What are hormones?
Some of the most powerful chemicals in the body are hormones. These are biochemicals produced in special glands, and when present in the bloodstream, they can instruct certain body cells.
When we think of hormones we generally think of the sex hormones first – such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone and the crucial roles they play in maintaining the menstrual cycle and fertility. But thyroxine, made in the thyroid gland, is also a hormone and is essential for regulating metabolism in the cells. Insulin, another hormone, instructs the cells to take up glucose. Hormone imbalances can be debilitating.
The structure of hormones
Hormones are either fat-like, called steroid hormones or protein-like, such as insulin. They are made from components of your food and so diet plays an essential part in keeping hormone levels in balance. For example, thyroxine is made from tyrosine (an amino acid found in protein foods like chicken, turkey, soy and avocado) and iodine (found in fish, sea vegetables and seaweed). Ensuring that we have sufficient levels of these kinds of foods in our diet helps provide the building blocks for these hormones.
Factors that can lead to hormonal imbalances
The hormones cortisol, DHEA and adrenaline are all part of our stress response which help us ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ in an emergency. The design of which was to escape acute life-threatening situations, however these days we are faced with chronic stress in the forms of deadlines, emotional and financial challenges, etc. Our adrenal glands can get slowly drained resulting in reduced function. More of this is detailed in our Stress section.
Going back to our sex hormones, and for women in particular, the balance between progesterone and oestrogen is critical. An excess of oestrogen, also called oestrogen dominance can result in fibroids, ovarian cysts, endometriosis and PMS. This dominance of oestrogen may be due to excess exposure to oestrogenic substances or a lack of progesterone or both. Oestrogenic compounds can be found in non-organic meat and dairy, in some pesticides and in some soft plastics. Oestrogen is also in many contraceptive pills and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).
Prostaglandins, made from essential fatty acids, sensitise cells to hormones. There is considerable interaction between prostaglandins and the sex hormones. Deficiency in essential fats which is common in our modern Western diet, and deficiencies in the nutrients needed to convert essential fats into prostaglandins (vitamins B3, B6 and C, biotin, magnesium and zinc) can contribute to hormonal imbalances.
How can our diet improve hormonal imbalances?
Dietary tips to help with hormonal imbalances include the following:
- Include good levels of essential fats in your diet
- Reduce or maintain low levels of animal fats (particularly non-organic sources)
- Choose organic vegetables and meat where possible to reduce pesticide and hormone exposure
- Eat a balanced diet and a wide variety of vegetables to ensure micronutrient intake
- Reduce stimulants and manage your stress levels