Hormone Balance Nutrition
Hormones are the mechanism our brain uses for telling our bodies what to do, there is no other line of communication. They decide how you feel, how you think, how much energy you have, what shape your body is... everything.
So, whether you're one of the millions of people in the UK managing a chronic hormone condition or not, keeping them nicely balanced is a good idea.
The official advice on how best to manage your hormone levels is, as with many health issues, by 'maintaining a healthy, balanced diet', but we all know achieving this vague level of perfection is easier said than done.
So, which hormone-effecting nutrients should you be looking out for if you just want to give your glands a nudge or two in the right direction?
We're just about to tell you how you can eat certain foods or take supplements to encourage your body to produce more or less of particular hormones, but it's impossible to cover this subject without talking about adaptogens - and they work a little differently.
‘Adaptogen’ refers to a substance, often one of numerous ancient plant-based traditional remedies, that has demonstrated a clear ability to balance hormone levels in the body by improving the function of various endocrine glands.
Rather than provide the raw materials your body uses to make or manage hormone levels, adaptogens appear to help your internal systems move closer to their optimal balance - whatever that might be.
One theory is that this is because they improve your stress-response to ensure your hormone regulation system continues to operate normally when it otherwise might not. Other experiments have observed that rare plant chemicals within these remedies actually mimic the effects certain hormones.
To be honest, science at-large doesn't have much understanding of how these processes work on a chemical level, but it’s difficult to ignore the sheer popularity and growing body of small-scale clinical evidence suggesting that these substances may indeed possess many of the medicinal properties they are famous for.
Two other nutrients that are sometimes referred to as adaptogens are zinc and magnesium, although their mechanism by which they help balance your hormonal system is more obvious... your hormonal system needs these enough of these minerals in order to work properly.
Magnesium is found in foods such as spinach, tuna, brown rice, dark chocolate, avocado and bananas. Foods high in zinc include oysters, beef, chicken, tofu and pork. Seeds, nuts, lentils and legumes contain a fair amount of minerals too, and are always a welcome addition to any healthy diet.
Did you know? Ensuring your gut-biome is well-balanced and healthy using a probiotic supplement can be a great way to improve stress-response and balance your hormones too. More research in this area is needed but it's one of the fastest growing areas of nutrition. These early studies strongly support the notion probiotics can help with anxiety and depression.
Thyroid Hormones (Thyroxine)
Your thyroid gland is how your brain tells your metabolism to speed up or slow down, which in turn effects your energy levels and how your body stores energy. Chronic thyroid conditions effect millions of people and we’re often asked whether we have supplements that can help.
As always, if you're worried you should seek professional medical advice, but whether you have a long-term condition or not - eating certain foods can definitely effect how much thyroxine your body produces.
For an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
Thyroxine is the hormone your thyroid gland produces – so if you have hypothyroidism then this is normally what you're prescribed. As with all things, there is risk of side effects, but it’s generally very safe. Try to avoid ingesting magnesium, iron or calcium supplements within a few hours of taking this medication, as they will inhibit absorption.
Iodine, mostly found in fish, seaweed and dairy products, is a crucial ingredient your thyroid gland requires to make thyroxine. Eating more of these foods, or taking a supplement, could encourage more thyroxine to be made. This is the closest you'll get to a natural alternative to taking the hormone itself.
KSM-66 Ashwagandha stands out as the best adaptogen to try for this purpose, as it's safe and actually has some scientific evidence to suggest it can be effective in those who have a mildly underactive thyroid. Please note however, this is not recommended if you are already on thyroid medication.
For an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
Iodine is again a major consideration, however in this instance you should be looking to avoid fish, seaweed and dairy products as much as possible. You should also avoid iodised salt and check the ingredients on your multivitamin. A low iodine diet has been shown to be an effective alternative to medical intervention in some cases.
It's still important to get enough magnesium and zinc in your diet because they are required for hormone regulation, and indeed, many other body processes.
Selenium – found in Brazil nuts, eggs, tuna, sardines and beans is another mineral required for the normal metabolism of thyroid hormones and is so often sometimes prescribed as an alternative way to treat hyperthyroidism.
Vitamin B-12 deficiency can make you feel weak, fatigued and dizzy – and is very common in those with an overactive thyroid. It won’t solve your glandular problem, but taking a B12 supplement could help with some of the symptoms.
Other nutrients such as L-carnitine, Bugleweed & Glucomannan are all thought to suppress thyroid hormones one way or another but whilst promising in parts, they have not been used for these purposes historically and lack enough clinical evidence to properly judge their effectiveness.
Female Hormones (Oestrogen & Progesterone)
Menopause is when your body stops producing Oestrogen, perimenopause describes the period of time when oestrogen production rates are falling and, of course, your menstrual cycle massive spikes and dips in Oestrogen levels.
No surprise then, that it is this drop in oestrogen levels that causes symptoms such as hot flushes, weight-gain, depression, anxiety, loss of libido and brain fog.
