The standard western high fat diet reeks havoc on our health, disease risk and hormones. Lifestyle interventions, including exercise, nutrition and proper sleep can have major impacts on the synthesis, release and downstream impacts of our hormones. With the advent of social media, it seems that everyone has a miracle cure to support your endocrine system or to “balance” hormones. Although terms like “support”, “balance” or even “reset” your hormones are thrown around by non-healthcare professionals selling you 5 minute health hacks, I’d rather be very transparent and honest about what the science has to say about hormonal health. Although I don’t completely agree with the use of these terms, like “balance”, which signals a misunderstanding of how hormones actually work, I do understand what the author means when using them, and supporting hormonal health is in no way less important. I had the privilege of teaching endocrinology at our local medical school for almost a decade and still teach an in-depth course about thyroid disorders to our medical residents. I’ve been teaching about thyroid health since 2007 and my passion for thyroid health, which runs in my family, is why I’ll dedicate a future blog post specifically to these misunderstood conditions, including hypo and hyperthyroidism, thyroiditis, and other thyroid conditions.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers in your body and we have more than 50 distinct types of hormones. By definition, they are produced in an organ called an endocrine gland and then enter your bloodstream to then exert their effects on distant organs. The thyroid, ovaries, testes and even adrenals are all example of endocrine glands that produce hormones that then enter the bloodstream to impact other organs and tissues elsewhere in the body. There are 3 different types of hormones:
Protein hormones (although known as peptide or polypeptide hormones)
Steroid hormones (these are produced by a processed called steroidogenesis, where blood cholesterol is transformed into different hormones, including testosterone, progesterone and different types of estrogens)
Amine hormones are made from amino acids
What do they do?
Hormones play a vital role in many of our body’s natural processes including:
Growth and development (testosterone, growth hormone, etc.)
Metabolism (thyroid hormones, adrenal hormones, insulin, glucagon, etc.)
Reproduction and sexual function (progesterone, estrogen, prolactin, oxytocin)
Mood (many hormonal disorders impact mood either directly or indirectly)
The major endocrine glands
The endocrine system is made up of a complex network of glands that impact each other. Each hormone produced and released by an endocrine gland can have different impacts depending on the tissue it reaches. For example, the stress hormone cortisol can increase blood sugar through effects on muscle and liver, and can impact bone health through effects on bones and calcium homeostasis. Hormones are very powerful chemical messengers and small amounts can exert powerful downstream effects on other organs and tissues. The major endocrine glands responsible for producing hormones are:
Pituitary, responsible for hormones like TSH, prolactin, growth hormone and ACTH, as well as FSH and LH
Pineal gland, best known for its melatonin production
Thyroid, which produces the thyroid hormones T3 and T4
Adrenal glands, made up two layers: the cortex which produces corticosteroids and the medulla which produces the cathecolamines (dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline)
Pancreas (insulin and glucagon)
Testes in men that produce testosterone and ovaries in women that produce estrogen and progesterone
Other glands, including the hypothalamus, are pivotal in hormonal health
It is now well recognized that other tissues, like adipose tissue, or fat, aren’t silent storage tissues, but rather chemically active organs that have hormonal functions. Many other tissues and organs not mentioned above also have potent hormonal functions affecting everything from the immune system to our appetites, like the hypothalamus, liver, kidney, stomach and the parathyroids.
Our lifestyle and hormonal health
It’s no surprise that hormonal health can be directly impacted by our lifestyle choices. Sleep disturbance will significantly impact melatonin release and will also impact secretion of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. We know that poor sleep can impact insulin and glucagon secretion, and the ensuing insulin resistance can increase blood sugars and even cholesterol levels, putting you at an increased risk for cardiovascular events like heart attacks or strokes. The fiber content of our diet directly impacts the management and recycling of hormones in our gut. Our fiber deficient diets will directly affect hormone balance and increase the risk of certain hormone dependent cancers and conditions like breast cancer, uterine fibroids and other metabolic conditions like cardiovascular disease or auto-immune disease.
Hormone production and release is often cyclical in nature. You might think of our circadian rhythm, which describes the cyclical increase and decrease in hormone levels according to the time of day, or to exposure to light. Melatonin, the sleep hormone, naturally increases in darkness and gets suppressed when we are exposed to light. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is another example of a hormone that fluctuates according to a circadian rhythm. Basically, your lifestyle can significantly impact hormone production, and depending on our types of lifestyle choices, these impacts can be health promoting or disease promoting. Simple things like late night light exposure can negatively impact hormonal health.
What types of symptoms does imbalance cause?
The term “balancing” your hormones is thrown around a lot and used by predatory entrepreneurs looking to sell supplements that might hack your biology and help you gain balance and health, usually for a small weekly payment. I’ll define hormonal imbalance as a state where there is too much or too little of a particular hormone on your bloodstream, to an extent where it can cause noticeable symptoms or signs that you or your healthcare provider can pick up. Common symptoms could include mood swings, sleep disturbance, muscle or joint pains, weight gain, skin issues, fatigue and other non-specific symptoms. Women might manifest irregular uterine bleeding and sweats, where men often present with erectile dysfunction, muscle weakness or loss of muscle mass, and even adult onset acne.
