Updated: Jul 21, 2022
Hormonal balance is vital to a healthy body and mind as hormones control many processes in the body from metabolism to reproduction to mood. Hormonal fluctuations can occur naturally throughout the lifecycle, such as in puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding, perimenopause, and menopause. In addition to lifecycle changes, women’s hormones function in a delicate balance that can be easily thrown off by factors like diet, stress levels, sleep, exercise, and environment.
How do you know if you’re experiencing hormone-related issues? While symptoms can be similar to other health-related issues, hormonal imbalance may show itself as weight gain, fatigue, sensitivity to cold or heat, constipation or more frequent bowel movements, dry skin, thinning hair, infertility, decreased sex drive, depression, increased hunger, pain or stiffness in joints, and more. For females of reproductive age, hormonal imbalance may include heavy or irregular periods, hirsutism (excessive hair on the face or other parts of the body), acne, hair loss, vaginal dryness, pain during sex, night sweats, and headaches.
Here’s the good news (yes, there’s good news!)—while medication can’t always be avoided, there are things that are within your control that may help alleviate symptoms. Unfortunately, you cannot control age and natural lifecycle stages. However, you can control certain lifestyle factors that may help to balance hormones. Understanding what you can control can empower and equip you to make the best decisions for your health, helping you feel better, think better and do the best you can to care for your body and mind.
What are hormones
Hormones are like little chemical messengers that have a lot to say. They are produced and secreted from glands in your body to your tissues and organs, regulating body functions. The entire system is called the endocrine system. For example, your thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate metabolism and body temperature. Your ovaries produce sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which regulate your menstrual cycle, fertility, and pregnancy, and also support bone health. When you eat, your pancreas secretes insulin to take glucose (sugar that’s converted from the food you consume) from your blood to your cells, where it’s either used as energy or stored as fat (in the case of excess calories). Hormones that control appetite include peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP1), which are secreted in the gut when you eat a meal containing fiber. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland. It’s responsible for regulating your circadian rhythms, helping with quality sleep. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands. When its secretion is balanced, it plays a key role in metabolism, immune function, and blood pressure, and is your natural morning nudge telling you to wake up. However, it’s often termed the “stress hormone” because it is also released during times of stress. Too much cortisol can be problematic as it’s been associated with weight gain, anxiety, depression, and risk factors for heart disease when it’s elevated long-term. (There are more, but, I don't think you came for a full science class!)
How to manage hormones
There are several lifestyle factors that may help manage hormones:
Getting adequate sleep (power down your computer and cell phone one to two hours before sleep to power down your mind and allow release of melatonin)
Minimizing stress (remember to take some deep breaths throughout the day to keep excess cortisol at bay)
Moving daily (even if it’s walking the dog, gardening, or dancing while you’re cleaning the house)
Avoiding environmental toxins (whenever possible)
Consuming certain foods (fiber-filled plant-based like beans, nuts, seeds, and veggies) may help to keep your hormones balanced and your body grounded.
A note about environmental toxins...
Avoiding environmental toxins as much as possible can make a huge positive impact on your hormones and your health. Physical environment examples may include chemicals in your home, from furniture to window treatments to cleaning products to skincare. Use glass rather than plastic for food storage and definitely steer clear of heating food in plastic containers. Heat especially causes nasty hormone-disrupting chemicals to leach their way into food. Use natural paper towels, napkins and tissue paper if possible (the white paper products are not naturally white). Avoid the use of household chlorine bleach or use gloves when handling it. Switch to organic sanitary napkins and tampons. Minimize use of nail polish and nail polish remover unless they’re free of formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). When purchasing canned food, look for BPA-free on the can (bisphenol-A is a chemical used to make plastic and has been linked to hormone disruption). Friends, this is just the short list of environmental factors. Unfortunately, there are hormone-disrupting chemicals around us everywhere. It may be a challenge to avoid all chemicals, but avoiding what you can may help.
