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How To Eat for Your Hormones

How To Eat for Your Hormones

A list of foods to focus on during the different stages of hormones

The endocrine system uses certain chemical messengers known as hormones to keep our bodies in check across the areas of physical and emotional health. We don't realize it but our hormones control us way more than we give them credit for! They are responsible for our physical growth and development, digestion, mental health, metabolism, reproductive system and brain function.

Hormones play an important part in the body but they shift and fluctuate at every stage of life. They don’t work in isolation and are completely interconnected with each other and hence are intimately connected with gut health. Food plays a big part in maintaining hormone health—I recommend aiming for eating whole, unprocessed foods about 80% of the time. Remembering that hormonal health is equal to gut health is the key to living a healthy life and this requires dietary and lifestyle changes. So, here is an explanation of the different hormonal life stages in summary, along with some recommended foods that can help you through the stages. 

Puberty

Puberty is the term used to describe the developmental and physiological changes that a child undergoes during the ages of 8-14 in females, and between the ages of 10-16 in males. At this stage, the body goes through several internal as well as external changes and the hormones are always in flux. Some main hormones that are related to puberty are estrogen, growth hormone, and estradiol. In order to minimize some of the symptoms that happened from fluctuating hormones at this time, introduce more vegetables and fiber-rich foods at this time. For example, I recommend teens eat a salad a day or include greens in at least two of their meals. It is also important to limit the amount of processed sugar in the form of candy, donuts, baked goods and especially liquid sugar like juices and soda. It's especially important to keep the blood sugar stable and the gut functioning well at this essential time.

Foods high in vitamin A have been shown to support uterine health, so try to eat leafy green vegetables and orange and yellow fruit and vegetables, which are high in vitamin A.

Fasting recommendation

Short overnight or no fasting during this time, as we don’t want to interfere with the growth pathways.

Exercise recommendation

Exercise should include functional movements, strength training and outdoor sports/play.

Pre-Menstrual (One week before period)

The week before your period is your pre-menstrual week, also known as your late luteal phase. This phase is after ovulation and before menstruation. During this time (also known as the post egg release phase) your hormones estrogen and progesterone drop and your body starts preparing for another round of menstruation. Some women may experience premenstrual symptoms like mood swings, irritability, brain fog and bloating. Getting all the right nutrients for the body is important because diet tends to play a major role during this stage. 

You may want to increase water intake and decrease salt intake to help with bloating, as well as avoiding sugary foods. This is the time to actually focus on what foods to avoid instead of what foods to consume. Avoid processed, packaged foods and oily foods to help manage cravings right before your period. As far as the best foods to eat, focus on high-fiber foods like vegetables, fruit and whole grains, as well as healthy fats like avocado and nuts. You may want to up your seed intake, like sesame seeds, which are high in zinc, which has been shown to help regulate the menstrual cycle. Also include magnesium-rich foods, like spinach, nuts and seeds. Some women crave more carbohydrates during this time, so focus on quality, complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, quinoa and lentils. 

Fasting recommendation

You want to practice short fasting during this time or no fasting to support your body through this time of stress.

Exercise recommendation

Choose exercises that are less stressful like walking, yoga and nature-based exercise

Pregnancy

In this stage, you’re not just eating for yourself so extra care is required and omega-3 fatty acids intake should be increased. Folate is a B-vitamin that helps the body make new cells so getting enough folic acid can prevent major birth defects in the baby’s brain. Along with this, leafy greens like spinach and kale are packed with vitamins and minerals that expectant mothers need. Foods with high vitamin content like turmeric, ginger and probiotic foods like yogurt should be taken to help with your gut regulation as well as your baby’s. The other significant point is the intake of water, remember, you’re having for more than one person now so attention must be paid to hydration.

Fasting recommendation

You don’t want to fast during this time because of a growing fetus inside of you. If you decide to overnight fast you should check with your doctor to make sure it is safe for you.

