Female hormones are as complex as, well, female hormones. There is nothing quite like them. With the complexity of a female’s hormonal system it's important that we learn to eat and move in a way that helps women tap into their potential and not sap it.
WHAT ARE HORMONES AND WHAT DO THEY DO?
Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. They impact growth and development, metabolism, digestion, fertility, stress, mood, energy, appetite, weight and more. The main female hormones are oestrogen and progesterone. Oestrogen is the primary female sex hormone. It regulates your menstrual cycle and prepares your uterus for pregnancy however it has other roles as well. It contributes to cognitive health, bone health, the function of the cardiovascular system, body composition and other essential bodily processes. Oestrogen works alongside progesterone.
Progesterone plays important roles in the menstrual cycle and in maintaining the early stages of pregnancy. A lack of progesterone can occur in women with polycystic ovary syndrome for example. Optimal hormonal regulation is vital to a well-functioning body. Certain foods in your diet can aid or restore hormonal balance or throw off the balance of your hormones. This is also the same for training styles (that’s for another blog… watch this space).
HOW DO HORMONES AFFECT YOU?
Not eating enough has a massive effect on female hormones. If you don’t eat enough over a couple of days research shows that your body starts to shut down reproductive function via the female hormones. The reason for this is the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis which is responsible for regulating key hormones that are involved in functions like appetite control and reproduction is incredibly sensitive to energy intake.
The effect of a negative energy balance is thought to work through something called kisspeptin. Kisspeptin is a protein-like molecule that neurons use to communicate with each other to get important stuff done. Research suggests that women have more kisspeptin than males. This in turn leads women to experience greater sensitivity to changes in energy balance. Sports Dietitians and Nutritionists refer to an inadequate overall energy intake a Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (REDS).
In addition, when women drop their carbohydrate intakes too low this also causes a drop in oestradiol (one of the three estrogen hormones) and a rise in estrone (another form of estrogen hormones). This signals to your body to store more fat and also causes more of the stress hormone cortisol to be released.
More and more research is also showing that eating patterns like intermittent fasting should also not be recommended to every woman. Intermittent fasting may work well for men. However, women do not respond to intermittent fasting like men do. A recent study looking at rats gives us a little insight into what could happen if intermittent fasting is not done in the right context. The subjects of this study included 10 male and 10 female normal sized rats. Half the rats ate whenever they wanted. The other half only ate every second day and they fasted (i.e., food was removed) in between. This went on for 12 weeks which extrapolated for humans is about 10 years. At the end of the 12 weeks, the fasting female rats had lost 19 percent of their body weight, yet their ovaries had shrunk and adrenal gland size had increased. Such a result indicates hormone dysfunction and exposure to chronic stress.
The take home message from this study and other similar research is that key functions like hormone production and appetite control are incredibly sensitive to energy intake.
So, overall, evidence points to negative energy balance is most likely to blame for the hormone domino effect. But, it’s not just about how much you eat. It’s about the other stressors in life (i.e., too little sleep or life stress) that could also trigger a negative cascade effect suggesting that particularly for women there is a time and place for fasting.
HOW TO BALANCE YOUR HORMONES
Now, we are all individuals so it’s impossible to tell you through a blog how to achieve your balance, however in general if you work on getting the following four points right you are starting off on a good foot.
1. Eat enoughWomen’s bodies are especially very sensitive to scarcity. When your body doesn’t feel like it’s getting enough, it down regulates production of sex hormones. Before cutting your caloric intake massively or trying out intermittent fasting make sure you speak to a nutrition professional. A varied and balanced diet is the way to go.
Imbalances in blood sugar cause an increase in cortisol (a stress hormone) which in turn wreak havoc on the female hormonal system. Eat carbohydrates that are high in fibre. Fibre and lignans (i.e., flaxseeds) in food can help clear excess hormones from the body which helps to regulate hormonal levels.
2. Balance your blood sugar level
Adrenal glands produce your stress hormones. Too much use of your adrenal glands (adrenal dysfunction) can supress pituitary function and rob the sex hormones of necessary precursors for hormone production. Support your adrenal glands by eating a diet that contains a balance of protein, healthy fats more fibre and nutrient dense carbohydrates. Keep your intake of vegetables and fruits high in order to get the necessary quantities of vitamins and minerals. Good intakes of B vitamins also help support healthy adrenal glands.
3. Be kind to your adrenal glands
4. Nurture your gut bacteria
In your gut lives millions of bacteria that have multiple health benefits. If your gut bacteria balance is not optimal, neither will your hormones be. A lack of sleep, stress, alcohol and a habitual intake of processed foods can also throw off hormones directly or indirectly by influencing the gut microbiome which keeps your hormone balance. In addition, gastrointestinal dysfunction can raise cortisol causing hormone detoxification issues and produce damaging hormone metabolites. Eat fermented foods and all your colourful veggies and more to keep your gut bacteria happy!
Mountjoy et al. 2018. IOC consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). British Journal of Sports Medicine. 52(11) 687-697
Keay N et al. 2018. Cumulative Endocrine Dysfunction In Relative Energy Deficiency In Sport ( RED-S). BMJ Blog
Trpanowski J et al. Impact of caloric and dietary restriction regimens on markers of health and longevity in humans and animals: a summary of available findings.
Horowitz J. 1999. Effect of short-term fasting on lipid kinetics in lean and obese women. Cell Metabolism.276 (2)
Freire T et al. 2020 Sex specific metabolic responses to 6 hours fasting during the active phase in young mice. J Physiol 10
Kumar S et al. 2013. Intermittent fasting dietary restriction regimen negatively influences reproduction in young rats. A study of hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. PLoS One. 8 (1)