Monday, July 28, 2008

Feeling liverish?

Once thought of in the past as a culinary delight, today the liver is more thought of as a saving grace after that one glass of red too many. Being the largest internal organ in the human body, it seems likely that it will have an important role to play in maintaining our health and well being. But what exactly does the liver do for a living and how can its dysfunction contribute to our dysfunction?

An adult liver weighs an average of 1.4-1.6 kilograms and is vital for our survival. It is a driving force behind our metabolism and digestion and also acts as a storage unit for vitamins and minerals, helps breakdown red blood cells, aids detoxification and is a major centre for many biological reactions. What’s more, it has amazing potential to regenerate lost tissue and can grow back to its original size with as little as one quater of its usual mass.[1]

With so many vital roles to play, it makes sense that in order for these things to happen, the liver must be functioning at its full potential. This is often easier said than done as the many excesses of daily life contribute to what the liver has to process. These commonly come in the form of:

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs – prescription, over the counter and recreational
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Environmental toxins :herbicides, pesticides and hormones used in food production
  • Stress
  • Poor diet high in refined carbohydrates
  • Synthetic chemicals found in common beauty products

With a number of these things circulating through our system at any given time, we rely on our liver to take care of them and see them safely on their way. But like most things that are overloaded, our liver will eventually reach breaking point and just not have the ability to do its job properly. This is when we start to develop liver related symptoms such as:

  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Digestive upsets
  • Nausea
  • Reduced or non existent morning appetite
  • Poor sleep

Most people don’t associate the liver with hormones but it is the liver that breaks down the hormones once they have done their job throughout our body. It is for this reason that the liver can have an impact on hormonal imbalance. The steroid hormones pass through the liver to be metabolised and these include:

  • Sex hormones: controls the menstrual cycle and reproduction
  • Cortisone: preparing us for the fight or flight response
  • Aldosterone: controls the balance of sodium, potassium and water, thereby influencing fluid retention

Let’s look specifically at oestrogen and testosterone. Once oestrogen passes through the liver, it is broken down into a less active form which can then be excreted into the intestine where a number of things can happen. Elimination via the bowel can take place or the oestrogen can be activated once again and re-absorbed through the bowel wall and back into circulation.[2] This re-absorption will increase the level of oestrogen in the body and contribute to oestrogen dominant conditions such as fibroids, endometriosis, PMS (lumpy &/or painful breasts, heavy &/or painful menstruation) and weight gain, especially around the hips, bottom and thighs. This weight distribution is the classic example of a pear shaped body.

Testosterone, like oestrogen, circulates in both males and females. Its synthesis begins in the liver and if not metabolised efficiently, can cause elevated levels to re-circulate through our system. Elevated testosterone levels are found in conditions such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and due to the masculinising effects of this hormone, contribute to male pattern hair growth and acne that are so common with PCOS. Increased testosterone levels can also affect the menstrual cycle, reproductive function and weight gain especially around the abdomen. This is your classic apple shaped body.

So if you feel like your liver can do with a helping hand, here are some simple steps you can incorporate to ease the toxic load:

  • Limit alcohol consumption. In order to prevent liver damage, it is recommended to have no more than 2 standard drinks a day. 2-4 drinks per day are thought to be a hazard and 4+ drinks per day are thought to be harmful.[3] If weight loss is a priority, the extra calories alcohol provides should be further reduced to a maximum of 3-5 drinks per week.
  • Increase your intake of bitter foods – endive, chicory, silverbeet, radicchio, outer leaves of cos lettuce, dandelion root, and grapefruit. These foods will stimulate your liver by increasing bile flow, which will assist in removing those substances that your liver breaks down.
  • Ensure you are getting adequate amounts of protein in your diet. This will help to bind toxins and get them ready for elimination.
  • Antioxidants, such as Vitamins A, C, E, beta carotene and selenium will protect liver cells from damage.
  • Lecithin protects liver cell membranes from damage from the constant barrage of toxins and free radicals they come into contact with. It acts as an emulsifier and is derived from soybeans or egg. Sources include brewers yeast, grains, legumes, fish and wheatgerm but can also come in capsule or granule form (it can be sprinkled on cereals and soups or can be added to smoothies). It’s also fantastic with assisting the digestion of fats and absorption of fat soluble vitamins.
  • Sulphur containing foods found in foods from the cabbage family, garlic and dandelion can help with detoxification.
  • Exercise at least twice a week. Not only will this help your body eliminate toxins, it will leave you feeling fantastic.
  • Squeeze half a lemon into a cup of warm water first thing in the morning to give your body an early morning cleanse.
  • Opt for natural beauty products.

