If you’ve ever struggled with hormone balance, you know how frustrating it can be. You may have turned to the internet to learn about hormone balancing diets, only to be left feeling more overwhelmed than when you started.
There is so much information (and sometimes misinformation) about what, when and how to eat to balance your hormones. Although it’s true that diet is an amazing tool for regulating hormones, the quick fixes you find with a Google search won’t generate lasting change.
Instead, approach your hormone health from a holistic perspective and look at the whole picture. In fact, hormone balancing diets aren’t really a diet, they’re a lifestyle. We’re not talking about a 30 day cleanse, we’re talking about healthy changes you can embrace forever. That doesn’t mean every meal you eat has to follow these principles, but what you do most of the time matters more than what you do some of the time. Adopting the following suggestions will give your body the resilience to occasionally enjoy treats without throwing you into hormonal chaos.
Can you really balance hormones with food?
The short answer is – yes! Diet absolutely impacts hormones. How specific foods and dietary patterns influence an individual’s hormones is, you guessed it, individualized. But for most people, food can be a powerful tool for influencing hormone health.
The food we eat is the raw material our bodies use to produce hormones. For example, estrogen and testosterone are made from cholesterol obtained through food, while thyroid hormones and insulin are made of proteins.
But that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to food and hormones.
There are so many factors that influence hormone balancing diet, including eating too much or too little, overconsuming sugar and processed foods, not eating the right balance of macronutrients, inadequate intake of vitamins, minerals or fiber, and not drinking enough water.
You’ve probably heard that you are what you eat – but we disagree. You’re actually what you digest and absorb. Meaning, if you have impaired gut health or genetic variants that affect your ability to break down and metabolize nutrients, you may need additional support beyond dietary intervention.
So what’s the bottom line? Eating well isn’t just about staying healthy, it’s also about keeping your hormones happy and healthy.
How can diet positively impact hormone balance?
1) Blood sugar balance – The best thing you can do for your hormones is balance your blood sugar. The key to balanced blood sugar is to eat at consistent times, spaced evenly throughout the day. Make sure each meal includes protein, healthy fats and fiber (reference the list in the next section).
Getting enough protein to support blood sugar balance can take some intentionality, especially if you haven’t considered it before. Aim for 25-35 grams of protein at each meal, which may look like:
- Four ounces of wild caught salmon
- One can of wild caught tuna
- One cup of greek yogurt or cottage cheese
- Four whole eggs or one cup of egg whites
- Four ounces of chicken, turkey or beef
- One cup of lentils
- One a half cups of edamame
Eating enough fiber can also take some planning and most women should aim for 25-35 grams a day. Start slowly increasing fiber intake and drinking more water to keep things moving, slow down at meal times and really chew your food. Consider these tips for increasing fiber intake:
- Add a vegetable to every meal
- Choose high fiber fruits like berries and apples
- Sprinkle chopped nuts and seeds on top of main dishes
- Swap low fiber carbs like bread, tortillas, and white rice with high fiber carbs like sweet potatoes, winter squash, and legumes.
2) Whole foods – The foundation of any hormone balancing diet are whole foods. Whole foods, like fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, legumes, whole grains, and certain meat products, are minimally processed and contain all their edible parts. A hormone balancing diet is built on whole foods, making it much easier to balance your blood sugar and get enough macro (protein, carbs, fat) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants) to support healthy hormones.
Consider adding these hormone-friendly whole foods to your diet:
- High quality proteins – eggs, lentils, beans, grass fed meat, pasture raised chicken, fish, organic tofu
- Healthy fats – avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, ghee, salmon, full-fat dairy
- Fiber – berries, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, winter squash
3) Anti-inflammatory Foods – Inflammation and hormone health go hand in hand. Dysregulated hormones can lead to inflammation and inflammation can lead to dysregulated hormones. Fortunately, there are plenty of delicious, anti-inflammatory foods to include in your diet.
Colorful foods tend to have the most antioxidants and therefore anti-inflammatory effects. See how many colors you can include on your plate at each meal, but remember, we’re focused on whole foods (i.e. ketchup doesn’t count). Red cabbage, berries, salmon, tomatoes, leafy greens, citrus, and bell peppers are all great additions to any hormone balancing diet.
