Solving the Mystery of Hormone Balance:
Experimenting with Minerals
working with estrogen, progesterone and thyroid for three years,
I still hadn't solved the mystery of hormone balance. I still
wasn't sleeping well, I still had episodes of non-stop hot flashes,
and my energy and mood were either very good or very bad. I felt
that hormones were only the proximate causes of my symptoms, and
I had to look deeper to find the original cause of my hormone
by Patricia Rackowski
About a year ago, in August of 2000, I began to take copper supplements, and after three days my estrogen levels increased enough to give me that high estrogen headache, and I went off of estrogen. My hot flashes disappeared and haven't come back since. This was rather dramatic because I had been having non-stop hot flashes for 4 years unless I used estrogen, and even with estrogen I had episodes of non-stop hot flashes that kept me awake all night. This experience with copper convinced me that minerals are extremely important, not just the "Little Sister" in my Vitamin and Mineral supplement. Perhaps you would be interested to know how I got to copper, and whether it would help anyone else.
I am not a doctor or a scientist. I am a massage therapist. As a bodyworker, I have learned to listen to my body and to trust my inner voice. It doesn't always steer me direct, but it doesn't steer me wrong. Hair analysis had been attracting my attention for awhile.
It's not really the hair analysis that's important, it's the minerals. Minerals are involved in the manufacture and the activities of enzymes, and it's enzymes that carry out almost every process in the body. It's enzymes that build up and break down hormones, enzymes that convert one hormone to another, and enzymes that carry out activities initiated by hormones at receptor sites. It was very possible, I thought, that the hormonal imbalances I was experiencing were caused by mineral deficiencies.
I was wondering about copper, because I had read that premature white hair was a sign of copper deficiency. My hair started turning white little by little since I was 22, at the same time I developed Graves' disease (autoimmune hyperactive thyroid). Premature white hair is a common result of Graves' disease. Copper deficiency is also associated with Graves' disease.
Also, as a menopause consultant, I was wondering about minerals and osteoporosis. I read about all the minerals that are important for bone building: calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, boron, and manganese. But how much of each should one take? Recommendations varied from author to author. I thought a more important question might be: which minerals was I getting enough of and which ones did I need more of? Although there is a lot of talk about how much calcium one "should" take, there is little discussion of how to find out if your body is absorbing the calcium you are taking. I wanted an assessment tool.
And as an eater, I was wondering about the disappearing minerals in my food. According to the US Dept. of Agriculture, the mineral content of fruits and vegetables has greatly diminished in the past 50 years due to poor maintenance of the soil. For example, the amount of calcium in broccoli has declined by 50% since 1975, and the amount of calcium in corn is down by 33% since 1963. But was I really deficient in minerals in general, or was I deficient in particular minerals? It didn't seem wise to me to start taking large amounts of minerals willy-nilly without any type of feedback system to tell me whether I needed them or not.
Hair analysis is a test that can give you an approximate idea of which minerals your body is absorbing enough of, and which are deficient. It is often used to reveal toxic mineral exposure for arsenic, mercury, aluminum, cadmium and lead. But it can also be used to show nutrient mineral status. It is more useful than a blood test, which only shows the minerals in the blood at the moment it's taken. A hair analysis of one inch length hair shows mineral absorption over about two months for those minerals that accumulate in hair as well as other tissues. And, a hair analysis shows the ratio of certain minerals to their companion minerals, such as the ratio of calcium to magnesium and the ratio of zinc to copper. The ratios can be more important than the actual mineral values when it comes to figuring out what is going on in your body. This is why a trained practitioner is required to interpret a hair analysis.
I found out that in order to get a hair analysis test, I had to see a practitioner, since the testing labs do not deal directly with the public. Although I didn't understand it at the time, I know now that mineral balancing is not a straightforward process, and it's good to have a practitioner's guidance. Lots of different practitioners use hair analysis testing including medical doctors, nurse practitioners, naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, nutritionists, and many others. Each lab instructs the practitioners in interpreting the test results, and interpretation varies considerably from lab to lab.
