Hormone Balancing Diet: A Dietitian’s Perspective

You may have noticed an influx of hormone balancing diets and fitness plans circulating on social media. With so much conflicting information, it can be overwhelming and even detrimental to your hormone health. Don’t stress – I’m here to provide practical, evidence-based tips for a hormone balancing diet and lifestyle..

This article provides a comprehensive guide to understanding hormones, the causes of hormonal imbalances, and the role of diet in balancing hormones. It includes a list of foods to include and limit, strategies for implementing a hormone-balancing diet, and lifestyle factors that can influence hormone health. Lastly, don’t hesitate to seek the assistance of a professional for additional help.

Hey, I’m Jenn, a Registered Dietitian who has a passion for helping individuals fuel, think, and move towards the best versions of themselves without sacrificing their relationship with food. If you want practical, evidence-based nutrition advice to improve your performance and wellness — Learn how I can help.

Let’s dive in…

Understanding Hormones and Imbalances

Hormone imbalances can affect both men and women, but women tend to experience them more frequently as they go through various developmental stages such as puberty, pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause. Hormones play a crucial role in helping our body function properly, regardless of gender.

Several hormones, such as adrenaline, serotonin, insulin, oxytocin, and cortisol, play critical functions in regulating our appetite, metabolism, heart rate, sleep, growth, mood, and more. 

Before we can dive into how to help support hormone function in the body, we first need to gain a basic understanding of some of the key hormones and their functions in your body.

Metabolism Hormones

Insulin

The pancreas produces insulin, which is crucial in regulating blood sugar levels. This hormone functions as a “key” that unlocks the “doors” of cells, enabling glucose to leave the bloodstream for energy use or storage in the cells. 

Thyroid Hormone

Thyroid hormone is the primary hormone that manages your body’s metabolism. It has an impact on every organ and cell in your body by regulating your metabolic rate, digestion speed, heart rate, body temperature, brain development, skin and bone maintenance, and the way your muscles contract.

Ghrelin

Ghrelin, often referred to as the “hunger hormone,” plays a crucial role in regulating a variety of physiological processes. In addition to signaling the brain to increase appetite, it also promotes fat storage, stimulates the release of growth hormones from the pituitary gland, and facilitates the movement of food from the stomach through the intestines. Ghrelin is also involved in controlling insulin release and protecting cardiovascular health.

Leptin

Leptin is a hormone that is produced by body fat and has a direct effect on the brain to regulate hunger and energy balance. It plays a crucial role in preventing hunger so that your body doesn’t trigger a hunger response when it doesn’t require energy. Besides this, Leptin is also believed to be involved in regulating metabolism, endocrine system, and immune system.

Peptide YY (PYY) 

Peptide YY (PYY) is a hormone that helps reduce appetite and limit food intake that is made in the small intestine,

Stress and Mood Hormones

Adrenaline

When the body senses stress or danger, it can trigger the “fight or flight” response. This response is activated by the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands, which can result in heightened senses and increased physical abilities. 

Adrenaline can cause the heartbeat to quicken, breathing to hasten, digestion to slow, and muscles to receive more blood, making individuals feel more alert and ready to respond to the danger.

Serotonin

Serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone, is a neurotransmitter with a range of functions. It is produced from the essential amino acid tryptophan and acts as a hormone in the body. Apart from regulating happiness, learning, and memory, serotonin is also involved in the regulation of sleep, body temperature, sexual behavior, and hunger.

Fun Fact. Around 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut. The other 5% is found in the brain. 

Oxytocin

Oxytocin, also known as the “Love Hormone,” is produced in the hypothalamus. Then released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. It has a range of important functions, including stimulating uterine contractions during labor, as well as aiding lactation after childbirth. 

Oxytocin is also a key chemical messenger that contributes to sexual arousal, romantic attachment, trust, and parent-infant bonding. On top of all that, it acts as a stress-coping molecule and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

Cortisol

The adrenal glands produce cortisol, which is a steroid hormone that plays a crucial role in numerous bodily functions. It manages the body’s stress response, influences the utilization of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, regulates metabolism, suppresses inflammation, regulates blood pressure and sugar levels, and influences the sleep-wake cycle.

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because it is released during episodes of acute, chronic, and traumatic stress. If cortisol levels are high, the body may provide some indicators. Fatigue, mood swings, sleep interruptions, delayed exercise recovery, increased food cravings, and hormone imbalances are some of the symptoms to watch out for.

Dopamine

Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” hormone and neurotransmitter. It’s part of the brain’s reward system, generating pleasurable sensations, motivation, and learning. 

As a hormone, it helps relax or constrict blood vessels, eliminate sodium and urine from the body, reduce insulin production, slow gut movement, protect the gut lining, and decrease lymphocyte activity in the immune system. 

