As anyone who’s had a good bowl of chicken soup knows, food can be comforting. But it can also be healing. And the medical community is finally taking notice embracing the foods that not only nourish our bodies but have the potential to prevent and treat disease.
Indeed, now more than ever before, we are gaining invaluable insight into how the foods we eat help us to grow and develop. Of course, we have only scratched the surface of the potential to prevent and manage chronic disease. But already we know that it is possible to enhance hormone balance by tweaking our diet in small but meaningful ways, providing opportunities to preserve long-term health.
Food As Medicine
Food as medicine is not a new concept, but it’s finally gaining some mainstream respect. Medical schools are including more nutrition classes in the preparatory training of physicians, and the need for nutrition professionals is expected to grow significantly in coming years. As scientific research zeroes in on the action of individual nutrients at the most microscopic levels, the average person can also take charge of the foods they include in their diet. With the right information and resources, it is possible to make dietary changes that yield major dividends for your health.
A Recipe for Hormone Balance
Though hormones naturally fluctuate throughout life, their balance may be thrown off by stress, disease, and environmental factors—including nutrition. From providing the building blocks for hormone production to contributing to essential feedback mechanisms, the nutrients we consume influence these important chemical messengers in multiple ways. By choosing the right food for hormone balance, you can support greater stability, address disruptive symptoms, and enhance overall quality of life:
One of the most obvious diet-hormone connections is that of dietary impact on insulin. Produced in the pancreas, this hormone is released in response to the increase in blood sugar following a meal. It directs the use of glucose (sugar) from our food for energy or controls its storage in the cells of our muscles, fat, and liver tissue. As blood sugar levels fall, the pancreas secretes glucagon, another hormone that signals the liver to release stored glucose to maintain energy levels. Since both too much and too little blood glucose can be damaging—or even deadly—in a very short time, insulin’s reactive balancing of blood sugar is essential for life.
When our diet contains too many simple carbohydrates, like those found in sugary foods and beverages, the rapid blood sugar spikes result in greater insulin secretion. The wide fluctuations associated with this type of diet may have negative effects over time, potentially contributing to type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are also used for energy, but they take longer to break down due to their more complex chemical structures. They provide energy at a slower, steadier pace, helping you avoid the large blood sugar fluctuations observed when simple sugars are consumed. Foods with complex carbs also add more fiber to the diet.
While people with diabetes must carefully count the carbs they consume, the average person seeking food for hormone balance might be better off examining the glycemic load of the foods they eat. The lower a food’s glycemic load, the less effect it will have on blood sugar and insulin levels, reducing the risk of a number of health conditions. For example, a meta-analysis of 24 cohort studies found “strong and significantly lower [type-2 diabetes] risk in persons who consume lower-GL diets.” A similar study found a high glycemic load diet was associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease events in women (although no such association was found in men).
The recipe for healthy blood sugar balance involves consuming carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, such as:
- Beans (kidney, pinto, black, garbanzo) and lentils
- Whole grain (wheat, oat, pumpernickel) breads, pasta, and tortillas
- Nuts, including peanuts, almonds, and cashews
- Raw, fresh fruit rather than processed (juiced, dried, canned)
Typically, this doesn’t require a complete overhaul of your diet, as small substitutions—like choosing steel-cut oatmeal over instant or brown rice over white—can make a big difference. It is also interesting to note that hummus, a chickpea dip/spread, contains all of the necessary macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, and fats—but has a glycemic load of 0. Including hummus in the diet adds complete and adequate nutrition without causing a blood sugar spike.
The thyroid gland is a key player in regulating metabolism as well as in growth and development throughout our lifetime. It does this through the production of thyroid hormones, T3 and T4—a process that relies on the consumption of iodine. Additionally, selenium is needed for preventing thyroid disease and preserving overall health, as it neutralizes free radicals formed during the production of thyroid hormones.
Dietary sources of iodine include:
- Commercial table salt. In fact, iodine is so important to essential thyroid functioning, it is added to table salt as a way to make it universally available.
