Last week, we talked about a few foods that can help with hormone dysfunction. But with so many diet fads popping up in your newsfeed, it is hard to wonder if one of the fads would be beneficial. Here are four popular diets and the potential effects they may have on your hormonal health.
1. Ketogenic Diet
This low-carb plan is intended to put your body into ketosis, which occurs when you restrict glucose and start burning fat as a fuel source. Used medically for children with epilepsy and some oncology patients, this diet breaks down to about 80%-85% fat, 10% protein, and only 5%-10% carbs. While studies suggest that the diet may have health-promoting potential, the protocol restricts carbs so severely that most experts recommend doing it only with medical supervision. No one, whether you wrestle with hormone imbalances or not, should undertake a ketogenic diet lightly or without trusted medical support.
Potential upside: You may lose weight. People who follow a ketogenic diet tend to feel full for a long time after each meal (because fat is so satiating) and this can lead to eating fewer calories overall. It also means most junk food is ditched from your diet because almost all packaged foods have more than the allowed limit of net carbs.
Hormonal downside: You may stress yourself out even more. Some studies suggest that Keto may negatively affect T3 production. The thyroid is one of the master glands of the endocrine system and for optimal hormone health women need optimal thyroid health. The very low number of carbs can put stress on the adrenal system, slowing T3 production. Also, adrenal fatigue is, by definition, a hormone imbalance.
2. Raw Vegan
Eating an abundance of rainbow colored vegetables and fruits, whether cooked or raw, is a major win for health and hormone balance. But a true raw diet consists only of plant-based foods that haven’t been heated over 104°F -118°F. The diet also dictates that nothing you eat is pasteurized, refined, or processed. Advocates of raw veganism believe cooking food destroys important enzymes and reduces their nutritional content.
Potential upside: You fill up on natural nutrients. Raw fruits and vegetables have more fiber. Also, water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C aren’t cooked out of your lunch, leading to better absorption. An abundance of organic, phytonutrient-rich foods can improve digestion, enhance heart health, reduce inflammation, support cellular health, and have anti-aging benefits.
Hormonal downside: You miss out of some vital vitamins and minerals. Many vegans develop iron anemia as the best sources of absorbable iron are from animal sources. Some studies have linked strict raw food diet to amenorrhea because of this. Also, we normally cook out the natural phytic acid in vegetables, which blocks the absorption of vitamins and minerals. We normally add fats to cooked vegetables, which we need to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins D, A, K, and E. On top of this, your gut microbiome may be out of whack due to hormonal imbalance or synthetic birth control, which will also inhibit absorption of these important nutrients in raw foods. Nutrient deficiencies can compromise your entire hormonal system and show up as a host of symptoms, from missing periods to mood issues to weight gain.
This diet started with the discovery or Celiac disease. Relative to the Paleo diet, Grain-free cuts out all grasses: wheat, barley, rye, rice, corn, spelt, amaranth, millet, oats, bulger, and buckwheat. This diet allows carbs in the form of quinoa, beans and legumes, potatoes, and root vegetables.
Potential upside: You may lose weight. Since you cut all grains and replace them with healthy fats, proteins, and complex, phytonutrient-rich carbs, you may lose weight in the short-term. Some people also report a reduction in brain fog and general well-being due to the cut processed trigger foods.
Hormonal downside: You may experience emotional turmoil. Your body uses carbs to make serotonin, a feel-good hormone. Without it, you’ll initially get mood swings and more frequent drops in blood sugar. This can make you vulnerable to moments of binging carbs, which can lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes. This turbulence in blood sugar and insulin can interfere with ovulation and wreak havoc on metabolism and fat loss.
4. Intermittent Fasting (IF)
Intermittent fasting is going for short or intermediate periods of time without food. This “not eating” window can be as short as 12 hours and include sleep time, or as long as 16 or 24 hours. Some people try to go 12 or more hours without eating every day. Others try to go 12 or 16 hours without food a couple days a week. Some people don’t eat for a full 24 hours one day each week.
Potential upside: Your body learns to depend on itself. Without the frequent blood sugar spikes from food, your body adjusts the amount of insulin from the pancreas. This keeps your blood sugar stable, which can help your adrenals and thyroid rest. The stabilization of digestive leptin and ghrelin can help you regulate your appetite and moods. Because of this, studies suggest that intermittent fasting may promote weight loss.
Hormonal downside: Your hormones may retaliate. Without the proper amount of nutrients, you put even more stress on the body as it tries to hold onto the nutrients you’ve already eaten. This will increase cortisol and decrease estrogen. Less estrogen may lead to decreased bone mass, infertility, thyroid dysfunction, and weight gain. If you notice a difference in your period, experience dryer skin or insomnia, or experience dark colored urine, you are cutting too much too quickly. Stop your diet immediately and be sure to schedule a consultation with a Registered Dietitian and/or doctor.
