5 Ways to Nourish Your Hormones with Real Food (+ 3 Ways Stress Messes with Them)
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
Who isn't stressed these days? The trouble starts when stress becomes chronic and your hormones can't cope leading to a host of health issues. Read on to see if chronic stress is messing with your hormones and learn how real food can help!
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Fight, flight or freeze!
Our bodies have some incredible built-in survival mechanisms.
If we are dehydrated, our kidneys reabsorb water. If we eat unwashed lettuce at a restaurant, our stomach acid kills off dangerous bacteria. If a car swerves out in front of us, our nervous system kicks in fast so we can slam on the breaks or get out of the way.
This life-saving reaction is often referred to as our “fight, flight or freeze” response.
This is also known as the stress response and is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system. It comes in handy when we are running from danger, watching over rambunctious children, and even competing in athletic events.
This superhuman energy flows from our adrenal glands, which sit like two guard dogs atop our kidneys.
When a stressful event occurs the brain sends a message down to these guardians to pump out stress hormones—adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine)—so we can rise to the challenge.
This makes our heart rate go up, our breathing fast and shallow, and blood to flood our extremities so we can run, jump, throw or put a stop to anything coming at us or our kids. It’s an automatic safety device that works faster than we can think!
When Stress is the Enemy
While this powerful protective response keeps us alive and alert, it can also go into overdrive. In the presence of chronic stress, the body fails to downshift into a “rest, digest and heal” mode, or parasympathetic state. Instead, our nervous system remains on high alert.
This happens because our brain doesn’t recognize the difference between a 9-1-1 emergency and an unpleasant conversation with our boss.
Either one of these situations will trigger the same message centers in our brain that tell the adrenal glands to keep pumping out the stress hormones.
This is where sweaty palms, a pounding heart and a shaky voice take over. The flood of adrenaline is unleashed!
Other modern day “emergencies” perceived by our brain may include:
The morning commute
Getting kids ready for school
Coffee and other stimulants
Disease or chronic illness
Emotional stress/relationship conflict
Lack of sleep
Fasting/not eating on time
Sugary foods and beverages/high glycemic foods (like refined carbs)
Suspenseful movies/TV shows
Caregiving for loved ones… or just raising kids!
In other words... LIFE!
And yes, some of the things on the above list may be relaxing when enjoyed in the right circumstances, but when they are used in excess to cope with stress they can often perpetuate the cycle.
And some things are just out of our control leaving us subject to a non-stop flood of stress hormones!
Three Ways Chronic Stress Messes with Your Hormones
When we are “always stressed out” our adrenaline and noradrenaline storage runs dry causing our body’s chronic stress back-up system to come to the rescue.
So what is this wonderful superpower?
The magical hormone with a seemingly endless supply of energy is known as cortisol.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone made by the adrenal glands. It is triggered during times of extended stress and has many powerful functions like:
Raising blood sugar levels to give us more energy to deal with stressors
Suppressing the immune and digestive systems so we can deal with surviving instead
Helping with pain by acting as an anti-inflammatory
While this may be helpful in the short term, in the long term this chronic output of cortisol can cause major problems.
Let’s look at three of the main effects of the elevated stress hormone cortisol on your hormones:
1. Liver Log Jam & Estrogen Dominance
The liver is a metabolic powerhouse that serves the entire body. Among its many duties, the liver takes care of excess and worn-out hormones. It does this by means of deactivation and conjugation. In other words, old or over-produced hormones are broken down, inactivated and removed from the body, or repackaged and recycled for other bodily functions.
When cortisol is in demand non-stop due to ongoing stress, this gives the liver A LOT of extra work to do such as raising blood sugar so we can keep up our energy to deal with all the stress.
This ongoing rush job to keep our blood sugar/energy up is carried out by the liver on top of metabolizing other hormones... plus nearly 500 other critical body functions!
All this activity in the liver causes a traffic jam in the detox pathways. One result of this backlog is that the hormone estrogen does not get broken down. This results in a common condition known as estrogen dominance.
In women, estrogen dominance can cause an imbalance in the progesterone/estrogen ratio contributing to unpleasant health effects like:
Weight gain (especially around belly and hips)
Irregular menstrual cycles
Decreased sex drive
In men, estrogen dominance can lead to an imbalance in the estrogen/testosterone ratio can contribute to:
Decreased sex drive
Weight gain (especially around belly and hips)
While these conditions may be common, they certainly aren’t normal.
2. Panicked Pancreas & Insulin Resistance
Another danger of chronic stress and elevated cortisol is its effect on our pancreas and insulin production. While cortisol is busy ordering up blood sugar storage from our liver, the pancreas is busy cranking out insulin to make sure our glucose doesn’t get too high.
Insulin is the hormone that is responsible for lowering our blood sugar.
Over time, with so much cortisol and sugar in the bloodstream, insulin receptors on our cells get overwhelmed and resist lowering blood sugar. When this happens we are left with elevated blood sugar AND insulin roaming around our bloodstream.
