Hormones are chemical messengers that influence every part of our body. Like instruments in an orchestra, each hormone has its own important part to play. But as they are all interconnected, if one is out of balance the whole performance is affected. For women in particular, this symphony changes over time, both regularly over the menstrual cycle and at different life stages particularly puberty and the transition to menopause. In addition to eating a diverse and balanced diet, the best things we can do to support balanced hormones are managing our stress and blood glucose.
When the going gets tough, stress hormones are produced at the expense of other hormones, particularly progesterone. This disrupts the delicate balance, creating relatively high oestrogen, which can lead to issues such as PMS, irregular periods and insomnia. Don’t forget that the body’s stress response is triggered by both real, life endangering stress as well as perceived stress from say running late for work and a difficult conversation. Other stressors you might not realise are contributing include too much caffeine, over-exercising, insufficient sleep and imbalanced blood glucose. To restore calm, reach for B vitamins, magnesium and herbs such as passion flower and lemon balm. Switch out your coffee for green tea, which balances caffeine with L-Theanine to support feeling calm. Box breathing, yoga, Pilates and meditation are all great to incorporate as well.
Stress and blood glucose levels are intimately connected. When out of balance they can set off a cascade of processes which affect hormones, including oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Sex hormones also influence our sensitivity to sugar which can contribute to many symptoms associated with PMS and peri-menopause, both times when hormones levels are changing. To help stabilise blood glucose, combine protein, fat and fibre with carbohydrates. This slows the release of glucose in to the blood. Eggs, lean meat, fish, poultry, beans, lentils, tofu, nuts and seeds are great options. For extra support take chromium in the morning and add cinnamon to foods.
Our hormones affect our gut microbiome and vice versa. Healthy gut flora is essential for hormone balance as our friendly bacteria help extract nutrients from foods. They contribute to hormone regulation by converting oestrogen and phyto-oestrogens to their active state and by helping eliminate excess hormones. Our gut microbes love a variety of fibres and phytochemicals so practice ‘nutrition by addition’ and see how many different plant foods you can tally up over the week! Include fermented foods regularly, think sauerkraut or kimchi, kefir, and probiotic-rich yoghurts for added gut support or add in a live bacteria supplement like Pro-Woman. Other health conditions such as diabetes and thyroid disease can throw your hormones off balance, so can be worth discussing with your GP.