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Nutritionist and Lifestyle Coach Effie Parnell-Hopkinson gives her top tips on how a good diet can improve a hormone imbalance.
Hormones are the messengers of the body, communicating between organs and tissues controlling bodily functions such as growth, metabolism, appetite, fertility and behaviour.
Hormonal imbalances can be caused by many factors including body weight, genetics, medical history, diet, stress levels and exposure to environmental toxins. Symptoms of an imbalance can vary depending on which glands and hormones are affected but common symptoms include unexplained weight loss or gain, disrupted sleep, fatigue, reduced sex drive and infertility.
Hormones constantly battle to maintain balance or homeostasis. For example during times of high physiological stress, (e.g. low calorie intake, disrupted sleep or illness) the body will suppress the production of reproductive and thyroid hormones causing the related symptoms. Unfortunately, hormone production isn’t something we can control directly but we CAN control the food we fuel our bodies with. Eating a well-balanced diet and making positive lifestyle choices can help significantly in avoiding the negative effects of hormone imbalance and increase our health and longevity.
This relationship between diet and hormones is well-researched and there are extensive guidelines on what foods can affect hormone balance (1). Eating a whole and nutritious diet will provide your body with the energy and nutrients needed for healthy hormone production.
Read below for my 5 easily implementable steps that you can use to improve your hormone function and health in general.
The 3 core macronutrients (made up of carbohydrates, protein and fats) are vital for hormone production as well as digestion, absorption and metabolic function. Aim to include healthy sources of all of these macronutrients in a way that ensures you are not in a calorie surplus, thereby maintaining an ideal body composition. Including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean sources of protein with each meal will allow you to focus on providing your body with nutrient-dense as opposed to energy-dense foods.
An example of a balanced meal following these guidelines would be one serving of oily fish or chicken (protein), two servings of vegetables and a serving of whole grain rice, pasta or quinoa (carbohydrate).
Highly processed foods can cause inflammation within the body. By reducing your intake of these processed foods including hydrogenated oils, trans-fats, added sugar and refined grain products you can reduce gut inflammation and improve your hormone regulation (2). Some individuals find it beneficial to reduce or eliminate intake of foods such as gluten, dairy or eggs, however it is important to appreciate that everyone tolerates food groups differently.
Eating a balanced diet that includes a large variety of vegetables has many benefits but is also a great place to start when looking to increase your daily fibre intake. Fibre aids in maintaining blood sugar and cholesterol, as well as improving gut health by providing the body with probiotic bacteria. The daily recommended fibre intake is approximately 25 – 30g and it is sensible to start by slowing increasing your vegetable intake and build up from there. Aim to consume at least two servings of vegetables including occasional fruit with each meal. Some research has shown that too much fibre has been linked with lower concentrations of blood oestrogen (3) though this is not usually an issue and for most people including more vegetables is a great way to start improving your diet and health.
Fats are absolutely essential for hormone production. Although fats have had a bad reputation in the past, when consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy diet they provide us with a major source of energy, help with vitamin and mineral absorption, keep us fuller for longer and fundamentally help us to regulate hormones. Aiming to increase your omega-3 fats (oily fish, nuts, flaxseed and chia seeds) and decreasing your omega-6 fats (vegetable oils, peanut oil, margarine) will aid in brain function, reducing inflammation (4) and the production of male and female hormones (5).
Aside from the fact that alcohol is a calorie-dense and nutritionally sparse toxin, high alcohol consumption has also been linked with high levels of oestrogen in males and a decline in circulating oestrogen in females as well as lower testosterone (6) and over time, increased levels of cortisol. This increase in cortisol levels is also seen with high caffeine consumption, which can affect appetite, sleep quality and energy levels. Limiting alcohol to 14 units a week and caffeine to two cups a day is a sensible place to start for overall health.
Diet plays a significant role in improving hormone health and is an excellent place to start. Apart from that, keeping an eye on your nutrition is important regardless of symptoms or suspected hormone imbalances. In addition to nutrition, regular exercising, getting better sleep and increasing your exposure to sunlight are all great ways to decrease stress levels and improving your hormone health. Regular blood testing is a great way to be able to monitor how your lifestyle changes are affecting your hormone levels.
That said, some medical conditions may require medical intervention and will not be cured through lifestyle alone. If you have concerning symptoms or you are not seeing improvements despite a healthy diet and lifestyle then further intervention may be required in the form of further blood testing or seeing your GP for a thorough evaluation.
(1) Kohlstadt, I. (2009). Food and Nutrients in Disease Management. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis Group.
(2) Zinöcker, M. K. & Lindseth, I. A. (2018). The Western Diet-Microbiome-Host Interaction and Its Role in Metabolic Disease. Nutrients, 10(3), 365.
(3) Gaskins, A. J., et al (2009). Effect of daily fibre intake on reproductive function: the BioCycle Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(4), 1061-9.
(4) Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Belury, M. A., Andridge, R., Malarkey, W. B., & Glaser, R. (2011). Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, 25(8), 1725-34.
(5) Saldeen, P. & Saldeen, T. (2004). Women and Omega-3 Fatty acids. Obstetrical and Gynecological Surve, 59(10), 745-6.
(6) Rachdaoui, N. & Sarkar, D. K. (2013). Effects of Alcohol on the Endocrine System. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, 42(3), 593-615.