It is beneficial for everyone to consume adequate nutrients, eat whole nourishing foods, and enjoy diverse and naturally colorful foods. This is true for men and women but, when it comes to women’s health, variations in nutritional needs throughout the month is something to pay close attention to.
Common hormone-related conditions affecting women’s health include thyroid issues, menstrual-related symptoms such as PMS (premenstrual syndrome), PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), and insulin-related disorders like PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome). Often these conditions are treated with medication alone, which does not address the root cause of the symptoms and, if the medications are stopped, the symptoms return.
Symptoms such as mood swings, cramps, bloating, fatigue, breast tenderness, and painful periods can be signs of an underlying hormonal imbalance. For example, PMDD is often treated with an antidepressant medication, which may solve the issue temporarily, but that doesn’t address the underlying cause. The complexity of hormone imbalance means it may not have a quick fix, but there are meaningful dietary and lifestyle changes that can be made to optimize hormonal balance long term.
Hormones are affected by many factors, including stress, over-functioning, trauma, lack of proper nutrition, endocrine disruptors, lack of physical activity, and other environmental factors.
Various life stages also impact female hormones—these being puberty, menopause, pregnancy, and postpartum. In addition, hormones fluctuate monthly for those who are menstruating.
General Nutritional Principles for Hormone Health
Here’s an overview:
- Following a diet that decreases the risk of insulin resistance is important. Insulin resistance is directly associated with PCOS and goes hand in hand with low progesterone and elevated estrogen levels.
- A diet to prevent insulin resistance is one full of:
- fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- quality protein sources like low mercury, high omega-3 seafood and pasture-raised meat
- healthy fats like olives, coconut oil, and avocados
- low glycemic index carbohydrates (carbohydrates that do not cause large fluctuations in insulin levels) such as wild blueberries, tomatoes, asparagus, and cauliflower
- Including enough healthy fats in the diet is crucial for hormone health because fat is needed to synthesize hormones in the body. To help:
- Make sure to include foods like nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados, seafood, and pasture-raised meat in the diet
- Eating at least three or more servings of vegetables along with a diverse array of whole foods will support overall health and help the body to have the nutrients it needs to support you. The more color in your diet from whole foods, the better. Minimize the amount of processed food, sugar, alcohol, and processed seed and/or vegetable oil in the diet.
- Consider how you store food. Plastic containers often contain endocrine disruptors. Try using glass containers and reusable non-plastic wraps (beeswax wraps, unbleached parchment paper, and so forth).
Now we can dive into nutrition specifics during the menstrual cycle. There are four distinct phases to the menstrual cycle: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. During each phase, levels of estrogen and progesterone vary. Specific foods can be eaten during different phases of the cycle to help regulate these hormones. The four phases will be explained below, and which nutrients are most important during each.
Nutrition for Hormone Health During the Menstrual Cycle
Here’s more about each stage of women’s health.
- During this phase, bleeding occurs. This is when the body needs to rest and recharge.
- Consuming nutrient-dense, healthy-fat-rich foods is important and may resolve some PMS symptoms. Including enough omega-3 fatty acids is especially important. You can do this by eating fatty fish, pasture raised eggs, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
- Consuming enough vitamin K can reduce heavy bleeding. Eat foods like kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, spinach, and brussels sprouts.
- Restore iron levels by eating heme iron, which comes from animal sources of protein, and non-heme iron, which comes from plants such as soybeans, brussels sprouts, and lentils. Heme iron is better absorbed in the body so, if iron deficiency is an issue for you, you may want to consider eating more animal protein for more bioavailable iron or talking with your healthcare provider about if taking an iron supplement makes sense for your unique needs.
- Make sure to consume enough protein, which keeps you full. This can also stabilize blood sugar, which can help with PMS-related mood swings.
- Vitamin C increases iron absorption. Include foods such as plums, cherries, guavas, yellow peppers, and cantaloupe.
- Consider limiting caffeine intake as iron absorption is decreased when coffee is consumed with a meal.
- This phase of the cycle is when the body creates a follicle in the ovaries, an egg attaches, and it’s released during ovulation. Estrogen increases in this phase and the body becomes more insulin sensitive, meaning it better tolerates and uses glucose as energy.
- Consuming more carbohydrates during this phase of the cycle can be tolerated due to increased insulin sensitivity.