I went to a nurse practitioner at the Marino Center, a holistic health center in Cambridge, MA. They use Trace Elements lab in Addison, TX. I've gotten other analyses done since then at other labs, but I still prefer the Trace Elements report. If you try to call Trace Elements, however, they will not deal with you directly. They will not even tell you who uses their lab in your area. So you just have to ask around to find a practitioner who does hair analysis, and then ask them what lab they use. If you can't find a practitioner who uses Trace Elements, then Great Smokies Lab is OK and so is Doctor's Data. Those are the three I have used and they were consistent with my mineral values. I just liked the accompanying report by Trace Elements a lot better.
I got my first hair analysis in January, 2000. I was really impressed by the report. Without any other information about me other than from my hair, the Trace Elements report described my metabolic problems and my symptoms quite accurately. All of my minerals were really low, except selenium, which I had been supplementing for a couple of years at 100 mcg/day on the advice of my endocrinologist. All of my electrolytes were low: calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, although I had been taking calcium and magnesium for years.
What happened next was a big delay in progress. As I said, my inner voice doesn't always steer me directly. Although the report recommended a great many mineral supplements, being the cautious person that I am, and having suffered a lot already and gotten a little better, I was afraid to start taking them all at once. So I determined to follow the extensive dietary recommendations in the report, what foods to eat more of and what foods to avoid, to see if I could improve my mineral uptake through diet.
The upshot of all this was that after six months I had another hair analysis, and nothing had changed. Nothing! I was not going to be able to improve my mineral levels without taking significant supplementation. During this six months, however, I had learned a lot more about minerals through a website I found at http://www.ithyroid.com. I began to realize how complicated this whole thing is, and perhaps it was just as well that I got into this slowly. If I had gone whole hog in the beginning, I might have made a mistake and discouraged myself from continuing.
In August 2000 I was ready to go up to 6 mg. copper daily. I had learned that copper was probably my most significant deficiency and after that magnesium. I also began to take calcium/magnesium in a 1:1 ratio instead of the usual 2:1 ratio. I switched calcium supplements from a tablet to a capsule (powdered) form, but I was actually taking about the same milligrams I had been taking for years. And I began to take Betaine hydrochloride with Pepsin before dinner (a stomach acid supplement) to help me absorb more minerals from my food.
That's when, in three days, my hot flashes were cured. These hot flashes were characterized by a brief feeling of dread, followed by a shot of adrenaline that would cause palpitations, a sense of heat rising from my chest upwards, and finally the chills. The chills lasted the longest, perhaps 15 -20 minutes, and then the whole thing would start again. These were not funny. These were not power surges. I couldn't live with these hot flashes, and that's why I was on estrogen, although I hadn't missed a period yet. Estrogen greatly reduced the hot flashes.
Is there a connection between estrogen and copper? You can bet your entire plumbing system on YES. Now for some science.
levels are related to estrogen levels. Copper is involved in the
production of estrogen. Copper accumulates in the liver, and must
be available for the metabolism of estrogen. Both excessive copper
and deficient copper may cause estrogen imbalance. Adrenaline
stimulates the liver to produce ceruloplasmin, the main copper-binding
protein. Copper is not bioavailable until it is bound to certain
proteins. Thus in cases of adrenal insufficiency there may be
a hidden copper excess in the tissues, caused by unbound, biounavailable
copper. We see that copper may be deficient, excessive or biounavailable.
COPPER / PROGESTERONE
In another enzyme pathway, copper removes excess T3 in the body, and thus "saves" estrogen, which also removes excess T3. Copper accumulation in the liver can remove too much T3 and result in fatigue or even hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is associated with too much copper and not enough zinc. Low zinc results in low progesterone, PMS and infertility Too much T3 as in hyperthyroidism may deplete the body's stores of copper, causing an estrogen deficiency. Untreated hyperthyroidism will cause menstrual cycles to stop, as excess T3 "eats up" estrogen.
