Although the term hormone imbalance has been thrown around over social media in recent years, there is truth in hormones being a predictor of aspects of health. Hormonal imbalances are seen when there is too little or too much of a specific hormone in the body, and due to their overarching effect on the body, small hormone imbalances can cause overwhelming side effects on the body. So, to clear the air on this topic, we have decided to break it down and highlight the key areas you need to know about balancing hormones and nutrition.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers made by specific endocrine glands found in different parts of the body, each having differing and crucial roles in maintaining our normal bodily functions. These hormones affect all areas of our functioning, including mental, physical, and emotional health, with key areas of interest in nutrition being hormones that affect appetite, metabolism, weight, growth, mood, heart rate, sleep, energy levels, and many more. Some of the many hormones that we consider having a key role from a nutrition perspective include:
Adrenal gland hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol
Good mood hormones, which include oxytocin and serotonin
Metabolic hormones that include T3 (active thyroid hormone), and TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) as well as insulin
Sex hormones, that can include estrogen, progesterone, testosterone
Hunger hormones, that include leptin, ghrelin, PYY nd GLP-1
Although they each have separate roles to play in the body, they are often interrelated and impact each other when one or more becomes “out of balance”. There are many factors of our fast-paced modern lifestyle that may impact the production and secretion of these hormones, and thus have an effect on different aspects of your health and wellbeing.
What causes hormone imbalances?
Whilst some changes to hormones occur naturally as a role of natural fluctuations in hormone cycles, including the menstrual cycle, puberty, menopause, through stress/relaxation as well as the circadian rhythm. However, some changes to hormone levels are not necessarily a result of a “natural bodily process” and can have long-term impacts on our physical performance, mental stress, and nutritional needs. Some factors that may lead to hormone imbalances include:
Extreme or prolonged stress
Poor nutrition intake (undereating or overeating)
Limited activity or exercise
Fasting for long periods of time e.g. full day fasting
Abuse of anabolic steroids
Certain medical conditions e.g. Type 2 Diabetes, allergies, hypo/hyperthyroidism, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Use of certain medications
How is a hormone imbalance diagnosed?
You can start investigating by making an appointment with your GP or health care provider to start a conversation about any symptoms you may have, whereby they may then suggest which hormone imbalance tests to do. These could be evaluations including:
Blood test: this can highlight imbalances in estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroxine, TTH, insulin, and cortisol levels.
Pelvic exam: A check for any lumps or cysts.
Ultrasound: Images of areas including the uterus, ovaries, thyroid, and pituitary gland can be obtained.
Biopsy: a sampling of cells from an area of concern
What can we include in our diet and lifestyle to restore hormone balances?
1. Consuming Adequate Protein
Protein is so important to our hormone health for many reasons. Firstly, many of our body’s hormones are made up of protein, and we need to obtain the 9 essential amino acids directly from our food in order to synthesize many of these proteins. Additionally, protein has a role in managing ‘hunger hormones’, by decreasing the release of ghrelin and increasing the release of hormones such as GLP-1 and PYY. Through this process, protein assists in hunger management by keeping you feeling full and satisfied, which can assist in long-term weight management and hormone balance. Furthermore, a specific amino acid known as leucine is known to play a major role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis, which has been shown to be beneficial in increasing maintaining lean muscle mass and increasing metabolism, which can attribute to good hormone health. Protein sources that are beneficial for balancing hormones include lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu, and legumes, and it is important to include at least 20-30g of protein (which equates to approximately 100g of cooked protein-rich food) at each meal, to ensure adequate protein intake – however, individual protein requirements should be considered for people with increased protein requirements, such as athletes.
2. Staying Physically Active
There are many benefits of regular physical activity for the means of improving hormone health as well as reducing the risk of chronic disease. One of the important factors for exercise is its role in the management of blood glucose levels indirectly of insulin, and thus increasing insulin sensitivity as a result. Essentially, exercise enables the muscles in the body to take up glucose and amino acids from the bloodstream for use without insulin being present, for use in energy production, and building muscle mass. Furthermore, with exercise, we see the benefits of increased dopamine secretion, which is a “feel-good” hormone that is produced during exercise and works by elevating your mood. Furthermore, exercise is useful in helping to balance stress hormones such as cortisol, whereby we see reductions in its secretion during moderate exercise.
3. Learn to Manage Stress Levels
Prolonged stress can have a significant effect on our stress hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline. Overwhelming, stressful, and busy lifestyles can wreak havoc on these hormone levels, which can lead to the expression of physical health issues. Raised cortisol levels can affect metabolism and mood dramatically, leading to excessive calorie intake and an increased risk of weight gain, whilst raised adrenaline can impact blood pressure and anxiety levels. Engaging in stress-reducing techniques including meditation, yoga, pilates, walking/jogging, meditation, or relaxation music regularly, has been shown to reduce imbalances in stress hormones and improve mood-boosting hormones such as serotonin and dopamine.
