The average woman & her dog (& likely every other member of her household, be they furred or otherwise), can tell you that sudden changes in sex hormones can
undermine, derange, psychopathise, impact her mind and mood. Hey, for me most days reverse parking is my mild super power, the envy of all, but on day 26 of my menstrual cycle, I can struggle with a ‘nose-to-kerb’! But if we are quick to attribute this to the fluctuating sex hormones produced by our ovaries, alone, we’d be making a mistake. A portion of these peripheral steroids do cross the BBB and act in our brain, so changes to these levels during any kind of transition: follicular to luteal, pregnant to post-partum, menstruating to menopausal, early adulthood to andropause, will be ‘felt’ but the sex (hormones) we have on our brains at any given time, are far more abundant, potent and complex than this, thanks to the brain’s ability to make its own.
So in fact, the amount of sex hormones active in the brain represent an intersection between peripheral and central steroidogenesis.
These Neurosteroids, made ‘on site’, are as much produced in response to our mood, our neurobiology, our psychological and environmental stress, to help us navigate these, as they are the creators of mood itself.
Yes, these particular sex hormones, due to their actions in our brain, belong to that growing list of CNS celebrities: the Non-Classical Neuromodulators. Which, for the otherwise neurotransmitter-centric & obsessed among us (that’s everyone), makes mental health and illness much more complex than ‘serotonin deficiency’ or ‘glutamate excess’ and a whole lot more real. We now need to consider other entities like: ‘suboptimal LDLs’, 5 alpha reductase over or under-expression & ‘xs inhibitory tone via progesterone’.
The ‘sex on the brain’ of any patient therefore is impacted by both their Endocrine (ovaries, testes, adrenals) and Synaptocrine (neural) contributions – and these demonstrate some shared dependence (for cholesterol & healthy mitochondria etc) and independence.
We all know the depressing stats in support of the ‘ovarian withdrawal hypothesis’ and the risk to women’s mental health with each reproductive transition, and also in andropause in men, but the time has come to now deepen our understanding and to recognise we can have an imbalance of ‘sex’ on the brain – regardless of the ‘balance’ we might see in the periphery and put our thinking caps on about the options we have to address steroidogenesis either side of the blood brain barrier.
When it comes to a modern take on how sex hormones impact both the structure & function of our CNS, we need to blend the ‘old’ with the ‘new’. The ‘old’ tells us, production of sex hormones is in the gonads and action at a distant target anywhere else in the body, including our brain. And the ‘new’ is in the form of the ‘Synaptocrine’ – where production of these sex steroids is actually within neural tissue itself and their immediate actions occur close-by, in the synpase and at the post-synaptic neuronal membrane. These two contributive pathways show some shared dependence but also independence from one another and the balance of both has now been recognised to be integral to the overall health of the nervous system.
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Assessing Adrenals can be hit and miss, especially given that even more so than other labs, timing is everything. That’s why endocrinologists typically won’t look at anything less than a 24hr urine collection. If the total output is deemed to be high = Cushing’s and if it’s low = Addison’s. Sounds simple right? But to say only values outside of this reference range flag a problem might just be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (or urine in this case!). Especially given it has been established that humans frequently fail at correct & complete 24hr urine collection! Alternatively we can use saliva or blood assays and capture the cortisol at any given time point, comparing that to expectations based on diurnal rhythm – but again, how are the reference ranges for these ascertained and is there such as thing as low normal. high normal results for cortisol, that actually warrant follow up investigation? I’m so glad you asked.
I see a number of patients who present with possible indications of flagging adrenals: from some distinguishing, but far from definitive features, in the clinical picture, to secondary lab markers. However, when they ‘limp’ over the line with their morning blood cortisol result I am often left talking to myself in an echo chamber about the need for more follow up.
But with the RCPA a.m. reference range of 200-650 nmol/L (Some seriously wide goalposts!) and some labs even going down to 150 with their minimum acceptable level for morning cortisol…are we right to still flag hypocortisolism (for any reason) as a differential in patients with low normal results?
Well Medscape yet again delivered Christmas 🤶 early last week with the largest study to date of blood cortisol, that has narrowed what’s ‘normal’ significantly…at least in terms of how low you can go before warranting further investigation. In this study they tested blood cortisol in the morning and afternoon, in over 1200 individuals presenting at an endocrinology clinic to determine in real world terms how low is too low (and associated with an increased likelihood of genuine adrenal insufficiency). They then gave this new ‘minimum cortisol’ a bit of test-run in 2 other large cohorts of patients to check it really did work as an effective cut off and wham bang…we now have a fully validated bare minimum… and guess what…it’s 275 nmol/L in the morning and 250 nmol/L in the afternoon!
Let’s be clear, their cut-off has what’s called a low ‘positive predictive value’ – which means most people (approx 2/3) with cortisol under this cut-off, upon further investigation (typically the ACTH stimulation test) will be found to be fine. BUT the point of this study was to ensure we don’t miss patients with adrenal problems just because they have ‘within range’ cortisol…and this new cut-off delivers on that.
This is big helpful news actually. Previously with patients who had am cortisol between 150- 275 we tended to find ourselves in ‘no man’s land’ – unable to provide enough of an argument about why adrenal insufficiency should still be on the differential list but unable to abandon that suspicion entirely. Thanks Medscape! Now if all the labs, RCPA and the referring physicians can just read this study and shift their goal posts…🙄
Our Group Mentoring 2020 Doors are just…about…to…close!
