As with many things in life, we often don’t consider our hormonal health until it becomes obviously imbalanced. We know our hormones are closely linked with the menstrual cycle, but how many of us understand to what extent? They play a much greater role in all facets of our health, from mood to energy to libido and hunger, than the majority of us comprehend.
“As women, I don’t think we have enough understanding of the immediate and long-term impact our hormonal health has on us,” says Pauline Cox, nutritionist, integrative medicine fellow and author of Hungry Woman: Eating For Good Health, Happiness And Hormones. “Understanding our physiology is so important to help alleviate some of the self-destructive emotions we can feel towards ourselves, whether that’s frustration or shame— rather than fighting our physiology, it’s about trying to understand and work with it.”
Not only do we have sex hormones, like oestrogen and progesterone, to contend with, but metabolic hormones, like insulin, which also play a key role in our wellbeing. “It’s really important for women to work with their hormones in their twenties, thirties and forties to capitalise on the window before menopause, which can then determine how we transition through menopause and the impact that has on our longevity,” says Cox. “There’s so much we can do prior to hitting menopausal age (when our oestrogen levels start to decline) to lower our risk of issues like Alzheimer’s and heart disease.”
How to re-establish hormonal harmony? First, consider how you can create balance in your everyday lifestyle. While our bodies now have to deal with long working days, high levels of stress and blue light (as just three examples), the problem is that we haven’t changed genetically since caveman times. “Sleep is a foundation of hormonal health,” says Cox. “Try and get into a good sleep/wake pattern as early as you can in life. Go for a morning walk to get light into your eyes and set the circadian rhythm—that then helps with serotonin levels, which then converts to melatonin, which promotes a good night’s sleep.”
It goes without saying that our diets are also integral in supporting good hormonal health—what we put into our body fuels (or not) the processes that occur inside it. So much so that Cox believes we can manage the symptoms of perimenopause and PMS with a good diet and lifestyle. “Our bodies have an innate intelligence—they’re designed with mind-blowing physiology that helps us to travel through our lives, according to the stage of life where we’re at. Eating a high sugar, highly processed diet, depleted of key nutrients creates inflammation and that enhances the symptoms of PMS, for example.” She also adds that HRT can be great for different women, but isn’t a quick fix, suggesting that getting a hold on one’s diet is more important for long term health.
How to eat for better hormone health
Focus on balancing blood sugars
Not only do our blood sugar levels govern the metabolic hormone, insulin, they also have a massive impact on our sex hormones. “If our bodies have had lots of exposure to high blood sugar and our insulin is not working as it should be (i.e. its resistance worsens), the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause become prolonged,” explains Cox. “It also has a heavy influence on our inflammatory levels, the rate at which our tissues start to degrade (particularly reproductive ones) and impacts all areas of health. If blood sugars aren’t well controlled and our insulin sensitivity is not working at its best, then this will create a double whammy for us as we enter the perimenopause.”
You can keep blood sugars balanced by eating a balanced and varied diet, full of plants, vegetables and well-sourced protein. Avoid foods that dramatically spike your blood sugar – think anything processed, containing lots of sugar and excess carbohydrates—as what goes up must come down (cue a plunge in mood, overeating and inflammation). Focus on sleep, managing stress and exercising regularly too.
Become conscious of carbohydrates
While carbohydrates are unfairly demonised, for balanced hormones it’s worth becoming more conscious of the kinds you ingest. “Shift away from pasta and crackers and try and get your carbs from your vegetables instead,” recommends Cox. “Shift the emphasis to colourful, cruciferous [examples include broccoli, cauliflower, kale and turnips] and fermented vegetables.”
Eat more protein
“One thing we all need to know as we get to our thirties (and beyond) is that we stop producing the same level of growth hormone, so eating more protein is integral to building muscle,” says Cox. “If we don’t get adequate protein and start to lose muscle mass, that’s when our blood sugar levels start to creep up, because muscles are very big users of glucose.” When they don’t get used up by our muscles (duePhoto by Arina Krasnikova: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-wearing-apron-holding-vegetables-6653593/ to less mass), they get converted to fat. Cox says that many women enter a period in their thirties and forties where both their diet and exercise routines don’t change, but their weight starts to increase, which can be frustrating. “Eating protein also provides the building blocks for our neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine and GABA, so it should be a dietary priority.”
Consider intermittent fasting
To optimise metabolic health, help stabilise mood and regulate weight, Cox is a big advocate of intermittent fasting. “Oestrogen helps to get glucose into our brain cells, but as it drops due to perimenopause, suddenly the brain cells worry that they’ve got no fuel, which is when we start to see emotional issues kicking in, alongside memory problems, brain fog, prolonged hunger, and vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats. If we can provide them with an alternative source of fuel, glucose doesn’t need to be carried in. This is where ketones, another source of fuel, come in.” When we give our bodies periods of time in which we’re not eating constantly, it turns to its own source of fat, burns up fuel and releases ketones, helping the brain to receive this instant source of fuel.
Fasting will look different to each individual—it’s about finding a window that works well for you, and easing into it. “You might stop eating at 7pm and then start again at 9am the next morning, for example. This creates a nice opportunity for the body to become more sensitive to insulin, improve its glucose tolerance and burn fat.”
Load up on foods that deliver on the nutrient front
One of Cox’s go-to recipes in the book? A beetroot and goat’s cheese cauliflower rice risotto, which doesn’t just sound delicious, but is also packed with the good stuff. “Beetroot is packed with nitrates, which builds nitric oxide that’s incredibly important for female sexual health—it helps the blood flow to our pelvic organs, and improves cardiovascular and skin health,” she says. “Goat’s cheese is also packed with MCT (or medium chain triglycerides) that are great for helping to raise our ketone levels, and then the cauli rice is a cruciferous vegetable that I absolutely love. It supports the liver, is low in carbohydrate, high in fibre and vitamin C, so has all the hallmarks of a hormone health-building meal.”
This article first appeared in British Vogue.