Coping with your hormones is a very individual experience and where once we blamed much of the hormone associations with genes, we now know that diet and lifestyle have a powerful part to play in this fine balance. As your ovaries ramp up production of one female sex hormone, they simultaneously slow down production of the other; it’s a vital see-saw that keeps your reproductive system running, and sets in motion a few symptoms on the way.
The happy partnership can be compromised by weight gain, chronic stress and exposure to toxic chemicals associated with everyday modern living. Unchecked oestrogen levels can influence your weight, libido, lead to irritability, migraines, depression, PMS and reproductive disorders, such as endometriosis and polycystic ovaries. Certain foods can restore or throw off the balance of hormones and nutrient imbalances can alter gene expression and therefore play a big part in your health and future well-being.
When we talk hormones, oestrogen and testosterone come to mind, but hormones are involved in all aspects of your biochemistry and act as chemical messengers to control practically every physiological process in the body from regulation of metabolism to activation of the immune system, the menstrual cycle and reproduction, growth and development, cognitive function and mood, overall health and a sense of vitality.
The key players for women are oestrogen, progesterone and, yes, some testosterone is churned out too. As with men, testosterone pumps up libido, muscle strength, bone density and metabolism. Dipping testosterone can leave you sluggish, depressed and lacking interest, while too much can lead to acne and facial hair and, sometimes, more aggressive behaviour.
Your best defence against an imbalance is to identify what it might be, investigate the underlying cause and start with a baseline dietary change to eat more chemical-free whole foods, grass-fed meat, small oily fish and vegetables along with maintaining a healthy weight as excess body fat secretes extra oestrogen — and neither men nor women want excess oestrogen.
Maturing through adult years, we all struggle with hormonal imbalances at some stage — digestive issues, fatigue, acne, migraines, periods of depression, anxiety attacks and brain fog. For some people, despite their best intentions to combat these debilitating symptoms, being a “good eater”, exercising regularly, drinking a lot of water and taking supplements, their body still does not respond.
There is no one diet, food or way to exercise that suits everyone and it is not about “eating well”, but “eating right” that dictates how your body responds to the food you consume. From processing through digestion, assimilation of nutrients, elimination of waste and what your body’s biochemistry does with nutrients decides your individual health.
The three main areas that impact our hormones are the gut, our sugar levels and the functioning of our livers.
The gut and its bacterial microflora play a significant role in metabolism and hormone production. Digestive issues are an area of endless scrutiny for nutritionists looking to treat the underlying cause as many patients are faced with myriad symptoms. Bloating, gas and burping, acid reflux, food sensitivities, itchiness, constipation and diarrhoea can cause malabsorption of nutrients or divert them to another end point. Research suggests that the bugs making up your microbiome are the key regulator of circulating oestrogen levels over time. This is of interest not just for weight issues and nutrient absorption but also its association with certain oestrogen-related cancers. It is advisable to include prebiotic and probiotic foods in the diet to influence a healthy microbiome and avoid overuse of antibiotics. Probiotics include probiotic yogurt, pickled cabbage and supplements.
Sweet cravings, feeling shaky, moody and unfocused when hungry are signs of sugar problems, and sugar levels have a direct impact on the production and metabolism of our hormones. Common to most hormonal dysfunctions is insulin resistance and this becomes the foundation to planning a diet to reduce the damage caused by glycation from glucose for both men when testosterone dips and for women with high and low oestrogen. Going carbohydrate-free or following a very-low-carb diet is not usually a first-phase approach as the body needs to train itself over time to prepare for the better processing of all fuels — carbs, fat and protein — before going into battle and targeting the right carb intake for your level of activity. Low-carb diets will cause serotonin to drop and testosterone levels to fall. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint and it needs good planning, survival strategies and consistency.
Our liver is influential in metabolising and excreting hormones to make way for new ones. A lazy liver with poor detoxification ability will result in hormonal imbalances. Specific foods and supplementation to bind excess oestrogen stored in the liver as well as some extremely powerful foods are a big part of all liver- detox plans.