Bottom Line: These diet trends are new and fun to try. However, everyone has different hormone levels each part of each day. If you struggle with any hormone-related symptoms, including weight loss resistance, severe PMS, irregular or heavy periods, PCOS, fibroids, hormonal acne, or impaired fertility, it’s imperative that you see an endocrinologist and find the best course of action. It is also important to read your body before you jump on the next diet trend bandwagon.
Jacqueline Corbett, MS RD LD
When your reproductive hormones are out of whack, the signs are glaringly obvious.
What's not so straightforward?
How to get things back into harmony. After all, there are almost as many culprits for hormone imbalance as there are symptoms, including your exercise routine, your birth control pills, stress, and—this is a big one—your diet.
Fortunately, changing up your diet can make a big difference in your hormonal health. The first step is to clear your kitchen of inflammatory processed foods and high-sugar snacks, plus meat and dairy from conventionally raised animals that have been injected with antibiotics and growth hormones.
Here are five foods that have shown to be beneficial for hormonal health.
1. Salmon - The protein found in wild-caught salmon can balance your hunger hormones and increase satiety. In addition, salmon provides a hefty dose of healthy fats in the form of omega-3s, which are called essential fatty acids because your body cannot make them. Omega-3s are needed for synthesizing hormones that regulate blood clotting, arterial function, and inflammation. Salmon is known for being heart-healthy, and its ability to tame your body’s inflammatory response can also help control autoimmune diseases including lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may even protect against cancer and other chronic illness. Salmon is a source of cholesterol, which has gotten a bad rap in the nutrition world. However, cholesterol is necessary for building sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone that tend to decline in middle-age, as well as the “sunshine hormone” vitamin D, which you need to maintain strong bones. Supplementing with fish oil has been shown to reduce the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline during stressful situations.
2. Kale - Kale is an excellent source of fiber, which feeds your good gut bacteria. Research shows that friendly gut flora may play an important part in clearing estrogen from your system and encouraging hormone balance. Fiber also helps to increase insulin sensitivity and feelings of fullness. Dark, leafy greens such as kale are rich in magnesium, which supports healthy levels of estrogen and testosterone. Low hormone levels in both women and men have been linked with an increased risk of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. On the flipside, cruciferous veggies help your body process and eliminate excess estrogen so you can avoid estrogen dominance and reduce your risk of hormone-dependent cancers such as breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers. I am often asked whether cruciferous vegetables are harmful to your thyroid gland because they contain goitrogens (substances that interfere with iodine uptake). However, the benefits of cruciferous veggies far outweigh any risks. As long as you get plenty of iodine from foods or supplements, you can enjoy as many kale salads as you’d like!
3. Grass-fed Beef- Grass-fed, pasture-raised beef is an excellent source of the four nutrients that are essential to thyroid health: iodine, selenium, zinc, and iron. Iodine is one of the major building blocks of thyroid hormone. Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of thyroid enlargement, goiter, and hypothyroidism worldwide. Selenium helps convert inactive T4 hormone into active T3. Insufficient amounts of selenium means your thyroid hormones are stuck in their inactive state, leading to hypothyroidism symptoms including brain fog, weight gain, low libido, fatigue, and depression. Eating high-quality food sources of selenium can even help reverse autoimmune thyroid conditions by lowering the levels of thyroid peroxidase antibodies (TPOAb) in your system. Zinc and iron also play a role in the conversion of T4 to T3. Also, zinc triggers your hypothalamus to increase thyroid hormone production when levels are low, and iron helps the enzyme that converts iodide (the form of iodine you eat) into iodine so it can combine with tyrosine to build thyroid hormones.
4. Cherries - Cherries are a natural source of melatonin–the “sleep hormone” released by your pineal gland. Studies have found that cherries have the ability to increase melatonin levels, total sleep time, and quality of sleep. Cherries also contain other hormone-balancing nutrients including magnesium and vitamin C. Like melatonin, magnesium improves sleep by supporting optimal levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes restful sleep. Magnesium also helps calm the body’s stress response by preventing the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Vitamin C is essential for creating and regulating hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Vitamin C can enhance the effects of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and work with estrogen to promote bone growth, which is particularly important for postmenopausal women who are at an increased risk of osteoporosis due to low estrogen.
5. Maca Root - Chronic stress is the type that never lets up, and keeps pumping out cortisol and adrenaline nonstop until your adrenals are shot. Maca root is an adaptogen, meaning it helps your body “adapt” to ongoing stressors by mediating the body’s stress response. When used over time, maca nourishes and enhances the function of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which restores balance to your overworked adrenal glands. Maca also supports healthy thyroid function and bone density, making it an all-around superfood for women struggling with imbalanced hormones.
Bottom Line: As we get older, our bodies change. Our diet lifestyle should change too. By eating foods that feel good to your body, you will be able to strengthen it by joining the #NKFITSQUAD and stave off aging a little more. Remember, there’s not a one size fits all plan, but these five ingredients are a good place to start, no matter what kind of imbalance you’re dealing with.
And, as always, you should always seek out your doctor’s advice if diet alone doesn’t start to soothe your symptoms.
Jacqueline Corbett, MS RD LD
Women's Health & Fitness Specialist.