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From PCOS to thyroid troubles- an exploration of women’s hormones

By Dr Haleema Sheikh, a specialist in integrative women’s health and bioidentical hormone balancing for the Marion Gluck Clinic

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Dr Haleema Sheikh, a specialist in integrative women's health and bioidentical hormone balancing for the Marion Gluck Clinic

Hormones are our bodies’ communication messengers. They are chemicals that are released by one organ/tissue that are carried in the blood and impact another organ/tissue and thus coordinate different functions in our body.

These signals tell your body what to do and when to do it and cause significant issues when there is hormonal imbalance.

Hormonal balance is very often related to our lifestyle. The environment we bathe our genes in impacts which genes are switched on and off.

Our body is always trying to be balanced and so our hormones adapt to try to create balance within the body and are a reflection of environmental and mental inputs.

Unlike men who have a 24hr testosterone cycle with testosterone peaking in the morning, the female menstrual cycle requires a complex dance of hormones to interplay to release an egg monthly.

This includes building up the lining of the womb in preparation for a fertilised egg and if there is no pregnancy to allow the lining to break down and start the whole process again.

This roughly 28-day cycle can be easily unbalanced by a number of factors, including poor nutrition, suboptimal movement, disturbed sleep, excess stress, poor relationships and high toxic burden from environmental toxins.

Reproductive hormonal symptoms can show up in a variety of ways including painful and/or heavy periods, infertility, altered cycle and PMS.

PCOS is a common (one in five to 10 women) but often poorly understood whole body hormonal/metabolic disorder that affects women of reproductive age.

The defining feature of PCOS is irregular/anovulatory cycles and the over-production of male type hormones- androgens. The increased androgens can lead to acne, oily skin and hirsutism.

Many women with PCOS also struggle with weight gain, particularly in the abdominal area.

The irregular cycles can interfere with getting pregnant and so balancing the hormones is key to restoring fertility.

There are genetic predispositions for PCOS which had a survival advantage in the past when food was scarce, and we had to fight predators.

It has been said that women with PCOS have the genes of warrior princesses and this is why it has perpetuated.

Women with this condition are struggling in today’s modern society because we are often sitting at work for hours at a time and then sitting in front of screens in the evening.

Our genes expect movement in the day and to follow natural rhythms and the sedentary nature of modern day life results in a mismatch and health issues.

The name arises from the multiple follicles seen on ultrasound of affected women- these are not true cysts.

Many young women will have these appearances and should not be automatically diagnosed with PCOS unless they have the androgen excess symptoms and irregular periods.

Women suffering from PCOS have hormonal imbalance that has a few root causes including blood sugar regulation (insulin resistance), inflammation and poor gut health. Addressing these areas is foundational to managing and reversing PCOS symptoms.

The conventional medical model is focussed on managing symptoms of PCOS and will often result in putting women on the pill to regulate periods and reduce androgen symptoms, but this is not dealing with the root cause and bringing the body back into balance.

When women have difficulty getting pregnant, they are given drugs to try to induce ovulation or referred for IVF. These are useful options to explore when lifestyle interventions have not been fruitful and should remain a reserve option.

The functional medicine approach to PCOS focuses on:

  1. Optimising diet to improve insulin sensitivity through encouraging low-carb nutrition which helps improve insulin resistance a cornerstone driver of the condition.
  2. Supporting gut health to reduce inflammation which is another key factor. Pre and probiotics can support the gut microbiome which modulate hormone balance and detoxification.
  3. Reducing exposed to toxic ‘endocrine disrupters’ in the environment like BPA in plastics because they’ve been shown to disrupt the hormonal system by altering the way in which hormones interact with their receptors and how they are used/ metabolised within the body. Thesexenoestrogens can be found in plastic bottles/containers and in many skincare products/makeup which get absorbed through the skin so it is important to use ‘clean’ products and work on minimising exposure.
  4. Minimising stress through lifestyle tweaks like meditation and yoga which help support the parasympathetic rest and digest nervous system.
  5. Using targeted supplements and herbs to support hormones further, including magnesium, which improves insulin sensitivity and is anti-inflammatory, omega 3 fatty acids, inositol and zinc.

We can also use natural bioidentical progesterone to help women with PCOS kick start a regular ovulatory cycle.

Progesterone is released in the second half of the cycle after ovulation.

Professor Jerilyn Prior has been a pioneer in her work on the use of cyclical natural progesterone for two weeks on and two weeks off to help trigger ovulation in women who are not ovulating, and this helps correct the hormonal imbalance. This can fully explored in a bioidentical hormone clinic.

