Female hormone cycle
When talking about female hormones we are usually referring to oestrogen and progesterone (although women also produce small amounts of testosterone). Oestrogen is produced mostly in the ovaries, but can also be produced by the adrenal glands, adipose (fat) cells, liver and skin. Oestrogen rises at the beginning of the month to a peak at ovulation before tailing off in the second half of the menstrual cycle.
Progesterone on the other hand is mostly produced by the corpus luteum in the second half of the cycle. This cycle is dependent on the hormones being secreted in the correct amounts at all stages of the cycle. Disruption to this cycle may be involved in hormone related conditions, such as pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), menopausal symptoms, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, fibroids, heavy or irregular periods and problems conceiving.
Nutrition and balancing hormones naturally
The following measures are believed to support the body with natural hormone balance. They are not a substitute for medical advice and are designed to be complementary to any treatment protocols recommended by your GP.
Enjoy lean PROTEIN at every meal and snack (including breakfast!)
Proteins are the building blocks of life. Protein is necessary for growth, tissue repair, enzymes, many hormones, neurotransmitters and immunity. When we eat sufficient protein, we are more likely to achieve a better blood sugar balance. This has been strongly linked to more balanced hormone levels in women. As carbohydrate levels go up as a % of total calories, protein tends to come down. Protein can therefore bring ‘balance’ to the body in terms of energy levels and hormones. If we are still hungry after a meal, or our meal is not keeping us full for around 4-5 hours, the chances are that the meal did not contain sufficient protein or fats.
- Excellent sources include: animal proteins such as; poultry, game, lean red meats, fish, seafood, eggs, yogurt, milk, quark, cheese. Meat should be fresh, unprocessed and preferably free range, grass fed or organic, dairy preferably organic.
- Vegetarian Sources include tofu, seitan, soya, seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, eggs, dairy, Quorn
- Vegan Sources: Tofu, seitan, soya, nuts, seeds, beans, peas and lentils and semi proteins such as quinoa and amaranth. Vegan protein powders such as pea or hemp may also be helpful.
- Protein foods are also rich in amino acids, iodine (fish), zinc, iron and B vitamins including B12, omega 3 fats (DHA and EPA), vitamins A and D.
- Protein foods also help to keep blood sugar levels steady and stabilise the appetite and prevent hunger pangs.
- Proteins are essential for hormone balance. When sufficient protein is consumed many hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone, stress hormones, serotonin and melatonin are more likely to remain in BALANCE thus promoting homeostasis in the body.
- Choose organic versions wherever possible to avoid extra hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.
- What is a serving of protein per meal? A palm sized piece of animal protein (around 120-180g), 2 eggs, around 80g cheese, 200-250ml yogurt, a double cupped hands of beans or lentils (around 150g cooked), a single cupped hand of nuts and seeds (50g) or 100-150-g Tofu.
Vegetables, Fruits and Berries
Vegetables and fruits are so essential that we believe that our ancestors ate such a lot of them that much of them that a large part of their diet was actually plant based. It was not however totally plant based. This was topped up with proteins and healthy fats. Root vegetables and tubers provided them with healthy carbohydrates rather than grains.
It is the FIBRE that is hugely important in the vegetables as well as the nutrients and phytonutrients they contain. These phytonutrients are often their pigments (which is why we should try to eat a rainbow at every meal). These pigments support the immune system because they act as antioxidants and are often anti-inflammatory in the body. The more colourful the vegetable or fruit, generally the better it is for us. The fibre keeps the microbiome (healthy gut bacteria) healthy.
- Try to buy as fresh as possible, and look out for organic products. If using non-organic, wash thoroughly in a vinegar/water solution and peel hard fruits and vegetables. Aim for 7 servings per day and include a variety of colours (red, yellow, green, purple etc.) If you work better in grams – aim for 700-800g of fresh veg daily!
- Fresh vegetable juices and smoothies offer many health benefits and make great snacks. They also help to boost your daily intake of veggies, but are lower in fibre. Opt for vegetable smoothies over fruit where possible.
- Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, watercress and cauliflower and sulphur containing vegetables (onions, garlic) all help to support liver function and hormone control.
- Fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants and cherries are powerhouses for antioxidants and phytonutrients. They also raise blood sugars slowly as do also apples, pears and plums. Make these your go to fruits, and aim for 1 apple a day. Feel free to add other fruits such as mango, papaya and citrus fruits to the list.
- Aim for 5 vegetables a day and 2-3 fruits
- Aim to fill HALF your plate with vegetables (cooked, raw, as a salad, stir-fried, as a soup). This could be 2 fistfuls per MEAL or around 250g for lunch and 250g for supper.
Remember the dirty dozen
(these are the fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticide residues. The organophosphate fertilisers used in non-organic farming have been repeatedly shown to act as a hormone disrupters in the body for both men and women (see xenoestrogens later).
The Dirty Dozen
Apples, Celery, Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Grapes, Nectarines, Peaches, Potatoes, Spinach, Strawberries, Blueberries, Sweet Bell Peppers. Also: Green beans and kale are moving up on the most sprayed list as well.
And the Clean Fifteen
Onions, Avocado, Sweet Corn (watch for GMO), Pineapple, Mango, Sweet Peas, Aubergine, Cauliflower, Asparagus, Kiwi. Cabbage, Watermelon, Grapefruit, Sweet Potatoes, Honeydew Melon.
Blood sugar and insulin balance
Insulin is a hormone that is released from the ß-cells in the pancreas when we eat foods containing carbohydrate. All carbohydrates break down into sugar (glucose) during their metabolism, but at different rates, depending on which carbohydrate has been eaten. Sugar can enter the blood freely as its absorption is not regulated, therefore almost all the sugar we consume will enter the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone that allows glucose to leave the bloodstream and enter our body cells where it is used for energy. The result of this is that blood glucose levels should fall into normal range again between meals. In the western diet, we are often consuming more carbohydrates than ever before. Many of us are therefore living on a roller-coaster of blood sugars which can have an enormous impact on our health, weight and hormone balance. Bringing insulin and blood sugar levels back into range can have very positive effect on other hormones in the body such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone which can all influence the hormone cycle.
Eat wholegrains/carbohydrates mostly in a wholegrain or complex forms
Carbohydrates can provide us with energy, but eating too much of this food group can lead to us feeling tired as well and may encourage weight gain. Many of the carbohydrates in the western diet are very low in nutrients and high in simple sugars.
Carbohydrates and foods have become more and more refined; whiter, fluffier and sweeter than ever before. Refining our cereal grains to make them ‘white’ removes the majority of vitamins and minerals. Unrefined (brown or wholegrain carbs) provide us with fibre, B vitamins, zinc, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, copper, folate, calcium and selenium. hormone Refined and sugars foods are therefore not nutrient-dense, meaning they fill us up temporarily, but do not provide the nutrients we require on a daily basis.
Whilst we need carbohydrates (vegetables are carbohydrates too!) to support our energy levels and gut bacteria, too much of the wrong kind is not a good idea, especially when hormones are out of balance.
- This food group provides many nutrients (especially B vitamins needed for energy production) and minerals (especially magnesium, zinc, iron and chromium) alongside fibre to keep digestion running smoothly.
- Good carbohydrate choices are slow release energy carbohydrates such sweet potatoes, parsnips, oats, potatoes, quinoa, amaranth, spelt, bulgur, brown rice, wild rice, rye, spelt, wholemeal pasta, unsweetened granola, oat cakes, wholegrain crackers, sourdough rye, wheat or spelt breads (not commercial bread).
- Avoid ‘white’ breads, fluffy white carbohydrates (carbage!) and cereals wherever possible as these are very low in vital minerals, vitamins and fibre, will upset blood sugar balance and act as anti-nutrients which deplete nutrient levels in the body as well as disrupt hormone balance.
- Eat no more than 1/6- ¼ plate of carbohydrates per meal (this may increase slightly for athletes and people who exercise daily or have higher energy demands.
Other tips to support even blood sugar levels
- Eat 3 meals a day and try to avoid snacking wherever possible. Snacking naturally increases insulin levels which can adversely affect oestrogen balance.