Are you confused yet? Let's look at it another way, by symptoms
According to Dr. Lawrence D. Wilson, author of "Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis", the hormone imbalances of PMS and perimenopause need to be approached differently depending upon the symptoms:
Estrogen-dominant, low progesterone women have PMS characterized by fluid retention, bloating, sore breasts and irritability. These women, who tend to have a heavier build and more body fat, have a slower metabolism, higher copper levels and a high sodium/potassium ratio. They require copper-lowering nutrients such as zinc, B6, choline, inositol, Vitamin C, molybdenum and sulfur, and more potassium-rich foods. Zinc supports progesterone production. Fluctuating progesterone causes blood sugar instability and mood swings. Chocolate and other sweet cravings at the menstrual period help keep blood sugar, and mood, up. A desire for red meat may indicate low iron stores. Salt cravings may indicate a need for trace minerals such as selenium, chromium and iodine. Low zinc, iron, selenium or iodine may result in functional hypothyroidism. Uncorrected hypothyroidism in younger women can cause infertility. This condition can be caused by the birth control pill, which depletes zinc.
Low estrogen, progesterone-dominant women have PMS characterized by anxiety and hyperactivity, or fatigue and depression if adrenals are worn out. These women tend to have a more slender body build, a low sodium/potassium ratio, and low or biounavaible copper. Their metabolism is generally on the fast side. They feel better with supplemental copper, Vitamin E, magnesium, pantothenic acid and other nutrients to assist the adrenal glands. Magnesium may help them sleep better. Chocolate is high in copper. Chocolate cravings around the menstrual period may be due to a need for copper. Copper stores may be so low that the production of estrogen at the menstrual cycle depletes them. At perimenopause, their fast metabolism "eats up" estrogen and causes hot flashes, palpitations, and insomnia. Untreated hyperthyroidism in younger women can cause an early menopause.
The above are not hard and fast rules, and a woman may vary in her symptoms from month to month if all minerals are low. Just by taking a multimineral daily supplement*, symptoms should diminish over time, unless deficiencies are severe, in which case, after a hair analysis, certain individual minerals need to be supplemented at higher levels. Hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia and diabetes indicate that more severe mineral deficiencies exist.
At menopause, both estrogen and progesterone levels fall. Sometimes progesterone falls first, causing symptoms similar to the PMS estrogen dominance symptoms above: fluid retention, bloating, sore breasts, mood swings, headaches and heavy bleeding. Taking natural progesterone can counteract the symptoms and "save" zinc, because zinc is involved in the production of progesterone. But it's also possible that symptoms can be relieved by taking zinc which supports progesterone production, and B complex vitamins with extra B6.
When estrogen levels begin to fluctuate, sometimes high and sometimes low, we can get hot flashes and relieve them by taking estrogen, which "saves" copper. It is also possible that symptoms can be relieved by copper, IF one is copper deficient or low in copper, which in turn "saves" estrogen. If copper is biounavailable, B complex vitamins with extra B12 may be needed to enhance the absorption of copper. B12 level can be tested by a blood test. Be sure to get the numerical results, not just a "you're OK". B12 on the low side of the normal range can be supplemented with good benefit.
In my own case, I was deficient in copper, which is usually the case with Graves' Disease or hyperthyroidism. I had treatment with Radio-Active Iodine in 1976, so my hyperthyroidism had become hypothyroidism, but due to the copper deficiency, I tended to be sort of a hyper/hypo person. I had both kinds of PMS. When progesterone fell at menopause, I had severe estrogen dominance symptoms at first, but when estrogen began to fluctuate too, I had non-stop hot flashes. Basically I was low in all minerals on my hair analysis, but copper was the most significant and underlying deficiency. Onçe I began to replace copper I began to get back into balance. I was able to absorb the other minerals better once the "hyper" side of me was treated.
