Much as we need and love our hormones, they can cause women a lot of upheaval. Years of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms (ranging from a reliably returning pimple on your forehead to excruciating cramps, tender breasts, mood swings and even back pain) are followed by menopausal symptoms (mood swings, hot flushes, night sweats) that can last for years on end. And that’s just what we consider “normal”, before we even start talking about fertility problems or hormone-related diseases such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or cancer.
But does it have to be like that? There is a lot that diet can do to make life easier and to manage hormone-related conditions much better.
Apart from sex hormones, which are the ones that are mainly responsible for the symptoms of PMS, menopause and female health conditions, the body also secretes many others. Those different hormones are all interlinked and work together or oppose one another. You can picture hormone balance like a line dance: When one steps out of line or trips, this will have a knock-on effect on all the others, too.
Balance your blood sugar
The first and most important piece of advice we can give to get on top of your hormones is to balance your blood sugar levels. Like so many other things in the body, blood sugar – or correctly termed blood glucose – levels must stay within a very narrow margin. Too little is just as bad as too much. To keep blood sugar levels within a safe range the body secretes a range of hormones.
We have considerable power to help blood sugar hormones do their job by the food choices we make. A breakfast consisting of cereal, topped with banana and honey, washed down with a cup of (sweetened or unsweetened) tea or coffee or – worse still – a glass of orange juice will send blood sugar skyrocketing. The pancreas will respond by secreting insulin – a hormone that removes sugar from the bloodstream. The higher your blood sugar, the more insulin will be released, and the faster and lower your blood sugar will drop.
All that insulin works swiftly and is then likely to lower your blood sugar too far, which triggers another set of hormones: glucagon – also coming from the pancreas – and cortisol, a stress hormone that can activate stored glucose from the muscles in an attempt to get your blood sugar levels up to a healthy level again.
At the same time, we’ll be receiving the message from the brain: “Blood sugar low. Eat some sugar!” This is a craving, and most likely, we will oblige – because it is near impossible to resist the call of hormones – and supply sugar in the form of a biscuit or two. Blood sugar rises high, and the cycle begins again.
The constant up and down, the ebb and flow of the hormones that are having to deal with your blood sugar has an impact on your sex hormone balance. Consequently, one of the easiest and most effective ways to get hormone balance on an even keel again is by getting blood sugar under control. Our simple rules for blood sugar control are:
- Reduce sugary foods and snacks as much as you can, better still: cut them out completely. There is no physiological need for sugar.
- Reduce your servings of starchy foods (pasta, bread, rice, potatoes) to no more than a quarter of your plate – less is fine. Half of your plate should be covered by non-starchy vegetables (anything green and leafy, courgettes, peppers, aubergines, onions, tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, etc.)
- Pick unrefined, wholegrain starchy foods (brown rice, wholegrain bread) as they release their sugars more slowly.
- Always have protein alongside carbohydrates as this will slow down the speed at which blood sugar level rises. Think fruit with yoghurt, nuts or nut butter; oatcakes with salmon, cream cheese or hummus, brown rice with chicken, chickpeas or feta cheese and so on. Always with vegetables, of course.
Phyto-oestrogens are plant compounds that have the same shape as human oestrogen and therefore fit into the oestrogen receptors in our cell wall. They are considered ‘adaptogenic’, which means that they can either increase or decrease our own oestrogen levels – depending on what we need.
Phytoestrogens have a much weaker oestrogenic effect than natural human oestrogen or xeno-oestrogens (see below), but at a time when our own oestrogen has dropped, this is still an improvement. This is how they help increase oestrogen. While (weak) phytoestrogens are sitting in some the oestrogen receptors, those receptors are blocked for our own (stronger) oestrogen, meaning that when there is an excess of human oestrogen or – worse – artificial xeno-oestrogens, the oestrogenic effect is reduced. This is how they effectively lower oestrogen. Xeno-oestrogens are oestrogen-like endocrine disruptors from environmental pollutants, pesticides, plastics, flame retardants and more.
There are different types of phytoestrogens:
- lignans (seeds – especially flaxseeds, grains, nuts, fruits, berries)
- isoflavones (soya beans, chickpeas, other pulses, berries, grains, nuts, wine)
- resveratrol (better known for its antioxidant and anti-cancer effects and found in fruits, berries, red wine and chocolate)
- quercetin (another antioxidant, e.g. in onions, apples and other fruit and vegetables as well as tea).
Loading up on real foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and pulses will keep you topped up in plant oestrogens.
A note of caution: We do not recommend that you go and purchase a supplement – isoflavones from soya are particularly popular and advertised for the management of hormonal issues. However, those products are controversial. Some researchers warn of the harmful effects of isolated phytoestrogens, while they are considered safe if consumed as real food. That is not to say that they do not have a benefit for some people, but you should seek professional advice before using a phytoestrogen supplement or functional foods (e.g. processed soya protein powder).
Don’t be tempted by low-fat diets for weight loss. Although cutting back on saturated fats is a good idea, avoiding healthy fats known as “essential fatty acids” or EFAs can be detremental to your health and hormone balance.
There are two types of EFA. Omega 6 oils are found in nuts, seeds and their oils, as well as in primrose, borage and starflower oils. These are often recommended by health professionals in supplement form to help relieve the symptoms of PMS. Omega-3 fats, found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, play a role in some of the most common conditions affecting women, and can help reduce period pain. Studies have also shown they can promote fertility, reduce the risk of premature birth, and promote foetal brain development. There is also some evidence that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids might help to prevent preeclampsia, postpartum depression, menopausal problems, postmenopausal osteoporosis, breast cancer and heart disease in women.
A quick and easy way to add more EFA’s to your diet is to eat more seeds – a tablespoon with breakfast or on soups and salads will help you reach your daily requirement with little fuss. Milled flaxseed (also called linseed) is widely available in supermarkets and often ready-mixed with goji berries or nuts, and can be stirred into porridge or granola. Flaxseed is a source of omega 3, omega 6 and phytoestrogens, and many women find that it helps to regulate their menstrual cycle.
To keep those hormones in check, make sure to incorporate fish and seafood into your diet. Have oily fish twice a week, but just once if pregnant. If you are vegan, you must supplement omega-3 fats (e.g. DHA from seaweed) as plant food sources will not be able to cover your body’s demand.
Unfortunately, our oceans are contaminated with mercury and mercury accumulates in the fatty tissue of fish, which is why we recommend not to consume oily fish more than twice a week, (fresh) tuna only once a month. Tinned tuna is defatted and therefore low on both mercury and omega-3. If you are going to supplement omega-3 fats, make sure to buy a good quality, purified oil from a reputable source.