Can You Really Biohack Your Hormones?

Women are seeking more natural ways of managing our menstrual cycles in place of hormonal contraception. But is biohacking a viable alternative or just another "wellness" fad? Sarah Graham investigates

Biohacking

by Grazia |

The word biohacking sounds like something straight out of science fiction, conjuring up images of Orphan Black's neolutionists tinkering with genetics and implanting gadgets inside their own bodies. Recently the term has become the buzzword de jour for Silicon Valley tech bros looking to be “posthuman” (their words); a technological alternative to working hard at the gym, gaining confidence and, for some, of course, for “picking up girls”. Nice.

But, outside of the tech-bro bubble, it's a growing trend in the real world too – especially, it seems, among some women.

According to Flux Trends: "Biohackers encourage the democratic, DIY technological development of the human race. Biohacks range from the absurd (such as implanting flashing lights into one’s hands for fun) to the ingenious (DIY devices which enable people to “see” sounds or “hear” colours)." Some bodyhacking women even believe that a copper IUD is a form of cyborg implant.

Biohacking, or DIY biological enhancement, is a broad movement. While 'bio-punks' and 'grinders' go in for these extreme cyborg-style body modifications, 'DIY biologists' experiment with gene therapy, and 'nutrigeomicists' use food and supplements to "hack" their biology and optimise their health. And that's where cycle syncing – or hormonal biohacking – comes in.

A 2017 blog post by Alisa Vitti, author of Woman Code and founder of the FLO Living hormone centre, explains that: "[As a woman], you simply need to nurture your cyclical patterns and endocrine system's nutritional needs... This means you can biohack your way to an easy, symptom free period in a very short time!"

Sounds great, right? And, with many young women feeling increasingly disillusioned with hormonal contraception, it's hardly surprising that there's a growing interest in more natural ways of managing our menstrual cycles.

51-year-old Sarah Panzetta has been practising the fertility awareness method (FAM) since a public health scare in 1995 put her off the pill. FAM is a form of family planning, made famous by contraceptive app Natural Cycles, where women track their temperatures and other biological fertility signifiers, like cervical mucus, to calculate the fertile and non-fertile days of their cycles.

"I think there's always been suspicion of the pill, but it was previously a bit radical. We're seeing more of a push back now, thanks largely to people like Holly Grigg-Spall (author of Sweetening The Pill) and Vicky Spratt's work on the Mad About The Pill campaign," she says.

Of course, tracking your periods and fertility is one thing, but can you really 'biohack' your menstrual cycle? The idea behind 'cycle syncing' is to use food and supplements to control your hormones and manage symptoms like bloating, acne, PMS and period pain. But the messaging can feel a little confused.

If you look at some of the Instagram hashtags – #cyclesyncing and #floliving being just a couple – you'd be forgiven for thinking this was just another wellness fad. Green smoothies and 'clean eating' style Buddha bowls abound. For all the sensible-sounding lifestyle advice, you'll also find more extreme 'hormone cleanse' detox diets – which endocrinologist Dr Helen Simpson from University College London Hospital (UCLH) tells me, "would cleanse your bowels but it's not going to cleanse your hormones".

Another variation, known as 'seed cycling' involves eating different seeds (pumpkin, flax, sesame and sunflower) at different phases of your cycle, and of course the wellness industry isn't short of 'hormone balancing' snacks and supplements that you can splash the cash on to support these hacks.

But does any of it work? Dr Simpson, who tweets as @Hormone_Doc, is sceptical. "Diet won't do anything to affect the function of your hormones. Certain foods do contain oestrogen, but the quantities are too small to affect your hormone levels," she says.

"A good diet and self-care will help how you feel generally though, so may well improve hormonal symptoms like PMS, or digestive issues – but it's not directly affecting the hormone fluctuations. That's where I think the line gets blurred," she adds. "If you really want to manipulate your hormones, taking the pill continuously – without the seven day break – gives you constant hormone levels so you don't have those ups and downs."

As for supplements, Dr Simpson says, they shouldn't be necessary if you have a balanced diet, but are unlikely to cause any harm unless you take them in too high a dose. Sarah, who used to work in public health, recently blogged about her experience trying magnesium as a natural remedy for period pain after reading naturopath Lara Briden's Period Repair Manual.

"I was wary of Lara's approach… All the supplements she recommended made me nervous," Sarah writes, but "one supplement she makes a strong case for is magnesium." After checking the advice on the NHS website, Sarah took a magnesium supplement and was pleasantly surprised to find her period pain stopped – although she also experienced a laxative effect until she lowered the dose.

For the all-woman team behind cycle tracking app Moody Month, the key thing is empowering women with evidence-based information about their bodies. The app enables users to track their symptoms throughout the month and better understand how hormone fluctuations affect them, as well as providing advice from their team of experts – a GP, nutritionist, cognitive neuroscientist, gynaecologist, personal trainer, and yoga instructor – on dealing with those symptoms holistically.

Founder Amy Thomson says: "We're trying to reduce the guilt women feel about their moods, and connect them with a better relationship to their bodies." When it comes to biohacking, she adds: "our perspective isn't really about 'controlling hormones', but rather providing a tool to support you throughout your cycle."

As Dr Simpson points out, different hormones affect different women in different ways, with some more sensitive to progesterone and others more sensitive to oestrogen – so Moody Month's more personalised approach seems to make sense in terms of working out what's normal for you personally.

"Understanding the four phases of your menstrual cycle, and what moods or symptoms those hormone fluctuations might bring, can be enormously empowering and help you to plan around those times you know might be more challenging," explains Moody Month's resident nutritionist Lola Ross.

During your period, for example, Moody Month recommends: "A good mix of lean proteins, healthy fats and low GI complex carbohydrates such as root vegetables, wholegrain and legume-packed stews, [to] support the energy-intensive process of menstruation."

Dietary supplementation can be useful for some people, Lola adds, "and we're really proud of the high quality, well researched products we've curated in our shop, but it's not one size fits all. Any nutritionist's mantra is always 'food first'."

When it comes to empowering women with better knowledge about how their bodies work, the ethos behind trends like cycle syncing is undoubtedly a good thing – as long as we're properly equipped to make informed choices. So while there's probably no harm in tweaking your diet and seeing what works for you, be aware that not all sources of information are equal.

Check the credentials of whoever's giving out the advice, and remember some 'quick fixes' may only have limited or anecdotal evidence to back them up. If you are concerned about your hormone levels, there's no need to buy a hormone test online – your GP can provide a free NHS blood test to indicate if there's a clinical imbalance. Finally, be wary of anyone promising a miracle cure for medical issues like PCOS, endometriosis and fibroids, and consult with your gynaecologist before putting these claims to the test.

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