Hormones: we all have them. We throw the word around to explain mood swings and irritability, but most of us don’t really know what they are, let alone how much we can control them naturally. Read on for a new approach to healthy eating
First a science lesson recap: hormones are chemical messengers. They’re created in the endocrine glands, and send a series of messages controlling everything in our body, from hunger, sleep and sex drive to blood sugar levels and fertility. We all have the same hormones but our levels of each hormone differ from one another, due to genetics – while you can inherit the ability to make lots of oestrogen, one can’t simply inherit lots of oestrogen in bulk.
Tellingly, hormone levels are also affected by lifestyle factors, like diet, stress and sleep, says Dr Jane Leonard, a specialist in bio-identical hormones. When hormonal levels are correctly balanced, they help the body operate optimally, but small shifts and changes can have serious repercussions – think low energy, weight gain, depression and disrupted sleep.
Hormone levels are constantly in flux, and can often be lowered or boosted. However, some experts believe that relying on medication to do so can cause other problems in the body and masks symptoms, rather than fixing a root cause. One way to address hormonal imbalance may be from within, through eating certain foods.
In modern diets, much of our food is processed or packaged. “A lack of nutrients and vitamins in women’s diets can cause imbalances,” says Esther Fieldgrass, founder of EF Medispa. CPRESS nutritionist, Miriam Gubovic, agrees. “Nutrition can help maintain or balance the hormones and it can just as well disrupt them. With hormones out of whack due to consumption of processed foods microwaved and served in harmful plastics; hormone-loaded dairy and meat products and foods full of sugar, one can easily feel sluggish, moody, tired and unproductive,” she says.
Aside from simply eating a diet rich in plant-based foods, there are specific nutrients that may help balance different hormones and therefore assist in treating a variety of symptoms.
EAT TO...COMBAT STRESS
When it comes to hormones, stress levels are highly influential. When the body is under stress, that fight-or-flight response becomes a priority. DHEA – the precursor hormone, or starting point for producing all hormones as needed in the body – naturally goes to the adrenal glands to produce the ‘stress hormone’ (cortisol), and there isn’t enough DHEA circulating to help produce the ‘good’ hormones, like those needed for sleep (melatonin) and sex drive (testosterone and oestrogen.)
Also, producing cortisol through stress has an adverse effect on other biological processes. “High cortisol levels chronically raise blood sugar, which creates a state of insulin resistance and has a potential to promote Type 2 diabetes and storage of fat. A high levels of cortisol is also associated with visceral fat around the abdominal area, and stimulates appetite and cravings, causing overeating,” says Daniel Nunes, personal trainer at Third Space gym.
He goes on, “Cortisol can affect the optimal production of sex hormones as they are produced in the same gland.” What’s more, “Long-term stress and elevated cortisol can be linked to insomnia, thyroid disorders, dementia, depression and other conditions.” Oh dear.
High cortisol levels chronically raise blood sugar, which creates a state of insulin resistance and has a potential to promote Type 2 diabetes and storage of fat
But fear not: nutrition can play a significant role in preventing excess cortisol production. One idea is to look to the diet of those in the Mediterranean.
“Evidence suggests that adherence to a Mediterranean diet, with a high intake of monounsaturated fats (avocado, olive oil, nuts) seems to positively modulate the HPA axis and cortisol regulation and induce lower abdominal fat distribution,” Nunes says. Inflammation can also cause elevated cortisol levels, so he goes on to suggest “eliminating transfats and keeping saturated fats, caffeine and alcohol to a minimum.”
EAT TO BOOST...FERTILITY
“Eating to boost fertility is difficult,“ says Gubovic of CPRESS. “It’s very personalised. In some cases, increasing the intake of iron is sufficient, but some cases might be due to borderline infertility. The best thing is to ask a medical professional to check for any hormonal imbalances and nutrient deficiencies and then consult a nutritionist. And this goes for both men and women.”
