Help for Hormones
For some people, just the word ‘hormone’ is enough to bring them out in a state of panic, anxiety or gloom. These people are the ones where hormones, in some shape or form, are affecting them negatively in some way. This could be in a physical way or in a mental and emotional way. Hormones can affect us all in a variety of ways (both positive and negative), but despite them been a nuisance to many people, hormones play an integral role in a person’s overall health. In fact these small chemical messengers control almost all physiological processes in the body and play a huge role in controlling the immune system, metabolism, reproduction and nervous system to name just a few.
So how can food and nutrition impact hormones, and how can certain foods be used to help with some of the common symptoms that can occur when hormones become out of balance or are thrown out of sync at different points in our lives?
When women hit menopause, it can be a rough ride for some, so knowing how best to alleviate common menopausal effects such as hot flushes, increased anxiety and sleep disturbances can be helpful. Certain foods and the actives contained within these foods can be very beneficial for helping with varying menopausal symptoms.
Vitamin C and Vitamin E are two fantastic vitamins, rich in antioxidants and which have been shown to have beneficial effects on menopausal symptoms. In particular both vitamins have shown to reduce the amount and intensity of hot flushes and intake of vitamin C also has a protective effect on bone, which can help prevent bone loss during the menopause. Foods that are a high source of antioxidants include berries of all varieties (especially blueberries), spinach, broccoli, artichoke, red grapes and nuts, especially pecans. The really good news is that dark chocolate is also a great source of antioxidants, but opt for good quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content to reap the antioxidant benefits.
Sage is a common garden herb and is widely used amongst women going through the menopause, especially for relief of hot flushes and hot sweats, which are common symptoms during menopausal years. There is a lot of research done in this area, which has concluded that extracts of sage significantly reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of hot flushes, night sweats, and other menopausal symptoms, such as mood fluctuations, and is considered a safe and effective treatment for use at this time. Sage can be taken as a supplement or made into a sage tea for drinking.
Many women going through the menopause can experience low mood and anxiety symptoms. Serotonin is a ‘feel good’ chemical found naturally in the body that affects many bodily functions including mood, appetite and sleep. During the menopause, and particularly during the perimenopause stage when changes are just starting, serotonin levels decline. This is directly linked to the decline in oestrogen, which occurs naturally during menopause, because oestrogen stimulates serotonin production, so if we have less oestrogen we can have less serotonin, which can result in some of the characteristic menopausal symptoms of anxiety, low mood and depression.
Although no foods contain actual serotonin, there are foods that contain the amino acid called Tryptophan and this CAN be found in foods. Tryptophan is vital to the production of serotonin in the body so boosting our tryptophan levels is really important in boosting our mood and also helpful in promoting healthy sleep patterns and a sense of calm. Milk and cheese are a good source of Tryptophan, including Delamere Dairy’s goats’ milk and cheeses, so why not add those to the menu knowing they will have a positive impact on your mood as well as being super tasty. Eggs, chicken, turkey, peanuts and fish are also all good sources of tryptophan too. Foods which indirectly raise serotonin levels include carbohydrate rich foods such as brown rice, porridge, whole wheat pasta and bread and starchy vegetables as these foods trigger the body to release insulin, which allows tryptophan to enter the brain, where it is then used to make serotonin.
PMT & Menstrual Headaches
For many women, the menstrual cycle can be a real turbulent time, as the hormone changes that occur during this time can play havoc on mood and also trigger a range of physical symptoms too. For those who suffer with the classic PMT symptoms such as low mood, depression, over sensitivity and heightened emotions, these symptoms are related to a reduction in serotonin levels that in some women can drop as oestrogen levels drop. For women that suffer with menstrual headaches and migraines, these are also generally triggered due to reductions in oestrogen in the second half of the menstrual cycle.
The food we eat can play a big part in some of these symptoms and can also be used to help alleviate or reduce the severity of these symptoms, however it is not a case of one size fits all here. What may be beneficial to one person’s symptoms may not be helpful to another, so it’s often a case of trying something to see if it works for you.
One mineral that has shown positive effects in helping not just menstrual related migraines, but also general migraines, is Magnesium. Although the reason why magnesium may be helpful in migraine sufferers is not fully understood, it is suggested that it is most likely down to the fact that magnesium has a relaxing effect on the blood vessels in the brain, which can constrict during a migraine attack so increasing magnesium rich foods in your daily diet such as Brazil nuts, almonds, dark chocolate and cocoa, bran, seeds, green vegetables such as spinach and avocadoes, as well as brown rice, can be very helpful. Goats’ milk is also a great source of magnesium and provides a higher source of magnesium than cows’ milk, so if you needed another excuse to drink Delamere Dairy goats’ milk, then this is it!
