The human body produces more than 50 hormones, or chemical messengers, that coordinate the fundamental physical processes of life. They are responsible for everything from sleep-wake cycles to metabolism. When they become unbalanced, they can contribute to a long list of symptoms and even chronic conditions such as diabetes. The Institute for Functional Medicine notes that diet is important in keeping hormones balanced and promoting proper hormone signaling within the cells. Note that hormonal balance, as well as the role that diet plays, is quite complex. Everyone’s hormone balance is unique, so you may need some trial and error to find what’s right for you. In addition, a variety of factors can further impact the balance of your hormones. Here is what you need to know about diet and hormone imbalance.
Health conditions related to hormonal imbalances
Chronic health conditions can develop for many reasons, including hormonal imbalance. Conditions that are particularly likely to have a hormonal component include:
- Anxiety and depression
- Irregular periods, including those caused by polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Thyroid disease
A milder hormonal imbalance may not lead to a full-blown medical condition, but it can still throw off many systems in your body. Symptoms of a hormonal imbalance may include:
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Dry hair and skin
- Feeling constantly stressed out
- Heavy periods
- Hypersensitivity to ambient temperatures
- Numbness or tingling in the hands
- Significant increase or decrease in body hair
- Skin tags
- Weight gain or loss
Of course, these nonspecific symptoms are also potentially related to many other health conditions. Always talk to your doctor if you develop any new or worsening symptoms.
Understanding diet and hormone imbalance
The impact of diet on hormones is complex and individual. But three basic mechanisms apply to everyone:
- Cortisol release. The hormone cortisol manages the body’s and mind’s reactions to stress. It also affects metabolism, blood pressure, and various other processes. A typical Western diet can cause cortisol levels to spike. This can increase inflammation, raise anxiety and lead to general unwellness.
- Insulin sensitivity. One of the primary drivers of Type 2 diabetes is lowered sensitivity to the body’s natural insulin production. Even if you are already being treated with artificial insulin, improving your nutrition can increase your insulin sensitivity and help regulate your blood glucose levels.
- Indirect hormone signaling. Your age, glucose tolerance, body fat percentage and many other factors can affect how your body responds to hormones in various ways. A nutritious diet minimizes the effects of these factors, boosting your overall health.
Eating a hormone balancing diet
Although everyone is an individual, you can improve your personal hormone health by focusing on a few critical dietary guidelines:
- Probiotics: Probiotics consist of good bacteria that support a healthy microbiome in your gut, which helps keep your hormones in balance. Eat plenty of fermented foods such as kimchi, sourdough bread and yogurt, or consider taking a probiotic supplement.
- Healthy fats: Healthy fats, such as those found in walnuts, extra-virgin olive oil, and coconut oil, are vital for producing and stabilizing hormones. They are mainly involved in regulating cortisol and the other stress hormone, adrenaline. Eat at least 15 grams of healthy fats per day.
- Healthy proteins: You need approximately 45–60 grams of healthy proteins per day. Choose beans, fish or chicken whenever possible instead of red meat.
- Supporting your thyroid: The hormones your thyroid gland produces regulate many different systems in your body, from cholesterol levels to blood pressure. You can support your thyroid by increasing your magnesium intake, which is found in almonds and green leafy vegetables. Also, up your iodine consumption by consuming sea vegetables such as nori or choosing iodized salt.
- Portion control: If you don’t want to monitor your daily nutrition strictly, try this simple hack. At every meal, fill half your plate with vegetables or fruits. Divide the other half between healthy proteins and whole grains (such as whole-wheat bread, oatmeal or brown rice). Don’t forget to “eat the rainbow” of produce!
- Limiting hormone health destroyers: Your hormones’ number one enemy is inflammation, commonly due to imperfect digestion. Refined sugars, overly processed foods, and fatty meats are all notorious contributors to inflammation. You can eat them in moderation, but reduce the amount you consume.
Other ways to prevent a hormonal imbalance
Normal hormone fluctuations during life changes, such as puberty, pregnancy and menopause, can contribute to hormonal imbalances. Other causes include tumors or other growths, autoimmune disorders or a damaged endocrine gland. Naturally, low or high body weight can also increase your risk for a hormonal imbalance, as can certain medications.
But for many people, hormonal imbalance is due to simple, easily controlled factors: stress, overall fitness and underlying medical conditions. In addition to taking a look at the relationship between diet and hormone imbalance, be sure to focus on:
- Reducing stress. Lowering your stress levels is essential for your overall health and wellbeing. It can also help to rebalance your hormones. Start setting healthy boundaries. Say no to overwork. Build in time for self-care. Learn the art of mindfulness. Consider starting a practice such as meditation or yoga to soothe your mind and body.
- Moving your body. As little as 150 minutes of exercise per week will lead to a fitter, healthier you. Breaking it up into 30-minute sessions five days per week can make it easier to fit into your life. When you are physically fit, your body’s systems will perform better. This can help lower your risk of developing a hormonal imbalance.
- Managing underlying health conditions. Any chronic illness makes your body work harder, raising your risk of your hormones becoming unbalanced. Your doctor can help you create a plan to keep your underlying conditions tightly controlled.
Although many factors can contribute to hormonal imbalances, diet is a factor that anyone can control. Focus on getting plenty of nutrients from various foods, and consider taking supplements if needed. Talk to your doctor about any deficiencies you have and any unusual symptoms you develop. Also, take steps to manage underlying health conditions, reduce stress and get plenty of exercise. Not all hormonal imbalances can be prevented, but these simple steps will help reduce your risk and address any imbalance you might develop.