Hormones. They’re always our excuse when we flip out at a coworker, friend, or unsuspecting barista (sorry, again!). And while we hate what they do to our sleep when we’re stressed, to our emotions during pregnancy, or to our skin during that time of the month, it’s nice to know that there might actually be something we can do to mediate them. Curious how to eat to optimize your hormones? We’ve got the evidence-based best and worst foods for achieving hormonal harmony.
Foods That Help Balance Hormones
Soy (and its hormonally active element, isoflavones) has gotten a bad rap in holistic circles thanks to its estrogen-like properties. The reality is it might actually be a good thing. One meta-analysis of 15 randomized control trials found that dietary isoflavones, like those found in soy, decreased the number of hot flashes women experienced without any serious side effects. Another meta-analysis that followed more than 6,000 women found that consuming soy isoflavones and phytoestrogens (also found in soy) reduced hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
What about hormonal breast cancer? As with menopause, the results are promising. In a review that looked at 24 studies analyzing the link between soy and breast cancer, half found that consuming soy reduced women’s risk! And this wasn’t hum-drum research. One of those studies looked at more than 36,000 post-menopausal women. Get your soy fix in whole foods like tofu, edamame, tempeh, or miso.
You probably don’t need another reason to eat your greens, but hey, some days we’ll take all the motivation we can get. Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, are rich in glucosinolates, which, when broken down, can alter the metabolism of specific disease-causing hormones. Research has shown that eating more cruciferous veggies like broccoli is associated with lower risks of lung and colorectal cancers. Not a fan of those little green florets? Get your glucosinolates in cauliflower, kale, cabbage, or collard greens.
B vitamins, like B6 and folate, play an integral role in the metabolism of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, and early research has started to investigate their role in reducing the symptoms of hormonal depression.
With more than half your recommended B6 and 70 percent of your folate needs per cup, chickpeas may give you the mood boost you need to get through the week. And Meatless Mondays might just make Mondays totally tolerable again. Enjoy your beans tossed into soups or salads, pureed into hummus, or roasted for a crispy snack.
Need some more shut-eye? Sour cherries might be able to help. Tart cherries are rich in phytochemicals like melatonin, the natural sleep hormone that rises when it’s time to head to bed. One study found that the consumption of tart cherry juice provided an increase in melatonin that helped improve sleep duration and quality in men and women.
Another study found that adults suffering from insomnia who drank the tangy elixir showed modest improvements in sleep. Try adding some juice to an evening smoothie or just take a shot straight-up before bed.
Eating “clean” but always starving? Add some more protein-rich chicken to your meals! Research suggests that higher-protein diets increase the secretion of satiety hormones like leptin that help us feel fuller longer. It also may influence the anabolic hormones responsible for muscle building after a weight-lifting session. Not a fan of white meat or are sticking to a plant-based diet? You can easily get your protein fill with fish, beef, beans, legumes, or dairy.
Foods That Mess With Your Hormones
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Unsurprisingly, processed sugars are the first no-no on the list. Research on diabetes management has found that fructose found in a wide range of processed foods doesn’t seem to boost our satiety hormone, leptin, as well as other carbohydrate-containing foods, which, in turn, may lead us to consume more calories over time.
In women, there is also concern about reproductive disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). One systematic review looked at a wide variety of diets and their impact on PCOS symptoms and found that following a diet low on the glycemic index (that is, low in sugar) carried the greatest benefits. Want to kick your sugar habit to the curb? Try swapping added sugars like corn syrup, honey, maple, molasses, and white sugar for fruit that comes bound with fiber to help slow down the hormonal insulin response.
Packaged Fried Snacks
You don’t need an article on hormones to tell you to keep a watchful eye out for sources of trans fats. Packaged fried convenience foods are always a suspicious source. One study on male reproductive health found that men who consumed the highest amounts of trans fats in their diets had impaired testicular function related to lower testicular volume and higher luteinizing hormones. Other research has concurred, finding that men with the highest intakes of trans fats had 37 percent lower sperm count! If baby-making is in your plans, it’s best to kick those fats to the curb.
Think that ordering the Diet Coke will help you lose those pounds? Think again. Research suggests that downing artificial sweeteners may alter healthy gut bacteria, which may impact the balance of hunger and satiety hormones like leptin and ghrelin. This could explain why a number of studies (see here, here, here, here) have linked consuming artificial sweeteners to an increase in appetite, motivation to eat, and food preferences. Since we’ve already established that sugar also can cause hormonal imbalances, we say that whatever you choose to sweeten your coffee, oatmeal, or smoothie with, just try to choose less of it over time.
Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but too much of the fun juice can also wreak havoc on our hormones. Research has consistently shown that alcohol intake in non-alcoholic adults is associated with increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which, in turn, may play a role in the development of metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. Take an extra turn being the DD this weekend or “stretch” the booze with extra seltzer to get more volume out of each drink.
While the effect doesn’t seem to impact everyone, research has found a link between the consumption of low-fat dairy products like skim milk and acne in adults. It seems that the hormone IGF-1 is released when we digest the proteins commonly found in milk, which is thought to trigger those pesky pre-teen-like breakouts.
What is unclear, however, is why we don’t seem to see the same association in full-fat dairy products. Alas, if you find that dairy, low-fat or otherwise, gives your skin trouble, try switching to one of the many plant-based milks, yogurts, and cheeses now available on grocery store shelves.