Hormones can be like the devil, when someone mentions the word “hormones” do you picture angry, nagging menopausal women? Hormonal changes affect everyone throughout every stage of life and affect everyone differently, yet we all seem to have this negative image on the word. Hormones usually cause havoc with middle aged women affecting their mood, weight, hunger, sleeping patterns, the list goes on. However, nowadays hormonal symptoms are affecting women earlier in life, which may be due to your lifestyle and diet, but also the pollution, toxins and xenoestrogens that we’re exposed to every day.

So, to make sure we are all clear, what are hormones? Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. They help control every physiological process in your body, including metabolism, immune system, menstrual cycle and reproduction. A precise hormone balance is vital to proper body functioning. Specific foods can aid and negatively affect your hormone balance, so eating a well-balanced diet is essential, especially during menopause. During this transitional period of a woman’s life, hormonal imbalances can cause uncomfortable symptoms.

Feeling bloated, irritable, tried or just not yourself? A hormone imbalance could be to blame. Hormonal imbalances are multi-factorial disorders, meaning they are caused by a combination of factors such as your diet, medical history, genetics, stress levels and exposure to toxins from your environment. Common symptoms of a hormone imbalance include:

  • Infertility and irregular periods
  • Unexpected weight gain or loss
  • Poor mental wellbeing, such as depression and anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Low libido
  • Changes in appetite
  • Digestive issues
  • Hair loss and hair thinning

Risk Factors & Causes of Hormonal Imbalances

Some of the major contributors to hormonal imbalances include:

  • Food allergies and gut issues
  • Being overweight or obese
  • High levels of inflammation caused by a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle
  • Genetic susceptibility
  • Toxicity (exposure to pesticides, toxins, viruses, cigarettes, excessive alcohol and harmful chemicals)
  • High amounts of stress
  • Not enough sleep

Important hormones during menopause and how your diet affects them:

  1. Estrogen

Estrogen is the main female sex hormone, which regulates your menstrual cycle and prepares your uterus for pregnancy. Estrogen levels significantly drop when you reach menopause, leading to symptoms including, hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, and irregular periods.

Estrogen isn’t available from your diet. However various plant foods contain phytoestrogens, which are a group of chemicals that act similar to estrogen in your body. Foods high in phytoestrogens may help relieve some of your menopause symptoms. It may also help lower your risk of some conditions associated with menopause. Both soy and flaxseed are significant sources of phytoestrogens. Soy is particularly rich in specific phytoestrogen, “isoflavones” which binds to the estrogen receptors in your body, helping your risk of ischemic heart disease, improve your blood cholesterol levels, and relieve hot flashes. Whereas, flaxseed is rich in another specific phytoestrogen, “lignans” similarly relieving several symptoms of menopause.

  1. Insulin and Glucagon

Insulin and glucagon, are both pancreatic hormones however they are completely opposite. Firstly, what is insulin? Insulin is one of the most known hormones, which is affected by your diet, when you eat carbohydrates, glucose is released into the bloodstream which triggers your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin attaches to the glucose molecules and carries them to your cells, where they’re used for energy. Whereas, glucagon is the opposite, but why? Your pancreas only releases glucagon when you go without eating it for an extended period of time. This signals your liver to convert stored glycogen into glucose. The sugar is then secreted into your bloodstream, where it serves as an energy source until your body receives more food. This physiological feedback system is designed to keep your blood sugar levels steady.

If you are insulin resistance, your pancreas produces insulin normally, but your muscles, fat, and liver cells don’t agree to it properly causing your pancreas to produce more insulin in an effort to help glucose travel into your cells. If your pancreas can’t produce enough insulin, excess blood sugar builds up in your bloodstream, leading to diabetes over time. Through menopause, it is thought that many women have a higher accumulation of belly fat increasing the risk of insulin resistance maybe further leading to diabetes.

Keeping a week-balanced diet and maintaining your calories to avoid weight gain and minimize insulin resistance and diabetes. Choose complex carbohydrates, such as oats, bran, wholegrain breads, beans, lentils and vegetables instead of refined carbohydrates including white bread, crackers, biscuits and white sugar.

