How Your Diet Is Messing With Your Hormone Health (And How To Fix It!)
Yesterday I drank a cup of coffee. My sister just had a baby, and I was at the hospital for a few days helping her adjust. If you've had a baby, you know how consuming and exhausting that is. The coffee tasted divine. Until...last night when I couldn't sleep.
You'd think I'd know better. I started having a problem with my hormones in my 30s. The combination of medical training, delivering babies, and then birthing my own babies shot my adrenals so that my cortisol was too high most mornings and my other hormones—DHEA, testosterone, progesterone, thyroid—barely registered, a problem known as cortisol steal.
In other words, I am intimately connected to the most common mistakes people make when eating for hormone balance because I make them too. But when I'm flush with sleep, willpower, and joy, I don't make these mistakes. I hope the same is true for you. Here are the top foods I recommend avoiding for optimal hormone health (and what I recommend eating instead!).
Eating too much sugar raises blood glucose, which can trigger a host of problems including insulin block, weight gain, abdominal obesity, lipid problems (lower HDL, higher LDL, higher triglycerides), high blood pressure, liver damage, and cortisol dysregulation. Indirectly, the cortisol then lowers your progesterone level so you feel moody, fatigued, and like you need a Xanax—because progesterone is nature's Xanax. It's hard to feel soothed. You probably know that sugar is more addictive than narcotics, at least in rodents, and that when you give a narcotic-blocking medication called naltrexone to humans, they eat less sugar. How much sugar is too much depends on your individual biochemical system. You can find out the right amount of carbohydrates (preferably whole food sources that are anti-inflammatory, like root vegetables and quinoa) for you by tracking your fasting glucose and keeping it to 70 to 85 mg/dL.
Eat this instead:
If you're craving sugar, reach for root vegetables, low-fructose fruits, anti-inflammatory grains like gluten-free steel-cut oats and stevia.
As I put this hormonal mistake next, I'm thinking of all of you who say, "Dr. Sara, just don't take away my coffee!" or, "Dr. Sara, life without caffeine is not worth living." I hear you. Some of you can get away with a cup or two of coffee each morning, but if you're in the half of the population of slow caffeine metabolizers, it's just not true. Coffee raises cortisol and gives slow metabolizers like me side effects: jitteriness, anxiety, edginess, and sometimes insomnia. Genetically, I also have a gene for mold susceptibility, and, sadly, coffee is one of the biggest sources of mycotoxins in our food supply. One in four people have the mold susceptibility genes, which I go into further in my new book, Younger, which is available for preorder. Studies show that 52 to 92 percent of green coffee beans are moldy, which can jack up cortisol even further.
When cortisol is high, it can rob resources from other hormones, leading to low progesterone (and estrogen dominance), low DHEA and testosterone, and even low thyroid function.
Drink this instead:
For a more hormone-friendly caffeine fix, try green tea, matcha, mate, Runa, and decaffeinated or half-caf coffee.
Sadly, alcohol raises your cortisol level and makes you more stressed, not less. Sure, there's the little buzz at the beginning, and who doesn't love that? But it's another hijacker of the restorative sleep you need to clean up the metabolic mess that you may be in. It also raises breast cancer risk, even at low doses of as little as three glasses of cabernet per week.
You will not be surprised to learn that alcoholics have a problem with the stress-response loop in their bodies, particularly in the hippocampus, the part of the brain where you perform memory organization and consolidation, plus emotional regulation. Not only does the brain shrink and stop rewiring, but also, when women drink more than two servings per day, 639 genes are changed for the worse. Why should you care about the 639 genes? They regulate vitally important functions, such as the actions of the cortisol receptor (known more generally as the glucocorticoid receptor), mineral transport (such as zinc, performed by the SLC39A10 gene), and inflammation (IL1R1).
Drink this instead:
Try sipping on sparkling water or wine spritzers. Kombucha is another great choice.
Avoid: Excess protein
I have about 12 faulty genes for blood sugar, and when I experimented over the past year with nutritional ketosis for weight loss and improved focus, I learned that if I eat more than 3 to 4 ounces of protein at a meal, I trigger gluconeogenesis and higher blood sugar. To win the hormonal game, you want to keep cortisol and insulin in check, so that means eating the minimum protein that your body needs to maintain lean body mass, repair muscles after workouts, and not raise blood sugar. For women, be careful with the quantity of red meat because it can raise estrogen excessively. Vegans and vegetarians are more likely to have normal estrogen levels, probably because they have less beta-glucuronidase activity, which reverses liver conjugation, resulting in recirculation of conjugated estrogens—so bad estrogens keep recirculating like bad karma.
Eat this instead:
Choose clean protein and vary the sources. I eat a lot of lentils and fresh beans; cold-water, wild-caught fish and seafood; nose-to-tail anti-inflammatory meat—ranging from grass-fed beef to bison, rabbit, and venison.
Eating out at restaurants even a few times per week can raise inflammation, probably owing to the use of industrial seed oils and pesticide exposure. When I was launching my first book, I learned the hard way by eating out three or more times per week and gaining about 20 pounds! Eek. We know that restaurants can cause insulin resistance, as shown by a Harvard study. Eating 11 to 14 of your meals at home reduces your risk of diabetes and obesity and resets insulin. You have more control over ingredients and quantities, which helps you eat the right amount for your body. Hopefully, you don't use industrial oils while cooking, and you're more likely to stop eating when you're full.
Eat this instead:
Skip the restaurant and takeout this week. Cook with coconut oil, pastured butter or ghee, or red palm oil.
When you become aware of how food changes your hormones, you are more likely to make wise choices and eat for wholeness and balance. Calories matter, but nutrient density and how those calories affect hormones matter more.