- Ensure that each meal and snack contains a good protein source.
- Limit caffeine to less than 300mg caffeine daily. If you have type 2 PCOS avoid caffeine wherever possible.
- Drink only pure water between meals: still or sparkling. Aim for 30-35ml per Kg body weight daily which may allow the metabolism to work at its best. Some herbal teas may be drunk between meals if they are quite ‘clean’ and do not contain synthetic flavours or additives.
- Avoid eating after 8.00pm. This gives the body a chance to regenerate, fat burn and rebalance hormones while we sleep. This may also help to reduce the risk of night sweats as hormones may remain more balanced.
- Alcohol has a profound effect on our blood sugar and insulin as well as affecting stress levels. Drink alcohol only with meals as opposed to an empty stomach and try and stick to just one glass wherever possible. Alcohol is a stimulant that can drain the adrenal glands and energy levels and should be reduced or avoided in the case of night sweats.
If you are caught out and need to snack ensure that it contains a good protein and fat source and is not carbohydrate rich. Hummus and carrots or oat cakes, nuts and seeds, cheese and apple slices, a hard-boiled egg are far better choices than a carbohydrate or sugary snack.
Healthy Fats and Oils and Omega 3 fatty acids
Fats are essential to life and have received bad press in the past. Fats supply us with fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. It also form part of all our cell membranes and an integral part in brain and nervous tissue. Although it also supplies us with energy, is also used structurally in the body. A healthy woman usually has between 35-31% body fat and Men 8-20% body fat. Cholesterol forms the building blocks to all our sex hormones and cortisol (oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol!). Whilst we can make cholesterol ourselves, we often need to consume cholesterol too, especially at times of stress.
Omega 3 fats cannot be made by the body and need to be eaten in food. They are only found in oily fish and wild meats and in smaller amounts in nuts, seeds and their oils.
- The main culinary oil should be a monounsaturated (extra virgin olive oil), with a polyunsaturated oil such as (hemp or flax – these should be cold pressed and eaten cold). Saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil are fine in moderation.
- If oily fish cannot be eaten for any reason or taken in fish oil capsule form, omega 3 oils may be obtained from Algae DHA EPA. Flax seed oil is NOT a good form of vegetarian Omega 3 as its’ conversion rates in the body are so low – studies show as little as 0.5-7% can be converted into EPA and DHA. These omega 3 fats are essential for hormone balance, but also for the health of nerve and brain tissue..
- To increase omega 3 fatty acids, increase oils fish salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards, anchovies and herring, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, linseeds oil, olive oil, rape seeds oil, low fat dairy products, organic margarines. Avoid tuna, swordfish and marlin. Choose wild fish wherever possible and avoid farmed fish.
- Enjoy 2-3 portions of oily fish every week, best of all; baked in the oven or steamed to preserve the delicate oils. Tinned sardines also provide an excellent source of calcium if eaten with the bones!
- As a rule of thumb: consume around 50% of your oil as Extra virgin Olive oil, 20% as hemp of flax oil, 10-20% as saturated fats (butter, coconut oil or ghee) and the remainder as walnut oil, sesame oil, pumpkinseed oil etc. Buy organic butter to reduce pesticide residues.
- Avoid margarines as well as sunflower, rapeseed and canola oils as these are high in omega 6 fats and low in omega 3 which some scientists believe can be inflammatory in the body.
Enjoy grass fed organic or free range meats. This meat contains natural omega 3’s and a better fat profile than farmed meat. Reduce processed or factory farmed meat which is high in hormones an antibiotic residues.
Raw nuts/seeds are a rich source of nutrients
Such as magnesium, calcium, chromium, vitamin E and zinc. Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium! They make excellent snacks.
Avocados provide monounsaturated fats (like olive oil) and can also provide vitamin C, E and K as well as B-6, riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, magnesium, and potassium.
Water and Drinks
- We are advised to drink around 30-35ml of water for every Kg of bodyweight or between 2-3 litres a day.