  1. Cortisol

Cortisol is released by your adrenal glands, often known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is vital to your survival as its part of your body’s fight-or-flight response. However, high levels of cortisol in your body can raise your stress levels, blood pressure, and visceral fat. High levels of cortisol during menopause is quite worrying, since menopause already causes a change in your body fat composition.

Throughout menopause, both caffeine and alcohol consumption should be limited to avoid increase in cortisol secretion.

Why you want balanced hormones?

Hormones are critical to the function of virtually every system in the body; here are a few reasons why:

  1. Both, estrogen and progesterone are neuroprotective, helping brain function, reducing brain inflammation and helping with cognitive function, maybe preventing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
  2. There is a strong relationship between hormones and neurotransmitters, which will cause an improvement mood, will power and motivation.
  3. There is a strong correlation between hormone and bone metabolism.
  4. The metabolism hormone (thyroid), works better when progesterone is functioning optimally.
  5. Estrogen is cardio protective in women
  6. Progesterone helps regulate your body’s immune response.

Most importantly, the beneficial effects of hormones occur when they are in balance. Hormones in excess or in deficiency, can have negative consequences.

Importance of food on hormones:

Fat for hormone balance:

Fat is one of the most crucial elements for hormonal balance, healthy fats including omega 3 & 6 are essential for hormone production and maintenance of proper hormone function. Our body needs certain fats for rebuilding cells and stabilising hormones, which is especially important for the female reproductive system.

To maintain a well-balanced healthy diet, each meal should be based on clean protein, hormone-balancing healthy fats, antioxidant-rich vegetables, and healing herbs will help your body thrive.

Clean protein: beans, seeds, quinoa, lentils, lean meat (chicken, turkey, beef), fish and eggs

Healthy fats: avocados, egg yolks, nuts and seeds

Antioxidant-rich vegetables:

  1. Dark green- asparagus, broccoli, spinach, collard greens, cabbage, cucumbers, kale, coriander, etc.
  2. Bright coloured vegetables- green, red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, red cabbage, red/white onions, tomatoes, and carrots.
  3. Starchy vegetables- sweet potatoes, squash, yucca, beets, artichokes, butternut squash, and turnips.
  4. Healing spices & herbs: Cinnamon, Turmeric, Cayenne, Cumin, Garlic, and Ginger

Building your diet around your foods will ensure your body has these essential nutrients, and will makes sure it’s in hormone balance. You’ll experience glowing skin, good mood, fertility, and constant high energy. Our bodies have an incredible ability to heal and be in balance, when given the nutrients they need to flourish.

Take home messages

  1. The importance of a well-balanced diet

Eating a well-balanced diet is important for good health. Avoid a calories surplus, which leads to weight gain. Enjoy a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole-grain products, low-fat dairy products, and lean sources of protein. Limit “junk foods” that are energy-dense rather than nutrient-dense, and those that contain processed sugar, saturated and Tran’s fats, and sodium.

  1. Get enough sleep and reduce stress

Get at least 7-8 hours a night! Sleep helps keep stress hormones balanced, builds energy and allows the body to recover properly. Excessive stress and poor sleep are linked with higher levels of cortisol, decreased immunity, poor performance, and a higher susceptibility to anxiety, weight gain and depression.

  1. Be careful using medications and birth control

Many medications can cause side effects, including fatigue, appetite changes, altered sleeping patterns, low libido and poor mood. These medications include corticosteroids, stimulants, statins, dopamine agonists, rexinoids and glucocorticoids. Make sure you know what you are taking and their effects on your body.

In regards to “the pill”, it raises estrogen levels to such dangerous levels that it can cause many complications. Birth control pills may cause side effects, such as, increased risk of: breast cancer, uterine bleeding, blood clotting, heart attack and stroke, migraines, high blood pressure, weight gain, back pain, mood changes, and nausea.

Like most of our advice on Nutrition, balance is key. Getting a whole wide range of nutrients and energy from whole food sources is the secret to maintaining a good balance in terms of hormones. These are probably the most powerful drivers of body composition, mood and energy levels we have, so it is critical to keep them in check. For more advice, follow us on Instagram My Nutrition Ireland.