As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is involved in an array of functions, including movement, memory, pleasure, motivation, attention, behavior, sleep and arousal, mood, learning, and lactation.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the brain. It plays a vital role in regulating sleep cycles.

When it is dark, the pineal gland releases high levels of melatonin. As light exposure increases, the production of melatonin decreases. Apart from regulating sleep, melatonin also has a role in regulating menstrual cycles and protecting against neurodegeneration.

Reproductive Hormones

Estrogen

Estrogen, one of three main sex hormones, significantly impacts your reproductive health. However, its effects extend far beyond that. Estrogen also influences cholesterol and blood sugar levels, bone and muscle mass, circulation, collagen production, skin, and brain function.

Progesterone

Progesterone, another vital sex hormone, plays a crucial role in supporting menstruation and preparing the uterus for pregnancy. Its primary function is to thicken the lining of the uterus to facilitate the implantation and growth of a fertilized egg. If pregnancy doesn’t occur, the lining sheds during your period. However, if you are pregnant, progesterone levels increase to support the developing fetus. Additionally, progesterone aids lactation, enhances mood, and supports thyroid function.

Testosterone

Testosterone is the key male hormone that regulates sexual differentiation. It plays a significant role in sexual development, including testicular growth, sperm production, and increased sex drive. It also has an impact on masculine characteristics, such as hair growth patterns, changes in voice, anabolic effects, and the growth of skeletal muscles. 

What Causes Hormone Imbalances?

Hormonal imbalances may arise from a variety of factors. 

Through the lifecycle we experience different natural fluctuations in hormones. For instance, puberty is a natural event where the female sex hormones become active, leading to the development of the reproductive system, fertility, and even bone growth. Women also experience hormone-related symptoms during menstruation. Later in life, women undergo menopause, which triggers yet another significant hormone shift.

Lifestyle choices, nutrition, and medical conditions are some of the other factors that can contribute to hormonal imbalances. 

Disclaimer: Although I have compiled a list of medical factors and conditions that can contribute to hormone imbalances, please note that my hormone balancing diet and lifestyle advice is not a substitute for individualized medical advice. If you are interested in exploring how your diet and lifestyle impacts your health, please consider my 1:1 nutrition counseling services.

 

Lifestyle and nutrition factors that can cause hormonal imbalances:

  • Stress
  • Under or over fueling 
  • Under training or over training 
  • Long periods of fasting (days long fasting can lead to an increase in cortisol)  
  • Abuse of anabolic steroids
  • Injury or trauma
  • Nutrient deficiencies 

Hormonal imbalances can trigger certain conditions, which in turn can cause further hormonal imbalances. Here are some medical conditions and considerations for hormonal imbalances:

  • Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism 
  • Thyroiditis
  • Hypogonadism 
  • Cushing Syndrome
  • Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
  • Addison Disease
  • PCOS
  • Amenorrhea
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
  • Hormone therapy
Hormone Balancing diet

The Role of Diet in Balancing Hormones

Hormone balancing diets, which aim to reduce stress and cortisol levels, are becoming increasingly popular. However, it’s important to note that focusing too much on food and restricting what you eat can actually increase stress on the body. 

In fact, some of the advice regarding hormone-balancing diets is simply a disguised form of dieting, where certain foods and food groups are avoided or restricted. Research actually shows that high cortisol levels can be caused by dieting. 

Alternatively, adopting an intuitive approach to eating actually improves physical health outcomes such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels, compared to obsessing over what you consume.

As we explore foods to include and limit in a hormone balancing diet, keep in mind that perfection isn’t necessary.. Don’t worry if a snack, meal or day isn’t perfect. It won’t cause nutrient deficiencies or negatively impact your health. Consistent eating habits are what matter most.

Remember, the key is to make progress, not strive for perfection.

Foods to Include in a Hormone Balancing Diet

Consume Adequate Protein

Eating protein is important for your body as it provides you with essential amino acids that your body cannot produce on its own. 

Amino acids are used by the endocrine glands to make peptide hormones that play a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes, including growth, energy metabolism, appetite, stress, and reproduction.

For example, when you eat protein, it leads to a decrease in the hunger hormone ghrelin and stimulates the production of peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) hormones, which contribute to a feeling of fullness.

Consume Healthy fats

Consuming healthy fats like those found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish can have a positive impact on insulin levels. 

Healthy fats are rich in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, which can improve insulin sensitivity and help regulate blood sugar levels.

Not only do Omega-3 fatty acids benefit overall health, but they also support healthy cortisol levels. In fact, a study discovered that Omega-3 fatty acids resulted in a notable decrease in total cortisol release compared to those in the placebo group.

Consume Adequate Fiber

Fiber can help regulate the levels of certain hormones in your body, such as estrogen. This is because fiber helps to eliminate excess hormones from your body through your digestive system. 

Fiber also helps increase satiety hormones such as GLP-1 and may also help decrease ghrelin levels. 

