A small hormone imbalance can have a big effect on our bodies. Alessandra Felice shows us how to handle our hormones…
Hormones and their balance are essential for our body to work harmoniously, but we don’t often think about how many everyday actions affect them. Factors with an impact include things put on the skin, things we inhale or ingest and stressors we encounter. For example, plastics and aluminium containers can have chemicals that act like the hormone oestrogen and lead to an excess in the body, while make-up can contain xenoestrogens (synthetic compounds that mimic oestrogen’s action in the body) that can act as oestrogen blockers. Other harmful chemicals, including parabens, propylene glycol and sodium lauryl sulphate may be found in hair products, body wash and nail polish as well as cleaning products, so watch out for those.
There are also lifestyle factors that can influence our hormones. Exercise can be beneficial to keep leptin (hormone responsible for regulating energy burn and appetite) functioning properly. In addition, exercise can reduce cortisol and adrenaline, improve mood and sleeping patterns. However, excessive exercise can put the body in a state of constant stress with elevated adrenaline and cortisol, which can actually negatively affect weight management. Find what works for you and be gentle with your body.
Poor sleep is another important factor, as it raises the levels of stress hormones like cortisol while lowering other hormone’s potency like insulin (regulates our blood sugar) and ghrelin (influences our appetite). This is why often when we have had a bad night’s sleep we feel hungrier and we crave sweets or processed foods. Sleep helps keep stress hormones balanced and allows the body to rest and repair. Excessive stress and poor sleep are linked with higher levels of morning cortisol, troubles concentrating, feelings of depression, anxiety and weight gain. Try to get to bed by 10pm, stick with a regular sleep-wake cycle, cut exposure to light at night, especially from electronics that can suppress the secretion of the hormone melatonin, which is responsible for regulating your circadian rhythm.
Remember to find ways to destress! Stress, whether physical, emotional or environmental, has a huge negative impact on hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, which will impair your blood sugar regulation, increase your appetite, affect your digestion along with skin appearance and mood.
Of course one of the things we do every day is eating, and diet plays a huge role in balancing hormones. To keep them working efficiently we need to be careful to limit stimulants, refined sugar and modified soy products as much as possible and to eat enough calories throughout the day without skipping meals.
Coffee may be great for an energy-boost, but it is also responsible for raising cortisol levels, which can lead to sugar cravings and an increased appetite once the effects of caffeine wear off, raised heart rate and sleep problems. One or two cups a day may be okay, but drinking too much may be detrimental as caffeine stays in your system for up to six hours.
Alcohol is another stimulant to be aware of as it can impact liver function. Because the liver is fundamental for hormone balancing and excretion, elevated alcohol consumption can lower testosterone levels and contribute to excess levels of oestrogen.
If you’re a smoker, please consider quitting, as smoking doesn’t just affect the lungs and respiratory system but the health of your skin and endocrine system. Nicotine is a toxin which interferes with your body’s functions as it needs to be processed and eliminated and can cause disruption in reproductive hormone cycles.
Watch out for refined sugars or artificial sweeteners, as sugar promotes a rise in insulin levels that decrease the body’s sensitivity to ghrelin and leptin, the hormones that control our appetite, and it will prevent oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone from being balanced, as balancing the insulin will take precedence. This can cause sleep disturbances, anxiety and mood swings. Choose naturally sweet foods, such as fresh fruit, root vegetables, whole grains like oats and load up on veggies, greens, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Keep it vegan
By not eating meat we already have an advantage as most animals are fed genetically modified grains, corn or soy, as farmers usually look for the cheapest possible feeds. In addition, most animals are fed antibiotics to resist diseases that develop in farming environments.The same goes for dairy. In order to maximise dairy output, cows are kept pregnant, resulting in high levels of oestrogen that can have a negative impact on hormones for both women and men.
Finally, soy contains phytoestrogens that can mimic real oestrogen. These substances may sit on cells’ receptor sites, which were designed to take in oestrogen, blocking the real oestrogen from entering and leaving it to circulate around through the blood instead. These oestrogen-like substances can also impact the thyroid, which controls our hormones and may lead to suppressed thyroid function. Pick fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh, as they contain lower levels of these compounds and look at soy milk, yoghurts and desserts like a treat to have once in a while.
Most importantly, don’t skip meals. This makes your blood sugar drop, then raise, then drop rapidly again, causing sudden spikes in insulin, which negatively impact other body hormones. It also makes you feel jittery, shaky, anxious, tired and long-term possibly cause weight gain. Find your own eating patterns throughout the day and include carbs, protein and healthy fats in your meals. They all have their role in hormone balancing.
If you think you’re experiencing hormonal imbalances look out for symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, digestive issues, migraines and headaches, skin problems and changes in appearance, altered appetite, irregular periods, reproductive problems, weight loss or weight gain, irritability, anxiety. When hormones like cholesterol, insulin or reproductive ones like oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are raised or suppressed long term they can lead to conditions like diabetes, adrenal fatigue, thyroid disease among others.
So it’s so important to take care of them as they are your body’s control system. Luckily we have the power to help and one of the easiest ways to do it, is nourishing ourselves with hormone balancing foods. Here are 10 of the best ones.
Veg such as broccoli, cabbage, rocket, cauliflower, bok choy, kale, Brussels sprouts, watercress and turnips contain high amounts of glucosinolates. When you chew, chop or blend these vegetables, an enzyme is activated and converts them into indole-3-carbinol, which supports the liver’s detoxification process. It stimulates the enzymes required to remove toxins and hormones from the body and has a balancing effect on oestrogen levels.
