories: yin and yang. Can you briefly expand on this for readers?
Eastern medicine is not reductionist medicine. We don’t usually look for the individual substances or things going on or going wrong. We tend to look more at patterns. Even though the ancient Eastern medical classics never name or discuss hormones per se, they do give us—both in the Chinese and Ayurvedic systems—fundamental ways of looking at phenomena and explaining them. One of these fundamental views is that of duality: how opposite forces tend to relate to each other. In TCM, they call these forces “yin” and “yang.” In Ayurveda the names are more complicated, but they are there and describe these forces in the same way.
Once we understand the principle of duality, it lends itself very easily to the discussion of women’s hormones.
Basically it goes like this: pure yin is substance, nourishment, yumminess, gooey, stabilizing, grounding, building and cooling. Pure yang is motivating, stimulating, drying, heating and lightening. However, nothing that exists is either pure yin or pure yang. There’s just stuff that is more yin or yang in relationship to other stuff.
A woman’s sex hormones are very yin in nature and stress hormones are very yang in nature. Sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone build and nourish a woman, her fetus, her tissues—including her breasts and uterus—while her stress hormones simulate her, motivate her to get out of the way of danger, and can be both a cause and a result of ambition and drive.
When yin and yang, and the hormones that represent them, are out of balance, our organisms suffer, in the same way that adding or subtracting even a few degrees to our normal body temperature causes problems.
How did you come to this theory? Was it a sudden epiphany, or did it grow slowly out of your practice?
It was a bit of both. It was an understanding that was won very slowly, but was so clear when it dawned. I’d been through some pretty hefty education in both the fields of TCM and Ayurveda and learned my way around Western medicine well enough for jazz, and I never became clear on the whole hormonal picture.
Not surprising, really, since our collective conversation about hormones is relatively new, no matter what medical paradigm we’re talking about. The first hormone wasn’t “discovered” until 1902 and, as I mentioned before, they really aren’t talked about in the ancient Eastern medical texts. Nor, for that matter, in the modern ones—not very much anyway. Physicians in any of these traditions are often about as confused as their patients when it comes to understanding the “why?” behind the “what” of hormones. In other words, they might be able to say, “your progesterone level is low,” but not explain why.
I was in private practice and was teaching women’s health at an acupuncture college. I was trying to make sense of hormones so that I could explain them to a classroom and so I could better understand what I was seeing in my patients. I read everything I could find. At the time, the internet was just becoming a valuable tool, so I searched there as well. For a long time, the more I studied, and the more I tried to categorize information, the more confused I got.
I don’t recall the moment it all came together, but there must have been one. I do remember the broad strokes though. You know those paintings that consist of repeated patterns, like fish or something, that you can stare at for a long time, softening your gaze, and then, all of a sudden, you see another image that the pattern creates? Like a unicorn or something? Until you see it you can’t even imagine it and then, once you do, it is clear as day and you can’t not see it. It was something like that.
I remember thinking, “Really? Is it really this simple?” I think the reason I don’t remember a particular moment where that happened is that, once I saw that these categories are easily described using the yin/yang system, I felt I needed to go back and check my research to see that it fit and, at least as importantly, to see how it played out clinically. I was in private practice at the time and, at least in the field of complementary medicine, most patients are women. So I got to see, over and over again, how this view applied to women’s daily lives, concerns and issues, and to the hormones that served them—or not. The view held up so well that I started thinking of it as very simplistic and I began to write. And it is simplistic. But it is a way of understanding them that has worked quite well for me.
What’s the most common health complaint you’ve heard from women over the years?
There are so many complaints. I know that sounds funny…but it is true. And the dominant ones depend on a woman’s stage of life. Think about it, from puberty to death, we have issues. From late menarche, to painful periods, absent periods, scanty or irregular ones, infertility, breast health, hot flashes, mood swings, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, heart disease, etc. etc. etc.
But most problems—I’ll make up a statistic here—I would guess 70% of them, if not more, arise from women outspending their emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual resources. I know that sounds rather vague, but I think it is true.
We drive ourselves so hard that we sacrifice the yin—the grounding, nourishing aspects of our lives. This leaves yang to be the dominant force for many of us and we wind up panicked, sleepless and generally anxiety-ridden. These chronically high levels of stress hormones results in imbalance and, subsequently, disease.
Sound like anyone you know? In part 2, Dr. Welch will tell us some of her favorite easy prescriptions, talk about exercise (and how there is such a thing as too much), hormone disruptors, and her own beauty regimen. Stay tuned!
You can find more Dr. Welch on her website.