Thus, in the example of PCOS we can see the far-reaching, whole-body consequences of reproductive hormone balance.

Interestingly, women are also five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid hormone problems, with one in eight women developing a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck that produces hormones (thyroxine) essential for regulating metabolism, body temperature, energy, heart rate, menstrual cycle, mood, and hair and nail growth.

Essentially, it serves as the body’s thermostat controlling how fast things happen in the body by its actions on different organs/tissues.

There are two main categories of thyroid problems hypothyroidism (an under-active thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid).

In the case of hypothyroidism, the body literally slows down and causes symptoms like weight gain, brain fog, constipation and sluggishness.

The thyroid is not producing enough of the thyroid hormones – triiodothyronine T3 (active form) orthyroxine T4 or both.

The thyroid is a sentinel gland assessing the environment and ensuring the body adapts appropriately.  It requires a number of nutrients to function optimally and lack of these can cause it to under function. These nutrients include selenium, zinc, vitamin A, iron and iodine.

Reversing these deficiencies can help the thyroid improve its functioning.

In addition, the immune system can become muddled and produce autoantibodies which mark the thyroid for destruction by the white cells of the immune system. This is called Hashimoto’s disease an autoimmune condition which is more common amongst women.

There is a triad of genetic predisposition, increased gut wall permeability which allows the immune system to be more activated and a trigger e.g. stress/gluten exposure which ignites the whole process resulting in the production of antibodies which label the thyroid as foreign and for attack.

The conventional medical model works on trying to reduce the symptoms of hypothyroidism by giving replacement thyroxine support.

This can help the situation but does not address the immune activations and high levels of antibodies causing the thyroid to be attacked. Patients will feel a bit better, but it certainly does not bring vitality and full wellbeing to the majority.

In the functional medicine world patients are often given replacement hormone but there will also be emphasis on addressing the root cause by:

  1. Improving gut health and reducing gut permeability. This requires working on the gut microbiome and nutrition. 85 per cent of patients with Hashimoto’s do better on a gluten-free diet because there is molecular mimicry between the gluten molecule and the thyroid and in individuals with a genetic predisposition the immune system reaction against gluten ingested can also target thyroid tissue.
  2. Working on the other pillars of health sleep, relaxation and movement can also help bring the body back into balance and help the immune activation.
  3. Ensuring there are not nutritional deficiencies impacting the gland.

Women in the perimenopause and menopause are more at risk of thyroid disorders as there are oestrogen receptors on the thyroid and at this time there is hormonal fluctuations which can trigger thyroid dysfunction.

During the menopause, as a result of the lack of estrogen, thyroid function can be suboptimal and this can contribute to the menopausal weight gain around the middle that happens and the deterioration in lipid panels.

We can see how endocrine glands interact with each other; the body has a complex web of interconnection which help keep the body in balance.

When we are seeing hormonal dysfunction symptoms is important not only to look at symptoms control but to look at deeper root causes driving the issues.

Careful consideration to the environment we are bathing our genes is key to optimal hormonal health and this is best done with a medical professional who understands the importance of hormonal health.

To find out more, visit the Marion Gluck Clinic.

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Why we must prioritise R&D to uplift maternal health standards

By Angela Brady, global innovation and partnering director at global health and nutrition company H&H Group

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Angela Brady, global innovation and partnering director at H&H Group

By investing in R&D for maternal health, we can offer women more choice and support to improve their experience throughout their journey.

Over the past few years, significant strides have been made in advancing maternal health, and supporting more women in their journey to motherhood – from predictive diagnostic tools to AI-enabled ultrasounds. Nonetheless, we still have a long way to go.

Far too many expectant mothers are still lacking the essential resources needed to nurture a healthy pregnancy. Recent research shows a staggering 90 per cent of women trying for a baby lack essential nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy.

The research found that in pre-conception, nine in 10 women had marginal or low levels of folate, riboflavin, vitamin B12 or vitamin D. Moreover, many in their later stages of pregnancy showed signs of vitamin B6 deficiency.

These widespread deficiencies in critical nutrients pose significant risks to maternal health and foetal development, underscoring the urgent need to address them and better support women.

These deficiencies can have long term consequences for the child, impairing their physical and cognitive development, which is why nutrition is so important prior to, and during pregnancy. With the stakes this high, empowering women with the nutritional supplements needed to ensure they are supported throughout their journey to motherhood is vital.

