I spent too many years suffering needlessly each month when PMS symptoms hit me hard, leaving me bloated, moody, and unable to focus. I had no idea back then that there was something I could do about the hormonal fluctuations that held me hostage for a week or more each month.
Like so many women, I assumed that PMS was just something I had to live with. But I’ve learned so much since then, and I want to assure you that that isn’t true! There are so many things we can do to regulate hormone function and keep our bodies healthy.
Despite the fact that women usually think about estrogen when considering hormonal imbalance, it’s not just about the sex hormones. Your body produces a range of hormones that each have a specific message to convey.
Let me illustrate what I’m talking about with another personal story:
When I was first building my practice, I was also parenting three children under three. What a crazy time in my life that was! I was the primary earner in our family, which meant the weight of keeping food on our table and a roof over our heads rested firmly on my shoulders. I worked crazy long hours, all the while balancing caring for my children and husband.
I was exhausted all the time, but I knew I’d hit bottom when I found myself having to stop and rest while simply walking from one room to another! That’s when I learned about adrenal fatigue and how very important it is to balance the stress hormone cortisol.
When any of the multitude of hormones in your body are imbalanced – a common problem in today’s hectic world – your health suffers. But the problems aren’t irreversible. Many solutions exist for balancing these hormones naturally, and one of the best is well within your control: the food you choose to consume.
Let’s take a quick look at what hormones do and the impact imbalances can have on your health. Then I’ll let you in on some of the best foods for hormone health – and which are best avoided.
Why is Balancing Hormones Important?
Your endocrine system is made up of glands responsible for secreting and regulating the hormones that carry important messages throughout your body, including sex hormones, thyroid hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, and insulin. There’s an optimal level for each hormone, and even slight hormonal imbalances can cause big health issues.
That’s because these chemical messengers work together to keep you in a state of homeostasis. Hormones target specific tissues or cells in your body when they bind to receptors inside or on the surface of these cells. But if hormonal levels are a little out of balance, the messages they send become jumbled. This can cause other levels to also become skewed, making it more and more difficult to bring your system back into balance. And when that happens, those imbalances cause a range of uncomfortable – and sometimes dangerous – symptoms.
What Are the Signs of Hormonal Imbalance?
Although symptoms can vary widely depending on the type of imbalance you’re dealing with, there are some common signs that indicate that you should talk to your medical professional about doing some testing.
Some of these include fertility issues; irregular menstrual cycles; unexplained weight gain or loss; excessive fatigue; low libido; mood disorders like depression or anxiety; insomnia; appetite changes; gut problems; and changes to hair and skin.
Some of the most common hormonal imbalances in women include adrenal fatigue; thyroid imbalances; diabetes; and estrogen dominance or low estrogen. Let’s take a quick look at some of the symptoms you may experience with each of these specific problems.
If your adrenal glands are secreting too much cortisol – or have gotten to the point where supply just can’t keep up with demand – you might have muscle aches and pains, anxiety/depression, sleeping difficulties, exhaustion, fuzzy thinking, and reproductive problems.
When your thyroid gland produces too many thyroid hormones, it’s called hyperthyroidism. Symptoms can include hair thinning, weight loss, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and heart palpitations. Having too few thyroid hormones, on the other hand, is hypothyroidism. Symptoms include weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, digestive troubles, irregular periods, and irritability.
With diabetes, your body cannot produce or respond to insulin as it should. When insulin levels aren’t balanced, carbohydrates cannot be metabolized properly and glucose levels in your blood rise. Symptoms include weight gain, vision problems, fatigue, difficulty breathing, dry mouth, skin issues, and nerve damage (called neuropathy).
When estrogen levels are high – particularly in relation to progesterone levels – you can experience changes to sleep, weight, and appetite. Other symptoms include a slower metabolism and higher perception of stress. When estrogen is low, mood changes, reproductive issues, irregular periods, and low sex drive may occur.
As you can see, the symptoms of hormonal imbalance can be considerably disruptive to daily life. The good news is, you can change things fairly easily with some lifestyle and dietary changes. Since nutrition can make such a huge difference, I’ll focus on that strategy in this article.
Top 5 Hormone Balancing Foods
So often, conventional practitioners reach for a prescription pad to try and bring hormones back into balance. But that just makes the problem worse! Food is the best medicine we have.
When you eat for optimal nutrition, you’re addressing the root cause of hormonal imbalances, not just covering up the symptoms. And you won’t be at risk of developing serious side effects. Here are five things you should incorporate into your diet regularly to help you heal hormonal imbalances and feel your best.
Adequate protein is necessary for the proper release of hormones that regulate food intake and appetite. Research has indicated that protein consumption decreases levels of ghrelin (known as the “hunger hormone” as well as stimulating production of hormones that help you feel full.
One study showed that high-protein meals decreased the participants’ hunger ratings by 25% as compared to a normal-protein meal. Another found that women eating a diet made up of 30% protein felt fuller, had increased levels of GLP-1 (a hormone that helps you feel full) and increased metabolism compared to those eating a 10% protein diet.