Exercise recommendation

Exercise should be functional, and help you relieve stress like walking in nature, swimming, yoga and really anything that you enjoyed before pregnancy, just modified. For example my OB/GYN was a marathon runner and he insisted that I continue running during my pregnancy as long as it was comfortable. He told me to not push myself past my limits. I loved having him advise me because before that I thought that exercise wasn't really recommended!

Menopause and perimenopause

The difference between perimenopause and menopause

Perimenopause is the progression towards menopause, whereas menopause is the particular period in life where a woman has gone through 12 months without being on her menstrual cycle. During both of these stages of life, you start to create more estrogen from fat cells because estrogen is low in the body. 

During perimenopause and menopause, fluctuations in the levels of the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone start to occur. Estrogen levels lower and your body stops producing progesterone. The body creates more fat cells especially around the stomach area to help with the lower state of estrogen levels.

Focus on insulin and cortisol levels

Now, even though low calorie diets may have worked in the past—and although you do need a caloric deficit to lose weight—you need to worry the most about insulin and cortisol levels, which are the two hormones which dominate the symptoms and problems during this time.

We also know that estrogen and progesterone will also cause issues since they are lower during this time as well. When you have estrogen, it's usually an insulin-sensitizing hormone, but when estrogen goes down, you have bigger spikes in insulin. Progesterone usually helps control the negative impact of the stress hormone, cortisol, but now that it's lowered, it doesn't work as efficiently. Since these two hormones, estrogen and progesterone are lower now, you will have more issues with insulin and cortisol.

Symptoms

The timing of perimenopause varies for all women, but typically women start to develop symptoms in their forties. Some of the most common changes are: hot flashes, blood pressure changes, brain fog, weight gain, vaginal dryness, mood changes, sleep disturbances and/or digestive issues. Research has shown that as women move through perimenopause and menopause, their spikes in blood sugar levels increase. These increases may make you tired and hungry more often. 

What to eat

Increase your fiber intake—think more vegetables, beans, lentils and whole grains. Consume less insulin-spiking foods, like white flour and high-sugar foods.

    1. Eat a a diet of about 80% high quality plant-based foods: research has found that consuming a more plant-based diet resulted in remarkably lower symptoms.
    2. Focus on fiber: fiber improves gut health and promotes healthy bacteria. Try consuming 6-7 servings ofvegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes per day.
    3. Consume adequate protein: Because many women lose lean muscle during perimenopause and menopause, it’s important to focus on protein. It not only helps to manage appetite and keep you feeling full, but it’s essential for building and maintaining muscle mass. Try getting at least .5-1g per pound of body weight (work with your medical provide on the right protein dosage for you and your medical history). Quality sources of protein include eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans. While fish and lean meats are okay once in a while, try to limit them to once or twice a week.
    4. Focus on foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower your chance of stroke and heart disease and help manage symptoms like mood changes and hot flashes. Foods like avocado and fatty fishes like salmon and mackerel provide healthy omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. 
Exercise

In general, during stressful periods of life and especially during perimenopause and menopause, exercises like walking, hiking and LISS (low-intensity steady-state exercise) is really underrated. Getting 7-10,000 steps is central in maintaining good health and a happy gut and hormone health. For a lot of the people I work with, I recommend even more. For example, I aim for 15,000 steps a day!

Fasting recommendation

During this time circadian style fasting can really be helpful. This means doing 12-16 hours of overnight fasting, starting with an early dinner, around 6 or 7 PM. Having extra time to digest in the evening and for your body to regulate the insulin can be really helpful in your symptoms.

Exercise recommendation

Exercise, as above, should be something that helps relieve stress, rather than add to the stress. For example nature walks, swimming, yoga are highly recommended. You can add on more intense exercise as you start to get used to it and it doesn’t feel stressful to your body anymore. You will know this by the fact that your symptoms improve rather than worsen when you add a work out.
Isn't this so fascinating and essential information? I hope you've enjoyed and learned something from the different dietary recommendations in different hormonal stages of life. If you've enjoyed this please let me know on social media. Follow me on Instagram @FastingMD, or Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook @amyshahmd.

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