Copper, zinc and iron are the three minerals most involved in thyroid regulation. If you have too much of any one of these, you will eventually become depleted in the other two. Mineral ratios are as important or more important than mineral levels. This means that even if the copper level is normal, if the zinc/copper ratio is very low, one is likely to experience symptoms of elevated copper.
Thus I recommend that if you do not have a thyroid disease, you try a multimineral daily supplement that has the daily requirement of each mineral in the proper proportion (see list at end of article), but if you have a thyroid disease or diabetes, I suggest you get a hair analysis first before taking supplements. You may need copper and iron, as I did, or you may need just copper. You may need zinc and iron to balance too much copper. Also, your sodium/potassium ratio will be an indication of adrenal health and your calcium/magnesium ratio will give information about glucose metabolism. Low magnesium could explain heart palpitations, waking up startled, insomnia. Low iron could explain feeling cold, cold flashes, chills, and waking up early. Thyroid function could be enhanced by iron, selenium, iodine, manganese and/or chromium. Insulin usage could be assisted by chromium and vanadium. Look for a practitioner in your area who uses hair analysis to help you.
Copper deficient anemia is very dangerous, but even low copper
can result in an aneurysm (burst blood vessel). About 4-6% of
Americans die from aneurysm . Copper is important for the integrity
of the blood vessel walls. Taking large amounts of Vitamin C for
a long time can deplete you of copper. Copper is also important
for preventing osteoporosis. Altogether it is a very significant
mineral. Yet one must not take too much copper, for high copper
levels can cause poor memory, depression, insomnia, migraines,
and joint and muscle pain. Thus the hair analysis is important
to keep track of long term supplementation above 4 mg/day.
ZINC, COPPER & IRON
And regarding zinc, I have seen recommendations by doctors for very high levels of zinc supplementation, such as 50 or 70 mg/day, for prevention of macular degeneration, without any mention of the fact that this can deplete copper and iron and cause anemia, hyperthyroidism or aneurysm. From what I have learned, zinc should not be taken in such high amounts unless it is found to be deficient through a hair analysis. In that case, more zinc can be taken until zinc is in the normal range, but then the normal 15-30 mg/day is enough. Another way to tell if you need zinc is to suck on a zinc lozenge. If it tastes really bad, you have enough zinc. If it tastes neutral, you need zinc. As with many other things, too much can be as bad as too little.
About iron, I want to mention that it is not wise to take iron without being tested for iron deficiency. Postmenopausal women do not need as much iron as women who are still losing iron each month at menstruation, since iron accumulates and excess iron is not excreted in urine or feces. But if you are experiencing fatigue, feeling cold when others don't, cold flashes instead of hot flashes, or waking up early, you may be low in iron. If you are a vegetarian or have had episodes of heavy bleeding in perimenopause you may be low in iron. Ask your doctor for a blood test, and do not take "You're OK" for an answer. Get the numbers. If you are on the low side of the normal range, you may still take some iron and feel better.
IS HAIR ANALYSIS RELIABLE?If you mention hair analysis to your doctor, you will probably be told that it's a hoax, pure quackery. This is because reputable medical journals have attacked hair analysis from time to time with studies that show that there is a great deal of discrepancy between labs in their reports. I read the most recent debunking of hair analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 3, 2001. It's absurd. Hair samples from ONE "healthy" woman were sent to six different labs for analysis. There were large discrepancies in the reports, mostly due to differences of scale by factors of 10 or 100 in reporting the data, but also due to different testing procedures. Yet there was, by the Journal's own data, enough agreement between labs on all the major minerals to tell you whether the woman was deficient or not. For example, the results for copper were: 13, 15, 14, 11, 12, and 14.93. This was good enough to indicate that copper was in the lower half of normal range. It was probably as close as cholesterol testing from six different labs would be. I frequently read news articles about hair analysis being used to look for toxic mineral levels in people exposed to mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic. There is no reason why the same technique isn't just as effective with nutrient minerals.