Most people know that meats like lean beef, turkey, chicken, fish and shrimp are a good source of protein, organic if possible. But there’s plenty of other options as well. Nuts and seeds, oats, quinoa, lentils, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are all great choices.
Eggs are a particularly good choice. Not only are they a great source of protein, but studies have shown that eating eggs has a positive effect on hormones, lowering insulin and ghrelin levels and increasing PYY. Consumption of the whole egg (whites and yolk) is important to get these effects, according to some research.
2. Healthy Fats
I hope you know by now that fat is not the enemy. In fact, your body requires different types of fat to effectively produce hormones. Eating healthy fats can also help you feel satiated, keep inflammation at bay, and boost metabolism.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have been found to reduce insulin resistance. Some of the best sources of MCTs are coconut oil, palm oil, and pure MCT oil (which can be added to your morning coffee for an extra energy boost).
Some of the best sources of healthy fats include avocados, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and wild salmon.
Salmon (and other fatty fish) is an amazing source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower inflammation, boost cognitive functioning, and lower cortisol and adrenaline. Research has also found that increasing consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can increase insulin sensitivity.
3. Green Tea
It’s important to remember that beverages can have just as much impact as food when it comes to hormone health. Water is the best choice for hydration, but green tea is an excellent option as well.
Green tea contains an antioxidant, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) which has been shown to provide significant health benefits.
Studies indicate that drinking green tea can increase insulin sensitivity and lower insulin levels – whether participants had an insulin-resistant condition or not. A detailed analysis of 17 studies found that in the highest quality studies, green tea was linked to significantly lower fasting insulin levels.
Adding one to three cups of green tea to your daily routine, then, could be one easy way to help regulate insulin levels.
4. High Fiber Foods
Fiber is another important factor in a healthy diet and balancing hormone levels.
Fiber consumption increases insulin sensitivity and boosts production of hormones that keep you full and feeling satisfied. Soluble fiber, in particular, has been shown to have the strongest impact on appetite and eating habits.
Fiber has also been found to impact estrogen levels, and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. One review of 17 studiesconcluded that a high-fiber diet could significantly reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, compared to a low-fiber diet.
Adding fiber to your diet is easy when you consume a range of fruits and vegetables. Some of the best sources include apples, pears, strawberries, avocado, bananas, sweet potato, lentils, chickpeas, broccoli, and beets. With so many delicious options, boosting fiber intake is easy – and delicious!
5. Probiotic Foods
Gut health is vitally important to balancing hormones and keeping your body healthy. Probiotics help balance the bacteria in your gut.
The beneficial flora in your gut metabolize and recycle hormones such as estrogen, thyroid hormones, and phytoestrogens from the food you eat, helping to control symptoms of menopause, PMS and perimenopause. That means that having enough of this “good bacteria” is essential.
You can boost your beneficial bacteria by taking a daily probiotic supplement, but eating fermented foods will also help. Sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, and tempeh. Beverages rich in probiotics include kefir and kombucha.
3 Foods to Avoid for Hormone Health
Making healthy choices about food is essential, as is avoiding things that can create hormonal imbalances. These three things are best consumed in moderation – if at all!
It’s no secret that I think sugar is one of the most harmful substances in the foods we eat. So much research exists detailing the health issues negatively impacted by sugar consumption that it just makes sense to avoid added sugars as often as possible.
The impact sugar has on hormones – particularly insulin sensitivity – is well documented. Added sugars are everywhere, so avoiding them can be tough, but it’s well worth it to read labels and steer clear.
2. Unhealthy Fats
While healthy fats, as discussed above, are essential foods for hormone health, avoiding unhealthy, processed fats is also crucial.
Oils high in omega-6 fats, such as canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, peanut or corn oils, promote inflammation and can really wreak havoc on your hormonal balance.
Processed foods are the biggest source of unhealthy fats, which is why I recommend eating whole foods as often as possible. Condiments, like salad dressings and mayonnaise, are other culprits. Reading labels carefully is the best way to avoid these unhealthy fats.
Few people want to listen when I tell them that alcohol simply isn’t good for their hormone health. But it needs to be said – and repeated – because it’s so important for women to know that when hormones are imbalanced, alcohol consumption is only making it worse.
Alcohol is high in sugar, so consumption causes dysregulation in blood sugar levels. It also places strain on your liver, causes inflammation in your gut and can promote estrogen dominance.
I’m not saying that you can never have another glass of wine. But if you find yourself struggling with symptoms of hormonal imbalance it’s best to put the alcohol aside until you’ve healed.
Eat Wisely to Promote Hormone Health – and Feel Great Again!
Balanced hormone levels have such an impact on the way you feel, and one of the best ways to feel better quickly is to eat foods that help you heal. It may feel difficult to change your habits, but once you feel what a difference it makes (and discover how delicious meals can be when you’re eating whole, natural foods) I think you’ll agree it’s worth it!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD