“Hormone balance” is a popular buzzword these days, but what does it actually mean? And, more specifically, are there foods that can help balance hormones?
For those with female anatomy, the concept of hormone balance is a bit complicated. For people with menstrual cycles, the levels of hormones can vary throughout the cycle. Plus, hormone levels can change significantly with age.
Some important hormones include estrogen, progesterone, Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), Luteinizing hormone (LH), and testosterone.
The first day of bleeding during the menstrual cycle is called menstruation or the “period.” This is the start of the follicular phase of the cycle. During this 14-day phase (for a 28-day cycle) the levels of a hormone called estrogen rise. Estrogen promotes the growth of the uterine lining in preparation for a potential pregnancy.
Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH)
A hormone called follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) peaks around day 14 of the follicular phase. FSH causes the ovaries to produce an egg during a process called ovulation.
From days 15-28, the levels of a hormone called progesterone will rise. The luteal phase ends when the period begins or if an egg is fertilized.
At around age 50, people with menstrual cycles will experience a drop in both progesterone and estrogen and will stop having periods. This is called menopause. People with female anatomy who are taking hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy will also have a variation in hormones.
So, as you can see, there is not a single definition of “balanced” hormones. Your definition of “balance” will depend on your stage of life and other factors.
However, we do know that food can affect our hormones. There has actually been research done on different types of foods that can support healthy hormones for those with female anatomy. Let’s discuss foods that can help balance hormones in females and those with female anatomy.
As we discussed, estrogen is an important hormone for people with female anatomy.
There are many factors that can cause low estrogen levels. These include age, menopause, and thyroid function. Hormonal shifts after giving birth and breastfeeding are also associated with low estrogen levels.
As the name implies, these compounds have a similar structure to estrogen and can have some similar effects as estrogen in the body. While they can sometimes mimic estrogen, they may also block the action of estrogen in some body tissues.
Food sources of phytoestrogens:
Phytoestrogens are found in foods as two main classes: isoflavones and lignans.
The research on diets high in phytoestrogens has been done in animals and in humans. Some researchers note that more research is needed in humans to determine what impact phytoestrogens have on hormones. Others suggest that phytoestrogens can support a healthy reproductive system and the health of various body systems like the heart and immune system.
One of the most widely studied phytoestrogens in humans is soy. Soy is a source of phytoestrogenic isoflavones and has been researched for its role in hormone balance and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels already in normal range.
Soy foods include tofu, edamame, and miso. Diets rich in these foods may help lower testosterone because they can mimic estrogen.
Researchers have noted that the hormonal impacts of soy foods may be beneficial for preventative purposes in “Western populations” (including the U.S.), “where the diet is typically devoid of these biologically active naturally occurring compounds.”
There is still some debate over the health benefits of soy foods, so it’s important to work with your healthcare professional if you have questions about the types and amounts of soy foods that are best for you.
Flaxseeds are a source of a class of phytoestrogens called liganans. Liganans and fiber may help the body eliminate excess hormones. Research suggests that flaxseeds may help support a healthy menstrual cycle.
Cruciferous vegetables may help support healthy estrogen levels.
Some examples of cruciferous vegetables include:
Cruciferous vegetables contain fiber, diindolylmethane (DIM), and sulforaphane. Fiber can bind to estrogen and help remove excess hormones. DIM and sulforaphane have both been researched for their potential roles in supporting estrogen balance.
If you are wondering which cruciferous vegetables to prioritize, we can look at the research. A study looking at a female hormone-related condition found that broccoli and cauliflower were of particular benefit.
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that are usually associated with heart health.
Most plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids only contain a form called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and then to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Food Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
What role do omega-3 fatty acids play in hormone balance?
When you hear the word “fermentation,” you may not automatically associate it with hormone balance. But let us explain!
First of all, what are fermented foods?
The fermentation process needs live microbes (bacteria and yeasts) to break down, or ferment, foods. In food production, fermentation produces gasses and certain flavors that change the taste and textures of foods and beverages.
Examples of fermented foods:
Some fermented foods are sources of beneficial microbes called probiotics. For example, certain yogurts have live strains of “good bacteria” added to the milk. These can include strains of Lactobacillus or Streptococcus.
Researchers have studied fermented foods for a wide variety of potential benefits. This includes gut health, heart health, and maintaining blood sugar balance (already in normal range). Fermented foods and probiotics may also help support hormone balance.
One study looked at the impact of fermented foods on “postmenopausal women” in northern Thailand. The study participants were divided into two groups. One group ate their usual diet, while the other group had traditional fermented soybean added to their diet. This provided about 60 mg of isoflavone per day. After 6 months, the soybean group showed benefits to both progesterone and cholesterol levels.
We know that fermented foods are a source of probiotics, and probiotics have been found to promote digestive and immune health. More recently, research suggests there may even be a connection between probiotics and hormone balance.
One study concluded that “probiotics affect FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) levels in perimenopausal women while simultaneously representing a non-invasive strategy to impact hormonal homeostasis.”
Research suggests that the impact of probiotics may be due to the gut microbiota. One study showed that the gut microbiota can impact hormone secretion.
More research needs to be done to determine how exactly fermented foods and probiotics impact hormones in people with female anatomy.
Vitamin D is a vitamin and a hormone.
The body makes vitamin D in response to sun exposure on the skin. But cold temperatures and long working hours can reduce sun exposure. Older people and those with dark-colored skin do not make as much vitamin D.
While vitamin D can be found in foods, it can be a challenge to get enough in the diet.
Food sources of Vitamin D:
Vitamin D levels can impact reproductive hormones. Researchers found that “women with lower vitamin D status…have lower mean concentrations of estradiol across the menstrual cycle.”
Research also suggests that calcium and vitamin D may help with PMS, which could be because of the impact of vitamin D on hormone levels.
For people with female anatomy, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for balancing hormones. Levels of different hormones are going to change throughout the lifecycle and can be impacted by certain medications and lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet that includes the foods listed above may help support hormone balance. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with foundational habits like getting enough sleep, exercise, and managing stress can also support hormone balance.