Eating for better hormone health

Ann Marie McQueen, health and wellness journalist and founder of Hotflash inc, explores the complex relationship between diet, hormones and health, highlighting key insights from experts in the field.

No matter our age, every single bite we eat has an impact on our hormones. The job of figuring out how to eat for our body’s systems and our cellular health is a big responsibility and a lifelong journey. Happily, these efforts are rewarded with us feeling better and living a longer, healthier life, making it very worthwhile.

Insulin resistance

Something everyone has to watch out for these days, no matter where their reproductive journey is at, is insulin resistance. This happens when cells in our body become less sensitive to insulin, meaning they have to take up more glucose from the blood, prompting the pancreas to make more insulin. This is not a good loop and serves as a warning signal, because it is a precursor to pre-diabetes, diabetes and indeed many diseases.


There are a number of causes of insulin resistance, including a diet high in processed foods, such as vegetable oils and sugary foods. Lack of sleep and a sedentary lifestyle also contribute, as do genetics and a range of other factors. When it comes to perimenopause, as Lara Briden, the New Zealand-based naturopathic doctor and author of ‘Hormone Repair Manual’ writes, women are particularly vulnerable because at this stage, their progesterone starts to fall and their oestrogen starts to rise and fall – and both are responsible directly or indirectly in regulating how insulin works in our bodies. There are also links between insulin resistance in women who have PCOS and those on hormonal birth control, so if either are things you are dealing with, it’s best to be extra vigilant.

Many women find that they experience hormonal disruptions in the years leading up to menopause, and these are often accompanied by a stubborn shift in fat distribution from the hips to the stomach. Weight around the middle can be caused by inflammation in the body and it can lead to more inflammation in the body, creating a frustrating loop that it can be hard to get out of. Often women do more of what they’ve always done – eating less, working out more – and find that it just doesn’t work, but they don’t know what else to do.

Diet is the key

Here, we look at some of the ways you can leverage your diet to tackle your hormonal health, as recommended by some of the top experts in the field.

Eat to beat insulin resistance

The first port of call is to cut down on processed foods, rice, potatoes and bread, as well as sugar, fruit juice and even fruit. Abu Dhabi-based integrative and functional dietitian, Farah Hillou, recommends going a few (easy!) steps further towards avoiding or reversing insulin resistance and prediabetes too. These include increasing your body’s energy demands by going for a walk after meals, eating green leafy vegetables first, followed by fat and protein and then carbs, and finally, drinking some apple cider vinegar (with the mother) in a glass of water before eating.

Foods to avoid

Foods that cause a large insulin response should be cut down on where possible. These include:

  • Bagels
  • Cakes
  • Sugary cereals
  • Fruit juices
  • Pastries
  • White rice
  • White pasta
  • White bread

Foods that cause a moderate to high insulin response should be eaten less frequently. These include:

  • Bananas
  • Oat or cereal bars
  • Potatoes
  • Oat bread
  • Raisins
  • Carrots
  • Brown rice

Foods to include

Foods that cause a low to moderate insulin response are good options for your diet. These include:

  • All-bran
  • Apples
  • Chickpeas
  • Peas
  • Pinto beans

Foods that don’t cause too much of an insulin response should be eaten in abundance. These include:

  • Black beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cherries
  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Soybeans
  • Tomatoes
  • Wild rice
  • Yogurt

Focus on what you can add, not subtract

Karen Newby, nutritionist and author of ‘Natural Hormone Methods’, says women often eat low-nutrient food, low-protein food and foods that are low in phytoestrogens. Tofu, tempeh, edamame, linseed and flaxseed, for example, are effective ways to boost your oestrogen naturally.

By shifting the emphasis to adding a range of therapeutic, nutrient-dense foods, eating for perimenopause becomes more about fuel and less about deprivation. The trick is to focus on them from breakfast. Adding more protein from the start of your day, for example, will reduce sugar cravings throughout the late morning, afternoon and evening.

Take a pro-metabolic view

Many women hit perimenopause with decades of ingrained bad habits, having punished their bodies with dieting, over-exercising and major amounts of stress for years. Untangling this and learning how to support the body, by eating enough or figuring out good sleep, is the approach that Kate Deering, a personal trainer and holistic nutritionist based in San Diego, takes and shares in her book ‘How to Heal Your Metabolism’. Taking an energetic approach means shifting to how best to support energy production in your cells. When they are producing adequate energy, then all your body systems have the right fuel to function. In this case, learning how to manage or reduce stress can be just as important as eating more nourishing foods.

Cut back on ultra processed foods

Ultra processed foods are, by their very nature, refined. That means we can eat a lot more of them, unlike fibre-rich vegetables. As nutritionist Karen Newby says, these foods destabilise our blood sugar, sparking lows which give way to irritability and mood swings and cause more cravings. When our blood sugar is low, our cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline all rise, which strains our overall health, promotes inflammation and is linked to weight gain, headaches and high blood pressure. Many women also experience hot flashes during perimenopause because their oestrogen is dropping, impacting their ability to properly regulate their temperature. However, a lot of women find that when they cut down on processed foods and sugar, their hot flashes and blood sugar stability improve, and when they go back to processed, sugary foods, these symptoms worsen again. These refined foods are also full of chemicals that overload our livers, which have been working hard to process everything we’ve thrown at it in our younger years.

The role of sleep

One of the key questions to ask yourself is how you can create balance in your everyday lifestyle. These days, women’s bodies have to cope with long working days, high levels of stress and too much blue light from screens, along with many other lifestyle factors. All of these interrupt our relationship with sleep and sleep is one of the main foundations of hormonal health. Make an effort to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time every day, and if you can, try to get to bed on the earlier side and rise early too. Getting out for a morning walk to get light into your eyes will make a huge difference to your circadian rhythm. This then triggers your body to make the correct amount of serotonin throughout the day, which then converts to melatonin in the evening, which promotes a good night’s sleep. This has a cyclically positive effect on your hormonal health –  a win-win!

As a woman who wants to improve her hormonal health and lessen, or even avoid, some of the symptoms of perimenopause, the best and simplest approach is to focus on nutrient-dense, fibre-rich whole foods, protein and healthy fats, whilst majorly cutting down on processed foods and sugars and managing your stress properly. Do this, and your hormones should be happier than ever!

Image Credit: ShutterStock

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