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Natural Awakenings Space & Treasure Coast Florida

Nourish to Flourish: How Diet and Exercise Influence Women's Hormonal Balance

Apr 29, 2024 09:45AM ● By Julie Peterson

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Before puberty and beyond menopause, women have natural hormone fluctuations that can affect a variety of processes in the body, including growth and development, metabolism, mood, sexual function, sleep and more. While estrogen, testosterone and progesterone are well known, there are more than 50 hormones produced by various glands, organs and tissues in the endocrine system. Beyond the ovaries, hormones come from organs such as the hypothalamus and pancreas; they are released from glands including the adrenals, thyroid, pituitary and pineal; and hormones are even produced by the heart and digestive system.

It’s more complex when one considers that hormones travel through the bloodstream and perform a variety of functions throughout the body. Some are there simply to stimulate production of other hormones. When the endocrine system malfunctions, women may have recognizable hormonal issues including absent periods, heavy periods, infertility, PMS, hot flashes, decreased libido, diabetes and osteoporosis, for example. But some of the system malfunctions can’t be immediately linked to hormones. Fatigue, muscle aches, insomnia, sensitivity to heat or cold, depression, headaches, dry skin, weight gain and blurred vision are all examples of symptoms that could lead a health practitioner down several paths of investigation to determine the underlying cause. It may be some time before testing for hormone imbalance enters the arena.

“You don’t truly know if you have a hormone imbalance without lab work,” says Nutrition Coach Lauren Helton, RN, at Radiantly Healthy MD, in Indialantic. “Too many people will pull one thing out of an article and think that it is the ‘fix’ for their problem. For example, they might read that cruciferous vegetables are great for an issue and go binge on broccoli. Then they come to find that too much raw broccoli is bad for their thyroid condition.”

A practitioner can usually diagnose a hormonal imbalance through bloodwork, but a pelvic exam or ultrasound may also be recommended. In the event of a deficiency, hormone replacement therapy might be offered. There are also some ways to balance hormones through diet and activity. A qualified health coach can take diagnostic test results and make recommendations for what to avoid and what to change. 

“Our bodies want homeostasis and structure. Eating the right amount of food supports overall balance and ensures we get enough of the three important macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat,” says Helton. “I would ask ‘What are your current activity levels and what are your goals? Do you want to lose fat? Gain muscle? What is a typical day of eating? As a health coach, all these pieces of information, in addition to lab results, can help to make recommendations on modifications to macronutrients.”

In general, Helton suggests that avoiding processed foods with a long list of ingredients, alcohol and caffeine can help maintain balance in the body. It’s also important to eliminate blue light before bed because it blunts melatonin that helps us sleep. 

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a board-certified ob/gyn and author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. She recommends that everyone eats primarily plants along with some organic, non-GMO protein (either from animals or plants) and gets rid of all refined sugars and processed foods. For vegetarians, Helton recommends protein from plain Greek yogurt with added berries and peas, tofu or healthful protein powders. 

If hormonal imbalance exists, Northrup recommends also cutting out caffeine, dairy and red meat.

“Every day more and more studies are showing how effective modalities such as dietary change (in particular, a low-sugar diet), food supplements, exercise and herbs can be in supporting a woman through her menopausal transition,” Northrup says. She adds that replacing sugar-laden foods with low carb foods and healthy fats (olive oil, nuts and dark chocolate), can help you recover from sugar addiction and lose weight by keeping you feeling full. Healthy fats also help lower insulin levels and decrease inflammation.

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Eating the right amount of food supports overall balance and ensures we get enough of the three important macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat.

Good health also requires getting enough sleep and maintaining hydration. “Drinking water is good, getting water from plants is even better because it sends the water to the right places in the body,” she says.

Most experts agree that these small dietary changes can help to naturally balance hormones:

  • Eat enough protein, healthy fats and fiber through organic fruits and vegetables, wild caught fish, raw nuts and seeds and grass-fed meats. If organic prices feel out of reach, consult the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list of produce that should always be purchased organic and their Clean Fifteen that are pretty good even when not organic.
  • Limit or avoid added sugars, processed and prepackaged foods, alcohol and caffeine.

Helton says it’s not a good idea to demonize foods and ban them from your life. Northrup agrees, saying that it’s okay to indulge now and then, but it should come with a loving message for your body along with the treat. Helton says, “Don’t eat birthday cake every day. But eat it at the party.”

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Drinking water is good, getting water from plants is even better because it sends the water to the right places in the body.

In addition, some lifestyle changes can go a long way toward improving hormonal health:

  • Exercise to enhance hormone receptor sensitivity and improve delivery of nutrients.
  • Implement stress management techniques to reduce cortisol because too much can cause anxiety, depression, digestive problems, trouble sleeping and weight gain.
  • Get enough sleep because lack of it negatively affects your hormones and mood and researchers have made a connection between insufficient sleep and excess weight.

Getting bloodwork done to determine if there is a hormone imbalance is the first step for anyone with suspicious symptoms. After that, partnering with a knowledgeable OB/GYN, Functional Medicine Practioner, Family Practice Doctor or Health Coach can help determine necessary changes to alter specific hormone levels for the better.

“Good food, stress management and exercise can always help support the balance,” says Helton. 

Julie Peterson writes about health and wellness from rural Wisconsin. Reach out at [email protected]

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