4) Detoxification – Eating enough for hormone production is important for hormone balance, but the other side of the equation is equally essential. Excess hormones must be efficiently eliminated from the body to keep hormones balanced.
The liver and digestive tract are responsible for hormone detoxification, so supporting those organs is a great way to support hormone balance.
Eating enough fiber, particularly from cruciferous vegetables is a great place to start. Cruciferous vegetables contain compounds called diindolylmethane (DIM) and indole-3-carbinol (IC3) that breakdown and remove excess estrogen from the body. Broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, kale, brussel sprouts and broccoli sprouts are all a part of the cruciferous vegetable family.
Some additional foods that provide liver support include:
- Milk thistle
- Dandelion root
- Burdock root
- Dark leafy greens
- Sulfur rich foods – garlic, onion, broccoli, eggs, beef, poultry
- Antioxidant rich foods – berries, citrus, nuts, seeds, colorful fruits and vegetables
How can negative diet habits impact hormone balance?
Eating healthy foods invariably leads to healthy hormones, while eating foods full of sugar and artificial ingredients leads to less than ideal hormone balance.
Most women struggling with hormonal imbalances would benefit from reducing their intake of these potentially harmful foods:
Consuming too much sugar can increase inflammation, impair gut health, and contribute to blood sugar imbalances; all of which are driving factors of hormonal imbalances.
When we eat sugar, our bodies release a hormone called insulin to absorb that sugar into the cells for energy. High levels of insulin lower sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). SHBG is the hormone that binds to excess estrogen and testosterone for excretion. If SHBG becomes too low, estrogen and testosterone can become too high.
Insulin can also increase the production of testosterone in women, trigger inflammation, and lead to overeating as a result of dysregulated blood sugar. High levels of insulin act on the ovaries membrane cells and directly stimulates androgen production, particularly testosterone. This interferes with healthy follicle development (the sacs in the ovaries where eggs develop) and blocks normal ovulation.
There is a lot of confusion about sugar these days, so let’s break it down. It’s true that all carbohydrates are eventually converted to glucose in our bodies. But, the carbs naturally found in nutrient dense foods like fruit, sweet potatoes and root vegetables come with other benefits like vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Added sugars are added for the sole purpose of sweetening and do not come with any health benefits. They only bring the detrimental effects of sugar like blood sugar spikes and increased inflammation.
So when we say “too much sugar”, we’re talking about added sugars, not natural sugars found in whole foods.
Among the foods that cause hormonal imbalance, ultra-processed foods are high on the list. All foods that make it to the grocery store are processed to some degree, that’s how they got there. Some foods like whole fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, legumes and certain meat products are minimally processed, containing only one ingredient and all their natural, edible parts.
Ultra-processed foods are missing some of their original parts. Plus, they often have unhealthy ingredients added back in like artificial flavors, preservatives and added sugars. Examples, among others, include commercially produced crackers, baked goods, chips, condiments, candy, and cereal.
Not only do these lead to dysregulated blood sugar, but they increase inflammation and impair gut health, leading to hormonal imbalances. They’re also ow in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, making them hard to justify from a health standpoint.
Additionally, eating too many unhealthy foods can create a sense of fullness and make it challenging to incorporate healthier options into your diet.
Sugar Sweetened Beverages
It’s no secret that soda isn’t a health promoting food, but research shows that just one cup of soda a day can increase estrogen in women. But if you’re reading this, you probably already know that soda is terrible for you. What you might not know is that there are many other sugar sweetened beverages that can wreak havoc on blood sugar balance. Even those that are marketed as ‘healthy”, like pre-mixed matcha lattes from Starbucks, cold brew with sweet foam from Dunkin, and even flavored sparkling waters, kombucha and coconut water are full of added sugars.
Replacing sweetened beverages with water or herbal tea is one of the best ways to dramatically reduce your sugar intake.