Another problem is that the "normal" range for copper (and all the nutrient minerals) in hair is not well established, and each lab has set up its own normal range based upon testing of "healthy" individuals. I put "healthy" in quotes because people may appear healthy while they are marginally deficient in some minerals. A great deal more study could be done in this area, but it would not be beneficial to any drug company to sponsor one. There is very little profit in selling minerals compared to selling hormones and drugs. Minerals are really cheap.
It's important to remember that the goal of mineral balancing is not to get a "perfect" hair analysis whatever that may be. The goal is to feel better, to resolve difficult symptoms and health problems. If this is accomplished, then that is success. After all, I don't really care how much copper is in my hair, I just want to be able to sleep at night! The hair analysis is just a guide to what might be needed and what needs to be brought back closer to balance. The body does the rest. The body heals itself, given the proper raw materials.
MORE READING Many studies have been done on mineral deficiencies and diseases in domesticated animals, but they have been done over at the US Department of Agriculture by veterinarians. After all, a pig with diabetes or hypothyroidism is a dead pig, and farmers can't afford too many of those. One such USDA vet became a naturopathic doctor and began to apply what he knew about animals to people. He is Dr. Joel Wallach. He made a tape called "Dead Doctors Don't Lie" which has been passed around extensively by people doing multi-level marketing for colloidal minerals. (Colloidal minerals have too much aluminum. Look for ionic trace minerals.) Now "Dead Doctors Don't Lie" is available as a tape and a book from Amazon.com. I highly recommend it. It's entertaining as well as informative.
"Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis" by Dr. Larry Wilson has the information that Trace Elements Lab uses to analyze metabolism, stress levels and diet. Dr. Wilson says that "Hair analysis is much more than a test for minerals. From a small sample of hair, you can learn about your metabolic rate, stage of stress, immune system, and adrenal and thyroid activity. The test offers accurate information about carbohydrate tolerance, energy levels and tendencies for over 30 illnesses, often years before they manifest. You can also tell if you are eating enough protein, eating too many carbohydrates, and whether a vegetarian diet is working for you. . . . Families can learn why a child has learning difficulties, attention deficit disorder, infections, or difficulty falling asleep . . . Nutrition consultants can
reduce the guesswork in recommending nutritional products . . . Health practitioners can approach each patient as an individual using hair analysis." You can order this book from Dr. Wilson at http://www.drwilson.com.
"The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients and Trace Elements" by Paul Bergner, a clinical nutritionist, is another good book on minerals and disease prevention with mineral supplementation. He writes about the mineral deficiencies in our foods and the diseases that are resulting in our society today, about each mineral and what it does in the body, how much to take, and about food, herbal and supplemental sources of minerals and trace elements. He has a table that shows how much aluminum (a toxic metal) colloidal mineral supplements have and that is why I warn you about them. He suggests that liquid ionic trace minerals or sea salt are better sources of trace minerals.
"Why Am I Always So Tired" by Ann Louise Gittleman, nutritionist and author of the excellent "Super Nutrition for Menopause", explores the symptoms of copper imbalance. Copper excess is a more common problem than copper deficiency, and may explain your fatigue. Eating too many carbohydrates and not enough fat and protein, a vegetarian diet, taking birth control pills, using the copper IUD, and water high in copper from copper pipes, all contribute to high copper levels.
For an interesting discussion of a "hormones and minerals" case where a woman with two previous postpartum depressions was prevented from having one after her third pregnancy through hair analysis and mineral balancing see
CONCLUSIONIn summary, what I have told you here is a GROSS OVER-SIMPLIFICATION. I highly recommend that you thoroughly study the website http://www.ithyroid.com where I got a lot of my information. Credit is due to ithyroid's creator, John Johnson, for putting together a huge amount of information on minerals. As John says, this is an EXPERIMENTAL approach. Be cautious, hyperthyroids especially. Read "Balancing Minerals" first, at http://www.ithyroid.com/balancing_minerals.htm
I don't suggest that people stop taking their thyroid medications or their diabetes medications or even their ovarian hormone therapy. I suggest working with the minerals and little by little working into a better mineral balance. Perhaps your need for medications will then decrease. I am still taking Levoxyl, but my symptoms have much improved with mineral balancing.