Making a conscious effort to reduce the toxic load presented to your liver will assist in achieving and maintaining good health and well being. If you can identify with any of the above mentioned liver symptoms, spare some thought for your overworked liver and cut it some slack. You will reap the benefits…

Ruth Trickey, (2003) “Women, Hormones & the Menstrual Cycle”, Allen & Unwin NSW, pg 58
[3] Ruth Trickey, (2003) “Women, Hormones & the Menstrual Cycle”, Allen & Unwin NSW, pg 384

Monday, July 21, 2008

Does my Fibroid look big in this?

Uterine fibroids are an increasingly common problem presenting to women all over the world. They are the number one reason for hysterectomy in the US[1]and it is estimated that one in every five women are affected, most commonly in those over 30. They are non-cancerous growths that usually originate in the muscular component of the uterine wall and can vary in size, number and position. Some may be small and discrete while others can grow to a size resembling a pre-term pregnancy.

So what causes Fibroids? Some common contributing factors towards Fibroid growth include:

  • Hormonal imbalance: oestrogen stimulates growth of tissues and in an oestrogen dominant environment, Fibroids can really flourish
  • Liver function: poor oestrogen clearance via the liver and bowel
  • Poor diet: high levels of refined carbs, increased intake of saturated fats and low levels of fibre
  • Obesity: fatty tissue, especially around the abdominal area, increases the conversion of oestrogen resulting in an increase in circulating oestrogen[2]
  • Caffeine: intake from all sources has been linked with elevated oestrogen levels[3]
  • Hypertension: elevated blood pressure may increase the risk of fibroids through injury to uterine muscle[4]

While many of us may actually have fibroids that go unnoticed, it’s the symptomatic ones that have the potential to give us the most trouble. They are usually found during a routine examination, ultrasound or as a result of a number of symptoms that may be experienced. The most common symptom is heavy bleeding and the larger fibroids can also produce weight gain, urinary frequency, constipation, pressure symptoms and discomfort in the lower abdomen. This pressure and discomfort have often been referred to a sensation as if “everything may fall out” either before or during the period. Pain and infertility may also be present.

We can now ask the question, “Is my weight contributing to Fibroids?” or “Are my Fibroids contributing to weight gain?”

Either way, balancing the hormonal profile is imperative in treating this condition and this can be done in a number of ways:

  • Herbs: common herbs used to reduce oestrogen excess and control fibroid proliferation include Paeonia, Chaste tree, Calendula, Thuja and Echinacea
  • Fibre: reduces oestrogen levels in blood and urine. Include psyllium husks, linseeds, fruits and vegetables with the skin on
  • Phytoestrogens: plant based oestrogens exert similar effects to the oestrogen our body produces. They can stop oestrogen binding to receptors and can slow the conversion of oestrogen that takes place in fatty tissue. Include soy products, fruits and vegetables, sprouts, legumes, seeds and grains
  • Protein: needed for oestrogen metabolism in the liver. Include grains, legumes, lean meat, fish and eggs
  • Alcohol: excessive amounts of alcohol can increase oestrogen levels while moderate amounts (one glass of beer or wine per day) is thought to lower oestrogen levels[5]
  • Liver clearance: bitter foods and herbs will assist the liver in metabolising oestrogen and help with elimination
  • Exercise: along with maintaining a healthy weight, helps with oestrogen clearance, improving cardiovascular health, improves bone density, reduces stress and can have profound effects on the menstrual cycle

As with most other imbalances in our body, a few important changes to your diet and lifestyle can make the world of difference. Change can only come from within so take control of your health and enjoy the benefits.

[2] Ruth Trickey, (2003) “Women, Hormones & the Menstrual Cycle”, Allen & Unwin NSW, pg 66-67
[5] Ruth Trickey, (2003) “Women, Hormones & the Menstrual Cycle”, Allen & Unwin NSW, pg 69

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Not tonight honey – I’ve got a head ache!

