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Experiencing hormone imbalance is a tricky thing to navigate, and it can feel like it’s having a detrimental effect on your health. Our hormones are a bit of a vague, even abstract idea that most of us haven’t learnt a lot about at school or as we grew up. Let’s face it – the first time we might really think about our hormone levels is often when our period cycle goes a bit funny, or we want to change our birth control, or we start to suspect we are entering perimenopause. We automatically assume that medication is the only way that we can sort things out hormonally – but what if it is possible to rebalance your hormones simply by making the odd tweak here and there to what you eat?
We know that a balanced diet plays a pivotal role in the health of our whole body, but recent research has shown it also has profound implications for women’s hormonal health. Dietary choices can influence the delicate hormonal balance in our bodies, with certain foods acting as modulators for hormonal levels. For women, understanding this connection is super important, especially when faced with gynecological and endocrine conditions such as adenomyosis/endometriosis, PCOS, fibroids, menopause and of course, complications with fertility.
Interestingly, the research shows that we can support our hormonal imbalances by specifically consuming certain foods that are either rich in estrogen (to increase estrogen levels, for example in perimenopause) or contain less estrogen to reduce levels (in conditions such as endometriosis, which is stimulated by high estrogen levels). Moreover, as hormonal imbalances can manifest in a multitude of ways, from mood swings to menstrual irregularities, a dietary intervention targeting hormonal balance can be an essential aspect of the way we care for our whole body – even our gut health can be impacted by our hormones.
How does our diet support hormonal imbalance?
Specifically, studies have highlighted the significance of phytoestrogens, naturally occurring compounds found in certain plants, in influencing estrogen activity. These compounds can bind to estrogen receptors, potentially modulating estrogen’s effect in the body. Receptors are a group of proteins that are found in cells, and they are activated by estrogen. This activity has implications for various hormonal-related issues, from weight management to menopausal symptoms.
Understanding how Phytroestrogens affect our estrogen levels means that we can use foods that contain these compounds to enhance our diet, and support our gynecological health better. It can also complement any traditional medical intervention, boosting your nutrition and supporting your whole body health.
There is so much we don’t know about our own bodies and how our hormones affect our health, weight and metabolism. Biology lessons don’t cover the intricacies of the female endocrine system, or how our hormones play a significant part in our overall health and if you often feel like it’s a bit of minefield, you aren’t alone!
Understanding our hormones
Let’s take a look at how our hormones work in our bodies.
In brief, our hormones – and in this case we are specifically thinking about female hormones, estrogen and progesterone – are chemical messengers that regulate numerous functions, from reproduction to metabolism, growth, and mood. For women, estrogen particularly plays a significant role in our overall health, and an imbalance in estrogen can affect not only our reproductive system, but our brain, heart, bones, skin… everywhere, basically. Unfortunately, our hormone levels aren’t checked until we feel that there is a problem, and even when they are, levels change on such a frequent basis that blood tests aren’t always reliable. That’s why, if you suspect your symptoms indicate some sort of hormone imbalance, you should seek the advice of an endocrinologist.
Let’s face it though, our healthcare system means that many of us will seek dietary and lifestyle strategies to support our hormonal health – and that’s where phytoestrogens, and supplementation comes in.
What exactly are Phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring compounds found in plants that have estrogen-like effects on the body. They bind to estrogen receptors, mimic and modulate our body’s own estrogen. This doesn’t mean they replace our estrogen, but rather they can help balance it, either by giving low levels of estrogen a much needed boost, or dampening overly high levels.
In conditions like endometriosis, phytoestrogens can play a particularly interesting role. Studies have recently shown that endometriosis is exacerbated by high estrogen levels, but phytoestrogens may be able to modulate these levels. In this 2019 study, the consumption of phytoestrogen showed a reduction in endometriosis risk. Whilst there is still more research needed, it’s a positive indication that phytoestrogens may play a part in the management of mild endometriosis especially. The added benefit of increasing phytroestrogens in your diet is that they also help with the management of inflammation, which causes pain and discomfort for many women with endometriosis.
For women entering perimenopause, phytoestrogens offer hormonal support as estrogen levels dip. We know that lowered estrogen levels are the cause of most symptoms of menopause; from hot flashes and brain fog, to vaginal atrophy and dry skin. By consuming phytoestrogens through sources such as soy and cruciferous vegetables, we can ‘top up’ our estrogen levels and regain balance over our hormones, especially in early perimenopause.
What foods contain phytoestrogens?
Incorporating phytoestrogens into your diet is easier than you might think. Here are some foods rich in these beneficial compounds:
Soy is a great source of phytoestrogen. Think tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soy milk as these are all excellent sources.
You can add seeds so easily to smoothie bowls, granola, as a topper for salads or yoghurts, or just have a handful to nibble on through the day! You’ll want to look for flaxseed, pumpkin seeds (great for your bladder too) and sesame seeds as these all pack a punch of phytoestrogen. In fact, flaxseed is the ultimate source of phytoestrogen, containing more of the compound than even soy products like tofu.
So many fruits are bursting with phytoestrogens. Apples, plums and pears are great sources, but berries – in particular strawberries, raspberries and cranberries are full of estrogen boosting goodness.
Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale offer a great plant-based boost not only to your estrogen levels but they are also rich in anti-inflammatory properties. Ensure that you add a green vegetable to every meal for maximum benefit.
We know that a well balanced diet needs grains, but did you know that oats, barley, and wheat germ are fantastic sources of phytoestrogen? If you usually prefer white bread, try swapping out for wholemeal for an easy switch that will benefit your hormone balance.
Can supplementation help?
Knowing the role of phytoestrogens in your diet is one thing, but when we are busy and on the go we don’t always have time to find the right balance of foods at every meal. That’s why supplementation can benefit and support our diet and help our hormonal balance. Taking an oral supplement can help; especially ones that contain Vitamin B and C, probiotics and Omega-3 can all help to boost your hormone system. Topical supplements are also proven to help and are absorbed by the skin to rebalance hormones. Look for topical supplements such as Glow Botanica’s Menopause SOS, and Period SOS. As easy to use as a moisturising cream, these offer a transdermal approach that doesn’t mess with your gut (which can be super sensitive to hormonal imbalance). You should also consider trying a topical cream that contains magnesium, such as Glow Botanica’s Super Rich Magnesium Body Lotion. Magnesium is proven to reduce anxiety and feelings of stress, support better sleep and help calm restless legs.
Always speak with your healthcare provider
If you’re struggling with hormonal imbalances or gynecological concerns, always consult with a healthcare provider – preferably one familiar with integrative or functional medicine. You can also see an endocrinologist who will be able to offer more insight into your hormonal health. Both will provide guidance tailored to your specific needs and can suggest dietary changes alongside other interventions such as HRT.
Your diet really can rebalance your hormones
So yes, it is actually possible that your hormone imbalance can be sorted with just a few tweaks to your diet. Why not try adding some of the foods we listed above today and see how you feel in a few weeks of boosting your estrogen intake with food?
And… don’t forget your supplements!
Kate is a content writer, community creator, and ‘Endo-Warrior’ with Stage IV Endometriosis. She’s mum to three kids, two dogs and unsurprisingly; a lover of wine. Kate lives with her family in Hastings, UK.