Opening up access and educating women on the importance of these nutrients are the first steps for healthcare providers. Still, we all have a shared responsibility in improving and setting new standards for maternal health and prenatal wellness long term.

To tackle the crisis of deficiencies among expectant mothers and those looking to conceive, ongoing research and development (R&D) in maternal health needs to be prioritised.

Investing in progress – learning from women, to better support women

By gaining a deeper understanding of maternal health and foetal development, we can innovate ingredients that are both more accessible and of a higher quality for women.

Achieving this, however, requires more investment into research that identifies current disparities and nutrient gaps, and investigates initiatives and supplements that can address these issues, including the mental health of the mother.

Mental wellbeing pre-conception and during pregnancy are often overlooked and it’s crucial that women receive the appropriate support at these times and including postpartum. This holistic approach of supporting physical and mental wellbeing reduces the likelihood of complications during pregnancy which could have long term health consequences for mother and child.

It also maximises the postpartum bonding where developing emotional connection and attachment facilitates breastfeeding and stimulates social growth.

It’s encouraging to see foundations such as the Gates Foundation invest in R&D to spur innovations in health and nutrition that can improve maternal health outcomes and aid prevention, detection and treatment of conditions that affect women.

In the global wellness space, H&H Group’s non-profit research organisation, BINC (Biostime Institute Nutrition and Care), is spearheading research to support more women in their journey to motherhood.

We know pioneering initiatives to advance the story for good maternal health – from preconception to early child infancy – is critical. To combat nutrient deficiencies and enhance access to prenatal vitamins for maternal and infant health and wellness, we must put efforts into research first.

By continuing to invest in R&D for maternal health, we can offer women more choice and support to improve their experience throughout their journey, raising the standards for maternal health.

Plugging nutrition gaps – translating insights into innovative solutions

For women with busy lifestyles, getting the exact right amount of nutrients needed can be challenging. It doesn’t help that at a time where women are already contending with pregnancy related challenges – both mental and physical – they are also in a critical window where nutrition is paramount.

With all this in mind, it can understandably be difficult to keep track of nutritional intake, which is why a simpler solution is needed.

Simply put, for women struggling to intake the key vitamins and nutrients needed to support a healthy pregnancy, there needs to be better, and more accessible options available, such as wearables and at-home diagnostics for monitoring and tracking maternal and foetal health.

The hope is that by prioritising R&D, we can create more innovative products that can plug this gap, and tackle deficiencies head on.

With more pioneering research, we can develop more products and solutions to nurture healthy pregnancies and set new standards for health, wellness and care.

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Don’t believe the social-media hype: why collagen face masks will probably let your skin down

By Melissa Snover, registered nutritionist and founder of Nourished

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Melissa Snover, registered nutritionist and founder of Nourished

Melissa Snover, registered nutritionist and founder of Nourished personalised nutrient stacks, explains why the claims made for collagen skin treatments should be treated with a great deal of caution

Recently, there has been significant attention on social media and in the press, about how collagen face masks, creams and serums are a wonderful way to have firmer, younger-looking skin.

Beauty influencers have been talking about how masks make their skin plumper and even given them fuller lips. Meanwhile, we’re told that numerous celebrities swear by collagen serums and creams.

Collagen is, indeed, a vital protein for maintaining the health of your skin. As you get older, your body produces less, your skin dries and wrinkles appear.

Boosting your levels is definitely a way of delaying the appearance of aging. Your skin will become more elastic, and it will look fresher and less tired. But collagen creams, face masks and serums aren’t the best way forward. How well they work is open to a great deal of doubt. It should possibly go without saying, but don’t trust everything you see or hear on Instagram, TikTok and the like.

Influencers and marketing teams will tell you that applying a face mask or serum are great ways to absorb collagen into your skin. However, collagen molecules are quite large – usually too large to move through your skin into your bloodstream, which is where they are needed if they are going to be broken down and have real impact.

When placed in a cream or mask, these molecules are largely going to just sit on or near the skin’s surface. Collagen masks and serums may moisturise your skin and make it look healthier and firmer, in the short term. They may contain other ingredients than can help nourish it but they are unlikely to bring any long-term benefits through collagen.

Many social media reviews and posts about collagen creams and masks talk about instant effects. These may even be visible on camera, such as plumper skin reducing the appearance of fine lines, but they don’t tend to focus on long-term benefits.

