Are you experiencing hormone-related issues? Symptoms of hormonal imbalance may include weight gain, fatigue, sensitivity to cold or heat, constipation or more frequent bowel movements, dry skin, puffy face, thinning hair, infertility, decreased sex drive, depression, increased hunger, pain or stiffness in joints, and more. I know, right? Your hormones control a lot!
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers in your body that can have a big impact on mental, physical, and emotional health. They are released by hormone-producing glands then sent through your bloodstream to tissues where they send a message. For example, the thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones, which control metabolism, and are transported to organs like the kidney and liver; the ovaries make estrogen which is sent to target cells affecting reproduction, bone health, mood, and the circulatory system; and the adrenal glands make aldosterone, which regulates salt, water balance, and blood pressure. These are just a few of the important roles of hormones in your body. For a full list of hormones and their functions visit here.
What causes hormonal imbalance?
Some things that may cause imbalanced hormones include high stress, certain dietary habits (like the Standard American Diet, otherwise known as S.A.D.), inadequate sleep, puberty, menopause, pregnancy, and thyroid issues. Environmental factors may also affect hormones. For example, heating food in plastic containers has been shown to disrupt hormones; cooking with nonstick pots and pans can release hormone-disrupting compounds; and some skincare ingredients can disrupt hormones, just to name a few! The Environmental Working Group has a list of hormone-disrupting chemicals if you'd like to learn more. Also, here are some skincare specific ingredients you may want to avoid if trying to balance your hormones. There can be many reasons you may feel unbalanced and, if it's truly causing disruption in your daily activities, consider visiting your healthcare provider.
The good news!
A plant-based food diet may help to keep hormones balanced because they're fiber-rich, nutrient-dense, and filled with phytonutrients that keep inflammation at bay, supporting healthy hormone function. In particular, there are a handful of plant-based rock stars that are stand-out when it comes to hormone balance. Keep reading to learn which whole plant-based foods can help to keep your hormones happy and stable.
Quinoa is a tiny seed with mighty power as it is packed with complex carbohydrate, fiber, protein, and essential minerals. Because of its unique blend of macronutrients, quinoa can help to keep blood sugar levels steady (insulin is the hormone that controls blood sugar). In contrast, processed carbohydrate, like the kind found in white bread, white pasta, white rice, and other processed foods, can lead to insulin surges. These foods have been stripped of their fiber, which is one nutrient responsible for slowing the release of sugar into the bloodstream. When insulin increases rapidly, as in the case with eating simple sugars and processed carbohydrates, you are likely to feel hungry again soon after eating. Consistently eating processed carbohydrates over time may lead to insulin resistance, which is associated with lifestyles diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Quinoa is also packed with the mineral zinc, which assists with thyroid hormone synthesis.
2. Flax meal
Ground flaxseed, or flax meal, is an excellent source of lignans, a type of phytoestrogen, which are plant compounds that have a similar structure to estrogen in our body. Phytoestrogens have both an estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effect, depending on your individual levels, and have been studied in various breast cancer studies. Several studies in women have shown that higher intake of lignans is associated with reduced risk of breast cancer as lignans may change estrogen metabolism. In postmenopausal women, lignans may cause the body to produce less active forms of estrogen, which is believed to potentially reduce breast cancer risk. Studies also show that adding flax meal to the diet may decrease cell growth in breast tissue as well, further reducing breast cancer risk.
Other studies show that lignans may reduce breast tumor growth and spread, even for estrogen positive cancer cells.
While more research is needed, consuming flax meal for reduced risk of breast cancer is promising. It's currently recommended that no more than 2–3 tablespoons a day is consumed.
If anyone has ever told you to take turmeric for menstrual cramps, they may have been onto something! Curcumin is the main active component in turmeric that has the ability to ease pain comparable to NSAIDS (bye-bye PMS!). One study showed curcumin supplementation significantly reduced the severity of PMS for the study participants after three menstrual cycles. This is just one example of curcumin's powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
Curcumin has also been studied for its antioxidant properties, which may fight inflammation. Chronic inflammation may affect hormones and unbalanced hormones may lead to inflammation.