Your head is throbbing and the pain is almost unbearable. Light or sound only makes it worse. You may even be feeling nauseated. The slightest movement only intensifies the pain. Although you feel like it's the end of the world, and no one can understand what you are going through, a comforting thought is that you are not alone. You are having a migraine headache.

Although there is no cure for migraines, there is hope for effective relief and a significant reduction in the severity and number of migraine headaches you suffer.

Why do so many women suffer from migraine headaches?

There is significant evidence that there may be a connection between migraines and fluctuations in estrogen levels in women. The problem appears to be the response of the central nervous system to normal hormonal fluctuations.

Women often experience their first migraine headache during their teen years, most occurring with the onset of menstruation. Often the frequency and severity of premenstrual migraines can increase as a woman approaches menopause. Premenstrual migraines are often related to the rapid decline in estrogen just before menstruation in conjunction with other migraine triggers such as rapid fluctuations in the blood sugar levels, food sensitivities or structural problems of the neck and back. Any of these predisposing factors can trigger a vascular response, usually blood-vessel spasm which causes pain.

Will oral contraceptives (OCs) help women with migraines?

Most women who have had previous migraines will not see a significant change in their headache pattern after beginning oral contraceptives; however, they may see an increase in the severity of migraines during the pill-free week. Women who use oral contraceptives may be surprised to learn that OCs may actually be a trigger for migraine.

What causes migraine headaches?

The exact cause of migraine headaches is not known; however there are many theories. One theory which is accepted by many scientists is that migraines are caused by a vulnerability of the central nervous system to immediate changes to your body or environment.

Blood sugar irregularities such as ‘metabolic disorder’ can be a major contributing factor to migraines. Studies show that consumption of refined sugar causes blood sugar levels to fluctuate rapidly. When refined sugar is consumed the pancreas releases high amounts of insulin. For some reason, people who get migraines release more than the normal amount of insulin. Insulin stimulates the release of adrenalin. This starts a migrainous attack. Going without eating for 3 to 4 or more hours causes low blood sugar levels which can also trigger a migraine.

  • Avoid refined sugar.
  • Fruit should be fresh, not dried or cooked.
  • Eat a wholesome balanced diet of natural foods.
  • Eat every three hours.
  • Have six small meals a day instead of three.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol.

Physical triggers of a migraine include

  • metabolic disorder (weight gain)
  • menstruation
  • ovulation
  • ovarian cycle disorders such as Polycystic Ovarian Disorder, Fibroids,
  • Endometriosis or Menopause
  • Pregnancy (some women with migraine find their attacks disappear completely, occur less often or are milder during pregnancy).

Pharmacologic triggers include

  • oral contraceptives

Dietary triggers include

  • alcohol
  • tyramine (aged cheeses and fermented foods)
  • aspartame (artificial sweetener)
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • phenylethylamine (present in some OTC drugs and chocolate)
  • nitrates (preservatives used in sausage, bacon, and lunch meats)
  • citrus foods and products

Behavioral Triggers

  • missing meals
  • changing your sleep routine
  • stress

Natural Remedies for Migraine

The most appropriate treatment is balancing the hormones, while focusing on identification & rectification of the underlying triggers. Treatments can therefore be complex and in addition to hormone modulation might involve appropriate dietary changes, joint manipulation (such as osteopathy) and the introduction of stress management techniques.

Establish the cause of them. Keeping a “migraine diary” is most the most beneficial tool to achieve this. Diarize your food & beverage intake, your menstrual cycle & stress levels.

The treatment protocol for migraines can be quite complex. Herbalists often prescribe Vitex agnus-castus in conjunction with the herb Cimcifuga racemosa throughout the cycle to regulate the oestrogen levels, with Lavandula angustifolia as a relaxing nervine and Corydalis ambigua for its pain reducing effects. A tailored herbal mix can be effective in the treatment of migraines.

Women who have migraines also frequently have lower levels of the anti-inflammatory protacyclin PGI 2. Fish oils may improve the ratio of this protective prostaglandin and help to reduce the incidence of migraine. They are also beneficial in balancing hormones.

Other helpful nutrients are:


Magnesium is a mineral found naturally in foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains and in nutritional supplements.Magnesium is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions. It helps regulate blood sugar levels and is needed for normal muscle and nerve function, heart rhythm, immune function, blood pressure, and for bone health.Several studies have evaluated the effectiveness of magnesium for migraine and have had promising results.

