Hormonal imbalances affect men and women of all ages. It’s no surprise when we look at just how many toxins in our environment directly affect the endocrine system, the collection of glands responsible for hormone production.
Our food system is riddled with hormone disruptors in many forms. Conventionally raised animals are commonly injected with growth hormone to increase milk production and speed up the meat and milk manufacturing process. Growth hormones are probably the most extreme example of substances which directly affect our hormonal health when it comes to food, but there are sneakier, more pervasive examples at large.
Soy is the main grain used to feed cattle, chickens, and pigs. Apart from soy being the furthest thing from the natural diet of these animals, it’s also high in xenoestrogens, a molecule very similar to estrogen which tricks our bodies into thinking it’s the real deal.
Soft plastics are another culprit — and since nearly every commercially bought food and beverage item is stored in plastic, it should give us great cause for concern. Plastics contain xenoestrogens and BPA as well as other known endocrine disrupters.
But instead of focusing on all of the dangerous additives causing hormonal distress, let’s look at the foods that can help heal hormone imbalances. They are plentiful, and by incorporating more of the good stuff we can more easily get rid of the bad.
1. Coconut Oil And Healthy Saturated Fats
Gone are the days of saturated fats being cast as the villain in the fight against heart disease and obesity. If we truly are what we eat, then we need to be eating more healthy saturated fats, since they make up half of our cell membrane structures. Saturated fat also balances blood sugar levels and helps regulate insulin. Fat may seem unrelated to hormones, but it’s all connected. Hormone imbalances can cause weight gain, mood swings, irritability, and cravings — all of which can become out of control when blood sugar levels look like a rollercoaster instead of a river.
Coconut oil rich in MCT’s has been shown to help boost metabolism. It’s particularly therapeutic for people with thyroid issues. Thyroid health directly affects metabolism, making it difficult to lose excess weight or maintain a healthy weight. Butter from pasture-raised cows is also a healthy source of saturated fat. It’s high in essential vitamins that help support hormone production, including vitamins A and K, alongside HDL cholesterol (the good stuff).
Estrogen is stored in fat. That’s why women have much softer fat on their bodies than men. The common — but misguided — hypothesis is that women who want to balance their hormones should avoid fat. But avoiding nutrient-dense fats is counterproductive. Fat is not the enemy. When we purposefully deprive ourselves of it, our bodies go into a sort of starvation mode and become less willing to let go of excess fat and more willing to turn whatever carbohydrates and sugars we’re consuming into fat.
The key is to consume healthy fats. Saturated fats release slowly giving us sustained lasting energy and balanced blood sugar levels. When we get saturated fats from sources like coconut oil and grass-fed butter, we also get a bevy of other benefits that these nourishing whole foods have to offer.
2. Fatty Wild Fish For Omega-3 (Salmon, Lake Trout, Herring, And Sardines)
While we’re on the topic of fat, it’s impossible to ignore omega-3 fatty acids. Though well known for their brain-boosting effects, they’re less recognized for their potential to help balance hormones. Omega-3’s are an important essential fatty acid, meaning our bodies don’t make them, and we must get these fatty acids elsewhere. When it comes to balancing hormones and mitigating the symptoms caused by such imbalances, omega-3’s get much of their effectiveness from their anti-inflammatory and mood stabilizing properties.
PCOS is an endocrine disorder said to affect 1 in 15 women. It’s painful and uncomfortable, with side effects like weight gain and painful menstruation. One study found that omega-3 supplementation combined with a diet low in carbohydrates reduced associated pain and other symptoms.
There’s clear evidence that omega-3’s have a direct effect on hormones and are useful for regulating the menstrual cycle both in women with PCOS and PMS. Diets high in omega-3 have also been shown to inhibit breast cancer growth.
Instability with mood is common in anyone experiencing hormonal imbalance. Omega-3 fatty acids have been studied extensively for their ability to treat mental health problems like mood swings, depression, and more.
Lastly, omega-3’s are essential for balancing out the abundance of omega-6 fatty acids in the average diet. Omega-6 is a pro-inflammatory fatty acid and, while still essential, is often way out of line with the prescribed ratio the two should have. Ideally, we would all be getting a balanced amount of omega-6 to omega-3 or at the very least a 3:1 ratio. However, most people have a ratio closer to 20:1, which is a recipe for chronic inflammation. The primary source of omega-6 in the average American diet is vegetable oils — primarily soy. The USDA reports: “Americans now get almost 20% of their calories from a single food source – soybean oil – with almost 9% of all calories from the omega-6 fat linoleic acid (LA) alone.”
The best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids are wild fatty fish (such as salmon, lake trout, herring, and sardines), flaxseed, and walnuts.
3. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables — such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale — are rich in the phytochemical indole-3-carbinol (I3C), which is known for its powerful antioxidant effects. I3C has been isolated and studied for its potential to fight estrogen-enhanced tumors like breast, endometrial, and cervical cancers. It’s especially useful for regulating estrogen levels and modulating estrogen metabolism.