Prioritize Micronutrients

When it comes to micronutrients, there are specific vitamins and minerals that are essential for hormonal regulation.

By consuming foods rich in B-complex vitamins, Vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, Vitamin C and E, you can help support hormone health. Whole grains, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, berries and citrus fruits are all excellent sources of these essential nutrients. 

Zinc helps in the production of testosterone. Low levels of zinc can lead to decreased testosterone production, which can result in reduced muscle mass and strength, as well as decreased libido.

 B Vitamins, Vitamin D and Magnesium help in the regulation of estrogen levels in women.

Vitamin C and E act as antioxidants, protecting the body from damage and aiding in hormone production.

Consume Probiotic Rich Foods

The gut and hormonal balance are closely related, and research has shown that probiotics can help to regulate hormones by promoting a healthy gut microbiome. This is because the gut produces and metabolizes hormones, and a balanced microbiome helps to ensure that this process runs smoothly.

Foods to Limit for Hormone Balance

Before we begin discussing the foods that can have any negative impact on hormone health, it is essential to remind ourselves that nourishing our body is not about guilt and shame. Instead, it is a form of self-care that promotes a balanced lifestyle. 

As a registered dietitian, I can assure you that you do not have to cut out any foods, but  rather focus on building balanced and consistent eating habits.

Research has shown that ultra-processed foods, such as sugary snacks and beverages, as well as refined carbohydrates, is linked to insulin resistance, higher levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and lower levels of the satiety hormone PYY.

A lot of times these foods are eaten alone (perfectly fine in moderation) which causes blood sugar levels to rise and fall quickly.  To regulate your blood sugar levels and keep you feeling full for an extended period, it’s best to pair these foods with protein and/or fat.

Strategies for Implementing a Hormone Balancing Diet

One of the most important strategies for implementing a hormone balancing diet is to create balanced meals and snacks that include a variety of nutrient-rich foods and foods you enjoy.

This means starting with the foods you want to eat and adding the nutrients you need. The goal is to build a plate that has color (fruits & veggies), carbs, protein, and fat. That way you are getting everything you want and need from your meals. 

In addition to eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods, it’s also important to listen to your body’s hunger cues and why you are hungry. This means paying attention to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness and eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. 

Keep in mind that establishing a connection with your internal signals takes time, especially if you’ve become accustomed to responding to external cues, such as calorie counting and set mealtimes, for an extended period. 

Lifestyle Factors that Influence Hormone Balance

Physical Activity

Engaging in regular physical activity helps reduce insulin levels and increase insulin sensitivity. In addition to this, working out also triggers the release of dopamine, a “feel-good” hormone that boosts your mood. Exercise also helps balance cortisol levels.

Find a physical activity that you enjoy doing. That will help you stay committed to exercise. It could be running, lifting weights, Pilates, dance, etc… The goal is to find something that brings you joy.

Stress management

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but prolonged stress can have detrimental effects on both our physical and mental well-being. 

When we experience stress, our bodies release cortisol. When cortisol levels remain high for prolonged periods, it can lead to a range of negative effects on metabolism, mood, and libido. 

Fortunately, there are different effective strategies for managing stress and reducing cortisol levels. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing are all examples of stress-reducing techniques that can help you feel more relaxed and focused. 

I always recommend clients to have a self care toolbox with multiple different strategies to combat stress. 

Sleep

Poor sleep is linked to disruptions in cortisol, insulin, leptin, ghrelin, and growth hormone levels

Research shows that aiming for 7-8 hours of sleep each night can have a favorable impact on your overall health.

Hormone Balancing diet

Working with Healthcare providers and Dietitians

One of the biggest misconceptions about hormone balance is that it’s a one-size-fits-all approach. The truth is that everyone’s body is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another.

That means your favorite influencer’s hormone balancing supplements, diet plan, or fitness plan may actually be detrimental to your hormone health.

That’s why it’s crucial to work with healthcare providers and dietitians to develop a personalized plan that addresses your specific health needs and goals.

Final Thoughts on a Hormone Balancing Diet

Prioritizing balanced nourishing meals and snacks, regular exercise, and other health promoting habits like deep-breathing and sleep are key steps to improve your overall hormonal health

it’s important to remember that focusing too much on food and restricting what you eat can actually increase stress on the body. So focus on building a self care toolbox, creating balanced food habits, finding physical activity you enjoy, and getting a good nights sleep. 

Are you ready to stop stressing about your diet  and learn realistic strategies that work? Schedule a free 15 minute call today!

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Website | + posts

Jenn Schmidt is a licensed and board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Minnesota. Her specialty is in performance nutrition and wellness, which focuses on helping individuals fuel, think, and move towards their best selves without compromising their relationship with food. Jenn is passionate about all things food-related and enjoys making complex science easy to understand for her clients and readers.

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