Here’s a recent question from Lana about what could be going wrong with her food plan:
I’m just so frustrated. I’ve changed my diet and I’m eating a balance of healthy foods. I’m off sugar and mostly quit drinking wine. I haven’t seen the improvement in my mood that I thought would happen. I still feel so tired, irrtitable, and moody, and I can’t figure out why. What am I doing wrong?
I suspect that once we take a deeper look at your foods and determine your macronutrient levels they may not be quite at the ideal balance to best support you. This balance can be tricky. We have to get this in line with what we know about your root causes to get your systems functioning at an optimal level. This should improve your energy.
Now, for you reading this, you may be confused. And that’s okay, because we’re going to delve into what this means, and how you navigate getting your protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the right balance for you. I’m going to give you my tried and tested method to do this!
Here’s what we’ll go over in this article:
- Why what we eat is so critical for healthy hormone levels
- How root causes help you determine ideal macronutrient levels for YOU
- How to track foods and find your baseline (and you don’t need to do it for very long!)
- Hormone balance busting foods – avoid these…
- Awesome foods for healthy hormones
There’s something most people do every day and that’s… EAT! Which is the first reason I’ll give you for why what we put in our body is so important to our overall health and for our hormones. The foods we eat are going to have a conversation with our body. If we eat an ice cream cone, we’ll increase insulin, and insulin will have a chat with our other hormones. If we don’t eat for a period of time, we’ll have a slight rise in cortisol and insulin levels will drop. If we eat broccoli, we’ll take in compounds that feed the bacteria in our gut, and these little guys tell our body all kinds of things! We may just be busy with our thoughts, but as we eat, we’re sending all kinds of messages that affect our hormones.
Foods contain macro and micronutrients. The macronutrients are fat, protein, and carbohydrates. The balance of these can be the difference between energy spikes and drops, flat out fatigue all day, or steady energy from dawn to dusk. Even slight adjustments can make all the difference. In Lana’s case above, she’d gone gluten, alcohol, dairy, and sugar free and it really helped her bloating and constipation. However, she still wasn’t seeing the energy improvements she wanted. I had her write down what she was eating for a few days, and it turned out she wasn’t eating enough carbohydrates during the week OR on some days she’d eat them at the wrong time of day (for her).
Whole foods also contain micronutrients; vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, and these are the building blocks for multiple processes that keep your hormones in balance. Without them, we can impair some of the things that need to happen to help you function normally every day. Just take vitamin C for example; it’s involved in making cortisol (a hormone that gets you up everyday), blood sugar metabolism (so your cells have energy and you can rock it on the daily), and keeping your immune system working well. A variety of whole foods, especially veggies and fruits will provide you with these awesome micros.
FOOD IS MEDICINE
There’s no better way to put it. If you allow food to be your friend, and not your enemy, it can bring you to vital health. As we did with Lana, one place to start is with the balance of macronutrients and what you should aim for based on your root causes.
So, let’s discuss what to eat if you’re dealing with the root causes we talked about in Part 2:
Blood Sugar Imbalance:
Every time we eat carbohydrates, which we get from vegetables, fruit, and grains (and processed grain products like breads, pasta, and pastries), we increase blood sugar and insulin in the body. Protein also increases insulin. So, if you have insulin resistance, you’ll want to aim for a lower carb approach, and in more severe insulin resistance, you’ll likely need to make sure you’re not overeating protein. Some people know they have insulin resistance because they’re pre-diabetic or diabetic. If you’ve never been to a functional medicine provider, you may have high fasting insulin and not know. Typically, these people go on a low carb diet, and they may feel worse at first, but within a couple weeks their energy starts to improve. Just to clarify low carb is around 50-75 grams of carbs per day. Very low carb or keto is 20-50 carbs per day.
That being said, if you’re not sure what exactly is going on with your blood sugar, I wouldn’t just jump into a low carb approach as this can also be harmful to female hormone balance. I suggest working with a provider if you’re going to do that, and including some carb cycling along with adjusting carbs based on what day you are in the menstrual cycle (for pre-menopausal women).
If you have hypoglycemia or are prone to blood sugar crashes, you’ll want to eat a balance of macronutrients at each meal to start to get things in balance. I have my clients start with 25-30 grams of protein at each meal, and around 40 grams of carbohydrates at each meal. This is assuming you’re eating 3 meals a day and no snacks. If there’s a snack involved, you can reduce the carbs at your meal and include some at a snack along with some protein and healthy fat. This is a moderate amount of carbohydrates. In some cases, we need to increase it from there, and in others we pull it back some. But, starting in this moderate range can help to balance your blood sugar steadily throughout the day. It usually only takes about 4 weeks of doing this for blood sugar to be more balanced throughout the day, and then we can adjust protein levels down a bit in many cases and continue to make other adjustments to carbs and fats.