Add to your smoothies or juices; steam them and drizzle with some olive oil or lemon juice; spice up salads with some peppery rocket or watercress and make creamy broccoli or cauliflower soups. And try cabbage as sauerkrauts.
Lignans are phytoestrogens contained in plant sources. As the name suggests, they have estrogenic properties. When you eat foods like flaxseeds, sesame or sunflower seeds, the bacteria in your gut converts them into metabolites that produce a weak estrogenic effect. They provide support when oestrogen levels are low and, when oestrogen levels are too high, lignans attach to the oestrogen receptors, reducing the activity of the body’s natural oestrogen. They can improve certain oestrogen induced conditions like menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis.
Sprinkle sunflower seeds on your morning porridge; add sesame seeds to Asian dishes and drizzle tahini on pretty much anything, from roasted veggies to bananas. With flaxseeds, either grind them into a flour consistency or soak them until they form a gel so that the body can properly absorb and utilise them.
Essential fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks of a group of hormones called eicosanoids, which the body uses to deal with inflammatory responses. These fatty acids tend to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, while omega-6s have a pro-inflammatory one, but it’s important to have a healthy balance between the two, as not all of them are bad. For example, the omega-6 gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) found in evening primrose oil, borage oil and in hemp seeds can support healthy progesterone levels.
Natural sources of omega-3s are flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, dark green leafy vegetables; while omega-6s can be found in pumpkin, sunflower, sesame seeds, vegetable oils, grains and nuts. You’ll get plenty on a vegan diet by eating your favourite nut butter or by adding nut and seed milks to smoothies.
Short, medium and long-chain fatty acids are the building block of hormones, particularly sex and stress hormones. Not including adequate dietary fats can interfere with hormonal balance, but excess trans fats can negatively impact hormones. So include plenty of avocados, coconut, nuts and seeds for optimal hormonal function and stay clear of processed foods.
Avocados are rich in beta-sitosterol, a substance that can significantly lower blood cholesterol levels, helps to balance cortisol and restore low DHEA (hormone produced by adrenal glands, balancing the effect of cortisol on the body).
Coconut and its products are a great source of medium-chain fatty acids and have anti-bacterial and metabolism boosting qualities.
Turmeric and Ginger
Turmeric has proven estrogenic activity, because curcumin acts as a phytoestrogen. It has been widely used in ayurvedic medicine to support women’s hormones and reproductive health. It can decrease intensity and pain experienced during periods, as it has an antispasmodic action that can help with menstrual cramps.
Try sipping on a hot turmeric and ginger tea, maybe with a sprinkle of cinnamon or on a warm mug of turmeric latte.
Pro and pre-biotics
Gut health is essential for hormone balancing, as so many hormones are metabolised, processed and excreted through the gut. Foods that are fermented, such as kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi bring beneficial probiotics to your digestive system helping to support its friendly bacteria. Foods rich in prebiotics, such as leeks, onions, Jerusalem artichoke and chicory root are important too, because these are the foods that the ‘good’ bacteria feed on. They can then grow and colonise your gut so that it can work at its best.
These are specific herbs and foods that promote hormonal health. Adaptogenic compounds help mitigate the stress response, as they work to bring the hormones of the adrenal system into balance. They could also help stabilising blood sugar and insulin levels, support thyroid function and decrease symptoms of fatigue.
You can find them in powder form, as a tea, or in spice form. Some of them are rhodiola, ashwagandha, ginseng, holy basil, astragalus, shisandra, and rosemary. Check with a nutritionist or herbalist which ones are right for you and could benefit you the most.
Fibre helps lower blood sugar levels and keep them balanced by stabilising insulin action, which helps to balance cortisol levels. Long term elevated cortisol leads to a constant state of stress and weight gain, which could then lead to oestrogen dominance.
Sufficient dietary fibre helps to eliminate excess oestrogens and reduce progesterone levels. Make sure you’re eating whole grains, green vegetables, beans and legumes and you’ll get your daily dose with no troubles at all.
Blueberries, raspberries, bilberries, goji and acai may help lower blood sugar levels and insulin resistance, as they have a low glycemic index (meaning they don’t cause a sudden surge in blood glucose) and, thanks to the effect of their more important compound anthocyanin, on the pancreas, which regulates blood sugar by producing insulin. Managing blood sugar and insulin reduces cortisol as well.
Berries are also an amazing source of antioxidants, which fight free radicals and lower inflammation. Plus their fibre can help the excretion of cholesterol and excess oestrogens.
Have them fresh when they’re in season, whether on their own, on top of granola or choose frozen ones to throw in your smoothies and favourite desserts.
This beautiful spice can help balance hormones in women by lowering the amount of testosterone, while increasing progesterone. It needs to be taken as a supplement to have an effect on reproductive hormone balance, but in ground or whole form it has good insulin-balancing effects. It can stimulate muscle and liver cells to respond more readily to insulin, which leads to steady blood sugar levels and limited stress response. Sprinkle on breakfast and sweet recipes, add to curries and bean chillies, or stir into hot drinks. It smells wonderful and tastes delicious!
Follow Vegan Food & Living on Facebook to keep up to date with the latest news, recipes and product launches from the vegan community.
About the author
Alessandra Felice ND Dip CNM is a nutritional therapist that graduated from the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London and a medicinal chef that gained her training from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York. Born in Italy, she developed her passion for cooking since a young age and developed a strong belief in the healing power of food that led her to her professional trainings. She worked as a private chef for people with special dietary needs in New York as well as a vegan pastry chef in leading New York restaurants. In London, she’s currently working as a private chef and teaching private and group medicinal cooking classes along with sharing her knowledge in preparing sinful desserts and chocolate while working as a nutritional therapist with private clients. www.yoursweetnutrition.com