Google “diet and women’s hormones” and more than 96 million results come up. Many of them are bunk, especially a lot of the “hormone balancing” diets that pop up. One common promise made by these diets is that they can help you quickly lose weight by altering levels of key hormones, including insulin, cortisol, estrogen, testosterone and the thyroid hormones. So, basically a diet in sheep’s clothing built on dubious claims.
Humans produce more than 60 different hormones that affect many physiological activities, including metabolism, growth, puberty, fertility and appetite. Hormones are the body’s “chemical messengers,” released into the blood by the specialized cells that produce them to carry signals to your organs and other tissues. For example, when your pancreas releases insulin, it signals your muscle and fat cells to take up glucose (sugar) from your bloodstream. Some hormones travel to distant tissues to signal the release of yet other hormones.
The relationship between hormones and weight and between hormones and health is complicated. That’s because multiple hormones work together in complex and sifting ways, in the changing environment that is your body. True hormone imbalances could be due to problems with hormone production, hormone transport, or how receptive target tissues are to hormone signaling.
While nutrition does have the potential to influence all those things, a generic “hormone balancing” diet is not the answer. Because some hormone imbalances have a serious impact on health and/or quality of life, they warrant individualized care, which may include personalized nutrition recommendations and medication. Not areas you want to DIY.
Take reproductive hormones. Severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or menopausal symptoms? See your doctor. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)? Definitely develop a plan with your doctor. PCOS affects about 1 in 10 females, and its hormone imbalance includes overproduction of testosterone and other “male” hormones, often high levels of insulin and cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and lower levels of appetite-suppressing hormones. This can produce a number of signs and symptoms, including irregular menstrual periods and infertility, acne, excessive hair growth on the face and body, hair loss on the head, carb cravings, increased inflammation and unintentional weight gain. It’s also associated with an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
What about thyroid hormones? Insufficient thyroid hormones (known as hypothyroidism) can raise cholesterol levels and produce symptoms such as unexplained weight gain, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, slowed heart rate, depression and infertility. Elevated thyroid hormone levels (hyperthyroidism) can result in unexplained weight loss and an irregular heartbeat that may lead to stroke or heart failure, as well as osteoporosis and infertility. Both conditions call for medical treatment, not a “hormone balancing” diet.
Another common claim made by purveyors of “hormone balancing” diets is that sugar cravings and feeling “too hungry” are signs your hormones are out of whack. Many factors can trigger cravings, not all of them physiological, and your body produces more than a dozen hormones that play complex roles in promoting or suppressing hunger. Tips for “tricking,” “outsmarting” or “hacking” your hunger hormones is deceptive because it implies that you have more control over these hormones than you actually do.
The hormone leptin, produced in your fat tissue, suppresses hunger, with levels affected in part by how long ago you ate and how well you sleep. Levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin, produced in the stomach, rise before meals to signal hunger, then fall quickly after eating and stay low for about three hours. Ghrelin isn’t affected by what you ate yesterday, and its levels will continue to rise if you ignore hunger, leading to the kind of “primal” hunger that can make you feel out of control when you do eat again.
Now, back to nutrition. Yes, what and how much you eat matters when it comes to hormones because the energy and nutrients you obtain from food provide the raw materials for producing hormones. Dieting or otherwise restricting food can disrupt production of the key female hormones, including estrogen, progesterone and (yes) testosterone. This can impair fertility, energy levels, mood, sleep and bone density, while increasing inflammation and cortisol levels. Unfortunately, many diets that claim to regulate your hormones are restrictive (counterproductive) and include a lot of dietary supplements (questionable).
A balanced, nutritious diet can support both health and hormones — but there’s no consensus about how and what to eat, despite what some people might claim. If you haven’t been diagnosed with a specific hormone-related health condition, supporting your body with solid nutrition and lifestyle habits is enough. No need to adopt a restrictive “protocol” with big promises that aren’t backed by solid evidence.
- Get enough protein from varied sources. Eat less red meat and more fatty fish like salmon, trout, sardines and tuna. Eggs and yogurt offer important nutrients, and protein-rich plant foods such as beans, lentils and soy foods also have the benefit of fiber. Eating enough protein, especially at breakfast, can help support ghrelin levels.
- Include healthy fats from, again, fatty fish, along with olive oil, flaxseed oil (store in the refrigerator, and don’t cook with it), avocados and avocado oil, nuts and nut butters, and seeds.
- Eat enough vegetables and fruits.
- Include some whole grains in your day. This can be brown rice, oats, quinoa, farro, etc. These provide fiber and B vitamins.
- Moderate caffeine intake. Coffee and tea do have health benefits, but too much caffeine can raise cortisol levels and impair sleep.
- Moderate intake of alcohol and added sugar. High levels can promote inflammation and raise cortisol levels.
- Get enough sleep, engage in regular physical activity and develop tools for managing stress in a positive way. These practices support health in multiple ways, including positive effects on cortisol and insulin levels and helping hormones deliver their messages more effectively.