The only problem with consuming IC3 in its natural state from cruciferous vegetables are the issues that arise due to goitrogens. Goitrogens are naturally occurring sulfur-containing compounds that are found in cruciferous vegetables. Many people with thyroid deficiencies have been advised to avoid these foods because goitrogens block the activity of the enzyme thyroid peroxidase (TPO). TPO is necessary for the production of both T3 thyroid hormone and T4 thyroid prohormone, which is why a blockage of that enzyme is problematic.
Don’t stop crunching on cabbage just yet though. Evidence suggests that goitrogens are mostly problematic for people who are iodine, iron, zinc or selenium deficient. If you’re consuming enough of these minerals, cruciferous vegetables are likely beneficial for thyroid function as well as being protective against various cancers.
4. Ancient Fermented Foods And Modern Probiotics
Fermented foods are a staple in ancient cultures but somewhere along the line in the West we lost our connection to their significant role in optimal human health. More recently, their contemporary counterpart, probiotics (food and supplements that contain live bacteria), have been in the news for the range of health-boosting benefits they offer, from mitigating mental health issues like schizophrenia to healing problems that arise in the gut.
Environmental toxins are one of the principal causes of hormonal imbalance. No matter how well we eat, our external environment is harder to control. However, promising research indicates that probiotics may work in our guts to destroy toxic chemicals like pesticides and BPA before they can do real harm.
The role that our gut microbiome plays in our endocrine system is diverse. Indeed, a team of researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University discovered that bacteria found living inside the human gut may function in a manner akin to an endocrine organ. According to Phsy.org, “[T]he VCU team discovered that specialized gut bacterial cells produce steroid hormones — much like specialized cells in the pancreas produce the endocrine molecule insulin.”
There are other ways fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles can influence our hormones too. Estrogen dominance runs rampant in a food system riddled with xenoestrogens from soy fed animals and environmental toxins. Fermented foods can help reduce estrogen dominance as they improve digestive function, and therefore assist the body in removing excess estrogen more efficiently via the intestinal tract.
Probiotics also decrease the enzyme glucuronidase, which has been shown to increase the risk of estrogen-dependent breast cancer.
5. Bone Broth And Grass Fed Gelatin
Bone broth (see recipe) is another nutrient dense food that ancient cultures have always prized. Waste not, want not comes to mind as the bones of an animal still contain innumerable vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
The amino acid glycine, found in bone broth and gelatin, increases growth hormone production — the primary hormone responsible for stimulating cell reproduction and regeneration. GH is released in smaller amounts as we age, so ensuring we have adequate levels without turning to synthetics is achieved by incorporating mineral rich bone broth and gelatin from healthy animals.
Notable hormone expert and researcher Ray Peat has written much on the benefits of incorporating bone broth into our diets and cautions against the modern predilection for eating muscle meats only. He explains:
“When only the muscle meats are eaten, the amino acid balance entering our bloodstream is the same as that produced by extreme stress, when cortisol excess causes our muscles to be broken down to provide energy and material for repair. The formation of serotonin is increased by the excess tryptophan in muscle, and serotonin stimulates the formation of more cortisol, while the tryptophan itself, along with the excess muscle-derived cysteine, suppresses the thyroid function.”
Gelatin-rich bone broth also works to heal and rebuild collagen, reducing inflammation and improving digestive health. However, you should only consume bone broth made from animals that were raised on an antibiotic and hormone-free natural grass diet.
Maca is often perceived as more of a supplement than a food. A longstanding staple of Peruvians, it grows there in abundance at high altitudes, which is perhaps part of the reason it imparts its resilience onto us when eaten. Maca is regarded as an adaptogen, which means that it’s almost intelligent in the way it interacts with our bodies. Maca acts as a tonic and rebalances our hormones depending on what we need most.
Maca has been shown to increase libido in men, without altering serum testosterone levels. In women, maca can regulate the hormone balance of those entering menopause, and may reduce the depression and anxiety commonly triggered by this transformative biological process.
It’s easy to incorporate maca into one’s diet. It’s commonly available in powdered gelatinized form (for better absorption), which can be added to smoothies. Maca has a malty butterscotch flavor that’s rather enjoyable and blends well with chocolate in shakes.
7. Shiitake, Crimini, and White Button Mushrooms
Incorporating mushrooms into our diets is incredibly beneficial. Shiitake and crimini mushrooms are rich in selenium, an important mineral for thyroid health, which is notoriously deficient in our modern soils. Selenium is responsible for the conversion of T4 to T3, the active form of thyroid hormone. The thyroid itself cannot perform this conversion and is fully dependent on selenoproteins that use selenium as their main building block. Lack of selenium has been linked to hypothyroid symptoms. Thyroid health isn’t the only reason to consume more mushrooms however.
White button mushrooms are the most common mushroom consumed in the United States. They contain phytochemicals which inhibit aromatase activity and breast cancer cell proliferation according to this study. They’ve also been shown to reduce PSA levels in men with prostate cancer, the second most deadly cancer. Indeed, white button mushrooms show so much promise that researchers concluded that they “might have potential therapeutic use in the prevention and treatment of human prostate cancer.”
