Cortisol, estrogen, adrenaline and testosterone are just a few of the hormones that flow through your body every day, working as chemical messengers to regulate functions such as sleep, growth, metabolism and the reproductive process.
These hormones are in constant fluctuation due to stress, sleep, exercise and diet. Hormonal cycles fluctuate constantly for women during their monthly cycle, making it important to feed the body with the necessary fuel to optimize hormones.
As someone who has struggled with hormone dysregulation from severe stress and made the transition off hormonal birth control, it was crucial for me to learn what to eat to support my hormones.
Protein is the building block for our cells and creates the structural framework for hormones to develop, acting as the internal communication to carry messages between organs, cells and systems. In addition, protein aids tissue repair. Without it, cells break down and weaken, leading often to autoimmunity problems.
Amino acids are the foundation for synthesizing proteins. There are a total of 20 necessary amino acids, with 12 created by the body naturally. The other eight are referred to as “essential amino acids,” which are necessary to sustain life. But our bodies don’t create them, so we need to obtain them through the foods that are a part of our regular diet.
Animal protein contains all eight essential amino acids and large amounts of protein per serving. Plants do not contain all eight in one source, so you need to be sure to eat a variety of plant-based proteins in adequate portions to ensure receiving all eight amino acids on a regular basis.
While the right amount of protein per person varies depending on many factors (age, physical activity level, hormone situation, weight, sex, etc.) protein should be no less than 25 percent of your daily calories. Low protein diets are linked to decreased growth hormone, estrogen and prolactin (linked to immunity, metabolism and breast milk production) and increased stress responses and thyroid imbalance.
Grass-fed beef, organic chicken and wild-caught fish are the best quality sources of animal proteins for hormone health. However, conventional animal protein can cause inflammation in the body which damages the gut, affects our blood sugar and causes our hormones to get out of whack.
Hormones are produced from fat and cholesterol, so fats are essential for healthy hormone levels and function. There are different types of fat, most of which are crucial to a diet. These include saturated fat, which is contained in butters or coconut and are typically solid at room temperature, and unsaturated fat, which are broken down into two types: monounsaturated (from olive oil and avocados) and polyunsaturated (from salmon, flaxseeds and walnuts).
Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) are considered fundamental because we need them to live. Our body doesn’t produce them on its own, so we need to consume them regularly in our diet. Omega-3 intake can be augmented with the proper fish oil supplement, which not only helps hormonal health but assists brain health, too. Omega-6 creates inflammation in the body, while omega-3 reduces it. Omega-6 tends to get a bad rap, but both are crucial. For example, when you get injured, your injury automatically produces an inflammatory response to support the injured area. This type of acute inflammation is critical for survival. However, it’s prolonged inflammation that is the precursor of blood sugar imbalance, autoimmunity and infertility problems.
Today’s food production is loaded with inflammatory foods such as sugar, fast food transfats and animal protein that’s filled with hormones and antibiotics. The average person’s omega-6 ratio is too high, so the key is to consume more omega-3 (from salmon, sardines and walnuts) and eat organic and grass-fed protein sources to eliminate unnecessary inflammation. Additionally, GLA, a healthy omega-6 fat, can be supplemented through evening primrose oil and hemp seeds while avoiding inflammatory oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, canola and soybean. For women who struggle with menstrual cycle symptoms, it’s important to note that these essential fatty acids help reduce menstrual cramps and PMS when the ratio is balanced.
While protein and fats are the main building blocks for hormones, quality carbohydrates are needed for the energy to create them. It’s important to focus on nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables which, in addition to fiber and small amounts of sugar for immediate energy, are full of vitamins and minerals that keep hormones healthy and balanced. Refined grains (white starchy carbs) and refined sugary foods (pastries, candy, processed foods) should be avoided when possible as they have a negative impact on blood sugar and send hormones into a state of imbalance.
Jamie Forward is a Holistic Health Coach based in the NYC area. She works with her clients to help educate them on functional nutrition and behavioral/psychological hacks for a healthy, happy life. With a background in Psychology, she is a graduate for the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is continuing her studies in women’s hormonal health, and is also a classically trained dancer and dance fitness instructor.