- Since estrogen is rising, support estrogen detoxification by consuming enough leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, which helps to properly eliminate potentially harmful metabolites. Excess estrogen can cause estrogen dominance, which may lead to symptoms such as heavy periods, headaches, fatigue, and bloating.
- Probiotic-rich foods are important to prepare the microbiome and estrobolome (bacteria in the gut that metabolize estrogen) for ovulation. Try consuming more yogurt, fermented foods, miso, kefir, and tempeh.
- To prepare for ovulation, which is an inflammatory process, try to include an abundance of anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric, greens, salmon, and strawberries.
- Including more zinc in the diet can help to promote progesterone production in preparation for ovulation. Food sources include oysters, beans, nuts, and whole grains.
- This phase is when the egg comes down, implants in the uterus, and can be fertilized. If it is not fertilized, it will be released out of the body. Estrogen is still elevated during this phase.
- Continue including cruciferous veggies for estrogen detoxification.
- Sulfur-containing compounds also play a role in estrogen detoxification. Good sources include turkey, beef, eggs, chickpeas, garlic, onions, and cruciferous veggies.
- Vitamin B helps to release the egg and aids in implantation in the uterus. Dark leafy greens, pasture-raised eggs, spinach, chicken, and grass-fed beef are good sources of B vitamins.
- Consider avoiding alcohol, which can negatively impact estrogen detoxification.
- This is the phase where estrogen decreases and progesterone increases. Premenstrual symptoms may occur as hormones decrease close to menstruation.
- It’s important to consume adequate fat and protein as well as complex carbohydrates.
- Vitamin C is needed for progesterone production; many PMS symptoms can occur because of an imbalance of estrogen to progesterone. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, cherries, peppers (red, orange, and yellow), and parsley.
- Magnesium often decreases during this phase and is important for balancing fluid retention, reducing cravings, and supporting hormone metabolism. Food sources include avocados, nuts, legumes, tofu, and seeds.
- Including enough Vitamin E in the diet can help to balance the amount of estrogen to progesterone in the body. Food sources include sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, spinach, and red bell pepper.
In addition to these specific nutrients, one technique to support hormones throughout the month is known as “seed cycling.” Seed cycling may help to support balanced hormones, decrease PMS symptoms, and regulate the cycle.
These are the guidelines:
- During the follicular phase, eat one tablespoon each of freshly ground flax and pumpkin seeds per day (store seeds in the refrigerator or freezer and freshly grind each day) for the first half of the cycle (the first day of the period to days thirteen-fourteen of the cycle).
- Phytoestrogens in flax seeds, which are plant compounds similar to estrogen in the body, can help to increase or decrease estrogen levels as needed.
- Zinc from pumpkin seeds promotes progesterone production in preparation for the next cycle phase.
- During the luteal phase, eat one tablespoon of ground sunflower or sesame seeds (from day fourteen until the first day of the period).
- Lignans, a polyphenol, in sesame seeds may prevent estrogen levels from increasing too much. They can also help to increase antioxidants and improve fatigue.
- Vitamin E in sunflower seeds is thought to boost progesterone production.
The majority of evidence in support of seed cycling is anecdotal; more research, however, needs to be done to confirm the effect of seed cycling on the menstrual cycle.
Exercising can help to improve athletic performance and increase energy throughout the month as well as support muscle recovery. During:
- Menstruation: Prioritizing rest and recovery is important. Hormone levels drop and the body becomes less efficient at recovering from high-intensity exercise. Try yoga or walking.
- Follicular Phase: Performance increases as the body gets closer to ovulation. Try longer and faster walks, resistance training, or moderate cardio. Including movement that gets your lymph system flowing and involves sweating can help to prepare for ovulation.
- Ovulation: This is the best time to build and retain muscle due to a spike in testosterone. Try HIIT or intense strength training.
- Luteal phase: High-intensity exercise can lead to progesterone depletion in the second half of the cycle. Energy may also decrease, which makes high-intensity exercise more difficult. Try low-impact strength training or pilates; adding stretching during this phase can support progesterone and boost endorphins
Although this guide to exercising during the cycle may be helpful, it’s important to listen to your body and do what’s right for you. Everyone experiences their cycle differently. Practice listening to your body and giving it the type of movement it wants during each day of the month.
Hopefully, this blog has added to your toolbox, and you can incorporate some of these hormone health-supporting techniques into your cycle!
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