HPA Axis Dysfunction & Stress
In many cases with HPA Axis issues, the body is not responding appropriately to cortisol levels in the body. In some cases, this can cause blood sugar drops if one is fasting or eating very few carbs. So, when we see on a hormone panel that cortisol levels are low or out of balance throughout the day, we’ll aim for a moderate amount of carbohydrates; 75-150 grams/day. There’re always cases where more or less is needed, but a moderate range is a good starting point. Likewise if you’re dealing with amenorrhea, cycle irregularities, or low hormone levels in general, make sure to get some complex carbohydrates at meals.
Microbiome & Gut Issues
There are many approaches that can help with gut issues, depending on what exactly the issue is, but some include low FODMAP, SCD (specific carbohydrate diet), GAPS, and there are some other similar types of approaches we can deploy in these cases to get on top of the gut problem. It’s very common that I see mood and energy symptoms improve on these meal plans. This is because the gut problem is at the root of the hormone issues to start, so by addressing the root cause with the right dietary approach, you begin to get hormones in a better balance.
Liver Detoxification Issues
There are many approaches that can be detoxifying and liver supportive, so if I’m working one-on-one with someone, I often partner this with any other root causes we find. However, some basics for liver support are to eat gluten and dairy free, eat a moderate amount of carbohydrates and eat some healthy fats, but not too many. Aim for LOTS of green veggies including dandelion greens. Include beets, green apples, lemons, and berries. Eat wild caught fish, and the rainbow of veggies, veggies, veggies!
Nothing I have said so far will make any sense if you don’t know what you’re eating to begin with. This is why the first thing I have every client do is track their foods for 5-7 days and make sure that some of those days are over a weekend as things often change as our routines change. Personally, I use Cronometer. Many of my clients like this or My Fitness Pal. There are many options out there, so pick one, and put the foods you eat in there. Or write it on paper. No judgement. No right or wrong. Just use this as a mindfulness exercise. It will be very helpful for you to see what you’re doing, and then if you so choose, you can make adjustments from there. And once we’re mindful of what’s going on, you can ditch the tracking if you want, and begin to practice intuitive eating.
Hormone Busting Foods
Refined and Processed Sugars and Grains
Ladies, I know you don’t want to sit here and read about how you shouldn’t eat sugar. And guess what, I will NEVER SAY THAT! The words should and shouldn’t need to get booted out of nutrition articles forever. (Let me know if you find them in mine! It’s quite possible they show up due to my own language around what I ate growing up that I’ve worked consciously on changing! 😉
This being said, it’s true that refined sugars when eaten consistently will have a negative effect on hormones. Foods containing added sugars are typically low in vitamins and minerals, and high in simple carbohydrates that can spike sugar and insulin and cause some of the issues we discussed earlier. Even before longer term hormone issues, this can cause sleep disruption, irritability, feelings of anxiety or depression, and other negative symptoms.
Sugar isn’t something you should or shouldn’t eat. It’s something to be viewed as a drug, because it acts just like one in the body. It lights up the reward center in your brain just like cocaine does; same area of the brain. This is one reason why sugar can make you feel good after you eat it. It’s why we call it a treat. Sugar also causes an increase in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. So, short term, humans love it. But long term it wreaks havoc on our metabolism and hormones.
Processed grain foods like cereals, breads, and pastas are also very high in carbohydrates which turn in to sugar rapidly in the body, spiking blood sugar and insulin. As discussed earlier, this is a recipe for disaster for long term hormone balance.
Industrial Seed Oils & Inflammatory Fats
Fats high in omega 6 are pro-inflammatory in the body. We do need omega 6 fats, but we need them in balance with omega 3’s. If you’re eating nuts, seeds, avocados, and/or meats, you’re getting sufficient amounts of omega 6. Industrial seed oils like canola, soy, safflower, sunflower, and corn oil are all high omega 6 oils. Anytime you eat out at a restaurant (with the exception of farm to table type of places), or eat processed foods, you’re likely eating these oils . This can cause a high 6:3 ratio in the body putting you in a more inflammatory state.
Years back I got an omega check to see what my ratio of omega 6:3 was. I’d been taking fish oil for years and avoiding high omega 6 oils, and I was still at a 3:2 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3. The ideal ratio is 1:1, or at least 2:1, so I was doing fine, but I was surprised with all I’d done that I wasn’t quite at 1:1. The point here is that although taking fish oil or making sure you’re eating wild caught fish helps, it’s also important to swap out these inflammatory oils in your diet for healthier fats.
Many women LOVE coffee or strong tea because it wakes us up. It does this in part by causing an increase in cortisol. This may be okay first thing in the morning as our cortisol is supposed to be at its highest first thing in the morning. However, many women are sensitive to the effects of caffeine and it can throw off your cortisol levels and negatively affect your Circadian Rhythm. If you’re dealing with HPA Axis dysfunction, you may be better off avoiding or minimizing this one. For tips on how to do this, read my article on Kicking Caffeine for Coffee Lovers.
