Healthy hormones are a bit of a balancing act, and many common health complaints are caused by imbalances. It may surprise you to learn that what you eat can help or hinder here. Article first published in Nourish Magazine.
Excess oestrogen exposure
In Western countries, girls are starting their periods younger, and women are tending to go through menopause later. This means lifetime exposure to the female sex hormone oestrogen is extended, putting females at increased risk of hormone-dependent cancers.
Oestrogen is vital, however, not in excess. So what can we do about it? Doing what we can to ensure regular bowel movements is a great start. Constipation can make us overexposed to oestrogen. Our body discards excess hormones and products of metabolism through our faeces. When we get blocked up, those waste products seep back into our bodies through the intestinal wall and are re-metabolised, increasing our hormonal exposure.
A high fibre diet is useful for hormonal regulation because it increases the size of your stools and makes them softer, helping to keep you regular. Fibre will also lower cholesterol, keep you feeling full longer, and is important for gut health, which has other knock-on benefits for overall wellbeing. Put simply, fibre is the part of plant foods that your body does not digest. There are many different types of fibre in nature, so to benefit most, you need to include a variety of plant foods: wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables (skin on where possible).
There is a connection between the food you eat and your body’s oestrogen levels. Animal products, processed foods, and added oils increase your levels of oestrogen, in part because they are inflammatory. The more of these foods you consume, the more likely your uterine lining will become abnormally thick. As a result, when it begins to break down during the menstrual cycle, this process creates more prostaglandins. Painful periods are often caused by these hormone-like lipids that make your uterus contract to help get rid of its lining. The higher the levels of prostaglandins, the more severe the cramping.
In addition, eating foods that decrease inflammation in the body can help to tame period pain. Research has shown that a meat-free eating pattern works to decrease inflammation in the body. One study demonstrated that a healthy, plant-based diet significantly reduced the intensity and duration of period pain. The effect of the diet was so powerful that some of the women participating refused to switch back to their regular diet, even though the way the study was designed required this.
Interestingly, there are vitamin D receptors in the womb, and it is thought vitamin D could be helpful to reduce prostaglandins and therefore period pain. Ginger, best known as a calming remedy for an upset stomach, has also proven effective for period pain. In one study, it was shown to be equally effective as two different types of anti-inflammatory painkillers. Curcumin, an active compound in turmeric, also has benefits due to polyphenols, and is recommended this is taken just before your period starts.
To alleviate period pain, try eating lots of fibre-rich foods plus good amounts of turmeric and ginger just before your period starts and throughout, as well as adding a vitamin D supplement if your levels are low. This may provide some big improvements within just a few cycles.
Eating foods that decrease inflammation in the body can help to tame period pain. Research has shown that a meat-free eating pattern works to decrease inflammation in the body.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome
In Australia, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) affects around one in 10 women of reproductive age and around one in 5 of First Nations women. It is a common cause of fertility difficulties and can also be a risk factor for pre-diabetes, gestational diabetes, and type 2 diabetes. Symptoms include irregular ovulation, erratic periods, weight gain, and acne.
PCOS is a condition fuelled primarily by insulin resistance, and many of the same strategies that apply to diabetes management can also minimise the effects of PCOS. Once again, fibre is king. Foods high in fibre will combat insulin resistance by slowing down the rate of digestion, in turn regulating blood sugar. Processed foods void of nutrients, such as white flour, sugar-sweetened drinks, cakes, and other treats should be minimised. If you are craving something sweet, try reaching for a piece of fibre-packed fruit instead.
Organic, non-GMO soy foods, like tofu and edamame, can improve many aspects of PCOS, including reduced triglycerides, blood sugars, body weight, and insulin levels. Soy also has a high polyphenol content. Polyphenols are a family of plant-based compounds with a wide range of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities. Because chronic, low-grade inflammation is common for PCOS sufferers, this is desirable.
Hot flushes, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, vaginal dryness, mood changes, and weight gain are all associated with ‘the change’. But do we have to accept this as a part of life? No. There are many ways to deal with these symptoms, including medical treatments, lifestyle changes, and food choices.
A series of interviews with women in the US, Canada, and Japan, conducted by anthropologist Margaret McGill, brought interesting insights into menopause. One of the most common complaints, hot flushes, was not experienced by women in Japan to the same extent as those in the other countries. In fact, it is so infrequent that they did not even have a word for the phenomenon. The only symptom mentioned, other than the cessation of periods, was shoulder stiffness – and men reported this symptom about as often as women did!
Thinking about the traditional Japanese diet, it is based on rice with relatively little meat and no dairy. The hormonal impact of avoiding dairy hormones could play a part here. Also, the Japanese women were slimmer on average, meaning that the oestrogenic effect of fat cells was also minimised. These women tended to eat a lot of soy, in the form of miso soup, tofu, tempeh, and edamame beans. Soy is a source of complete amino acids, but also phytoestrogens. The isoflavones contained in soy – specifically genistein – have been shown in studies to improve menopausal symptoms and bone mineral density, while reducing the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Another study that followed Japanese women over time found that those who ate more soy were 68 percent less likely to experience hot flushes than those who did not. However, various studies have had mixed results, and it is likely that overall this may benefit most women, but will not necessarily result in complete elimination of symptoms.
Low sperm count
If you or your partner have been diagnosed with a low sperm count, there are simple steps that can improve quality and quantity. Smoking and drinking are two habits to toss. Also, take the time to consider exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals. Dioxins and heavy metals, which are especially concentrated in plastic-heated foods, farmed fish, and processed meats, have been associated with reduced sperm quality.
Studies have shown an association between reduced sperm count and saturated fat. If you have already said goodbye to animal products, there are only a few plant foods to be aware of that contain saturated fat, such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. While reducing or eliminating these foods, also think about optimising vitamin E, selenium, and Co-enzyme Q10, which may also be helpful for healthy sperm. You can get these from nuts and seeds.
These are only a few of the major conditions that can be mediated by our hormones. It quickly becomes clear there is a common thread to maintaining balance: an eating pattern that avoids animal products, minimises refined or processed foods, and includes an abundance of fibre, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and numerous other health-promoting substances found in whole, plant foods. It’s clear, healthy hormones are connected to a healthy diet.