Many hormonal health conditions can be improved by lifestyle modification. There is scientific consensus that sleep, exercise, stress management, having purpose and strong social connections can significantly impact health and hormones. Here, we’ll focus mainly on how nutrition, and specifically plant-based nutrition, could impact hormonal health.
My top tips for better hormone health
Increase your fiber intake
Certain hormones are discarded by getting dumped in our intestine, only to get pooped away, in order to prevent their accumulation. For those who are fiber deficient, which includes more than 95% of the population, their bowel transit is slowed down. This leads to excess hormones that we wanted to remove from our circulation to get reabsorbed right back in our bloodstream. Excess exposure to certain hormones, over the long term, can lead to increased risk of hormone dependent conditions, like breast and prostate cancer, dysmenorrhea or period pains. There is also considerable research showing that fiber deficient diets, through hormonal pathways, could impact medical conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), uterine fibroids, endometriosis and even menopausal symptoms like hot flashes.
Other unwanted compounds including pesticides and organic pollutants, make their way into our foods and are ingested. These compounds can have hormone like effects and directly impact our hormonal health. Phtalates, which are compounds that improve the durability of plastics, have been linked to developmental issues, fertility problems and obesity. One study even showed that phtalates induced breast cancer growth and invasiveness. In men, they’ve been associated with reduced sperm counts, missing testes at birth (crypto-orchidism) testicular tumours and hypospadias. Adequate fiber intake helps prevent the accumulation of these hormone disrupters.
Choose carbs from whole foods
Carbs have a bad reputation. Unfortunately, many have not yet learned the difference between complex carbs, resistant starches and simple carbs suspended in a food matrix of antioxidants, polyphenols and fiber. It turns out that there’s a huge difference between these carbs and simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, table sugar and what people call bad carbs. Learn more about their differences here. Refined carbs have higher glycemic indexes and are associated with an increased risk of insulin resistance when consumed regularly. This plays a major role in medical conditions like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, PCOS and obesity. Let’s face it, plant-based diets are high carb diets, but it’s not the amount of carbs in your diet that’s important, but rather the source of these carbs. Carbs from whole and unprocessed foods will support hormonal health.
Try to get at least 80-90% of your calories from plant foods
You don’t have to be vegan to benefit from a plant-based diet, nor do you have to go full-plant and eat 100% whole foods. Start by focusing on eating a little less meat and little more whole plants. The benefits will often appear within a few weeks, and for many, the process will then sustain itself. Animal products, like meat, cheese, fried eggs, butter and fried or heavily processed foods, contain compounds called AGEs, or advanced glycation end-products. It sounds complicated, but just remember that these AGEs have a high oxidation potential and are produced when meat is cooked, especially barbecued. These biomarkers are associated with oxidative stress and ageing and are best minimized in anyone’s diet. Some people, like those suffering from PCOS, have higher numbers of AGE receptors and this is thought to play an important role in the pathogenesis of their disease.
Aim for a healthy body weight
For the longest time, scientists thought that adipose tissue, or fat, was simply an inert tissue whose role was limited to energy storage. We now know that this is completely wrong. In fact, adipose tissue is a highly active endocrine tissue, pumping out compounds and hormones that directly impact health. Obesity causes increased inflammation and estrogen, which can directly affect your risk of certain hormone dependent cancers, like breast, prostate and endometrial cancers. It’s also associated with a condition called “man-boobs” in males. Find out here how a plant-based diet could be a great way to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
Eat more soy products
Whether it’s tofu, tempeh, miso, soy milk, soy beans or edamame, soy products have been shown to lower cholesterol, provide an excellent source of complete protein, reduce menopausal hot flashes and even contribute to reduced rates of hormone dependent cancers and conditions in populations that consume them regularly. Whatever your reason, try to consume some daily by finding healthy, quick and convenient recipes. You can find some on my website, plantbaseddrjules.com, where you can download my free recipe eBook, containing over 20 of my family’s favourite plant-based recipes.
Other simple health hacks
I hate the term “hack”, yet here I am using it. The type of “hack” I’m referring to is one that when adopted over the long term, will increase the likelihood of positive health outcomes. Eating a stick of broccoli is not gonna make you healthy, but including it in a healthy dietary pattern over the long term will drastically increase the chances of you avoiding diseases that could affect health quality and longevity.
Consume ground flax seeds daily. Their lignans and omega-3 content have been shown to do many things, from lowering cancer risk, to lowering blood pressure.
Eat a handful of nuts everyday. Their healthy fat content as well as mineral content contributes to overall hormonal health.
Spices and herbs, like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, sage and parsley have high anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Avoid consuming foods in heated plastic containers to reduce phtalates.
Supplement with vitamins B12 and D.
My plant-based prescription
There it is, my top tips for hormonal health. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on complex tests or treatments. Simple tips, like eating more plants, more soy, more nuts, more flax and less highly processed foods are likely to contribute to hormonal and overall health. I also wanted to point out, that I have left thyroid health out on purpose. I plan on dedicating a full blog post on the review of thyroid health, iodine blockers and all things thyroid.
Check out my website, plantbaseddrjules.com for free resources about all things plant-based! You’ll find a free recipe book, and you can even become a member to download free PDF tools that will help you along the plant-based transition!
Thanks for reading!