Want to work with your hormones rather than against them? Nutritional therapist Le’Nise Brothers has the answers.
Would it surprise you to learn that we have more than 50 different hormones that guide our body’s functions? Everything from sleep, mood, energy, digestion, stress and of course, reproduction has hormones that govern them. The foods we eat, primarily protein and fats, are the scaffolding our bodies need to make our hormones. When we don’t eat enough or we choose to exclude foods containing healthy fats, this impacts our body’s ability to make these hormones that help us have a good night’s sleep, to feel hungry and satiated and to have a healthy menstrual cycle.
Hacking your hormones. Regular exercise will increase your energy levels. The more time we spend sitting around doing nothing, the more lethargic we tend to feel. Exercise increases oxygen and blood flow throughout the body, boosting energy.
- Steroid hormones: such as oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone, vitamin D and cortisol are made from cholesterol.
- Peptide hormones: such as oxytocin, insulin and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) are made from chains of amino acids.
- Amino acid-derived hormones: such as adrenaline or thyroxine (T4) are made from the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine.
The many hormones in our bodies act akin to an orchestra playing a beautiful piece of music; each one rising and falling according to the guidance of the conductor, or in our case, our brains. When things are going right and your hormones are balanced, you’ll feel energetic, able to jump out of bed, your moods will stay stable and your periods will be normal, with very little pain and a steady, even flow.
When things aren’t going right, you’ll know it. You’ll struggle to get out of bed in the morning, you might find yourself teetering on the edge of rage or tears, trying to get your emotions under control. You might find yourself getting hangry or needing to have something sweet to get you through the day. You might also see an imbalance in your hormones reflected in your period or the week or so just before it, with more mood swings, cravings, bloating, painful periods, or acne.
Filling in the fats. Just as the food we eat forms the foundations that helps our body’s endocrine glands, the tissues that make hormones, this food also helps to keep our hormones in balance. For example, think of the low-fat craze of the 80s and 90s. Many of us learned that dietary fat caused weight gain and ill health. We know now that this is not true, however the type of fat we eat matters. Highly processed fats such as margarine, seed and vegetable oils can increase chronic inflammation (where the immune system acts as though there is a continual threat to the body), and this can have a negative effect on or exacerbate hormone imbalance.
When we include healthy fats such as avocado, coconut milk, olive oil, ghee, nuts, seeds, free-range eggs, and organic full-fat dairy in our meals, we give our liver, adrenal glands and ovaries what they need to make hormones like oestrogen, cortisol (our primary stress hormone) and progesterone (the calming anti-inflammatory hormone we produce after we ovulate). Without these foods, we won’t be able to make enough of these hormones. And the consequences of this aren’t appealing. Without enough oestrogen, the lining of the womb doesn’t get thick enough and this can have a detrimental effect on fertility and being able to sustain a pregnancy.
Not eating enough fat can also affect our ability to ovulate and make enough progesterone. Without enough progesterone, we might find that our moods change wildly before our periods, we get bloated, or we can get pregnant but can’t maintain the pregnancy. Ideally, we want to aim for healthy fats to make about 5 -10 percent of the composition of each meal.
Packing in the protein. The same applies for protein. Many of us may only consider protein in the context of increasing muscle mass, but just like fat, the amino acids that group together to form protein are needed to make hormones like prolactin (the love hormone), ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and leptin (the hormone that signals fullness). You don’t need to rely on protein shakes! There are many amazing high-quality sources of protein you can add into your meals, from eggs and organic full-fat dairy to beans, pulses, fermented tofu and tempeh. You want to aim for protein to make about 20-25 percent of the composition of each meal.
When we eat enough protein and fat, we support the health of our hormones and their balance. While I firmly believe that it’s important to focus on what we add into our meals, there is sometimes a need to consider what we can do with less of. Eating enough protein, healthy fats, fibre, and greens at each meal will help balance our hormones, keep us satiated and nourish and help our mood and blood sugar stay on an even keel.
Swerving sugar. When we don’t eat enough, or eat too many sugary foods, this has a negative effect on our hormones by spiking our cortisol and insulin levels. Although intermittent fasting is very popular, my belief is that it is not beneficial for anyone with a hormone issue.
How to know if you have a hormone issue? If you struggle to get out of bed, if you never feel hungry in the morning, if you have that tired but wired feeling at the end of the day, if you have painful, very heavy or very light periods, if you get hangry or dizzy when you need to eat or if you simply lack the energy to do what you need to do each day, then it is likely there may be a hormonal issue at play. In this case, more extreme forms of fasting may not be for you, but rather a gentler approach that includes eating three meals with high-quality protein, healthy fats, fibre, and greens, tuning into your hunger and fullness signals and incorporating moments that act as stress release valves throughout the day, such as deep breathing or movement.
We have at least three opportunities each day to nourish and support our hormone health with food. Focus on what you can add into each meal, rather than what you subtract and most importantly, take things day by day, or meal by meal. Small and consistent changes really do make a difference in the long-term!
Focus on what you can add into your meal rather than subtract
FOODS FOR PCOS SYMPTOMS
- At the very heart of this is making sure each meal is nutritionally dense, with enough protein, healthy fat, fibre, and greens. This will support blood sugar levels in several ways: protein and fat take more time to digest so you stay fuller for longer, fibre is very supportive for increasing insulin sensitivity and greens support gut health.
- Try swapping your breakfast cereal for a 2-3 egg omelette (use the yolk!) with a handful of greens, grated carrot and grated cheese, cooked in butter or olive oil and topped with avocado.
- For lunch or dinner, you could try a Buddha bowl with roasted chickpeas, a serving of sweet potatoes, a cup of spinach or rocket, with a serving of lemon vinaigrette.