Every month during our fertile years, your body prepares for a pregnancy by releasing an egg from one of your ovaries, something your healthy body will do about 400 times in your lifetime. For your ovaries to release an egg every month, they need to get the signal to do so from your brain; to be specific, your hypothalamus, a gland the size of an almond. Imagine this almond-size gland as the "conductor" and your female hormones as the "orchestra." When you provide your body and your brain with the nutrients they need to function, lower your stress level, and sleep at night, only then, can your sensitive "conductor" send the right signals to the "orchestra," and beautiful harmonious music will play. In other words, all the hormones will flow in a perfectly synchronized pattern and you will have monthly ovulation and a regular, normal period and feel healthy and content.
However, if your brain senses danger (stress) and starvation (lack of good nutrients), it will pull the plug on the ovaries, preventing ovulation in an effort to protect you as it is not ideal to get pregnant under such circumstances. Your body is actually protecting you from getting pregnant by doing so, but meanwhile, you might not feel that great.
From your mid-30s until the end of your 50s, your body undergoes many changes. Your female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone can fluctuate wildly, which affects the brain's neurotransmitters. The ovaries' hormone production ceases in menopause, typically at the onset, or middle, of your 50s. However, your body doesn't shut down the production overnight; the process takes more like 10 to 15 years. That is a long time to endure emotional and physical turmoil due to varying hormone levels! That is why it’s so important that you find solutions to lessen your symptoms and make yourself feel healthy and happy.
The more nutritionally balanced and calmer you are, the more you can keep your hormones and brain chemistry in check during your fertile years, and later in life you can delay and lessen the symptoms of menopause, which I talk about more in my book, The Hormone Balance Diet. These are the best foods for balancing your hormones.
1. Foods high in omega-3.
Fat is one of the most important nutrients for hormonal balance. Hormones are produced by cholesterol, which is found in fat. If you eat too little fat, hormone production will suffer, especially the production of the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. Examples of foods containing healthy fats:
- Chia seeds
- Salmon, and other fatty fish like herring and mackerel (preferably wild-caught)
2. Protein-rich food.
Most processes in the body depend on proteins. The brain, for example, requires a certain level of amino acids to create neurotransmitters. Too little of the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan, for example, leads to decreased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin, which can bring on symptoms like nervousness, anxiety, sleeping problems, and brain fog. Feeling stressed causes an imbalance of your female hormones. Examples of foods rich in protein:
- Organic and hormone-free meat, chicken, eggs (EPIC provisions makes great bars for hormone-balancing protein on the go)
- Seaweed (here are some easy ways to incorporate seaweed into your diet)
- Chickpeas, hemp seeds, and almond milk (look for a brand that's carrageenan-free, like So Delicious)
3. Magnesium-rich foods.
Magnesium, zinc, selenium, and iron are examples of minerals that are important in the production of neurotransmitters and hormones. Magnesium is the second most lacking mineral in the Western diet—only a deficiency in vitamin D is more common. Magnesium, also called the "anti-stress mineral," and has a calming effect on your body. It relaxes nerves and muscles, improves sleep, and diminishes the effects of stress, promoting hormonal balance. Examples of magnesium-rich foods are:
- Leafy greens
- Nuts and seeds
- Cacao (try Navitas Organics, which is super minimally processed)
4. Foods high in B vitamins.
B vitamins are important for both your mental and emotional well-being. They can’t be stored in the body, which means you must take B vitamins daily through your diet to improve brain function. Stress leads to an increased need for B vitamins. Alcohol, contraceptive pills, sugar, nicotine, and caffeine impair their absorption, so it isn’t hard to understand why so many of us are lacking in these vitamins. Common symptoms of vitamin-B deficiency are depression, anxiety, irritability, and heightened PMS.
Good sources of B vitamins are:
- Organic, grass-fed meat
- Milk, cheese, and eggs (look for pastured, like Vital Farms), and liver
5. Fermented foods.
Good gut bacteria enable the digestive system to break down food to absorb its nutrients. The healthy bacteria also play a vital role in regulating your hormones (especially estrogen). They help your body get rid of waste products from estrogen once it has been used. Naturally occurring estrogen, as well as any estrogen you have ingested via contraceptive pills or hormone replacement, must be broken down in the liver, moved out through the gallbladder to the small intestine and on to the colon, and out in the feces. To ingest healthy, active bacteria via your diet, you need to eat fermented foods like:
- Pickled cucumbers
- Gut shots or probiotic chips (a favorite from Farmhouse Culture)
- Yogurt and kefir
If you want to try fermenting on your own, here's a beginner's guide to fermentation (it's easier than you'd think).
6. Foods rich in vitamin D.
Lack of vitamin D can cause mood swings and depression. Although most vitamin D is produced by sun exposure, vitamin D can also be found in some foods. Food sources of vitamin D are:
- Organic meat and eggs
- Fatty fish
- Vitamin-D-fortified dairy products
7. Anti-inflammatory foods.
Inflammation is one of the major contributors to many diseases, especially cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, and diabetes. However, inflammation can also cause imbalances in your hormones and neurotransmitters. Common causes of inflammation are sugar, genetically modified foods, food allergies, parasites, and toxins. Examples of anti-inflammatory foods are:
- Salmon and other fatty fish like herring and mackerel (preferably wild-caught)
- Garlic, turmeric, and ginger
8. Blood-sugar-balancing foods.
Simple, fast-acting carbohydrates (in foods that are loaded with sugar, corn syrup, fruit juices, alcohol, and refined wheat flour) are quickly converted to glucose, which rushes out into the blood and spikes the blood sugar. This will trigger the pancreas to excrete insulin to bring the blood sugar level down to normal. Insulin will in turn block estrogen receptors, making it more difficult for estrogen to enter your cells. Therefore, you can end up with low estrogen causing mood changes, night sweats, and hot flashes. Therefore, minimize the intake of fast-acting carbohydrates and replace them with foods high in fiber to keep your blood sugar nice and balanced. Examples of blood-sugar-balancing foods are:
- Fiber-rich vegetables
And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.