The Female hormone cycle
When talking about balancing hormones and the female hormones in particular, 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 advice recommended by your GP.
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 the carbohydrate that has been eaten. Glucose can enter the blood freely as its absorption is not regulated, therefore almost all of the sugar we consume will enter the bloodstream quickly. Insulin is a hormone that allows glucose to leave the bloodstream and enter our body cells where it can be used for energy. The result of this is that blood glucose levels should fall into normal range again between meals. When eating a standard western diet, we often consume more carbohydrates than we need. It can then become a constant struggle for our body to keep blood sugars within a healthy range. Many of us are therefore living on a roller-coaster of blood sugars which can have an enormous impact on our health, weight and create difficulties in balancing hormones. Bringing insulin and blood sugar levels back into range can have a very positive effect on other hormones in the body such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone which can all influence the hormone cycle.
How to improve balance blood sugar balance with diet and lifestyle
- Eat 3 meals a day and try to avoid snacking wherever possible. Snacking naturally increases insulin levels which can adversely elevate oestrogen.
- Protein. Ensure that each meal contains a good protein source. This can include: eggs, cheese, lean meat, poultry, yogurt, fish, shellfish, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds or soya. Eating protein will help to stabilise blood glucose levels. Aim for a reasonable portion of protein (around ¼ plate at each meal).
- Eat around 200-250g vegetables at each meal and at least 100g vegetables or fruit at breakfast. Vegetables are alkaline and may be able to offset the acidity of some proteins. They also provide us with a plethora of anti-oxidants and phytochemicals which are beneficial to our health. Vegetables supply us with plenty of FIBRE which is important for hormone excretion and metabolism in the gut.
- Eat grains only in their wholegrain form and reduce all white refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, white pasta, couscous, biscuits, rice cakes, cakes, processed breakfast cereals, pastry products, bakery products etc. Instead opt for brown, red, black or wild rice, sourdough or heavier breads, porridge oats, oatcakes, quinoa, wholegrain pasta or bulgur wheat. Generally it is advisable to fill no more than ¼ of your plate with wholegrains.
- Avoid all refined sugar wherever possible. Sugary drinks, sweet coffees, sweets, chocolate, biscuits, sweets and cakes all contribute to blood sugar imbalance. As we know, high sugar consumption may further disrupt hormone balance. Try using fruit to sweeten yogurt, and wean yourself off sugary hot drinks and snacks over a period of a few weeks. Even sugar-free sweetened foods and drinks may affect our blood sugars. This is called the cephalic-phase insulin release, causing a small rise in insulin levels as sugar is anticipated by the body. Substitute sweets for 70-80% dark chocolate.•
- Avoid tea, coffee, green tea, cola, energy drinks between meals. These drinks contain stimulants that may affect blood sugars and overall hormone balance. Otherwise it may make sense to drink caffeinated beverages after a meal, as the food may help to slow down the response of the caffeine on the body. Note: some people are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others. If you know caffeine affects you, you may wish to reduce or avoid these type of drinks.
- Aim to drink only water or occasional herbal teas between meals: still or sparkling water is fine, but please filter your tap water. Aim for 2-2.5 litres daily. Some herbal teas can be drunk between meals.
- Avoid eating after 7.30pm or at least 3 hours before you go to bed. This allows the food to clear through the stomach so that the body does not need to digest food while we sleep.
- Alcohol can have a profound effect on our blood sugars and hormones. Try to keep alcohol to a minimum. Alcohol may disrupt our blood sugars, especially if drunk on an empty stomach. Alcohol is a stimulant and has been implicated in night sweats and hot flashes. Drinking in the evening may also disrupt the 3 hour fast before bedtime as well as interrupt deep sleep patterns.
- Eating the correct oils and fats is essential for good hormone balance. The majority of our fats and oils should come from monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocado oil, avocados and olives. The remainder should come from both polyunsaturated oils such as flaxseed oil, hemp oil, walnut oil, sesame oil etc., and smaller amounts of saturated fats such as butter, ghee or a little coconut oil. All three of these fat groups are vital to our health.
- Snacking. If you are caught out and need to snack, ensure that it contains a good protein and fat source and that it is not carbohydrate rich. Hummus and carrots or oat cakes, nuts and seeds, cheese and apple slices, a hard-boiled egg or rye bread and mackerel, half an avocado or even protein shakes are far better choices than a carbohydrate or sugary snack.
- Intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting has been found to have a beneficial effect on balancing hormones. Whilst not eating between meals is a form of fasting, it is a good idea to leave an even longer fasting period overnight. The good news is that most of the fasting takes place while we are asleep! Most people start with a 12 hour fast, but even more benefits have been shown with a 14 or even 16 hour fast. This would mean eating for a period of 8-10 hours a day and leaving a larger fasting gap overnight. This might mean eating breakfast at 9.00am, lunch at 1.30pm and supper at 6.30pm. The good news is that it is less important which hours you choose for your eating window, so it is usually possible to find timings that fit in with your lifestyle. Intermittent fasting has been shown in research to help with weight and insulin control as well as hormone balance alongside many other health benefits. There are, however, some people who may not be suited to Intermittent fasting, for example pregnant women, children, those who have an existing health condition, eating disorders or those who are suffering with extreme stress or adrenal fatigue. Please check with your GP first.
Improve excretion of hormone. The liver is where ‘spent’ hormones are usually conjugated (joined) to other molecules to make them inactive and easier to excrete. If the gut is sluggish or we are constipated, these hormones can become trapped and recycled, which can lead to an increase in overall free 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.
We can do this by:
Increasing dietary fibre in all its forms. We are advised to eat 35g of dietary fibre daily, but according to the British Nutrition Foundation, current daily averages fall short at around 17g for women and 20g for men, per day.
- Increase fibre from wholegrains and reduce refined grains
- Increase vegetables, which may also help us to excrete hormones from our gut. Apples, in particular are a rich source of pectin which may bind well to hormones and aid their excretion.
- Oats, beans and lentils contain high levels of soluble fibre, which may help to reduce constipation.
- Chia and flaxseeds contain a mucilaginous coating which is made of soluble fibre that may help to trap water in the stool and help reduce constipation by increasing the volume of faeces. Try adding chia or flaxseeds to your porridge or yoghurt.
- Sometimes a magnesium citrate supplement can help to alleviate constipation in some people
Add some bitter Vegetables and Onions.
- In particular increase cruciferous vegetables or brassicas: these include; cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, cavolo-nero, watercress, turnips, radishes and rocket. These contain sulphur containing compounds, which may have a beneficial effect on the liver detoxification pathways for oestrogen. Try to eat at least 1-2 of these daily.
- In addition onions, garlic and leeks may also have a liver enhancing effect when eaten regularly.
Increase plant phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are substances that occur naturally in plants that can have a positive effect on balancing hormones. This is because they act like a mild form of oestrogen in the body and are able to dock onto our own oestrogen receptors. This can be helpful if we have low oestrogen, but also if we have too much. There are 2 major kinds of phytoestrogens;
- 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 or Tamari soya sauce, however tofu and other soya foods such as Edamame beans, soya beans, and soya yogurt can also have a benefit
Avoid 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 may act as hormone ‘disrupters’. They are present in organophosphates, which are one of the main components in industrial pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and are found in most soft plastics.
To avoid exposure to environmental xenoestrogens:
- Avoid plastic bottles and choose glass or stainless-steel bottles instead.
- Do not re-use bought plastic bottles or leave them out in the sun as plastics could potentially leach into the water.
- Use glass containers or jam jars to store food and never re-heat food in plastic packaging.
- Remove supermarket plastic packaging wherever possible from food and put the food into glass containers.
- Avoid cling-film touching food or heating food in plastic in the microwave.
- Choose organic, locally-grown and in-season foods and help to reduce excess organophoshates. Alternatively, wash and peel non-organic fruits and vegetables. Soaking in a mixture of water and vinegar solution with bicarbonate of soda may also help to remove more pesticides.
- Try to eat organic or at least grass-fed or free-range meat and poultry. This may reduce organophosphate exposure. Ask your butcher about where the meat has come from. Aim for the best quality meat you can afford.
- Opt for organic milk if you can, and consider organic dairy products to reduce overall oestrogen and pesticide residues as well as organic, free range eggs.
- Opt for wild fish as opposed to farmed fish which can be a source of dioxins and organophosphates
Keep a healthy weight. Maintain a healthy weight for your height. Being over- or underweight may also affect the levels of certain hormones. Body fat around the central or trunk area may also capable of producing oestrogen.
Exercise. Exercise such as swimming, jogging, yoga and cycling have been shown to have beneficial effects on hormone balance. However remember that over-training can potentially have the opposite effect.
Reduce Stress. Long term stress can have profound effects on our hormones. It is important to try and control stress wherever possible in order to minimise this effects. This is because stress increases cortisol, one of the major stress hormones in the body. Long term stress can even supress cortisol levels. When the body is under stress, hormone regulation may be deemed as a ‘non-essential’ bodily function. In effect, the body may perceive our stress as an unsuitable time for us to reproduce.
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