Why a Balanced Approach to Nutrition is Necessary for Hormone Health
Hormones are chemical messengers formed by glands and released into the bloodstream via cell receptors throughout the body. These are regulatory substances produced by an organ and transported through blood to stimulate or inhibit specific cells in any part of the body, directly or indirectly. Without proper nutrition, hormones can become imbalanced and cause a variety of health problems such as diabetes, obesity or even cancer. Nutrition is important when it comes to hormones because the energy and nutrients that you get from food are the raw materials that make hormones. All hormones consist of protein and fat and sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone), consist of cholesterol. Many symptoms of hormonal imbalance, such as weight gain, are triggered by an inflammatory reaction that affects the body's own production of insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormones, estrogen and testosterone and many other hormones.
The balance between carbohydrates, protein, and fat in a diet is necessary to maintain a healthy hormonal balance. A balanced diet can have a huge impact on many aspects of our health's hormonal system, but consensus on what to eat remains elusive.
In general, it is important to maintain a balanced diet with all three macronutrients for better hormone health. One should have enough carbs to provide energy and sustain workouts but not too many carbs that would lead to weight gain and high triglycerides (fat in blood). Protein intake should be at least 0.8g per pound of body weight up to 1.4g per pound. But too much protein may lead to insulin release which can cause lower testosterone levels or increase cortisol (a stress hormone). Fat and specifically cholesterol are important as the precursors to hormones. All hormones start from cholesterol, but too much fat, especially saturated fat can lead to cardiovascular disease. It’s a careful balance.
What are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the building blocks of life. They are the nutrients we need in larger quantities that provide us with energy: in other words, fat, protein and carbohydrates. The energy created by each macronutrient type is measured in the form of calories or kcals.
· 1 gram of protein = 4kcal
· 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4kcal
· 1 gram of fat = 9kcal
All carbohydrates are eventually broken down into glucose, which is the main energy source for your body. In fact, specific organs, such as your brain, need glucose in order to function properly. There are also carbohydrates that help synthesize specific amino acids (protein building blocks) and allow for consistent bowel movements. But not all carbohydrates are created equal.
· Simple carbohydrates are easy for your body to breakdown for energy or glucose and are quick to raise insulin levels in the body. Examples are white rice, potatoes and pasta. Simple carbohydrates are a great option when you need energy quickly (ie. to run a marathon or do a strength training workout)
· Complex carbohydrates take more time for the body to breakdown and generally don’t spike insulin levels as high. Complex carbs generally contain a lot of fiber which helps with the digestive system and are found in most whole grains, vegetables and fruit. These carbohydrates are a great option to keep things moving and make you feel fuller, longer.
But what is very important, is ensuring that no matter what carbohydrates you eat, that you are choosing whole foods. Whole food means a food that comes from the earth and not from a box or can. Too many people eat processed foods full of sugar, fat and preservatives which cause inflammation in the body, leading to hormone imbalances.
· Refined carbohydrates are foods that have been processed and stripped of their fiber and/or micronutrients. The best example of this is refined sugar.
· Whole food carbohydrates like fruits, veggies and gluten free grains contain fiber and fiber is necessary for hormonal balance. This is because fiber is needed for a healthy microbiome (good bacteria feed on fiber) and we know that the gut has a huge link to hormonal health.
Essentially, eating a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates from whole food sources is optimal for balancing hormones. Carbohydrates are our bodies first choice for energy production and the only source that our brain is capable of using for energy. Carbohydrates are also an important source of fiber, various phytochemicals and micronutrients
Whole food carbohydrates are even more necessary for healthy hormones specifically in women. Evidence suggests that women's hormones are sensitive to energy availability, meaning that too few calories or carbs can cause imbalances. Such imbalances can have very serious consequences, including impaired fertility, low mood, acne or worsen existing conditions like endometriosis or PCOS and can also affect the menstrual cycle and cause weight gain. When women specifically don’t get complex carbs, there is a shift in serotonin levels, a shift in progesterone, and shift in insulin metabolism.
Let’s talk about Keto “Keto is all the rage and I’ve seen so many people lose weight while on Keto?” Hormonal experts say that while many women may experience short-term benefits on keto, it may also have some sex-specific downsides. Why? Blame your hormones. Eating a Ketogenic diet means removing many high fiber foods like starchy vegetables and whole grains. Fiber is key to hormonal balance because we know that there is a link between our microbiome and hormonal balance and our microbiome needs fiber to flourish and stay healthy.
Protein Protein allows your body to grow, build and repair tissues, and protect lean body mass (your muscle mass). Protein is composed of amino acids and amino acids are the building blocks of almost every cell, organ and function in the body. Protein rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, egg, milk, cheese, or other types of animal by-product foods. These protein sources contain all of your essential amino acids. You can also get the proper amino acids from eating a variety of plant protein sources such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy but it is often more difficult to get enough protein from plant sources. However…it can be done.