Alcohol has a very profound effect on female hormones. Studies show that even small amounts of alcohol can lead to menstrual irregularities, the absence of a period and/or ovulation, and infertility. Consuming alcohol can disrupt the communication between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, leading to a cascade of hormonal disturbances that affect the whole body.
The most common guideline for alcohol and female hormone health is one drink a day. However, the amount of alcohol you should consume depends on a variety of things and clinically, we see this vary a lot. One drink a day is too much for most women, while some need to completely avoid alcohol until their health concerns improve. Others may make improvements with one to two drinks per week, and in rare instances, some can tolerate three to four drinks per week. Rarely do we see people feel well and do well with more than that.
If you’re struggling with severe hormonal imbalances or focusing on fertility, removing alcohol for a period of time will likely support your efforts. If that feels impractical, consider drinking alcohol only at special occasions, rather than having a glass of wine with dinner every night. Choose lower sugar options like sulfate-free red wine, dry cider, or clear spirits like gin, vodka or tequila. Opt for sparkling water or kombucha as a mixer and avoid the syrups and added sweeteners. If you have more than one drink, drink water between drinks and avoid drinking on an empty stomach.
A moderate calorie deficit can be beneficial if you have excess body fat to healthily lose, but severe caloric restrictions can lead to negative outcomes. Eating too little for your body can result in hormone imbalances due to a lack of hormone building blocks (protein and fat) and an increased production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Too much cortisol can lead to weight gain, cravings, and dysregulated hormones, particularly estrogen.
Undereating can also contribute to overeating later on. If you restrict your intake earlier in the day, only to find yourself rummaging around the pantry every evening, consider increasing your intake of healthy whole foods earlier in the day and notice how that changes your evening eating behaviors.
Functional Testing to Guide Hormone Balancing Diets
Functional medicine revolves around addressing the root cause of dysfunction and testing can be a key piece of the puzzle. However, functional lab testing, beyond just bloodwork, can be a major investment and isn’t always necessary.
Nailing the basics is step one, but if addressing those doesn’t generate the relief you were hoping for, testing is the next step.
The best functional hormone test depends on your unique needs. At Birchwell, we always start with a comprehensive intake to determine what factors may be influencing your hormone health. We’ll consider blood sugar, inflammation, detoxification, gut health, food allergies, and micronutrient intake. Then we’ll use that information to decide which test is right for you.
Some of my favorite tests for getting to the underlying cause of hormonal imbalance include:
- CBC, CMC
- Full iron panel: ferritin, iron, UIBC, TIBC, transferrin and transferrin saturation
- Inflammation: homocysteine, hs-CRP
- Full thyroid panel: TSH, free T3, free T4, reverse T3, anti-TPO and anti-TG
- Blood sugar: hemoglobin A1c, fasting insulin
- Micronutrients: vitamin D, folate, MMA, zinc, copper, vitamin A
- Full hormone panel: estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, prolactin, DHEA-S, LH, FSH, SHBG
- DUTCH test – a comprehensive test using dried urine samples to analyze sex hormone, adrenal, and organic acid panels.
- GI MAP – an advanced diagnostic stool test to analyze the gut microbiome, identifying pathogens, beneficial bacteria, and potential imbalances.
- Organic acids – urine analysis that assesses metabolic markers, nutrient deficiencies, mitochondrial function, and microbial overgrowth or toxic exposures.
- Vibrant America Hormone Panel – blood test that assesses sex hormones and biomarkers associated with men’s and women’s health.
There is more to hormone balance than diet!
Diet plays a major role in hormone balance, but it isn’t everything!
Stress – In response to stress, the body releases a number of hormones to help you adapt. Chronic stress can lead to imbalances in cortisol, insulin and thyroid hormones and endocrine disorders down the line. Managing stress is non-negotiable when it comes to hormone balance. Consider the activities and people that bring you joy and leave you feeling restored. How can you add more of those to your life? Stress relieving techniques are most effective when you enjoy them and factor time to practice them.