Chromium Chromium is helpful as many migraine suffers have been found to be deficient in this mineral. Eating refined sugars leads to chromium deficiency.

So you don’t have to suffer in silence. There are treatment strategies available that have proven over time to be effective in both working on the underlying causes of your migraine.

Narelle Stegehuis, CEO of MassAttack, is a practicing Naturopath specializing in natural treatment programs for women with hormonal imbalance, such as PCOS, Fibroids, Endometriosis & Thyroid imbalance. Uniquely for patient convenience her programs are also offered via the Internet. She is both an accomplished writer and recent recipient of the Australian Naturopathic Excellence Award 2006. Narelle can be contacted at

Monday, July 7, 2008

Are you struggling ‘to get back into the swing of things?’

“A mother of four in my late 30’s, I could not understand why I was so tired. I holidayed twice a year, had a supportive husband and my children were at school – I even had a cleaner; so there was plenty of rest in my life! - Yet I was robbed of my energy, and filled with aches and pain. A good day meant I would exist well enough to function – in a most basic way and a bad day took me hostage. After years of battling, I was finally diagnosed with ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’. Sarah Chronic fatigue syndrome is a blanket term given to ‘extreme fatigue without identifiable cause’. Previously healthy, energetic women can almost “fall in a heap”. They can present with a mixed bag of symptoms, ranging from extreme fatigue, headaches, weight gain & difficulty concentrating. Even the most basic tasks, such as making the lunches & getting the kids off to school can leave them drained for the rest of the day.

For some women, it may occur after a cold or virus. Or it can start after a period of high stress. It can also come on gradually without any clear starting point or any obvious cause. Giving birth can be a trigger point – especially if it was a lengthy & complicated birth.

In addition to persistent fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome has a number of symptoms, but these are the most popular:

  • Loss of memory or concentration
  • Sore throat
  • Painful and mildly enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits
  • Unexplained muscle soreness
  • Pain that moves from one joint to another without swelling or redness
  • Headache of a new type, pattern or severity
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Extreme exhaustion after normal exercise or exertion

The exact cause of chronic fatigue is unknown. Several possible causes have been proposed, including:

  • Iron deficiency anemia or low B12 levels
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • History of allergies
  • Virus infection, such as Epstein-Barr virus or human herpes virus 6
  • Dysfunction in the immune system
  • Changes in the levels of hormones such as adrenal, thyroid, androgens, progesterone or testosterone
  • Mild, chronic low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Poor liver function
  • Stress may also cause chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
  • Low thyroid function

Fatigue can be a symptom of many illnesses, such as infections or psychological disorders such as post natal depression. In general, see your health professional if you have persistent or excessive fatigue.

There's no specific treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. However the good news is that you can aim to relieve symptoms by using a combination of treatments, which may include:

Lifestyle changes. Encourage yourself to slow down and to avoid excessive physical and psychological stress. This may save your energy for essential activities at home or work and help you cut back on less important activities.

Introduce gradual but steady exercise such as Pilates. This can help prevent or decrease the muscle weakness caused by prolonged inactivity. In addition, your energy level can often improve significantly.

Dietary changes. Support a healthy lifestyle by kicking bad habits such as eating processed foods & consuming coffee or alcohol – keep away from your red listed foods! Choose foods that are supportive of what your body needs.

Improve your mood Depression can be both a cause & effect of chronic fatigue. Herbs such as Hypericum, Oats & B vitamins can help to improve your mood.

Aid existing pain with Glucosamine & Fish Oil supplementation

Improve & support immune system regulation with herbs such as Rehmannia & Hemidesmus.

Remember though, each of us will use a slightly different approach to getting well. There is no one 'magic bullet' that cures chronic fatigue syndrome. Identifying the cause is the starting point towards reclaiming wellness. You can have your life back - and better than ever!

Narelle Stegehuis, CEO of MassAttack, is a practicing Naturopath specializing in natural treatment programs for women with hormonal imbalance, such as PCOS, Fibroids, Endometriosis & Thyroid imbalance. Uniquely for patient convenience her programs are also offered via the Internet. She is both an accomplished writer and recent recipient of the Australian Naturopathic Excellence Award 2006. Narelle can be contacted at