So if you love labs (or want to learn to love them more), desire to be a better diagnostic detective than you already are and want truly independent mentoring in a collegiate and structured environment for next year and you haven’t applied yet…best shove your foot to hold that door open right now! We offer a range of different levels & types of special interest groups: from New Graduates & the Mental Health Primer group (for those wanting to upskill and focus on this area), from rotating case presentations in our regular groups which are a mix of funky similarly skilled clinicians, to our pure GP group…take our pick! But get in quick by emailing us right this very second: email@example.com
How might your patients’ Nickel exposure wreak havoc with their health? What might that look like? It may be lurking behind labels like IBS, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, contact dermatitis of unknown origin,(with or without alopecia) or even CFS. “Then how does Nickel, which can’t even claim fame as a heavy metal, manage such diverse detrimental effects’? I hear you ask. In 3 easy steps 1) exposure…we’re all exposed, Ni is ubiquitous in our soil, our food, our environment so don’t bother trying to run from it 2) it hits our gut where our microbiome and intestinal lining may constitute the first fallen soldiers 3) exposure to our immune system can lead to sensitisation, and the subsequent development of a hypersensitivity response to each following exposure …and at worst precipitation of an autoimmune process. You got all that?
So therein lies the big question: how can we help patients whose health problems stem from Noxious Nickel? We could run and hide…from our jewellery, our mobile phones, dental interventions, most food (!), but we’d be wasting our time…we’re surrounded!
In this instalment it’s time to get down and dirty and detailed about how to best identify those patients who may have Nickel related pathology and presentations. We cover testing options, typical systems affected from GIT to autoimmunity and the most extreme form: Systemic Nickel Allergy Syndrome. We outline Nickel management strategies in a world full of it (!) and we include several key papers for additional resources and support. How noxious is Nickel for some of your patients? Well by the end of this you’ll know and better still, know what to do once that’s established.
Hear all about it by listening to my latest Update in Under 30:
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If you’ve not seen Kitty Flanagan’s skit on current coffee culture...it’s essential viewing. In true Kitty-fashion, she wants to simplify coffee ordering down to 2 basic lines – White or Black – says all our pretentious coffee orders; macchiato, skinny, decaf, half strength, latte etc can essentially be reduced down to a much faster 2 queue system. But she’s forgotten the line for taking your coffee rectally. Sorry – did I make you just spill your coffee? Knowing How across health trends Kitty is, she’ll add this 3rd queue soon, if the number of patients asking me about this or telling me they’re already doing it. Now, while enemas had a place in naturopathic history, my training never covered them and, consequently, I’ve never included them in my practice. But the more hype I heard around coffee enemas specifically, the more I thought we better find out as much as we can, so at least we can better inform ourselves and our patients. And of course the monkey on your back, called FOMO, jumps up and down, incessantly asking, “Are you (and your patients) missing out on an amazing therapy?”
The first patient who told me they were using coffee enemas daily was a celeb. A very anxious one. Who also told me she couldn’t possibly drink chai let alone coffee because of the caffeine. This had me a bit stumped…I knew she wasn’t inserting decaff up there and I thought…well given the colon is SUCH an absorptive surface surely this is why she reported feeling, ‘so energised, more clear headed’ etc. with every enema?
But I wanted to find out for sure (more…)
I keep hearing the name, ‘Molly’: “I think I’ll use ‘Molly’ for this patient” or “A bit of ‘Molly’ might go well with the zinc for their high copper”... a moment of confusion on my behalf, (Molly who?) and then the slightly late…’ooooooooh Molybdenum’. Gotta love a trace mineral that is having it’s heyday…right?…right?
There are often jokes made about how little time medical degrees dedicate to teaching nutrition in general – was it 1 lecture or 3? – but let’s be honest, who among any of us really knows the ins and outs of this transition metal. I reckon we spent maybe 15 mins in my undergraduate on it and that was BC (Before Computers!) so I am guessing that 15mins has expanded about a gooooooogle times and we’ve come to a more comprehensive perspective. What do we need to update on? (more…)
That’s the word on integrative medicine street. I had a sense this was coming, not just a tightening of our terminology but also a challenge of the very concept of ‘adrenal burnout’. Hear me out. (more…)
We should all be as skilled in investigating & treating male hormone imbalances as we are female ones, yet this is often not the case. A lack of confidence in this area, which seems to be an issue for many, in particular will compromise our ability to question male clients comprehensively and effectively about their reproductive health and ultimately reduce our capacity for making good clinical decisions and achieving the best outcomes for them. If you’re female, how would you feel seeing a male practitioner who doesn’t ask you about your menstrual cycle in detail?
Many of us are at risk of committing similar crimes but we need not be. (more…)
“Two great speakers – inspirational in the first half and bang on in the second – I now know how much I don’t know”
Just out now in time for Christmas…no seriously though… this year I had the good fortune to team up with Biomedica and in particular Rachel McDonald and we delivered a 3 hour seminar called Mental Health in Holistic Practice. The intention behind this collaboration was to shift the education focus for practitioners from a prescription based approach, to one really about the clinical reality of managing mental health clients. Probably most of you will agree that the ‘treatment’ counts for only a portion of the positive outcomes in your patients and this is particularly true in clients challenged with mental health issues. After more than 20 years in practice working in this area, I’m keen to share what I’ve learned so other practitioners can get there much much faster! (more…)
When I grow up I’d like to be a few different things, forget any ballerina or astronaut aspirations, my list includes a clinical psychologist, an integrative psychiatrist and last but by no means least, an endocrinologist. I’m fascinated by hormones, their regulation & incredible interconnectedness and the longer I’m in practice and the more patients I see with hormonal issues, the deeper I dive into the endocrinology texts (Endocrinology by Greenspan & Baxter is an absolute favourite of mine and you can now purchase this as a download to your computer which is super handy). I think (more…)