How to get your hormones in balance
Hormones control so much of our daily lives. If we’re feeling “off” it’s likely attached to a hormone or a combination of a few key hormones.
Insulin, serotonin, estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, dopamine ... these all can be supported through food. Each macro (carbs, fat, protein) and micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) effects how hormones are functioning in the body. So it’s really important - especially when you’re trying to conceive, pregnant and breastfeeding, to pay attention to how your food choices are affecting hormones.
When our hormones are off-balance we begin to store more fat, our stress levels skyrocket, metabolism slows, and we begin to crave sugar - all while turning off the innate hunger and satiety cues so we can’t feel when we’re full or truly hungry.
Let’s take a look at a few key hormones:
Insulin is the hormone that is in change of storing food as either quick fuel for energy or as fat. It’s essential job is to keep blood sugar regulated. When your diet is balanced and hormones are working properly with one another, insulin will typically store some of your food (sugar which the body converts to glycogen) in the liver, most in the muscles and little-to-none in fat cells. But if we’re eating too much sugar the body can’t store it in the right places and that’s when things get a little off balance. Because fat stores are long-term. They can hold a LOT of glycogen. Which means when we are eating in excess, that sugar gets stored in the fat cells. In addition, when insulin continues to surge it prompts other hormones to work in ways that aren’t ideal. It’s all related.
Cortisol is released when our bodies perceive a threat. Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to think EVERY little stressor is an actual threat (like, for example, seeing a bear on your front stoop - legit threat that SHOULD lead to cortisol release) such as getting the kids to school on time. If your insulin levels are regular, then your cortisol is generally working properly as well. But when insulin is elevated, cortisol is likewise working overtime. Excess cortisol can make us crave even more sugar (which insulin then stores in the fat cells, remember?), while also interfering with the hormones leptin and ghrelin which make you feel hunger constantly.
Leptin is the magical hunger hormone. When we eat, leptin gets released from fat cells, travels to the brain, and lets you know you’re truly full. It’s part of that innate hunger and satiety system that allows us to respect our fullness and hunger. But again, when insulin and now cortisol are working overtime, the leptin signal gets watered down and the message doesn’t quite make it to the brain to let you know you’re full. So what happens? You overeat. Likewise, leptin levels increase while you’re asleep so if you’re not getting enough restful sleep, you’re really not getting those hunger and fullness cues. When you insulin and cortisol are elevated and you’re not getting enough sleep the next hormone, ghrelin starts to work overtime which is the hormone that stimulates appetite.
Are you starting to understand how all of your hormones are related and
when one is out of balance, they’re all out of balance?
For women who are completely out of sorts, I often suggest an elimination-type diet to reset and so we can see how different foods reintroduced affect some of the issues related to hormones. This helps at the beginning, to slow down that insulin response to then store food in its proper place in the body which, in turn, allows the other hormones to function properly and turn back on those hunger and satiety cues.
All elimination diets should be done under the close eye of a nutrition professional especially if you’re trying to conceive, pregnant or breastfeeding, but on your own, you can start to incorporate some of these foods to begin to balance hormones:
And, of course, be mindful of processed foods as they’re likely causing negative impacts on your hormones and may be the culprit of your imbalance and symptoms.
The key for balancing hormones is to balance your carbohydrates. Notice I don’t say eliminate - I never suggest eliminating entire food groups. Our bodies NEED carbs, the human body THRIVES on carbs and literally cannot survive without them. Carbs are essential for hormone balance, gut health, and are full of fiber that we need to be healthy overall. But the KINDS of carbs you’re eating have a massive effect on insulin. You want to be picking carbs that are high-quality, high fiber, and slow acting (which causes a slower release of insulin). The other key is to keep portions balanced and space out your high carbohydrate foods throughout the day. In order to have everything truly functioning properly, you’ll want to focus on eating your high quality carbohydrates with high quality fats and high-quality protein which will help better absorb essential vitamins and minerals as well as further slow the insulin release.