Alcohol has an effect on blood sugar levels, and also on serotonin and cortisol. Often upon consuming alcohol, you may feel really good and get a boost in serotonin and cortisol. This can make you feel good, but after the effects have worn off, these levels may drop lower than normal and leave you feeling tired and moody. Notice when you consume alcohol what happens before, after, and the next day versus days when you do not consume any. This can help you determine if that wine is causing you more problems than it’s helping.
Foods to eat for Healthy Hormones!
Healthy fats and omega 3’s
Remember the low-fat diet craze? That diet was a real problem for hormone balance, because hormones are built form fat and cholesterol. We need short, medium, and long chain fatty acids, some saturated fat, and also cholesterol. Fats are necessary to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are vital, and deficiencies of these can negatively affect hormones.
We talked about how important omega 3 and 6 fats are to healthy hormone levels. You can get omega 3’s from things like wild caught fish, walnuts, and flax seeds. If we get an ideal omega 3:6 ratio of fats in the body, it helps to balance inflammation.
Fats can boost your metabolism and promote weight loss. Healthy fat containing foods include avocados, nuts, seeds, wild caught fish, and eggs. Some healthy oils you can use are olive, avocado, coconut, or palm. Try guacamole with slices of jicama; one of my FAV snacks!
Cultured, probiotic containing foods
Gut health is vital for hormones to be in balance so that we have optimal mood, energy, and sleep. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help increase diversity in the microbiome and support gut health. We can get these through cultured foods! This includes yogurt and kefir with “live and active cultures”. Kimchi, sauerkraut, and other cultured veggies are great options. Make sure that these items are found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store and have sea salt and NOT vinegar in the ingredients. This is the best way to know if they’re truly cultured and will give you that good bacteria.
Ever tried kombucha? It’s a great alternative for soda and beer if you’re looking for a healthier option and will provide you with probiotics.
The Rainbow of Veggies
We want to get plenty of fiber in the diet and an array of vitamins and minerals. The best way to do this is to eat the rainbow of vegetables! Ideally, getting 8-11 servings of veggies a day will help you do this. If you aim for half a plate of non-starchy veggies per day, you’ll start to get near to this amount of servings per day. Veggies can make great snacks too. Here’s one thing to try; next time you go shopping, look around at the produce section and pick out one or two veggies that you’ve never had before… Ideally, organic. We talked in Part 3 about how toxic burden can cause problems for hormones, so eating clean is ideal.
Eat Quality Protein
Protein provides amino acids, which are building blocks for many hormones in the body. Getting quality protein in your meals will also help to balance blood sugar. Aim for foods like wild caught fish, naturally raised meats, nuts, seeds, or lentils.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
And now for those moment to moments decisions we make about food. First off, although the concepts here may seem like a lot to consider, let’s take all of this and simplify it. Because you can do this!
Start your meal with half a plate of non-starchy veggies. This can be a salad with whatever veggies you like on your salad. It can be roasted veggies (my FAV!). Add some spices and healthy fat to make your veggies tasty! This will help you absorb the nutrients in the veggies too. Now, add a palm size portion of protein containing food. If it’s a salad, you might go for some wild caught salmon or diced organic chicken. If you don’t eat meat, add some lentils or legumes with nuts and seeds.
Next, make sure you’re getting some healthy fat. If you just added nuts and seeds, there you go! Or on your salad use some olive oil and vinegar. If you’re roasting veggies you can use olive oil and spices on the veggies. You can slice some avocado with your meal or eat a handful of nuts and seeds afterwards.
Then, add some complex carbohydrate to your needs if these is fitting for you based upon what you’ve read here. If you suspect you’ll do better with less, then skip this part. However, if you’re not sure, just aim for a serving of sweet potato, quinoa, or some berries.
WAH-LAH! You’ve got yourself a balanced meal. AND most importantly you’ve thought through some of the root causes that can be going on and how you might begin to adjust this balanced meal to best address those. This is where Lana really started to see improvement. Once she tracked her foods, it was clear that she was eating too few carbohydrates and when she did eat them it was in the morning. What we found was that increasing the amount she was eating, but eating them at dinner gave her the energy she needed during the day and helped her sleep more deeply (vital for hormones!). We also adjusted her carb levels throughout her menstrual cycle and had a lot of success (stay tuned for an article on this soon!).
And once Lana understood what to do, she could do it with ease…. No counting, measuring, or tracking necessary! She was able to plan and enjoy meals and have a flow from day to day.
You can use the tips in this article to get started. If you run into any bumps and want to run it by me, feel free to Book a complimentary 30-minute discovery call. I’d be happy to hear your story and give you some tips to get started. 😉