Too often, I hear stories from women who are at their wit's end when it comes to their hormones. From the CEO who experiences uncomfortable hot flushes in the boardroom to the mom who feels out of control when it comes to her monthly mood swings or the young professional whose menstrual cramps are so debilitating she’s forced to take time off work. Not to mention the increasing percentage of the population who spend their days fighting exhaustion resulting from the incessant production of stress hormones. Or those who feel their body is betraying them because their thyroid hormones are out of whack.
Our hormones play an enormous role in how we look, think and feel. When they’re out of balance, it can feel like we have no control over our bodies. Our body doesn’t have a voice so it communicates to us through symptoms. With these symptoms it is asking us to eat, drink, move, think, breathe, believe or perceive in a different way so as to better support our health. Often, the best place for us to start is with the way that we eat. While some hormonal imbalances may benefit from specific and targeted doses of nutrients in the form of supplementation, nothing on this planet replaces a nourishing way of eating. So let’s explore how you can eat in a way that can help support balanced hormones.
But first, how do you know if your hormones are out of kilter? Some of the signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalances include:
- Sex hormone imbalance
- Premenstrual migraines
- Irregular periods
- Heavy, clotty, painful periods
- A feeling like you can’t get your breath past your heart or anxious feelings in the days leading up to menstruation
- Bloating/fluid retention, particularly in the lead up to your period
- Breast swelling and/or tenderness
- Mood swings
- Cravings, usually for sweets, in the lead up to your period
- Unexplained weight gain, particularly around the hips
- Skin breakouts with your cycle, particularly around the jawline
- Waking up feeling exhausted despite getting enough hours of sleep
- Not sleeping well
- General fatigue
- You are a worrier and don’t relax easily
- Feeling tired but wired
- Poor short-term memory
- Sex hormone imbalances
- Easily panicked or feeling like everything is urgent
- Relying on coffee to get you started in the morning or to get you through the day
- Adrenal fatigue
Symptoms vary depending on whether your thyroid is under or overactive. Should you suspect your thyroid is not functioning optimally, it’s best to speak to your doctor about having this tested.
- Unexplained weight gain
- Feeling cold in your bones
- Tendency toward constipation
- Dry skin and brittle hair
- Challenges with your periods and/or you experience PMS
- Feeling weary to your bones
- Craving caffeine and salt
- Fluid retention
- Hair loss
- Frequent headaches
- Chronic stress
- Unexplained weight loss
- Easily overheating
- Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
- Eyes are bulging out of their sockets
- Unexplained loose stools
5 Foods and Herbs That Support Excellent Hormone Balance
1. Brassica Vegetables
This superstar genus of vegetables contains not only vitamins, minerals and fiber, but also substances unique to this botanical family — substances such as indoles and glucoraphanin, the latter of which gets converted into the ultra-superstar substance sulforaphane. These substances support the optimal functioning of some of our most important biochemical pathways – phase two liver detoxification pathways in particular, which are key for estrogen metabolism. As such, they help to support efficient clearance of estrogen, which is essential as too much estrogen in relation to progesterone can lead to many of the sex hormone imbalance symptoms described above. Also known as cruciferous vegetables, vegetables in the Brassica family include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, bok choy, and cabbage.
2. Brazil Nuts
These delicious nuts are one of the best dietary sources of selenium. This essential mineral has important antioxidant actions in the body and it’s also critical for optimal thyroid gland function. Research suggests that eating just two to six Brazil nuts per day provides an adequate selenium intake for most people.
3. Pumpkin Seeds
Also called pepitas, these seeds are one of the best plant-based sources of zinc, a mineral critical for many biochemical processes in our body including sex hormone production, digestion and thyroid function. Zinc is also needed for skin healing, so it’s an important nutrient for those struggling with hormonal breakouts. However, the zinc content is still fairly minimal in a handful of these seeds compared to a serving of zinc-rich animal foods (such as red meat and oysters), so if you do eat a plant-based diet, it may be necessary to supplement zinc.
4. Iodized Salt
Not all salt contains iodine, so it’s important to check the label to make sure yours does. Iodine is an essential nutrient that is required for thyroid hormone production, and it’s also a particularly important nutrient during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. However, it’s important not to alter your iodine intake if you have an overactive thyroid or an autoimmune thyroid condition (both overactive and underactive) unless under the guidance of a qualified health professional. Always choose a good quality salt such as Celtic sea salt or Himalayan crystal salt.
5. Leafy Greens
Green leafy vegetables (think spinach, rocket, silverbeet, kale) are a source of magnesium, a mineral that can be depleted with excessive stress hormone production. Leafy greens are also a plant-based source of iron, which is important for normal thyroid function. Many women also find it challenging to maintain their iron levels due to excessive menstrual losses, which can occur when sex hormone balance isn’t optimal. To enhance your body’s ability to absorb the iron from your greens, include a source of vitamin C in the meal, such as red capsicum, or some freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice in a dressing. Or, if you like to have green smoothies, try adding in some strawberries to boost the vitamin C content. The adrenal glands also love vitamin C.
What To Avoid Or Minimize
Something as equally important as what you consume is what you avoid or minimize consuming. If you feel that your hormones may need some support—whether stress, sex or thyroid—consider taking a break from caffeine and alcohol for at least two to three menstrual cycles to see if this assists with any of the issues you’re experiencing. Also keep poor quality fats (such as trans fats), refined sugars and highly processed foods to a minimum as these often contain problematic substances that can interfere with good hormonal balance.
Other Nutrients That Are Important for Hormonal Balance
Iron is a mineral that is essential for good thyroid health. The most readily absorbed forms of iron are those from animal proteins but lentils, green leafy vegetables, and dates are also sources of iron. If you eat in a plant-based way, it might be necessary to supplement this vital nutrient, especially if you’re a woman of childbearing years, as iron requirements are even higher during this life stage. Vitamin A deficiency, while rare in the Western world, is linked to heavy menstrual bleeding and cervical problems. Plant sources of vitamin A (actually beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A) include carrots, pumpkin, dark leafy greens, and apricots. Poor vitamin E intake is also linked to fertility challenges and changes in the menstrual cycle as well as excessive estrogen. The best sources include eggs, whole grains (such as brown rice), nuts and seeds (particularly sunflower seeds).