"The minerals in our bodies are like precious jewels, rare gifts to us from the Creator. They perform biological functions there that nothing can replace, not conventional or alternative medical therapies, not mind/body medicine, not New Age thinking. To maintain our health, or to regain a higher level of health, we need only turn, open-handed, to receive the gift of natural foods." - Paul Bergner in "The Healing Power of Minerals".
In the more than 30 years that have gone by since I was diagnosed with Graves' Disease in 1970, I have gone to many endocrinologists and other doctors. I have had Radioactive Iodine, thyroid replacement, and hormone therapy. I have had psychotherapy, bodywork, Reiki, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, homeopathy and hypnosis at different times. I learned a little or a lot from these experiences. At times I improved a little or a lot. But I have never had so dramatic and important a result as I have had since I started repairing my mineral balance. I feel that my health and my mental and physical balance are being restored. It's taking some time. I won't bore you with all the ins and outs of my experience. I just wanted to tell you that there is something to taking minerals, and you might want to explore it. You may have tried everything else already, or you might be lucky enough to start here. Either way, it's worth exploring. It's not expensive, it's pretty safe, and good results come along fairly quickly.
ABOUT SUPPLEMENTSWhen choosing a multimineral supplement, you will have to look carefully at the label. Different products are better for different people. For example, if you are postmenopausal you don't want to take more than 10-15 mg/day of iron, unless your iron is low. Don't take more than 30 mg/zinc daily for a lengthy period of time (some multiminerals have more than that). Consider your diet--do you eat seaweed? If not, you should look for a supplement that includes iodine. Do you eat a lot of calcium-rich foods? You don't need to take so much calcium in your supplements.
As a baseline for mineral supplementation, not taking into account foods that you eat, the following are generally recommended for menopausal and postmenopausal women:
Calcium 1000 mg
Magnesium 500 mg
Potassium 99 mg
Iron 27 mg (menstruating)
Iron 10 -15 mg (not menstruating)
Zinc 15 - 30 mg
Copper 2 mg
Manganese 4 -10 mg
Boron 1 - 3 mg
Iodine 150 mcg
Chromium 200 mcg
Selenium 100-200 mcg
A good general multimineral supplement is Bronson Labs'
Mineral Insurance Formula, http://www.bronsonlabs.com. Three tablets daily, one with each meal, contain:
Calcium 324 mg
Magnesium 200 mg
Iron 15 mg
Phosphorus 166 mg
Zinc 15 mg
Copper 2 mg
Manganese 5 mg
Iodine 150 mcg
Chromium 200 mcg
Selenium 20 mcg
Molybdenum 100 mcg
You would have to add more calcium, magnesium, and some Vitamin D for your bones, at least another 100 mcg selenium for your thyroid, and 1-3 mg boron for hormone balance and bones. I recommend 1 or 2 capsules Tri-Boron Plus daily, 1 capsule Tri-Boron three times a week, and selenomethione 100 mcg (any brand). The Vitamin Shoppe has good prices on these.
For those who need to supplement particular minerals more intensively until rebalancing is achieved, you can find individual minerals very cheap at http://www.puritan.com Zinc lozenges are a good way to add zinc. When they start to taste bad, you have enough zinc. Magnesium citrate is probably the most absorbable magnesium. If it gives you soft stools, don't worry, eat more fiber or take psyllium.
If you have a hard time taking pills, look for liquid mineral supplements in your local health food store. For trace minerals such as germanium, lithium, vanadium and all the others, use a generous pinch of sea salt daily, eat some kelp, or take Concentrace Trace Mineral Drops (http://www.vitaminshoppe.com). *