1) Plan of attack: Reducing the oestrogenic load is quite tricky when we live in a highly oestrogenic world. We can, however, be more aware of our exposure to some of the most potent and common culprits. Endocrine disruptors such as BPA — a chemical used in plastic marked PC for polycarbon or recycled No. 7 — can leach chemicals that imitate oestrogen in your body and bind to oestrogen receptors, making your body think it is high in oestrogen. These build up both in the body and in the food chain and act as powerful carcinogens that affect the immune and reproductive systems. Other culprits are herbicides, phthalates, added fragrances, toxic fire retardants and spray cans containing CFCs, lead arsenic, mercury, PFCs in non-stick pans, stain- and water-resistant coatings, organophosphate pesticides, glycol ethers common to solvents in paints, cleaning products, brake fluid and cosmetics. Endocrine disruptors can play many tricks by increasing production of certain hormones; decreasing production of others, imitating hormones, turning one hormone into another and interfering with hormone signalling.
2) Optimise your liver: Oestrogen is metabolised in liver detoxification pathways and with the help of bile, is eliminated as waste. The liver thrives on bitter vegetables such as dandelion, parsley, cruciferous varieties — cabbage, kale, broccoli and cauliflower. Certain foods can be powerful regulators of oestrogen clearance in the liver, along with citrus fruits, green tea, nuts and seeds, which are high in antioxidants and also support optimum liver function. Red meat, fish and seafood keep zinc levels up and take part in many enzymatic reactions. Wholegrains such as lentils and brown rice, manage insulin spikes, which helps with blood sugar control.
3) Add oestrogen-metabolising foods: Flaxseeds are a great food not just for digestion and their omega 3 content, but they suppress estradiol production, and nudge its metabolism in a positive direction. Along with pumpkin seeds, they help to boost the good oestrogen, which we need in order to build up the endometrial lining in the first two weeks after the first day of a period. This is the follicular phase. The second part of the cycle is the luteal phase, which involves the release of progesterone. Zinc is necessary for this phase, which can be helped by adding sesame and sunflower seeds.
For both men and women, hormones begin to fluctuate at about 40 years. For men, testosterone levels decline and can convert to oestrogen, a process known as aromatisation, causing a doughy appearance around the chest. There is evidence to show that weight and insulin sensitivity have an impact on stress, as well as digestion and stomach acid levels which can block some nutrient absorption such as zinc and magnesium. Women tend more towards becoming oestrogen dominant as progesterone levels fluctuate prior to menopause and oestrogen levels may increase as weight creeps up in response to fat stores.
Oestrogen often gets trapped in the liver, making detoxing foods an important part of the diet. Symptoms of oestrogen dominance in women are breast tenderness and swelling, abdominal cramping, backaches, bloating, headaches/migraines, food cravings, irritability, anxiety, depression, brain fog, sleep difficulties and lowered libido.
A diet with vegetables, low-glycaemic carbs and good-quality protein including eggs and red meat, balanced with more resistance-type exercise to promote growth hormones form the baseline for diet and activity. As you age, cardio should become about 25 per cent of your regime with 75 per cent spent on low-impact strength training. Ageing causes muscle loss — men tend to thin down around their limbs and women pad out. Maintaining muscle is critical to slow ageing and managing hormone balance.
Hormone levels in our bodies and their actions are determined, in large, by the foods we eat. Fatty foods affect the body in many ways and have a strong influence on hormonal activity in the body by increasing the amount of oestrogens in the blood. Vegetarians have significantly lower oestrogen levels than non-vegetarians, in part because of the lower fat content of their diet. In addition, they have more of certain carrier molecules, called sex hormone binding globulin, which circulate in the blood and have the job of holding on to sex hormones, keeping them inactive until they are needed.
Balance can be a challenge and if diet and lifestyle cannot help keep your health and well-being under control, you may need to seek expert help.