Sleep – Sleep plays a really important role in hormone health and blood sugar metabolism. In fact, too little sleep results in dysregulated blood sugar, increased hunger and appetite and the hormones that signal each. Poor sleep also leads to high cortisol (the stress hormone) in the evening, making it harder to sleep and locking you into a negative feedback loop. Focus on improving your sleep quantity and quality by reducing caffeine intake in the afternoon and engaging in a calming evening routine to prime your body and brain for sleep. Making your bedroom cool and dark can help promote deeper sleep.
Age – All women experience hormone fluctuations during different chapters of life, especially around pre and post menopause. For some women, these changes come with symptoms like weight gain, acne, hot flashes, hair loss, mood swings and fatigue.
Supporting hormone balance around these transitional times can be incredibly beneficial for women. High protein, blood sugar friendly diets and foods like broccoli sprouts and flaxseeds are supportive, as well as targeted supplements. You can read all about my holistic approach to peri and postmenopause here.
Genetics – There are genetic components that come into play when we consider hormonal balance. Sometimes the hormonal shifts women experience are running jokes in their families, indicating a longstanding history of hormone imbalance. Genetics can influence female hormone balance by impacting the production, regulation and responsiveness of hormones involved in the reproductive system. Genetic variations can influence hormone receptors, affecting how well they respond to hormonal signals, while other variations can influence enzymes involved in hormone metabolism. Genes can influence the length and regularity of the menstrual cycle and increase susceptibility to conditions like PCOS and endometriosis. Although gene expression and hormone balance vary among individuals, genes can be influenced with the right dietary and lifestyle interventions.
Medications – Some common medications like birth control, many antidepressants, spironolactone, benzodiazepines, semaglutide, and statins can impact hormone balance. Birth control, in particular, can affect your hormones by interfering with adrenal, thyroid, gut health and libido. It also contributes to multiple nutrient deficiencies that further exacerbate hormonal imbalances.
Customized approach vs one-size-fits-all
Eating whole foods, balancing blood sugar, and optimizing digestion are great places to start, but sometimes it goes beyond a hormone balancing diet.
Your hormones are as unique as you are and there’s no one-size-fits all approach to restoring balance. A customized approach is your best bet for generating sustainable hormonal balance that you can maintain for the long haul.
For example, if you’re struggling with an underlying condition that hasn’t been addressed, whether it’s a gut issue, mold toxicity, heavy metal exposure, or any other hidden concern, all the diet tweaks in the world won’t fix your hormones.
If you’re doing all the steps mentioned above and you’re still dealing with hormonal imbalances, you should work with us. We will investigate the root cause of your hormonal imbalance, leaving no stone unturned. We’ll consider your history, symptoms, goals, lifestyle, medications, activity and food before we design a plan to meet your needs. Then we’ll continue tweaking your plan until it feels just right, we’ve dealt with the underlying cause, and you’re satisfied with your hormone health.
What should people know about hormone balancing protocols?
Our goal is to help you make sustainable changes that you can realistically implement for the long run. That means we’ll make small shifts over a longer period of time so that you feel confident in the steps you need to take. We’ll never ask you to be perfect or restrictive, but we will keep encouraging you, even when it feels hard.
My clients always tell me they don’t have time for their health until they’re forced to address major issues. Women in particular seem to prioritize everyone else, but your health matters too! Take a proactive approach to hormone balance and make it a priority – every aspect of your life improves when you improve your health.
How long does it take to reach hormone balance?
Hormonal imbalances don’t happen overnight and unfortunately, neither does healing from them. It can take months to re-regulate hormones since we’ll need time to identify and correct the root cause and give your body time to re-regulate. Even once you’re well on your way to healthy hormones, folliculogenesis, the process by which ovarian follicles develop and mature into a fertilizable egg in the ovaries, takes time (about three months).
Learning how to build a blood sugar balanced plate, reduce added sugars, and ease inflammation with antioxidant rich foods are key to creating a hormone balancing diet and improve so many other aspects of your health.
However, if you’re nailing these basics and still struggling with signs that something isn’t quite right – it’s time to work with a functional medicine practitioner (like us!). We’ll help you identify the root cause of your issues and treat it holistically; not just using food, but using therapeutic supplements and lifestyle interventions.