That's why by far the most commonly prescribed treatment for menopause symptoms is hormone replacement therapy (HRT). This comes in the form of a measured dose of oestrogen, or oestrogen combined with progestogen.
HRT is a safe and effective treatment, not just for relieving symptoms but also for preventing heart and bone complications. But it’s not for everyone either. It can occasionally cause side effects such as headaches, migraines, leg cramps and may increase your risk of experiencing more serious health conditions.
If your GP suggests you try HRT for menopause symptoms, they should explain all the risks and benefits to you in full so you can make an informed decision.
However if looking for an alternative to HRT, or if you just need something to reduce symptoms during your period or early perimenopause, then there are quite a few nutrients you should know about:
Ashwagandha is an ayurvedic medicinal herb often used for treating PMS, menopause and perimenopause symptoms, and has been for centuries. Thanks to quality brand strains such as KSM-66 there are now several small-scale clinical studies to support these claims. Ashwagandha may also be helpful for women who are experiencing low sex drive, a symptom often associated with menopause.
Maca root is another adaptogenic herb with a long history of traditional use as a natural way to manage female hormone balance, this time in South America. It’s certainly popular, and there’s some scientific evidence maca may help with menopausal symptoms too – though large-scale trials are thin on the ground.
Turmeric If hot flushes are making your life difficult, you may want to try a turmeric supplement. Research in this area isn’t plentiful, but one study found taking a supplement containing curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) and vitamin E significantly reduced hot flushes in postmenopausal women – though it didn’t effect anxiety, sexual function or other menopause symptoms.
Black Cohosh is a plant native to North America that is commonly used to reduce hot flushes and other menopause symptoms, though record of it’s its effectiveness is mixed. In fact, researchers have been studying it since the 1950s, yet there’s still not enough solid evidence to prove it works.
Due to risk of side-effects at high dosages, these days several official US medical organisations actually recommend against using it, but despite this it continues to be popular and is safe when taken in the recommended amount.
Sage Not just a culinary herb used for spicing up your Christmas turkey stuffing, sage is used as a treatment for a variety of health problems, including menopause symptoms. There is some research to back this up, with one study suggesting sage may be effective in treating hot flushes and associated symptoms.
Soya isoflavones Compounds in soya called isoflavones are thought to imitate the action of oestrogen, which is why soya supplements are often taken for menopause symptoms. There’s not extensive scientific evidence to support this, but one study review concludes soy isoflavones may help relieve hot flushes as well as improve bone density and lower cardiovascular risk in postmenopausal women.
Vitamin B6 is required by your body to properly regulate hormone levels. Being water-soluble and hence not stored for long, its also a nutrient that should be topped up daily.
Vitamin D Reduced bone strength is a potential complication of low oestrogen. Thankfully getting plenty of calcium can help keep your bones strong, but you also need a good supply of vitamin D, since it enables your body to absorb calcium.
Magnesium is important for all hormone production, but also bone health as it helps convert vitamin D into the form that improves calcium absorption (D3). Studies even suggest magnesium deficiency may be involved with the development of osteoporosis.
Gamma linolenic acid GLA the ‘good’ omega 6 fatty acid – is the main active ingredient in a the most popular menopause remedy; evening primrose oil. Although starflower oil is quickly becoming the preferred option because it is by far the richer source; delivering almost twice the GLA as evening primrose oil, with less risk of side-effects.
Clinical evidence is sporadic considering this is such a popular and widely recommended nutrient, but as these animal studies imply; most scientists agree GLA seems to mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body, which would certainly explain why it could help with menopause symptoms.
Did you know? Another highly nutritious oil that contains relatively high levels of GLA is hemp seed oil, in addition to several other menopause symptom reducing minerals (magnesium, some zinc, a little iron) and vitamins (including B6, B12 and vitamin E) - including Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6
Male Hormones (testosterone)
It's worth noting that women use testosterone too, and that there are several instances where increasing it's production might be beneficial to females. However in the main, increasing testosterone levels is primarily of interest to men, because natural production of it steadily declines past the age of 30.
The potential benefits are numerous. Higher testosterone makes it easier to build or maintain muscle, can help your mood and mental capacity, strengthen bones, reduce body fat, grow facial hair, hair and improve heart health. It can also boost libido and athletic performance in other, more private, areas.
There are of course plenty of pretty serious potential side-effects too... acne, baldness, depression and high blood pressure to name a few.
In the UK, testosterone supplements are illegal to sell over the counter, mainly due to the higher risks involved in taking them. But if you're diagnosed with low testosterone (hypogonadism), or transitioning, then it may be prescribed.
However, if you’re just looking to feel, look, work, or feel a bit better - and you think low testosterone is the cause; then there’s a plethora natural testosterone boosting supplements out there.
There are too many brands and formulations to cover here, but all we can say is do check the quality and amount of relevant active ingredients you are actually getting. The active nutrients you should probably be looking for, and why, are:
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is strongly associated with testosterone production and many of the foods it's recommend you eat to boost testosterone production, such as tuna, milk, eggs and beef liver, contain a fair bit of it.