- Filter water wherever possible to remove pesticide residues which may act as hormone disrupters. Normal household carbon filter jugs claim help to remove much of these.
- Drink little and often, as this way water is better absorbed by the body.
- Herbal or fruit teas may also be enjoyed.
- Tea and coffee may still be consumed if you are not sensitive in moderation.
Increase plant phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens are substances which occur naturally in plants that can have a positive effect on our hormone balance. This is because they can have a mild oestrogenic effect in the body. Phytoestrogens can be helpful if we have low oestrogen levels, but may also be helpful when we have too much. There are 2 major kinds of phytoestrogens so they are found in a variety of foods.
- lignans: found in flaxseeds, beans, lentils, peas, rye, oats, sunflower and sesame seeds and some vegetables and fruits: such as apples, carrots and berries.
- isoflavines: found in soya based foods. Soya is best eaten in its fermented form such as miso, tempeh and tamari soya sauce, however tofu and other soya foods such as Edamame beans, soya beans, and soya yogurt can also have a benefit.
Easy ways to Increase your Plant Phytoestrogens:
- Sprinkle flaxseeds into your yogurt, smoothies or porridge. Flaxseeds are the richest food source of food lignans. See my blueberry smoothie recipe on my website.
- Add chick peas, beans, lentils, rye bread, flax as well as celery, apples, garlic, plums and even sprouted seeds, such as red clover to your food. Use in soups, casseroles, salads and smoothies.
- Eat smaller amounts of soya products (50g day is probably enough). Tofu, Miso, Tempeh and edamame beans are probably the best forms. It is easier to eat too much soya in the diet, when we add in soya milks and yogurts.
Improve excretion of old or ‘used’ hormones to avoid recirculation
It is in the liver where old hormones are conjugated to other molecules to make them inactive and facilitate their excretion. If the gut is sluggish or occasionally constipated, these hormones can become recycled which can lead to an increase in hormone levels. The following measures can help ensure that hormones are excreted efficiently in the gut. In addition, liver function may also be improved by the addition of certain foods.
- Increase dietary fibre in all its forms. This includes all plants and wholegrains
- The soluble fibre in certain vegetables can help facilitate the excretion of old hormones from our system Apples, in particular are a rich source of pectin. Fibre also helps to prevent constipation.
- Oats contain high levels of soluble fibre as do beans and lentils.
- Chia and flax seeds contain a mucilaginous coating which is good at reducing constipation and improving volume of faeces as well as being able to bind to excess hormones, toxins and cholesterol.
- In particular increase cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, cavolo nero, watercress, turnips and rocket have a beneficial effect on the liver detoxification pathways which can improve the breakdown and removal of old hormones. Try to at least one of these daily. In addition onions, garlic and leeks also have a liver enhancing effect when eaten regularly.
Avoid excess Xenoestrogens
Many women have high levels of xenoestrogens in their body. These are oestrogen ‘mimickers’ which can dock onto to oestrogen receptors in the body and act as hormone ‘disrupters’. They are present in organophoshphates, which are one of the main components in industrial pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, insecticides and most soft plastics.
To avoid exposure to xenoestrogens:
- Avoid all plastic bottles, even if they are BPA free – better still use glass or steel
- Do not reuse bought plastic bottles or leave them in the sun
- Use glass containers or jam jars to store food and never reheat food in plastic packaging. Remove supermarket packaging wherever possible from food and put into glass containers.
- Avoid cling-film touching the food
- Choose organic, locally-grown and in-season foods.
- Try to eat organic ‘hormone-free’ or grass fed, free range meat and poultry.
- Opt for organic milk and dairy products to reduce overall oestrogens and pesticide residues. Enjoy organic, free range eggs.
- Peel non-organic fruits and vegetables or soak in a water vinegar solution to help remove pesticides. These may not be water soluble.
- Opt for wild fish as opposed to farmed fish which can be a source of dioxins and organophosphates. Currently low toxin, sustainable fish include Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, wild Salmon and Herring, think (S-M-A-S-H)
Maintain a healthy weight for your height. Being over- or underweight can affect the levels of certain hormones. Body fat around the central or trunk area is able to manufacture homones such as oestrogen and can contribute to hormone dysbalance.