Food and hormones
In addition to implementing the lifestyle factors above, there are specific foods that may help to balance hormones naturally. But first, let’s address hormone-disrupting foods. Excess sugar, alcohol, processed foods (processed meats and pastries), meat, and dairy may all disrupt hormones. It’s not that you can never have another chocolate chip cookie again or have to become vegan tomorrow, but it’s helpful to, at least, know the culprits that like to mess with your hormones. That way, on days where you’re not quite feeling like yourself, you may be able to trace it back to what you ate.
Rather than focus on restrictions and what you can’t have, let’s focus on all of the things you can add to your plate that may help with balanced hormones and a happy life.
1. Whole grains
Whole grains contain complex carbohydrates, including fiber, as well as vitamins, minerals, and protein. Because of their fiber, protein, and slow-releasing carbohydrates, whole grains help to manage blood sugar. In contrast, when we eat processed carbohydrates (for example, sweets and baked items made with white flour and sugar), our blood sugar can spike. This leads to a spike in the hormone insulin. When insulin increases rapidly, as in the case with eating processed carbohydrate rather than whole grain carbohydrate, you are likely to feel hungry again soon after eating. Complex carbohydrate allows for a steady release of insulin from the pancreas and keeps you feeling satisfied and energized.
2. Flaxseed and Sesame Seeds
Ground flaxseeds (flax meal) and sesame seeds are excellent sources of phytoestrogens called lignans, or plant compounds, that have a similar structure to estrogen in our body. Phytoestrogens have been controversial, but research is showing that phytoestrogens may have both an estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effect, depending on your individual levels and also depending on your gut microbiome. One large review, in “Integrative Cancer Therapies,” concluded that flaxseed consumption in women either had no impact or caused a decrease in blood estrogen levels. Of note, one of the studies reviewed showed that two tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily reduced estrogen levels in women who were overweight, but did not significantly decrease estrogen levels in normal weight postmenopausal women. Lignans found in flax and sesame seeds may also inhibit aromatase, an enzyme that synthesizes estrogen. While more research needs to be done, studies are showing that lignans, due to their effect on estrogen levels, may reduce the risk of breast cancer.
What’s more, research also shows that consuming flaxseed may help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer through the seed's fiber, flavonoid, and omega-3 fat content.
If anyone has ever told you to take turmeric for premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and the painful cramping associated with PMS, they may have been onto something. Curcumin is the active component in turmeric that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that give turmeric the potential to ease pain (comparable to NSAIDS!). Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its antioxidant properties, may also help with underlying factors of hormone imbalance. Create a calming routine by sipping on Golden Milk during appropriate times around your cycle
How to make Golden Milk: Add one cup of unsweetened plant-based milk, 1/2 teaspoon of ground turmeric, 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of ground black pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg to a stovetop pot then heat it to warm. Optional: Add a tablespoon of maple syrup for a little sweetness and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract for a hint of vanilla. Sip and enjoy!
Not only is avocado toast The.Best.Breakfast.Ever, 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 cortisol, possibly relieving anxiety. When you’re stressed, cortisol release increases causing your blood pressure and heart rate to increase. This is your natural “fight or flight” response.
Feeling stressed? Take some deep breaths and spread some smashed avo on whole-grain seedy toast.
5. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens are rich in antioxidants and magnesium, which can help prevent inflammation and reduce levels of stress, helping to regulate cortisol levels. Green leafy vegetables are also abundant in folate, which plays a role in the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine. Dopamine is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone that is responsible for experiencing happiness. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that gives you calm, happy, feel-good vibes. Add leafy greens to soups, grain bowls, tacos, and smoothies. Pro tip for those new to leafy greens: spinach is much less bitter than kale. Start with spinach then graduate to kale when you’re ready!
Cinnamon contains a compound known as cinnamaldehyde, which has been shown to increase progesterone and decrease testosterone in women. Cinnamon has also been found to increase insulin sensitivity (a good thing!) and improve menstrual cycles in women with PCOS. One study from Columbia University 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 potential means to manage the symptoms. Sprinkle cinnamon in your oatmeal, add it to your matcha tea, or include it in baked goods. Yum!
7. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, arugula, Brussels sprouts, collards, watercress and radishes. These veggies contain many important nutrients, including fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. One compound in particular, called Indol-3-Carbinol (I3C), may have a unique contribution to estrogen metabolism. Thanks, in part, to the action of the healthy bacteria in your gut, I3C may promote the breakdown of excess estrogen. Pre-clinical studies show that I3C may play a role in reducing risk of breast cancer. Eat them raw with plant-based veggie dip, add them to stir fries, or shave them into salads. Try them a variety of ways whether it’s raw, steamed, or roasted, or shaved, chopped, or whole.
Wondering where excess estrogen comes from? Diet may play a role. A diet high in saturated fat and processed food, much like the standard American diet, may lead to estrogen dominance. Whole plant-based foods not only have plenty of fiber, but they also have healthier fats that may help to mitigate estrogen dominance. When our body no longer needs excess estrogen and testosterone, these hormones are sent to the gut. In the gut, fiber acts like a sponge and excretes excess hormones through your poo (you can’t see them so don’t go looking). 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, oats, oranges, beans, and apples.
Fiber is also the foundation for gut health. Fiber is not digested through enzymes (like protein, carbohydrate and fat), but rather bacteria in your gut. Eating fiber wakes up healthy bacteria in your gut — they start munching away and produce substances called short chain fatty acids as a result. Research is showing that these short chain fatty acids are recirculated into the bloodstream, playing a part in improved insulin sensitivity, weight management, and inflammation.
Fiber also stimulates the release of peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) in the gut, which are your full-signaling hormones. The release of these hormones tells you when to stop eating. Fiber can help to manage weight, in part, because it makes you feel full, but also due to its stimulation of PYY and GLP-1.
Fill your plate with fiber by adding plant-based foods to your current diet. Add leafy greens and tomatoes to your sandwich. Add lentils or peas to your salad. Swap a black bean burger in place of a beef-based burger. And, fill your plate up with half veggies along with your protein and starch or whole grain.
9. Green tea
While more research needs to be conducted, some limited evidence suggests that green tea may lower estrogen levels, possibly reducing the risk of breast cancer. One study by the National Institute of Health found that postmenopausal women who drank green tea daily had 20 percent less urinary estrone and 40 percent less urinary estradiol levels, when compared to those levels of women who drank green tea less than once a week. Researchers determined that these urinary estrogen differences were related to their estrogen metabolism and their future risk of breast cancer.
Green tea has also been shown to reduce levels of cortisol and create feelings of calmness. For this reason, it’s been associated with less anxiety and depression. Drinking just ½ cup a day may have beneficial effects, but some studies show that drinking several cups can have the biggest health impact. Green tea is rich in the amino acid, theanine, which is, in part, responsible for the calming effects. It’s also rich in antioxidant plant compounds, called catechins, which also play a big part in providing health benefits.
10. Choose organic when possible
This isn’t necessarily about a specific plant-based food, rather choosing plant foods that are least likely to affect hormones. It’s pretty well known that herbicides, insecticides and pesticides can disrupt thyroid hormones to reproductive hormones to the entire endocrine system. When it comes to choosing chemical-free food, the Environmental Working Group offers a handy guide on which foods to choose organic (whenever possible) and which foods are okay to purchase conventional. They call it the Dirty Dozen (choosing organic is best for these) and the Clean Fifteen (choosing conventional is okay for these, unless you’re able to choose organic, which is fantastic!). If you only have the option of conventional versus not eating fruits or veggies at all, go for the conventional. It’s best to eat your fruits and veggies. One way to eliminate the pesticide residue is to soak your vegetables and fruits in one ounce of baking soda to 100 ounces of water for 10-15 minutes. Rinse and enjoy!
Do what you can. Avoiding all chemicals, eating all plant-based foods, and getting a full eight hours of sleep a night may seem virtually impossible. Remember, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Simply being aware and conscious when making choices for your and your family can make a big impact.
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