Quote I found on the internet that made me smile…”I have PMS and GPS, I’m a bitch and I will find you anywhere” Anonymous
We women have many hormonal fluctuations; some acute and some chronic. Hormones are affected by many things including our thyroid and adrenal function, stress level, menses, age and/or genetics. Throughout lives our hormones will fluctuate, but fortunately, there are some natural foods that can help create balance and these good foods are what we will discuss in this column.
Nutrition is a very important component in treating the symptoms of any hormonal imbalance, including menopause. Unfortunately for most of us, the foods that contribute to hormonal disruptions are the ones most of us enjoy: sugar, caffeine, alcohol, dairy, meat and gluten. So, what else is there you ask? Well, fortunately, there are other food items, and the first step is to introduce those nutritious healthy foods; ones rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and healthy oils can be extremely beneficial. Once you add in more healthy food you can slowly replace the foods that are known to cause hormonal disruptions: back to moderate amounts that is.
Sugar and alcohol effect the release of insulin which will impact estrogen and testosterone production. A good rule of thumb is to stay below 25% of your daily intake from any food that is high in starch including all grains, legumes, beans, fruit, squash, root vegetables, and alcohol. A plate of spaghetti squash with marinara can be healthful, but a plate of potatoes, rolls, and stuffing with alcohol should be a holiday treat and not a daily event.
Conventional (i.e. what you buy at most grocery stores) meat and dairy can also disrupt your hormones. Some farmers use recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production, some cows are given progesterone to keep them from going into heat, and other hormones are added to cattle feed to keep them higher in lean protein than fat. These hormones transfer from the cattle to us when we drink the milk or eat the dairy and meat. There is still a lot of research being done on just how big the impact is, but if you are having hormonal imbalances the best advice is to eliminate as many non-necessary hormonal influences as possible. Try buying organic, hormone free meat, eggs and dairy whenever possible.
Buying organic is always best, but at the least, avoid too many pre-prepared foods – avoid those middle aisles in the grocery store! Pre-prepared foods are very high in hidden sugars, additives and other chemicals that create inflammation in the body.
Another source of hormone disruption is from xenoestrogens: plastic, drugs, pesticides and pollutants that mimic our natural hormones, strip our body of nutrients and influence thyroid function, stress our liver detox pathways, increase our risk for estrogen cancers (prostate, breast and ovarian), and decrease testosterone (effecting metabolism and sex drive.) See my article Why I avoid plastic food containers for more information.
Specific nutrients to help balance hormone levels:
After 50, women need more calcium to maintain bone strength (1,200 and 1,500 milligrams a day). Calcium rich foods include dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, such as bok choy, kale, seaweeds and collard greens, dried beans, nuts and legumes. Some brands of orange juice are fortified with calcium; just watch your portion size.
Exposure to sunlight triggers vitamin D formation in the skin, but older women don’t convert sunlight into essential vitamin D as efficiently as they did when they were younger. According to the United States Institute of Medicine, women under 70 years old should consume 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily. Women over 70 need even more; the recommended amount is 800 IU daily. A glass of milk provides 100 IU of vitamin D, but vitamin D is not available in yogurt or cheese. Surprisingly, a 3.5 oz wild caught salmon provides a whopping 350 IU as well as essential omega-3 fatty acids.
It is recommended that older women get 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B-12 daily. This vitamin is present in all animal products and, in smaller amounts, in brewer’s yeast, wheat grass and spirulina. It is less efficiently utilized by our bodies as we age so consistent intake is essential especially if you are vegan.
Many of today’s “foods for women” contain soy, which is being studied as a possible preventer of heart disease. Phytoestrogens, chemicals found in plants such as soy, can mimic the human hormone estrogen. It’s unknown at this point whether the similarities between the estrogen-like substances present in soy have the potential to stimulate estrogen-dependent human breast-cancer cells. Until more is known, women who have had estrogen-influenced breast cancer should use soy in moderation. As for soy’s ability to reduce hot flashes, a lot of studies are being done, but the results are inconclusive.
Food high in plant sterols can be used to treat menopause symptoms such as apples, olives, plums, figs, lemon (rind), pomegranates, tomatoes, strawberries, whole grains, beans and legumes.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, safflower and sunflower oils, peanut oil, walnut oil, flax oil and cold water fish all decrease inflammation and can help to decrease the menopausal symptoms. These sources of healthy fat are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Women of all ages can strive to get the nutrients they need by eating a healthy diet with servings from all food groups. For those women who are unable to meet their nutritional needs on a daily basis, supplements can help. Examples of nutrients naturopathic physicians may consider supplementing include calcium, magnesium, manganese, trace minerals, bioflavonoids, vitamin B6, and vitamin E. Make sure to carefully evaluate vitamin labels. Many supplements are tailored to meet the needs of adults in the middle age range, and might not be appropriate for older adults on blood thinners for example.
Also, stress and sleep are big triggers of hormone imbalances. Use exercise to help you balance your hormones, keep your lean muscle mass strong, decrease stress and regulate your sleep patterns. Find something fun to do and just do it – any movement will help.
It’s also important to remember kindness. We often put stress on ourselves by doing too many things at once, or for too many others. Focusing on ourselves by improving our nutrition, even by one thing a week, helps us gain more control of our health. If we don’t have our health we can’t get anything done or help others.
Grab an ounce of dark chocolate and a glass of red wine; it will help reduce the “bitchy” side and they go well with all the healthy foods mentioned above!