The condition known as insulin resistance can be very dangerous for our hormones as well as our brains and cardiovascular systems.
In women, this state of progressive insulin resistance can contribute to androgen dominance which can often lead to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)—a female hormonal condition that can manifest in a myriad of symptoms such as absent or irregular menstrual cycles, unwanted facial hair growth (due too many androgens like testosterone), acne, weight gain, infertility and cystic ovaries. This is often a very stressful condition for women thus perpetuating the cycle of cortisol output.
In men, chronic stress leading to high cortisol production and high blood sugar can also contribute to low testosterone which can perpetuate insulin resistance. Low testosterone symptoms are listed in the section above. What a vicious cycle!
In addition to devastating hormone imbalances, this highly inflammatory combination sets both men and women up for disease risk factors such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease.
3. The Hormone Thief
So how exactly does our body keep up with this cortisol monster who feeds on all our stress?
Doesn't cortisol run dry like our adrenaline does?
Unfortunately, under prolonged seasons of chronic stress our body steals certain hormones to make more cortisol.
This is sometimes called the “pregnenolone steal.” Pregnenolone is a building block hormone from which other hormones are produced—namely adrenal hormones and sex hormones.
In times of stress, the adrenal glands divert this vital hormone from making more progesterone and DHEA (the precursor to all the sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen), and instead grab it for more cortisol production.
This stealing of pregnenolone leads to downstream hormonal imbalances such as low progesterone and low testosterone, both of which can negatively impact both male and female fertility. When the body is chronically stressed the hormonal focus shifts to survival versus reproduction.
Additionally, this imbalance of hormones also makes female perimenopause, menopause and male andropause even more of a hormonal roller coaster ride creating chaos with sex drive, sleep, weight gain and moods.
No one is immune to the ravages of this cortisol hungry hormone thief!
Breaking the Cycle
So how can we break free from the powerful effects of chronic stress and the subsequent cascade of cortisol-induced hormone imbalance? After all, this flood of “energy” is sometimes what keeps us going!
Our culture often treats being “stressed out” as a normal way of life and even as a sign of productivity or responsibility.
But if you don’t break the cycle, it might break you—as seen in the hormonal upheavals described above.
While you may not be able to change your circumstances, there are some simple ways you can stop feeding the cortisol monster and instead nourish your hormones with food.
5 Ways to Nourish Your Hormones with Real Food
1. Add More Healthy Carbs (Fresh Fruits & Veggies)!
It's hard to think of letting go of foods we love and bring comfort to us. Instead of suggesting you immediately drop all refined carbohydrates (cookies, crackers, muffins, bread, donuts), I suggest you add LOTS MORE complex carbohydrates -- fresh fruits and veggies-- to your plate. Fresh fruits and veggies give you clean energy, cleansing fiber and vitamins and minerals that your hormones crave! When you add in MORE whole, energizing foods (fresh fruits and veggies), you may find there is less room for processed carbohydrates that leave you with cravings, low energy and mood swings. This is because refined carbs often have white flour and sugar, which quickly spike your blood sugar leading a roller coaster of craving more sugar and easy carbs (cookies, donuts, muffins, cereal, candy, chocolate), caffeine etc. to get your energy and moods on track. Unfortunately, the effect is temporary and can lead to blood sugar induced hormone imbalance and inflammation. Consider crowding out these inflammatory foods with nutrient-dense foods, and when you are ready, move them off your plate for a while and see how you feel. Find your own balance for enjoying refined carbs in moderation or not at all. It's all up to YOU!
Healthy carb choices to add to your plate:
Leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce for naturally occurring folate to support DNA methylation, reproductive health)
Cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, arugula help detoxify excess estrogen in the liver)
Berries (loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients that reduce inflammation and combat the effects of environmental toxins-- oxidative stress can be another enemy of hormone health)
Citrus (full of vitamin C to support adrenal glands and many other body functions including the absorption of key nutrients like iron-- most menstruating women have some iron deficiency)
Seasonal fruits and vegetables (eating a variety of fresh and seasonal foods provides you with detoxifying fiber to feed the friendly bacteria in your gut microbiome; this supports your digestion and immunity which in turn supports hormonal balance)
2. Balance Your Macronutrients (Protein, Fat & Carbs)!
In addition to upping your game of healthy carbs in the form of fresh fruits and veggies, your hormones always need a balance of protein and fat. This trio helps balance your blood sugar which keeps your hormones calm, healthy and happy. Fats and protein help slow down digestion which help prevent the blood sugar spikes of carbohydrate-rich meals or even protein heavy meals (yes, protein can get converted to glucose, too). Eating ALL THREE MACROS is the KEY TO BLOOD SUGAR BALANCE. The right ratios of protein, fat and carbs are different for each individual, but a good framework to start with is below, similar to what is found in my post on carb cycling for adrenal health.