You can absorb Vitamin D from the sun but deficiency is surprisingly common-place in the UK, so much so that the NHS advise using supplements. If you do, make sure it’s Vitamin D3, as this is the far superior form.
Zinc and Magnesium are very important for hormone production and regulation, hence a deficiency would be disastrous for your testosterone levels.
Garlic is a popular general health food and 'natural antibiotic' that has actually seen some impressive results in raising testosterone levels in rats too, but no human research has been done as yet.
DHEA is a hormone that gets converted into testosterone and oestrogen so it stands to reason that supplementation might help you produce more... but it's impossible to say which one! Unsurprisingly therefore, the clinical research carried out was inconclusive and only confirmed that DHEA may reduce ‘good’ cholesterol levels and can even make some hormone related conditions worse.
Other, lesser known, nutrients that potentially have testosterone boosting abilities are Bromelain (an enzyme mix originating from the pineapple plant), L-arginine (an amino acid), Pine bark extract (Pycogenol)
Ashwagandha is a powerful ayurvedic adaptogen known for increasing libido and fertility and has some decent research confirming it can improve testosterone levels in men, another independent study also supports this (read real customer reviews).
Ginseng, both American and Asian, is ancient adaptogen that has always been popular for its reputation as a natural aphrodisiac with testosterone boosting capabilities, although any modern clinical research has been small-scale.
Maca Root is often referred to as ‘Peruvian Ginseng’, as it was renown known as a potent libido booster throughout ages. Most studies have been small-scale, but this super-healthy root’s popularity as a supplement is growing rapidly (read real customer reviews).
Tongkat Ali, or Malaysian ginseng, is yet another tribal medicinal plant known for boosting testosterone, and also has some small-scale clinical evidence backing it.
Turmeric’s adaptogenic properties may help boost testosterone levels – though the evidence isn’t strong, as the only studies were carried out on animals.
Cordyceps is one of the more ' dfbout-there' natural testosterone boosters, but also one of the most promising. Albeit on mice, these experiments show very strong positive results on increased testosterone levels. With some popular celebrity endorsements to boot, this little fungus is currently taking the west by storm.
Did you know? Cordyceps may not be for the faint-hearted, it's natural form is a little unnerving. See the ‘zombie parasite fungus’ starring in this clip from David Attenborough’s BBC Planet Earth back in 2008? Yep, that's Cordyceps!
Stress & Sleep Hormones (cortisol, melatonin & serotonin)
Although separate issues chemically, we put stress and sleep supplements together because one can cause problems with the other, hence they are difficult to separate from a nutritional stand-point.
There are 3 hormones you'll see mentioned time and time again here: cortisol (stress hormone), melatonin (sleep hormone) and serotonin (happy hormone).
St John’s wort is a traditional herbal remedy used primarily for the relief of low mood & mild anxiety Some small-scale studies imply it could even be as effective as prescription antidepressants. It is sometimes taken by women who tend to feel a bit down during menopause, but it’s main purpose is stress-relief.
St John’s wort interacts strongly with some medicines – so much so, that it’s actually been banned in France and is only available on prescription in some other countries. Worth checking with your doctor before trying it.
Green tea is rich in an antioxidant compound called epigallocatechin gallate, which research suggests may help reduce the production of cortisol. In theory, less cortisol in your system means you will feel less stressed.
KSM-66 Ashwaganda has decent research showing it can reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels, leading to a reduction in stress and anxiety symptoms. Whilst separate clinical trials also support that ashwagandha has definite sleep-inducing potential, and that it may help you get to sleep faster.
Omega 3 fatty acids - found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, herring and sardines - may be beneficial too. Fish oil supplements have been shown to reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels in participants in this small-scale study.
Magnesium, found in dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, leafy greens and wholegrain - is a popular insomnia treatment since it plays a crucial role in initiating sleep. Scientists also associate magnesium deficiency with high stress levels.
5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan), is an amino acid that’s crucial for both stress and sleep because it’s the precursor (or raw material) your body uses to make serotonin (happy hormone) which in turn is used to make melatonin (sleep hormone).
Did you know? Foods like turkey and milk contain high levels of tryptophan; the pre-cursor to 5-htp. The problem is, tryptophan is unlikely to be well absorbed... unless you eat a load of carbs at the same time. This will boost insulin levels, which makes it easier for tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier. Maybe that's why parents give kids cookies with their milk at bedtime!?
Hormones, you could argue, make us what we are. They have wide-ranging effects on our health, our physiology and our behaviour. So it’s a good idea to look after them and keep them balanced – and in return they’ll look after us.
We know now that a healthy lifestyle can go a long way towards keeping hormone production working effectively and at the right level – because if your diet is nutritionally balanced and allowing for the adequate production of everything you need, your body is more likely to balance itself correctly.
But if you struggle to keep your diet , or are looking to flood your system with certain nutrients but not with others to correct or protect against an established imbalance, a stricter dietary regime, whether involving supplements or not, can really help you take control and feed the right areas.