Supporting the body’s oestrogen levels during your cycle, especially during the second part when oestrogen levels drop, is also very important. Although no foods contain actual oestrogen as such, there are foods which contain phytoestrogens, which are plant based compounds that can somewhat mimic the effects of oestrogen. Foods high in phytoestrogens include flaxseeds, sesame seeds, soybeans, garlic and chickpeas so make sure these are part of your diet especially during the specific times in your menstrual cycle when oestrogen levels fall, as this may help somewhat with mood balancing and reduction in head pain.
We know that oestrogen can help boost levels of both serotonin and dopamine, which are two hormones heavily involved in mood regulation, so it’s no wonder that when oestrogen levels fall during the menstrual cycle, some women can be left feeling very low. There are foods that we know to help improve serotonin levels, which will also be beneficial for those who suffer low mood as a result of their menstrual cycle. These include some carbohydrate rich foods such as brown rice, porridge, whole wheat pasta and bread and starchy vegetables. As mentioned in the menopause section above, these foods trigger the body to release insulin, which allows an amino acid called Tryptophan to enter the brain, where it is then used to make serotonin. Protein is important in the production of dopamine, therefore there is some research suggesting that ensuring a regular intake of good quality of protein such as fish, dairy foods, chicken and eggs can be very helpful during this time.
Stress is a serious problem not just in the UK but on a global level. In fact, stress is one of the main causes of mental health problems, in particular anxiety and depression and if left unacknowledged it can have serious effects on our physical health as well as our mental health. This year in particular, there will be many more people suffering prolonged stress due to the Covid pandemic.
One of the main hormones that reacts to stress is called Cortisol (also known as the stress hormone). This hormone is produced by the adrenal glands, which are found on the top of the kidneys. When our body is in a state of stress, our cortisol levels in the body are raised and much research shows that elevated cortisol levels increase blood pressure, impairs memory, contributes to weight gain, lowers immune function and increases the risk of heart disease. It therefore goes without saying that if your stress levels are high most of the time causing cortisol levels to be raised regularly, this has a very damaging effect on the body and our overall health.
There are quite a few foods that contribute to raised cortisol levels and these are definitely best avoided or cutting down on if you are already feeling stressed. These foods include foods high in sugar, alcohol, trans fats and caffeine, which ironically are the type of foods many people can reach for when stress hits.
Two specific vitamins that are especially helpful for managing cortisol levels are B5 (Pantothenic acid) and Vitamin C. Vitamin B5 is helpful in reducing stress symptoms and stress levels and helps to support the action of the adrenal glands as well as contribute to the production of anti-stress hormones. Stress actually depletes the body of Vitamin B5 so it is important to replace what is lost by consuming foods that are high in this vitamin such as sunflower seeds, salmon, avocadoes and sundried tomatoes all of which can be easily incorporated into snacks or meals. Some studies also suggest that vitamin B5 can ‘down-regulate’ excess production of cortisol so can help control this stress hormone even at times of stress.
Vitamin C is an important nutrient to help support your adrenal glands as this vitamin is needed by the adrenal glands to produce the adrenal hormones, including cortisol. The more cortisol that is produced, the more vitamin C the adrenal glands use. Therefore if we are stressed, Vitamin C is more rapidly used up by the production of cortisol, so it is important to consume enough to replace what is being used. Good food sources of Vitamin C include citrus fruits, blueberries, broccoli, strawberries, kiwis, peppers and fresh chilies so make sure some of these are part of your daily menu. Remember that vitamin C plays a role in our immune function, so if this is depleted due to stress, we can become more susceptible to infection and illness.
So if hormones are impacting your life negatively in any of the ways above, make sure you take a bite of some of the foods discussed and try to take control of them, rather than them controlling you!
• Oestrogen receptors in the central nervous system and their implication for dopamine-dependant cognition in females, 2014. Hormones and Behaviour
• The pros and cons of phytoestrogens, 2010. Neuroendocrinology
• Efficacy of phytoestrogens for menopausal symptoms: a meta-analysis and systematic review, 2015. Climacteric
• Diet and stress, 2014. Psychiatric Clinics of North America
• Tryptophan hydroxylase-2: An emerging therapeutic target for stress disorders, 2013. Biochemical Pharmacology
• The Role of Magnesium in Pathophysiology and Migraine Treatment, 2019. Biological Trace Research