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Eating for Women’s Hormones

Nutrients to sail through all phases of life

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Being a woman is a journey of continuous transformation, with the ebb and flow of our hormones during our nubile years, the joys and aches of growing life, and the promotion into our wisdom era. And each hormonal phase we experience—being menstrual, perimenopausal, and postmenopausal—comes with unique nutritional needs.

Without appropriate nutritional support, our hormones can make us feel like we’re struggling to navigate a gusty maritime storm rather than paddling in harmony with a river’s rhythmic push and pull. Pack this nutrient guide with you on your journey, so you can feel supported every step of the way.

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Nutrients for hormone support

Embrace a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet based on whole foods, with these key nutrients in mind.

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Protein

Protein is required for the production of hormones involved in regulating sleep, mood, and metabolism. Hormone levels are affected by liver detoxification, which also requires key amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Insufficient protein intake may hinder hormone health as a downstream effect.

During our reproductive years, it can be helpful to increase protein intake during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (from ovulation to the onset of your period) to support energy and curb premenstrual fatigue. New research shows that higher protein intake at midlife, particularly of plant protein, is associated with better health outcomes among aging women.

Protein needs change throughout our lives and are also dependent on our particular energy needs. Each day, adults should consume 0.8 g of protein per kilogram (or 0.36 g of protein per pound) of body weight. After age 65, however, we should aim for 1 to 1.6 g of protein per kilogram of body weight daily, with protein consumed at each meal.

Do an internet search to find the grams of protein in your whole foods to get an idea of the protein intake in your overall diet. For reference, a 3 1/2 oz (100 g) serving of chicken breast contains 23 g of protein, and the same amount of chickpeas has 21 g.

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Fibre

We all know that fibre helps keep our digestive systems regular, which can also assist with premenstrual constipation and bloating. But lesser known is the benefit that regular bowel movements have on hormone health overall. Intake of high fibre foods may even help reduce breast cancer risk.

Look to fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans and legumes for food sources of fibre.

A general rule is to eat 14 g of fibre per 1,000 calories consumed. For reference, 1 cup (250 mL) raspberries provides 8 g of fibre.

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Fats

While fats have had a bad rap in decades past, bear in mind there are good fats that promote, rather than hinder, our health. “[Some] our [important] hormones are made from fats, which is why they are important to incorporate into our diet,” says Dr. Maryellen Tedeschi, a naturopathic doctor at Advanced Women’s Health in Ancaster, Ontario.

Good fats can be found in olive oil and fatty fish such as salmon, as well as in avocados, nuts, seeds, and whole eggs.

A diet full of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids is inversely associated with breast cancer risk. As well, omega-3s have been found in research to help reduce some symptoms of menopause, such as night sweats and hot flashes/flushes.

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Complex carbohydrates

The luteal phase of the menstrual cycle is when we often crave carbohydrates. “This is because serotonin drops at this point in your cycle, and carbs help to increase serotonin,” says Tedeschi.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and sleep. Supporting serotonin production through food may mitigate the slings and arrows of premenstrual mood swings.

“Instead of quick sugars that will cause a crash (such as white bread and chips), opt for complex carbs like whole grains, oats, or sweet potatoes,” says Tedeschi.

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Antioxidants

·         Consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of endometriosis.

·         High consumption of polyphenols (for example, berries, cocoa, nuts, and flaxseeds) and organic foods may decrease breast cancer risk.

  • Soy isoflavones may modestly reduce hot flashes/flushes and vaginal dryness.

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Supplementing the gaps

Supplement

Benefit 

omega-3s

supplementation among women with polycystic ovarian syndrome may reduce insulin resistance and high total cholesterol, while increasing fertility

vitamin D

supplementation may reduce the prevalence of PMS and dysmenorrhea (painful periods) among adolescent girls

calcium with vitamin D

combined supplementation may help reduce the symptoms of PMS

magnesium with vitamin B6

combined supplementation may help reduce premenstrual anxiety

vitamin B6

supplementation may reduce anxiety in older women

zinc

supplementation may help reduce menstrual pain among those with dysmenorrhea

probiotics

probiotics may reduce the onset of perinatal depression

vitamin E

supplementation has shown improvement in sleep quality and reducing sedative use among postmenopausal women with chronic insomnia

iron

supplementation among premenopausal women has been shown to reduce prevalence of anemia, improve exercise performance, and reduce fatigue

diindolylmethane (DIM)

supplementation was shown, in a small study involving premenopausal women, to favour the protective estrogen metabolism pathway and decrease body fat

adaptogens

ashwagandha, known to maintain well-being, may help improve sexual health among healthy women

maca was shown, in a small group of postmenopausal women, to help reduce blood pressure and depression

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Managing menopause with food

Perimenopause marks the beginning of the hormonal transition from our reproductive years into menopause. We may notice changes in our menstrual cycles as early as our late thirties and into our forties. Accompanying symptoms such as hot flashes/flushes, insomnia, and vaginal dryness may present at this time. We officially reach menopause once we’ve passed a full year without a menstrual period.

Although this rite of passage is a natural physiological process, women who have gone through menopause can attest to the challenges it has brought to the physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects of their lives.

“Along with the common physical symptoms of hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and weight gain, the emotional changes can take a toll on one’s mental health,” shares Dr. Maryellen Tedeschi, ND. “These symptoms include brain fog, anxiety or depression, low libido, and a decrease in self-confidence and overall sense of well-being.”

Changes in estrogen, progestin, and androgen levels affect body composition by increasing abdominal adiposity. Bone mineral density suffers with the decline in ovarian estrogen. Lipid metabolism may also become dysregulated and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

These shifts increase inflammatory signalling in the body, which contributes to the increase in insulin resistance we see at menopause. “Insulin resistance can contribute to symptoms like weight gain, mood swings, trouble sleeping, or fatigue,” says Tedeschi.

So, what can we do about it?

Researchers suggest that nutritional interventions are promising tools. “An impactful way we can use nutrition to support the body’s transition into perimenopause, menopause, and beyond is to focus on balancing blood sugar,” says Tedeschi.

“Strategies to support blood sugar balance include starting your day with a high-protein and savoury breakfast, prioritizing whole foods, limiting processed and refined sugars, avoiding frequent snacking, and incorporating 10 to 15 minutes of movement after higher carb meals,” says Tedeschi.

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Vitamin D and women’s hormones

Low blood levels of vitamin D are associated with exacerbated PMS symptoms, an increased risk of endometriosis, increased fracture risk after menopause, and low skeletal muscle mass in middle-aged and elderly women.

While the best source of vitamin D is the sun, you can top up your levels with a small menu of foods containing vitamin D. Nosh on yogurt, Swiss cheese, mushrooms, egg yolk, salmon, rainbow trout, tuna, and sardines.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of alive magazine.

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