Shiitake mushrooms are another delicious food that has the potential to help balance hormones. One study found that shiitake mushrooms “destroyed cancerous estrogen receptor cells while simultaneously inhibited aromatase.”
Bring on the mushroom soup made with bone broth and grass-fed butter!
8. Liver (From Grass-Fed Animals Only)
The liver is the key important organ for detoxification. Extremely high in bioavailable vitamin A, which is vital to hormone production, liver is an energizing hormone balancing superfood jam-packed with nutrients.
Liver is known to have a somewhat mysterious energizing effect, which is often referred to as the anti-fatigue factor. Renowned scientist Benjamin K. Ershoff, PhD, wrote about this in an article published in the Proceedings for the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine in 1951. In a series of experiments, he observed that if rats were fed liver, it served as a prophylactic from exhaustion — even after hours of swimming. Indeed many of the rats given liver were able to sustain a staggering 80+ minute swim time. By comparison, the rats given vitamin supplements were only able to swim for around 13 minutes.
Consuming liver in its raw form may seem strange to some — it’s certainly uncommon in our modern diets. Though the liver serves as a filter for toxins, many are put off eating it by the misguided idea that the organ is also a storage facility for the damaging compounds it filters. The liver doesn’t store toxins, in fact, toxins processed from our livers end up in our fat stores and tissues. What the liver does store are essential nutrients.
Raw liver contains all the B vitamins, iron, and other trace minerals in their most absorbable forms. Like any animal foods, liver should always be consumed from healthy pasture-raised animals, which are free from conventional hormone and antibiotic supplementation. A little bit goes a long way too and there is much anecdotal evidence (as found in these comments) that taking small amounts of raw liver daily has massive hormone balancing benefits.
9. Phytoestrogen-Rich Sprouted Sunflower Seeds, Flaxseed, Licorice Root, And Alfalfa Sprouts
For women with estrogen deficiencies, it makes sense to incorporate phytoestrogen-rich foods, as they’ve been shown to be beneficial in these circumstances. Flaxseeds, for example, have been studied for their ability to suppress breast cancer. In men, the tiny seeds have been shown to reduce prostate cancer proliferation rates pre-surgery.
Soy, though high in phytoestrogens, is not necessarily the best option as food source, however, as it is increasingly genetically modified. It’s also high in xenoestrogens, which can be problematic. Furthermore, when left unfermented, soy is tough to digest and assimilate. That said, soy has been well documented for its usefulness in reducing the risk of certain cancers and hormonal problems associated with menopause. Asian countries that consume large amounts of soy are known to have lower rates of reproductive cancers, which are all too common in North America.
The stark difference between Asia and America is that we do not ferment the soy that we consume. Fermented soy products like tempeh, miso, and tamari behave very differently in the body, since the fermentation process breaks down harmful xenoestrogens and makes the nutrients in soy far more bioavailable. If we consume soy, it should always be in these forms, as well as being organically grown, to avoid consuming genetically modified foods, which require far more research before their safety can be confirmed.
10. Dark Leafy Greens And Nuts
Dark leafy greens and nuts are among some of the most magnesium dense foods available. Magnesium deficiency has been said to affect up to 80 percent of the U.S. population. It’s a vital mineral for calming stress, relaxing the muscles, and preventing cardiovascular disease.
Magnesium is involved in the production of progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen. Supplementing with magnesium is therefore shown to reduce hot flashes by 50 percent. Thus, a diet rich in natural food sourced magnesium would effectively help balance hormones. Additionally, in experiments, a 250 mg supplement per day has been shown to ease PMS by 34 percent over a 3-month period.
Incorporating plenty of foods rich in magnesium is of signifiant holistic benefit. Magnesium is highly concentrated in dark leafy greens. Indeed, plants could not use the sun’s energy were it not for the magnesium contained in chlorophyll.
Nuts, particularly almonds and cashews, are excellent food sources of magnesium. Pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, dark chocolate, seaweed, and fish also boast high magnesium concentrations.
The greens which contain the highest amounts of magnesium are swiss chard, spinach, beet greens, and kale. Avocados, though not technically a vegetable, are also high in magnesium as well as many healthy fats.
- Almonds – 1 ounce, 80 mg
- Cashews – 1 ounce, 82 mg
- Pumpkin seeds – 1/8 cup, 92 mg
- Sesame seeds – 1 tbs, 31.6 mg
- Sunflower seeds – 1/2 cup, 225 mg
- Dark chocolate – 1 ounce, 41.4 mg
- Seaweed (kelp) – 2 tbs, 12.1 mg
- Fish (salmon) – 0.5 Filet, 53.5 mg
- Swiss chard – 1 cup, 154 mg
- Spinach – 1 cup, 157 mg
- Beet greens – 1 cup, 31.3 mg
- Kale – 1 cup, 31.5 mg
- Avocados – 1 medium, 58 mg
Eating a big green salad with avocado, nuts, and seeds daily is a surefire way to make sure you’re getting all the magnesium you need.