- Dairy products, including milk, yogurt, and cheese
- Seafood, including saltwater fish, shellfish, and seaweed
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 150 micrograms for adults, the amount in one-half to three-quarters teaspoon of salt. But in people limiting salt intake due to hypertension concerns or switching to sea salt, which may not be iodized, care should be taken to get enough iodine through dietary sources or nutritional supplements. Pregnant women and nursing mothers have a greater need for iodine (220 and 290 micrograms respectively) and are advised to take a supplement to ensure that babies get the iodine needed for optimal brain development.
Dietary sources of selenium include:
- Brazil nuts contain the highest concentration of all dietary sources
- Seafood sources include yellowfin tuna, halibut, sardines, and shrimp
- Ham, beef, chicken, and organ meat
- Dairy products: cottage cheese, milk, and yogurt
- Pasta, rice, bread, and cereal contain lesser amounts
The RDA for selenium is 55 micrograms for adults, increasing to 60 and 70 micrograms respectively in pregnant and nursing women. When a supplement is required, the organic form of selenium is most effective as it is absorbed more efficiently. Some manufacturers also offer products that combine iodine and selenium to make supplementation easier.
Males and females have both androgens and estrogens in varying concentrations throughout their lives. These hormones influence many body tissues and cells, and the healthy and efficient operation of multiple body systems depends in part on the proper balance of our sex hormones.
Hormone levels decline as we age, which may result in a variety of distressing physical and emotional symptoms. These hormonal changes also increase the risk of hormone-mediated cancers, including breast and ovarian cancers in women and prostate cancer in men. Increasingly, research implicates specific metabolites or breakdown products of hormones in the development of these cancers. But some of the most promising research into foods that prevent and/or fight cancers suggests that cruciferous vegetables may have positive effects.
Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) and its metabolite diindolylmethane (DIM) are two of the compounds obtained when cruciferous vegetables are broken down through digestion. They are believed to help the body detoxify and eliminate excess hormones, and as such, they show promise in the prevention of not only hormone-mediated cancers, but other cancers as well. Research continues to identify their exact mechanism of action, but it has been proposed that they act as an anti-inflammatory, modulate the immune system, induce cancer cell death, and trigger the enzymatic breakdown of hormones for safer elimination.
The recipe for the healthy balance and the safe elimination of sex hormones involves including foods such as:
- Vitamins B6, B12, and folate support sex hormone detoxification further downstream, helping to eliminate them from the body.
- Calcium D-glucarate is a supplemental form of glucaric acid found in oranges, apples, grapefruit, and cruciferous vegetables. It detoxifies hormones for elimination and is, therefore, thought to have a cancer-preventive effect, especially against hormone-dependent breast, prostate, and colon cancers.
- Selenium is helpful here, too, for the production of antioxidant enzymes.
In addition to the prevention of cancer, these supplements may help promote more stable hormone balance and alleviate symptoms of age-related hormone change.
Finding the Best Food for Hormone Balance
The best diet for hormone health is one built on adequate macronutrients since hormones originate from amino acids or fatty acids. Including a variety of carbohydrates, like colorful fruits, vegetables, and grains allows you to capitalize on the many essential micronutrients they contain. But if you are seeking food for hormone balance, it is possible to target specific nutrients through diet or supplementation.
The safest way to integrate appropriate nutritional strategies in your daily life is by working with a hormone health specialist who can help you to identify imbalances and address them safely. Through comprehensive laboratory testing and consideration of clinical symptoms, you can gain a deeper understanding of your overall wellness and any symptoms you are experiencing. With expert guidance, you can establish a treatment plan that supports hormonal balance while avoiding dangerous interactions between diet or supplements and prescription medication. In this way, you can draw on the latest research to optimize your health and take advantage of the healing properties of food.
If you wish to learn more about the power of food for hormone balance, BodyLogicMD can help. The BodyLogicMD network is comprised of top medical professionals who can help you to identify hormone imbalances and achieve better health through diet, supplements, and lifestyle changes. They can also advise you when hormone replacement is indicated. To start the journey, contact a local practitioner to schedule your first appointment, or take the BodyLogicMD Hormone Balance Quiz to learn more about the power of hormones.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. All content on this website is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent diseases.
Charlotte is a patient care coordinator specializing in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. She is committed to helping patients who struggle with the symptoms of hormonal change and imbalance explore their treatment options and develop effective strategies to optimize wellness.