Influencers aren’t usually qualified dermatologists or nutritionists. They don’t always have an in-depth understanding of how to maintain skin health in a lasting way.

Some collagen masks and serums contain hydrolysed collagen. These are smaller protein chains that you may have heard are easier for the skin to absorb. This is true, to an extent, but be wary of online or marketing exaggeration. The collagen they contain is still very unlikely to penetrate deep enough to have substantial effects.

The best way to get collagen into your system is through nutritional supplements and stacks – pills, drinks and gummies whose ingredients are absorbed quickly by the bloodstream. They supply the body directly with collagen and collagen peptides break down into amino acids to support the body’s own production of further collagen.

Over days and weeks – not instantly, as the TikTok videos may have you believe with face masks – your skin will become more radiant and should have fewer wrinkles. You’ll also boost your joint health.

Pro-collagen skin masks and creams promise to provide ingredients, such as vitamin C, that stimulate the body to produce its own collagen but even these are far less likely to have long-term positive effects than a supplement that contains collagen and pro-collagens.

In an era where social media can often blur the lines between marketing and science, it is crucial to rely on evidence-based practices for health and wellness.

Content creators often lack the expertise of medical experts and can make exaggerated or false claims without scientific studies to back them up.

They may not do this deliberately but they are in the business of likes, views and leaping on to the latest trends, not following carefully conducted research and studies. They also generally can’t give personalised advice, potentially leading to ineffective or even damaging results.

Nourished provides personalised nutrition stacks containing countless combinations of everything from zinc to ginseng and beetroot. They can boost your bones, your heart, energy – and your skin.

Our Collagen+ Stacks, contain Ovoderm®, a premium source of collagen consisting of over 400 proteins and Collagen I, V & X. The product is created from eggshell waste, so is more sustainable than many animal or marine-derived collagen brands, which are associated with poor animal-welfare practices and overfishing. 

For more information, visit get-nourished.com/

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The new era of lateral flow technology and its impact on women’s health

By Nina Garrett, chief technical officer at Abingdon Health

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What impact will the explosion in lateral flow technology and adoption have on women’s health? Abingdon Health’s CTO Nina Garrett provides her insights into what the future may hold.

The rise of lateral flow technology has significantly reshaped the landscape of healthcare, particularly for women.

From its origins in pregnancy testing to its current widespread use, lateral flow tests (LFTs) have made health monitoring more accessible and convenient. Here, we explore the history of lateral flow tests, the current rapid self-tests available for women, the reasons behind their adoption, and the potential future applications in women’s health.

The origins of lateral flow technology and pregnancy testing

Lateral flow technology dates back to the 1960s when researchers first began exploring immunoassay techniques for rapid testing. The first commercial lateral flow test, however, came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the introduction of the home pregnancy test.

The first lateral flow test: home pregnancy testing

In ancient Egypt, an intriguing method to determine pregnancy involved women urinating on barley and wheat seeds. If the seeds sprouted, it was believed the woman was pregnant.

Surprisingly, modern science supports this ancient practice, as the hCG hormone in a pregnant woman’s urine can indeed promote seed growth. This historical test showcases the ingenuity of early diagnostic methods and the enduring quest for reliable pregnancy tests.

Fast forward to the early 1960s, scientists developed sophisticated techniques to detect hCG in urine. The significant breakthrough came in 1978 when Warner-Chilcott introduced the first over-the-counter home pregnancy test, the “e.p.t” (early pregnancy test).

This innovation transformed women’s health by offering a private, quick and reliable way to confirm pregnancy without needing a doctor’s visit, marking a new era in personal health diagnostics.

While this was a significant breakthrough, the pregnancy testing market remained relatively untouched until Abingdon Health’s recent release of the world’s first saliva pregnancy test which can now be found under the Boots brand to encourage adoption. HcG remains the flagship at-home women’s test but it has paved the way for what we now see on shelves.

Current rapid self-tests available for women

Today, lateral flow technology has expanded far beyond pregnancy tests empowering women to pro-actively manage their own health and wellbeing. Rapid self-tests are available that cater to women’s health needs include:

Ovulation tests: These tests detect the surge in luteinising hormone (LH) that occurs before ovulation, helping women identify their fertile window for conception.

Urinary tract infection (UTI) tests: These tests detect nitrites and leukocytes in urine, indicating the presence of a UTI.

Sexually transmitted infection (STI) tests: Some STI tests can be performed at home, testing for infections like chlamydia and gonorrhoea using urine samples or vaginal swabs.