Cardiovascular exercise, such as swimming, jogging and cycling has been shown to have beneficial effects on hormone balance. Keep exercise in moderation as over exercise, however can have the opposite effect.
Long term stress can have profound effects on hormones. It is important to try and control stress wherever possible on order to minimise this effects as this can have a strong effect on hormone balance. Supplements may be recommended to support help with the body’s stress response.
Cigarettes contain many stimulants which stress the body and interfere with natural hormone rhythms.
Honey, maple syrup and dried fruits are healthier alternatives to white sugar.
The following foods should be reduced.
Sugary or refined ‘white’ foods
- These highly refined foods are very low in vital nutrients such as zinc, magnesium, chromium and B vitamins.
- Foods from this group include confectionary and sweets, sweetened muesli bars, biscuits, cakes, chocolate (except 70% dark chocolate), foods made from refined grains, such as white flour products, white bread, French bread, white rice and pasta, pastry, most breakfast cereals, white tortilla wraps etc. These can be eaten in moderation but should be reduced wherever possible with natural wholemeal / brown versions.
- Blood sugars tend to rollercoaster throughout the day as a result of poor food choice, constant snacking or via sweetened or milky drinks. This makes the body tired, upsets the hormone balance and encourages weight gain. It is quite tricky to have optimal hormone balance when blood sugars are continually unstable.
- Cravings for sugary foods can be a sign of imbalanced blood sugars, as well as lack of protein, fats and nutrients in the diet. If the diet is balanced and the body is receiving the nutrients it requires, sugar cravings usually reduce.
Coffee, tea, cola drinks and other sources of caffeine
Caffeine can affect sleep even 12 hours after our last intake of caffeine.
We are genetically mostly a FAST or a SLOW metabolizer of caffeine. While can test for this using genetic testing, many slow metabolisers are only too aware that consuming caffeine later in the day may keep them awake if at night. Whether fast of slow, it is best not to drink more than an upper maximum of 300mg caffeine daily.
Note: 300mg caffeine is equal to: 1.5 cups strong coffee, 3 Espresso’s, 1.5 cups instant coffee, 4 cups black tea, 6 cups green tea, 1.5 cups Latte coffee, 3 cans Red Bull, 6 cans Cola Cola or Dr. Pepper, 600g dark chocolate,28 dark chocolate coated coffee beans.
Alcohol has a profound effect on our blood sugar and insulin levels causing a sharp rise in both blood sugars and insulin followed by a slump. Wine and alcohol have been linked to a worsening on hormone balance and night sweats in a large proportion of women. Try to drink alcohol only with meals as opposed to an empty stomach and try and stick to just one glass wherever possible.
Processed/ convenience foods
These are generally high in salt, sugar, nitrates, additives and saturated fats and low in nutrients.
As a rule all food that comes packaged in a plastic wrapper or has an extensive food label has been processed to some degree and is likely to contain a variety of food additives to reduce microbial growth, improve flavour etc. These all need to be detoxified by the liver and can overload the body.
Processes meats, such as salami, sausages, pates, ham and bacon should also be avoided due to high nitrate content.
About the Author, Dominique Ludwig, Nutritionist MSc and Nutritional Therapist mBANT
Dominique Ludwig is an accomplished Nutritionist with over 30 years’ experience as a qualified nutritionist and almost 20 years as a nutritional therapist. The secret weapon of many high-profile clients and A-list celebrities, Dominique has been voted one of the top 15 nutritionists in the UK. She is a double award winning nutritionist (Most Outstanding Nutrition Programme 2023, UK), and is the founder of the Nutrition and Lifestyle Programme Renew Reset Recharge®, a pioneering nutrition, weight management and lifestyle programme that has been carefully created to support gut health and hormone health. To find out more CLICK HERE for details.
Working out of her own busy practice and The Meyer Clinic, Dominique has helped over a thousand clients, globally, live healthier lives. She is a regular contributor to The Times, The Sunday Times and Times 2.
Features published by Dominique Ludwig are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.