Hormones are chemical messengers made in one part of the body that travels through the bloodstream to another part of the body where they have their effect. I like to think of hormones and the organs or tissues they impact as a lock and key - the hormone is the key and that key only fits certain locks (organs or tissues).
Hormones affect almost every process in our bodies from the sleep cycle, to reproduction, to energy, to mood, to aging, and more. Men and women have the same hormones but in different amounts and women generally experience more symptoms due to greater fluctuations in hormone levels caused by pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.
Over 50 different hormones have been identified in humans. Hormones most commonly discussed include thyroid hormone (T3/T4), cortisol, melatonin, insulin, progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone.
In Functional Medicine, all of the modifiable lifestyle factors affect are affected by hormones including but not limited to:
- Sleep and relaxation (cortisol, melatonin, progesterone)
- Exercise and movement (insulin, testosterone)
- Nutrition (insulin, ghrelin)
- Stress (cortisol)
- Relationships (oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin)
These are key areas to focus on when looking to balance hormones and optimize overall health and wellbeing.
When it comes to nutrition vegetables can help support hormone health in a number of ways.
Cruciferous Vegetables Support Healthy Hormone Balance
Cruciferous vegetables (like kale, collards, mustard greens, broccoli, broccoli microgreens, etc.) are important to help the liver metabolize estrogen in a healthy way. Cruciferous vegetables contain sulforaphane which is converted in the body to Diindolylmethane (DIM) or indole-3-carbinol (I3C). These compounds help to shift estrogen metabolism towards a healthier pathway, producing less undesirable metabolites. Vitamin B12, folate (Vitamin B9), and foods such as onions, garlic, and beets help to support methylation of the harmful metabolites when they occur, which may help reduce potential DNA damage that could lead to hormone-related cancers.
Fiber as the Hidden Superpower
Vegetables high in fiber are also beneficial as they stabilize blood sugar (especially important in conditions such as PCOS) and help to move waste out of the body, which reduces the reabsorption of potentially harmful hormone metabolites (e.g., 4-hydroxy estrogens). These metabolites have been found to correlate with breast and other hormone-dependent cancers. Aiming for a minimum of 30 grams of fiber daily is often recommended along with adequate hydration.
Low Carbohydrate Vegetables
Maintaining balanced blood sugar levels is essential to optimizing hormone balance. If you have experienced being “hangry,” shaky, or anxious between meals this could be a sign of unstable blood sugar. Low blood sugar causes an increased release of cortisol - the stress hormone- which helps to release stored glucose from the liver in order to increase the blood sugar. Chronic stress can affect blood sugar as well, causing increased cortisol levels and increased blood sugar along with lower insulin levels. Eating vegetables high in fiber as well as low in carbohydrates in addition to healthy sources of protein and fat may help to stabilize blood sugar in addition to managing stress (ie. gardening, walking, art, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, etc.).
Vitamins, Minerals, and Nutrients to Support Hormone Health
Having optimal progesterone levels is essentially important to women's health. Omega-3 fatty acids as well as Vitamins B6 and C, and minerals such as magnesium and zinc are helpful in supporting the body’s natural production of progesterone. Omega-3 also reduces inflammation in the body which indirectly supports healthy estrogen metabolism.
Subclinical low thyroid (hypothyroidism) may occur from zinc deficiency because zinc is needed to convert thyroid hormone into its active form and conversely zinc may be deficient in those with hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s) because adequate levels of thyroid hormone are necessary for zinc absorption. If obtaining zinc primarily from plant sources consider soaking and/or sprouting grains and legumes in order to reduce phytate levels (also known as “anti-nutrients”) which can bind zinc and decrease how much your body is able to absorb.
Iodine is also essential to thyroid health. T3 and T4 are made of 3 and 4 molecules of iodine respectively. Our vegetables will contain minimal to no iodine so it is important to obtain iodine from other sources (sea vegetables, wild seafood, etc.) to support thyroid health. Many of our microgreens contain selenium which is important for healthy thyroid function. Vitamins A, B’s, D, and minerals like magnesium (found in green leafy vegetables) are also supportive of thyroid health.
Sulfur found in cruciferous vegetables and garlic, leeks, onions, etc. helps the liver to produce glutathione which is one of the body's main antioxidants that protect cells from damage and repair damaged DNA. Vegetables such as parsley, spinach, beets, and asparagus are rich sources of dietary glutathione as well, although glutathione from food is often poorly absorbed. Higher levels are often obtained by focusing on sulfur-rich vegetables and allowing the body to make its own glutathione which helps support thyroid health.
Avoiding Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Hormone health is not only about what you put into your body, it is also about what you keep out of your body. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be found almost everywhere including food, water, and household products, and can create potentially significant health effects.
The Environmental Working Group describes the potential effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals as “There is no end to the tricks that endocrine disruptors can play on our bodies: increasing production of certain hormones; decreasing the production of others; imitating hormones; turning one hormone into another; interfering with hormone signaling; telling cells to die prematurely; competing with essential nutrients; binding to essential hormones; accumulating in organs that produce hormones.”
Learn more about the top endocrine-disrupting chemicals and how to avoid them:
- Fire retardants
- Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)
- Organophosphate pesticides
- Glycol Ethers
Alcohol and Coffee
In order to best support hormonal health, it is often recommended to avoid alcohol and coffee for both men and women. Alcohol consumption in men may decrease testosterone levels and in women may cause increased estrogen levels (which may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer).
Coffee causes the release of cortisol - the stress hormone- which negatively affects blood sugar and insulin levels and may lead to increased estrogen levels in women.
There is no need to go “cold turkey” however decreasing consumption over a few days to weeks can minimize side effects. A great substitute for coffee is green tea which is high in antioxidants and may reduce blood sugar and for alcohol, there are a number of great non-alcoholic alternatives.
The Farmer as Part of the Healthcare Team
Our goal with Farmacy at the Chef’s Garden is for the farmer to become part of the healthcare team, providing you with the most nutrient-dense, flavorful, deeply nourishing foods possible to help support your health and wellness. We are putting “food as medicine” into practice, making it easy to quickly select vegetables to support your needs through our Health and Wellness Collection pages. We hope you will try our regeneratively farmed, harvested to order, farm-fresh vegetables shipped right to your doorstep and we would love for you to join our Farmacy at the Chef’s Garden family on Facebook!