Vaginal pH tests: These tests help diagnose bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections by detecting abnormal pH levels in vaginal secretions.

Menopause tests: These tests measure follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) levels in urine, which can indicate the onset of menopause.

Vitamin D deficiency tests: One of the most common deficiencies worldwide, these tests allow the monitoring of deficient and sufficient levels. Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones and teeth, the immune system, brain health and for regulating inflammation.

Ferritin (iron) deficiency tests: Iron is a crucial mineral that plays several vital roles within the body including, oxygen transport, muscle function, enzyme activity and immune function. A lack of iron can result in iron deficiency anaemia.

Why women choose to use rapid self-tests at home

There are some distinct advantages in using rapid tests, however, there still are challenges to consider. We take a look at some of these below.

Advantages

  • Convenience: Rapid self-tests empower women to conduct health checks at their own convenience, eliminating the need for scheduling and attending doctor’s appointments.
  • Privacy: These tests offer a discreet way to monitor health conditions, which is crucial for sensitive issues like pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or menopause.
  • Quick results: Delivering results within minutes to hours, these tests enable timely decision-making and prompt treatment.
  • Cost-effective: Self-tests are generally more affordable than visiting healthcare providers, as they cut out consultation fees and reduce overall healthcare costs.

Disadvantages

  • Accuracy concerns: Despite high accuracy rates, rapid tests can produce false positives or negatives, leading to unnecessary anxiety or false reassurance. This is where a trusted developer and/or supplier of LFTs is critical.
  • Misinterpretation: Users may misinterpret results if instructions are not followed carefully, potentially leading to incorrect health decisions.
  • Limited scope: Designed to detect specific conditions, self-tests do not offer a comprehensive health assessment and might miss other underlying issues.
  • Need for follow-up: Positive results typically necessitate follow-up with a healthcare provider for confirmation and treatment, which can still be inconvenient.
Potential future applications of lateral flow tests in women’s health

The potential for expanding the use of lateral flow technology in women’s health is immense, and as a contract development manufacturing organisation  (CDMO), we are at the forefront of developing some novel products within women’s health and wellbeing. Here are several areas where future rapid self-tests could have a significant impact:

Hormonal imbalances

Hormonal imbalances can lead to a range of health issues, including irregular menstrual cycles, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and menopause-related symptoms.

Future self-tests could monitor hormone levels such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, enabling women to manage their reproductive health more effectively.

Breast cancer

Early detection of breast cancer is crucial for successful treatment. Researchers are exploring the possibility of developing rapid self-tests that detect biomarkers associated with breast cancer in blood or saliva samples, allowing for regular, non-invasive screening at home.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a painful condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside it. Currently, diagnosing endometriosis requires invasive procedures.

Rapid self-tests that detect biomarkers in blood or urine would be a groundbreaking development for early diagnosis and management.

Fertility and menstrual health

In addition to existing ovulation tests, comprehensive fertility tests could assess multiple hormones and health markers to provide a detailed fertility profile. Similarly, tests that track menstrual health and predict issues such as dysmenorrhea (painful periods) or amenorrhea (absence of periods) would be invaluable.

Mental health

Mental health conditions, such as postpartum depression, are often underdiagnosed and undertreated. Innovative approaches to detect stress hormones or other biomarkers related to mental health could provide early warnings and facilitate timely intervention.

Nutritional deficiencies

While there are some rapid tests for detecting deficiencies in vitamins and minerals on the market, such as our iron self-test and vitamin D self-test as set out above, others like B12, could help women manage their dietary intake and address potential issues more proactively.

The explosion in lateral flow technology and its adoption holds immense promise for women’s health. The convenience, privacy and quick results provided by rapid self-tests are transforming how women monitor and manage their health.

While there are limitations to current self-tests, ongoing advancements in this field are going to expand their scope and accuracy, making them even more integral to women’s healthcare.

As research progresses, we can anticipate a future where rapid self-tests become commonplace for diagnosing and monitoring a wide range of conditions. This shift towards at-home testing will empower women to take more control of their health, leading to earlier detection, better management of chronic conditions and overall improved health outcomes.

Abingdon Health’s team has over 20 years’ experience in the lateral flow market and is a knowledge leader in the development, scale-up, transfer, manufacturing, regulatory approval and distribution of lateral flow products across a range of sectors. If you would like to understand more about these services, and discuss any specific requirements, don’t hesitate to contact Abingdon’s experts today.

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