Fieldgrass at EF Medispa says it might be helpful to eat plenty of folates and B vitamins. She suggests freshly cooked vegetables, “like spinach, broccoli, fresh asparagus, legumes, cooked lentils, and green juices with wheatgrass and white beans, which are rich in calcium and potassium as well as folates.” Nuts are also a good source of nutrients, “especially almonds and brazil nuts, but avoid peanuts.” Fieldgrass goes on. “Natural yogurt is ideal friendly gut bacteria. Acidic forming foods should be avoided, such as processed foods, alcohol, sugar, raw uncooked foods and spicy and high-fat food.”
EAT TO BOOST...SEX DRIVE
Testosterone affects sex drive and energy levels. “When it comes to boosting sex drive, we need to look into ingredients that are more powerful than your average meal,” says Gubovic. “Add herbs and spices such as ginseng and turmeric, that have been used in Eastern medicines for decades.” She goes on, “What we put on our plates is important, but so is what we don’t. Processed foods where the original state was heavily altered can leave us feeling lazy, tired, sluggish and, let’s be honest, unattractive,” Gubovic finishes.
“Seafood like prawns and good fats such as nuts, avocados and coconut oil, enable DHEA to boost testosterone as necessary,” says Dr Jane Leonard. “Again, reducing cortisol produced through stress enables DHEA to produce more testosterone.”
EAT TO BOOST...SLEEP
“Foods high in magnesium, which is a natural relaxant, will help one to get a good night’s sleep,” says Gubovic. “The best thing you can do for yourself is to incorporate dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds into your diet. They all have plenty of this nutrient.” The magnesium boosts DHEA levels, meaning there is more of the precursor hormone required to produce melatonin, necessary for sleep. Melatonin levels change throughout the day, increasing after dark to trigger sleep. And Gubovic has one idea that may prove popular: “You could try a piece of very dark (85 per cent and above) chocolate as a dessert after dinner!”
EAT TO FEEL...HAPPY
Good news: hormones can make us happy. Oxytocin is the ‘love’ hormone which increases when we hug a loved one, and serotonin is the ‘happy’ hormone that helps stave off depression. Good quality proteins, healthy fats and leafy greens are key for boosting these ‘happy’ hormones, and unsurprisingly, sugar, refined foods, and the hormonal irritants caffeine and alcohol, should be consumed in minimal quantities.
EAT TO...LOSE WEIGHT
Magnesium also balances the thyroid hormone, says Dr Leonard, which plays a part in weight loss. Magnesium helps reduce cortisol levels, and cortisol can cause adrenal fatigue and inflammation, which hinders weight loss. Additionally, one reason why women find it difficult to manage weight is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which affects sensitivity to the hormone insulin. Refined carbohydrates and simple sugars spike insulin levels, causing food to be stored as fat, so avoiding these foods is beneficial. A diet with a low glycaemic load, whereby energy is released slowly, and won’t cause blood sugar spikes, including fish, chicken, nuts, green vegetables, quinoa and eggs, is useful, and PCOS can be managed with weight loss.
It’s important to bear in mind that while hormonal regulation through nutrition is important, it’s not a silver bullet. Dr Harvinder Chahal, consultant at Bupa, says that while “Extremes in nutrition can alter the collection of glands that produce hormones regulating metabolism and growth (known as the endocrine system),” it is also true that there’s a lack of clear evidence.
“There have been many studies looking at how restoring the hormonal levels of older people back to those found in the young, may reduce the effects of ageing. However, currently it’s unclear whether treatment of many of these age-related hormonal changes is ultimately beneficial. So far research has not found the ‘magic pill’ to reverse the process.”
Given the overwhelmingly negative impact of cortisol produced through stress, you could consider adding low-intensity exercise to combat stress levels. (High Intensity Interval Training is stressful for the body, say both Nunes and Leonard). And ultimately, “Adequate intakes of low fructose fruits, non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, and fish and moderate to low consumption of saturated fat, transfat, refined sugars, and salt will help to replenish all nutrients necessary for optimal functioning of hormonal system.”