Most people, especially women do not get enough protein in their diets. Protein intake should be at least 0.8g per pound of body weight up to 1.4g per pound of ideal body weight. Why does protein matter when it relates to hormones? Aside from muscle loss, low protein diets are also linked to decreased growth hormone, estrogen and prolactin and increased stress responses and thyroid imbalance. We need protein to make the amino acids that manufacture our hormones. Without protein we can’t be hormonally healthy. It also helps to satiate us as the breakdown of protein takes longer than carbs in the body. However, going to the opposite extreme of too much protein can be hard on your liver and digestive system. Essentially different bodies absorb protein differently, so a bit of trial and error within the protein intake range is often needed.
Fat allows you to store energy, cushion organs and are essential to make sex hormones. Fat also absorbs fat soluble vitamins and helps with cell membrane integrity. There are three types of fat: trans fat, saturated fat, and unsaturated fat.
· Trans fats – these are the fats you want to avoid completely. They are artificially produced by adding hydrogen molecules to unsaturated fats and have been shown to cause heart disease
· Saturated Fat – these fats are often solid at room temperature and often come from animal sources.
· Unsaturated Fat – these fats are often liquid at room temperature and often come from plant sources
Both saturated and unsaturated provide health benefits in moderation. Saturated fats have been shown to increase “bad” cholesterol, however there is conflicting science on this and so eating saturated fat from whole food sources in moderate amounts are ok.
Unsaturated fats such as olive oil and avocados have been shown to be heart healthy. Healthy fats help maintain the balance of hormones involved in appetite, metabolism and satiety. A 2015 study found that olive oil balances hormone levels that regulate appetite and stimulate the digestion of fat and protein.
In general, fats provide over 2x the energy that carbs or protein do, so watching your fat intake is important. In general, 0.35 – 0.45 g per pound of ideal body weight is a good range to aim for.
What Happens to your Hormones when you ELIMINATE or EAT TOO MUCH of Certain Macronutrient Groups?
When hormones are out of balance with too much or too little being produced it disrupts signaling pathways and causes problems such as diabetes, weight loss and gain, infertility and other problems. Even small changes in hormone levels can have negative effects, including additional stress on the body.
Every macro has a role in your body to balance hormones. Fat provides the building blocks for your hormones If you eliminate fats from your diet (which is almost impossible anyway), your hormonal production will drop and a whole array of chemical reactions will be interrupted. Protein is paramount because it helps increase metabolism every time it's eaten (by 20 percent). Carbs provide sustained energy throughout the day that your cells need to produce hormones.
However, too much of any macronutrient can cause an abundance of issues as well (this is why a balanced approach is necessary). Too many carbohydrates cause the release of huge amounts of insulin. When there is too much insulin in the body it shuts down its ability to use its body fat for fuel. If this happens, often the end result is a softer, fatter version of yourself. Too much protein can be hard on your liver and digestive system and this makes elimination of sex hormone by-products difficult, leading to estrogen dominance. Too much fat can affect heart health and add unnecessary calories to your diet.
So Then, Mow Much of Each Macronutrient do I Need?
Well, it differs by individual because it is highly correlated to your goals and activity level. In general, 35-40% of your overall caloric intake should come from carbohydrates, 35-40% should come from protein and 20-30% from fat for healthy hormones.
Remember this is a very high -level recommendation and varies by person. I would recommend working with a Functional Practitioner or Fitness Coach to help you to assess your macronutrient needs.
Why Severe Calorie Restriction is not the Answer to Weight Loss and can Actually Severely Affect the Hormonal Balance in you Body
Although it is necessary to be in a deficit to lose fat, severe calorie restriction (I’m talking to those people eating like 1000 calories a day!) is not the answer to weight loss.
If you don’t eat enough to satisfy your energy requirements, your body starts to break down muscle to use for energy. This muscle loss causes metabolism to slow further, so you burn even fewer calories. Typical calorie restriction behaviors like limiting or cutting out certain foods can also cause psychological damage.
Consuming too few calories can also weaken your bones. That's because calorie restriction can reduce estrogen and testosterone levels. Low levels of these two reproductive hormones are thought to reduce bone formation and increase bone breakdown, resulting in weaker bones
I work with women and men to balance their hormones and each and every one of my protocols include a nutrition component to teach my clients how to eat to nourish their body for optimal hormonal balance and health. Part of my approach, for those who it makes sense for, is to provide guidance around a macro-based diet. I provide guidance around macro splits for those needing to balance hormones and improve gut function. Often, for those who need it, weight loss it a welcome side effect. Of course, nutrition is just one component of any holistic protocol, however it is often one of the most important. Once my clients are educated on what to do, they are on their way to a life free from health complaints and disease, living the life they deserve!