Hormonal Health & Diet
Hormones act as chemical messages within our bodies. Hormones can act locally or travel to specific targets in the body, if they are produced in a different location from where they act. Hormones orchestrate major changes within the body, stimulating the growth of a baby, leading the way during puberty for both girls and boys, and altering a woman’s body upon entry to menopause. Not only do they front these major life events, but they act in miniature ways within the human body daily. Hormones maintain a process known as homeostasis which keeps our body in balance in processes such as;
- Pumping of the heart
- Metabolism regulation
- Participation in circadian (daily) rhythms
- The dictation of hunger + fullness signals to the brain
In a nutshell, hormones act on substances other than themselves. For example, they may affect a metabolic pathway, such as the one which involves insulin production.
Let’s look at some foods and their hormone associations within the body.
What food types can I introduce into my diet to support my hormonal health – and therefore prevent future disease?
Phytoestrogens & the Menopause
Phytoestrogens are chemicals like oestrogen, which are produced by plants. They can act like oestrogen in the body as a weaker form. Phytoestrogens therefore may help to relieve symptoms of menopause such as hot flushes and night sweats. Much of the research has been performed on a specific type of phytoestrogens called isoflavones, which are present in soy-based products such as soya milk, tempeh, and tofu. In continents such as Asia, where soy intake is high, only 10-20% of women experience hot flushes compared to the majority of those in the US and UK where soya intake is much lower. Studies show that there is a daily requirement of 250g of tofu, for example, for benefits to show. It may be appropriate to consult a health professional before introducing a large number of isoflavones into your diet. Further benefits of note from increased isoflavone intake include improved sleep and cognition and a positive effect on bone health. Other sources of phytoestrogens include;
- Flaxseed + chia seeds
- Lentils + pulses
- Liquorice (be mindful of liquorice intake if you have high blood pressure)
Cruciferous Vegetables & Oestrogen
Not only do these mighty vegetables act as antioxidants, fighting off unwanted toxic free radicals (cancer-causing), but they can also have a positive effect on oestrogen metabolism. More specifically, the cruciferous vegetables opt for the 2-hydroxy oestrogen or ‘good’ metabolites in the oestrogen pathway. Furthermore, these veggies have been linked with a reduction in some cancers and improved blood glucose levels – aka the more of these veggies the merrier! Try and feature the following in the majority of your main meals during the week;
- Brussel sprouts
- Pak choi
Good Fats – Omegas, Disease Prevention & Women’s Health
Omegas not only form an essential part of cell membranes within the body but act as a step in the production of hormones which are essential in the prevention of multiple diseases, particularly in women. Increased Omegas intake has been linked with reduced dysmenorrhea, increased fertility, and supplementation of Omegas during pregnancy has been linked with lowered risk of premature birth. Omega-3s are known as essential fat because we cannot produce them in the body, so they must be obtained from the diet. To obtain these essential compounds in the UK, it is recommended that we consume at least 2 portions of fish a week, one of which is oily;
- For oily fish sources think SMASH: sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring
- For vegans/vegetarians, a kelp/algae supplement is recommended to obtain a good variety of Omega-3’s.
- Note fish intake during pregnancy see the BDA – Pregnancy + Diet
Insulin, Type 2 Diabetes & Carbs
Insulin is a hormone that is produced by a collection of cells in the pancreas known as the Islets of Langerhans, named aptly after their discovery by Peter Langerhans in 1869! Insulin is released into the bloodstream and lowers blood glucose levels after a meal when they are above the ideal range at which they should be in the blood. A lack of control of insulin and thus continuous high blood glucose levels is the primary feature of type 2 diabetes. Carbohydrates, including sugars, break down into glucose in the bloodstream. Therefore, by optimising the carb sources that we reach for, the majority of the time, we can help to reduce continuous high blood glucose levels, thus allowing the mechanism of insulin management that the body uses to remain well functioning. Some carbs are fast-acting, spike the blood levels quickly before they go down again, or they are slow-acting- producing a slower more gradual peak than a fall in blood glucose levels. By opting for slow-acting carbs there is less pressure on insulin within the body, carbs such as these include
- Wholegrain carbs e.g., brown rice and pasta
- High fibre carbs e.g., seeded bread
- Beans, lentils, some veggies
Fibre, Probiotics & Gut Health
An intake of a wide variety of dietary fibre, prebiotics, and probiotics has been proven to have a positive effect on our gut microbiome – a collection of bacteria, fungi and viruses that reside in our gut. Critical hormones, such as cortisol and serotonin production, partially take place within the gut. Therefore, by supporting the growth and environment of our microbiota we can in turn support the production of these hormones. Food sources high in dietary fibre, prebiotics and probiotics include;
- nuts and seeds
- fruit skins e.g., apples and plums
- fermented foods e.g., kimchi, kefir
Overall, hormones and their relationship with our diet are unequivocal. Reassuringly, many of the foods mentioned in this blog are part of healthy eating guidelines and provide many other benefits to our overall health.
The Science of Nutrition, R Lambert. Dorling Kindersley Limited. 2021.
Tortora, G., & Derrickson, B. (2014). Principles of anatomy and physiology. Hoboken: Wiley.
Bedell S, Nachtigall M, Naftolin F. The pros and cons of plant estrogens for menopause. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2014;139:225-236. doi:10.1016/j.jsbmb.2012.12.004
Saldeen P, Saldeen T. Women and omega-3 Fatty acids. Obstet Gynecol Surv. 2004;59(10):722-746. doi:10.1097/01.ogx.0000140038.70473.96
How Your Diet Affects Your Hormones During Menopause. Healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/menopause/diet-hormones#Estrogen
How does food affect your hormones? Marion Gluck Clinic. https://www.mariongluckclinic.com/blog/how-does-food-affect-your-hormones.html