Formula for balancing macronutrients-- protein, fat and carbohydrates:
Protein: 1 palm-sized (3-6 oz.) portion of clean protein (see clean protein choices below)
Fat: 1 golf-ball sized (1/4 cup) portion of healthy fats (see healthy fat choices below)
Carbs: 1/4-1 cup of starchy carbs (see starchy carb choices below) to help with blood sugar balance. You can read my post on carb cycling for hormone balance to learn how and why you may want to increase portions of starchy carbs at each meal with the largest portion at dinnertime (hint: it can help you sleep!).
All you can eat veggies (complex carbohydrates) at every meal (see above list)
3. Go For Healthy Fats!
Replace inflammatory, processed cooking fats and oils (corn oil, peanut oil, safflower and sunflower oil) with healthy fats like grass-fed butter, ghee, coconut oil, avocado oil (and fresh avocados) and olive oil. Yes, safflower, sunflower and other nut or seed oils can be inflammatory because they go rancid very easily. Enjoy nuts and seeds (soaked and sprouted if possible)! Check ingredient labels to see which fats and oils are used in your snacks. Fats are the building blocks of hormones. Processed fats are produced with chemicals and are often rancid (and get worse when cooked) contributing to a toxic burden on your hormones. Healthy fats found in nature give you slow burning energy and make excellent building materials for your hormones at any age!
Healthy fat choices for your hormones (building blocks):
Olives and olive oil
Avocados and avocado oil
Butter and/or ghee
Coconut products and coconut oil
Animal proteins with fat (like chicken with skin on, marbled steak or fatty fish)
Dairy products like milk, kefir, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, butter, cream (note: dairy has all three macronutrients-- usually in perfect balance-- hello! maybe mother's milk is telling us something about macronutrient balance)
4. Eat Plenty of Clean Protein!
Protein provides our bodies with amino acids which contribute to our cellular energy, brain function, solid bone and muscle structure, fertility and more! We must get amino acids from protein rich foods as our body cannot make all 20 of the amino acids we need to live and function. The best sources, in my opinion, are traditional and ancestral proteins that have been feeding and reproducing humans for generations. Clean, unprocessed (or minimally processed, or traditionally processed) protein is optimal. My rule of thumb is if my great-grandma ate it, it's probably a good choice.
Clean protein choices for hormone health:
Wild-caught fish like salmon and cod and other low mercury fish
Tinned fish like anchovies, sardines and mackerel
Pastured eggs with bright yellow/orange yolks
Dairy products like milk, kefir, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, butter, cream
5. Consider More Carbs at Night!
If you find yourself unable to sleep through the night, your adrenal glands may be producing cortisol to get your blood sugar back up. This untimely hormone boost will certainly keep you awake or unable to fall back to sleep. And it will stress your other hormones, too. To help your body stay asleep through the night, consider eating some extra carbohydrates with dinner (or one hour before bed in balance with protein and fat). Slow-burning, healthy carbs will help your blood sugar remain steady while you sleep instead of triggering the 2-4 am cortisol rush that steals your hormonal vitality and keeps you wide awake thinking about all you have to do! My post on carb cycling discusses this in detail.
Slow-burning carbs include:
Potatoes (cooked and cooled potatoes lowers the glycemic load-- reheating doesn't affect this-- think fried potatoes reheated or twice baked potatoes cooked earlier in the day then popped in the oven before dinner)
Legumes like cashews and peanuts
Beans (I find my black bean recipe very stabilizing for blood sugar)
Grains like sourdough bread (a piece of toast with soup or stew)
Dairy products like milk, kefir, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese
Fruit (pair with healthy protein fat like nuts or cheese)
Oats (cold oats with milk and cinnamon for dessert, anyone?)
Other Ways to Promote Hormone Balance
There are many other holistic practices we can do to calm our stress levels and nurture our hormones like:
Finding an exercise program we enjoy
Getting outside as much as possible
Forest bathing (spendin time in nature, especially around trees)
Finding fun and relaxing hobbies or family activities
Getting enough sleep/napping when needed
Taking a vacation or staycation
Anything that gets you into the “rest, digest and heal” state—or parasympathetic state versus the “fight or flight” state—will be critical for healing any hormone imbalance.
Start with one or two changes that seem do-able and enjoyable and see what else you can add in over time. You may be surprised how a little TLC can calm down cranky hormones and clear your hurried mind!
Let me know in the comments below what you've tried or would like to try!
Be sure to check out my Clean Shop for all my favorite non-toxic resources for your kitchen, home and family! You can grab a FREE BRAIN HEALTH BREAKFAST GUIDE below to get started on your hormone balancing journey!
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About the Author
Roxie Daggett is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) with a virtual holistic nutrition practicein Sedona, Arizona. Her passions include studying nutritional research pertaining to brain health, gut health, genetics and longevity. When she is not geeking out on nutrition she enjoys cooking, hiking, organic gardening and hanging out with her wonderful husband, and her adorable, energetic son who happens to have Down syndrome. Learn more on her About page and stay in touch by grabbing your FREE BRAIN HEALTH BREAKFAST GUIDEabove or below!