Of note, only about 2–4% of curcumin from turmeric is absorbed. To enhance absorption and optimize the benefits of this powerful spice, cook fresh turmeric with a fat source (like avocado oil) or add black pepper to the dish (piperine, a compound in black pepper, can enhance curcumin's absorption by up to 2000%!).
Not only is avocado delicious on toasted bread, but it is also loaded with beta-sitosterol, a plant sterol that has a similar structure to cholesterol. However, plant sterols can actually help reduce cholesterol levels by regulating the amount of cholesterol that can be absorbed by the bloodstream. Beta-sitosterol also has been shown to have a role in managing the stress hormone, cortisol. When you’re stressed, cortisol is released throughout your body causing your blood pressure and heart rate to increase. This is your natural “fight or flight” response. Feeling stressed? Take some deep breaths and enjoy some avocado toast (on whole-grain bread of course!).
5. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens are rich in antioxidants and magnesium, which may prevent inflammation and reduce levels of stress by helping to regulate cortisol levels. Leafy greens, like many plant-based foods, are also packed with fiber, which can help eliminate hormone-disrupting toxins through digestion.
You'll also get vitamin E in leafy greens, which can support fertility.
Spinach, broccoli, parsley, cabbage, and asparagus (as well as the above mentioned, avocado!) are sources of glutathione, which is a powerful antioxidant that supports liver detoxification, reducing oxidative stress caused by hormone-disrupting toxins.
Green leafy vegetables are also abundant in folate, which is essential in producing dopamine. Dopamine is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone that is responsible for feelings of happiness. Go greens!
Cinnamon contains a chemical known as cinnamaldehyde, which has been shown to increase progesterone and decrease testosterone in women. A study that assessed the effect of cinnamon on polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) found that cinnamon contains anti-PCOS and anti-diabetic properties. Another study found that the addition of cinnamon extract led to more regular menstrual periods in individuals with PCOS. It would be too soon to suggest cinnamon as an absolute treatment for PCOS, however, it seems to serve as a means to manage the symptoms. Sprinkle cinnamon in your oatmeal, add it to your matcha tea, or include it in baked goods!
7. Fiber (okay, not a specific food, but really important for hormonal health!)
By now, you've heard that fiber is important for gut health, but what is less discussed is fiber's influence on balancing hormones. When your body no longer needs excess estrogen and testosterone, these cholesterol-based hormones are sent out into the gut. In the gut, fiber acts as a sponge and excretes the excess hormones in the stool. Soluble fiber is the type of fiber you want to consume for this process to take place. Some great sources of soluble fiber include sweet potato, avocado, tofu, oranges, beans, and apples.
Also, as mentioned above, fiber helps to manage blood sugar and keeps insulin levels stable.
Finally, back to gut health, fiber is the foundation of a healthy gut. Your gut microbiome regulates hormones by modulating insulin resistance and feelings of fullness. When healthy bacteria in your gut ferment fiber, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that may support weight management by supporting an efficient metabolism and, therefore, preventing insulin resistance. Two SCFAs, acetate and butyrate, also regulate feelings of fullness by increasing the fullness hormones, glucagon like peptide-1(GLP-1) and peptide YY (PYY).
Overall, eating a plant-rich diet that is packed with fiber, phytonutrients, and essential vitamins and minerals can help to support healthy hormone production and function, leaving you feeling vibrant, energized, balanced, and happy.
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Hi! My name is Lina Abuhamdieh and I am a student at Georgia State University in the Coordinated Program for Dietetics. I have loved every minute of this program, and have especially enjoyed discovering new avenues in which I can work in once I graduate. My hope is to be a private practice dietitian and be able to provide clients with all things nutrition and fitness! I have also found a new passion in writing nutrition blogs, so I hope you enjoy!