4. Regular intake of Healthy Fats
Choosing the right types of fats to include in your diet is important aspeect of balancing hormone levels. By choosing foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including olive oil, avocadoes, nuts & seeds, oily fish can help to decrease inflammation in the body which is known to be a major contributor to many lifestyle-related chronic diseases, as well as improve insulin sensitivity which is important for the management of prediabetes, weight gain, fatty liver, PCOS, gestational diabetes and cholesterol levels. Furthermore, consuming healthy fats with every meal can stimulate the release of our satiety hormones, GLP-1, PYY, and CCK, therefore leaving us feeling fuller for longer after a meal.
5. Minimize Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods such as sugary snacks/beverages and refined carbohydrates can be a potential cause of hormone imbalances. Regular consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked to insulin resistance which is a precursor for diabetes and weight gain, and additionally, these foods raise the levels of ghrelin our hunger hormone, and simultaneously lower levels of PYY, the hormone responsible for feeling satiated after a meal. As a result, eating these foods in moderation will help to optimize hormone functioning and minimize the interruption of our regular hunger cues and reduce the risk of prediabetes and weight gain as well as help to manage the symptoms of PCOS.
6. Avoid Restricting your Calories Too Low
Restricting calories too low for the goal of weight loss e.g. < 12,00kcal per day can lead to metabolic changes in the body. There is an increase in our hormones ghrelin and cortisol, both of which drive hunger cues and lead to unintentional overeating and weight regain. Furthermore, we see a drop in resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is essentially the calories that you burn while at rest, as a result of rapid weight loss causing loss of lean muscle, and the reduction in food intake lowers the thermic effect of food (TEF) which is the way in which we utilize energy through the digestion of food. Essentially, this can cause a cycle of weight loss and weight to regain as many chronic dieters have experienced before. In this case, seeking professional help for a strategy around safe and sustainable weight loss is ideal, which should involve consumption of whole foods, maintenance of lean muscle mass, increasing daily activity levels, and focusing on mental health your relationship with food.
7. Feed your Gut Microbiome
Choosing a diet that contains probiotic foods, which are foods that contain beneficial bacteria that may enhance gut diversity and thus gut health, and even more importantly a diet that is high in fibre, particularly soluble fibre, which is also known as a prebiotic, which is food for our gut bacteria to grow and reproduce. These probiotics and prebiotic foods are excellent for balancing hormones involved with the gut microbiome. Fibre has many benefits, one being its role in slowing digestion, which can reduce blood glucose levels after a meal, which can help to balance insulin levels and also reduce hunger cues, by stimulating GLP-1 and PYY levels. Additionally, fibre can bind to unwanted substances such as cholesterol, allowing for excretion from the body.
8. Get Consistent, Good Quality Sleep
Restorative and quality sleep is key to optimal health and is just as important as quality nutrition and exercise. Poor sleep has been linked to issues with our levels of stress hormones cortisol as well as insulin, ghrelin, leptin and growth hormone levels, which control parts of our metabolism, growth and hunger cues. Aiming for 7-8 hours of uninterrupted, quality, sleep is key to optimizing hormone balance.
9. Prioritize Micronutrient Intake
Correcting hormone imbalances may also rely on correcting deficiences and optimising the intake of micronutrients. Our water-soluble B-vitamin complex, as well as magnesium, zinc, vitamin C and E, are all key nutrients involved in hormone production and secretion. Many of these micronutrients are found in whole foods, such as our dark leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, seafood, berries and other fruits and other colourful vegetables. FOr good thyroid health, finding foods rich in selenium such as brazil nuts, and iodine, such as seafood and seaweed, can be helpful for preventing issues with thyroid hormone inbalnances. However, supplementation of these micronutrients may be necessary if you are unable to get enough of these nutrients through your diet alone, and this can be discussed with your dietitian or health care provider.
10. Minimize Endocrine Disrupters in your Household
Endocrine disrupters are chemicals that can interrupt with the way our hormones are synthesized and secreted. Hormone disrupters can be found in:
Personal care products
Some of the most common that we would recommend looking into would include the types of plastics you store your food and drinks in, ensuring they are BPA-free or completely plastic-free if possible.
Furthermore, heavy metals can accumulate in predatory fish (e.g. shark, swordfish, king mackerel, big-eye tuna), and these heavy metals then accumulate in our body and interfere with normal hormone functioning. Therefore it is best to limit consumption of these types of seafood, however, it is recommended to continue eating other fish as they are a nutritionally dense food source. Additionally, when it comes to organic produce vs regular produce, we can say that organic products are free from pesticides, that can act as an endocrine disrupter, however, we also know that washing fruits and vegetables in a solution of bicarb soda and warm water can help to remove any pesticides that may be present on the outside of fruits and vegetables. So either option is best if you are trying to avoid pesticide contamination in your diet.
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