Which Is The Best Hormone-Balancing Diet? The Definitive Ranking
Your hormones are your body’s messengers. Every single hormone sends instructions to your organs to direct how they function and determines everything from your energy levels to weight, digestion, mood, and so much more. It’s not until our hormones are out of whack that we really appreciate and understand all that they do for our health.
Your hormones are made in multiple different endocrine glands including your brain, adrenals, pancreas, thyroid, parathyroid, reproductive glands, as well as your digestive tract. The key to proper hormone function comes down to balance. If hormones are either too high or too low, it can spell trouble for the rest of your overall health.
In functional medicine, we want to find out the root cause of why you are dealing with these imbalances in the first place. Once we have discovered the underlying cause of your hormone issues, supporting the body’s natural mechanisms for healthy hormone balance becomes our top priority. Food is either your body’s biggest medicine or your greatest toxin and something we can harness to bring us back to an optimal state of health.
There is so much information on the web about different diets designed to bring relief to even the most chronic health problems. But when it comes down to it, which one is going to truly help you thrive? Well, ultimately it depends on exactly what you are going through, and even then, what works for one person doesn’t always work for the next even if they have the same diagnosis. With that said, there are a few specific eating styles that I often see work wonders for those dealing with hormone imbalance. Going through my own personal experience in my practice and the latest research, I put together a definitive ranking of the best diets for hormone balance:
AIP stands for Autoimmune Protocol and is the gold standard when it comes to hormonal problems that are autoimmune in nature, such as autoimmune-thyroid problems like Hashimoto’s disease. Research estimates that almost 90 percent of all hypothyroidism cases are autoimmune in nature, with Hashimoto’s disease being the most common. In this case your thyroid isn’t the issue but the victim of the immune system mistaking it for a virus and attacking it.
Autoimmune conditions are often a result of genetic weaknesses being triggered by an autoimmune system response to toxins, food proteins, or chronic viral, bacterial, and yeast infections, which creates a cascade of inflammation in the body.
The AIP diet is designed to take out all foods that could potentially be inflammatory. It is ultimately stricter than your traditional paleo diet; it also takes out eggs, nuts and seeds, chocolate, and nightshades such as all types of peppers and tomatoes. These foods tend to evoke an inflammatory response in those with autoimmune issues.
2. Ketogenic diet:
The ketogenic diet is the new kid on the block in the health community. While it is certainly not a new concept—it was originally used for years as a natural way to treat epilepsy in children—it is gaining popularity for its powerful anti-inflammatory, energy-restoring, and hormone-regulating capabilities.
This is a high-fat diet by design with moderate protein intake and low carb. Depending on your weight and individual goals, each person has different daily calorie goals with a specific ratio of fat, protein, and carbs, making it much more than just a high-fat, low-carb diet.
The whole goal of this diet is to reach ketosis, a state where instead of using glucose for energy, your body uses ketones. Ketones are produced from fat when your body no longer has a glucose source. From a biological and evolutionary perspective, your body has always needed fat for fuel. As a baby you relied on fat in the form of breastmilk for brain growth and development, and your brain is about 60 percent fat!
It’s hard to deny the correlation between the way your body is designed and the makeup of a ketogenic diet. Multiple studies have shown this diet's promise in controlling metabolism and blood sugar problems due to your focus on fat instead of an overload of glucose. And since you aren’t depriving your brain of what it is made of, it can help with adrenal fatigue (HPA-axis dysfunction) and energy restoration.
The beauty of going keto is that it can be done in conjunction with whatever other eating plan you are doing. Regardless of what foods you are allowed to eat and are eliminating, you can calculate your ratios and create meals around your approved foods. A ketogenic diet already eliminates grains, sugar, and high-fructose fruits, but if you are following a strict AIP diet, for example, you can still be successful.
A stand-alone paleo diet can be a good place to start for someone who is just starting out on their wellness journey and using food as medicine. Since it is less strict than an AIP diet, it can be a good stepping stone or a place to incorporate a ketogenic diet or intermittent fasting…or both!
This diet limits inflammatory foods like grains and all sugars, which can be perpetuating hormonal imbalances as well as autoimmune-inflammation spectrum issues like Hashimoto’s. One of the biggest pros for a paleo diet is its elimination of legumes. All types of beans contain lectin and phytate proteins that can do a number on your digestion, causing bloating, gas, inflammation, and continuing to perpetuate hormone imbalances.
4. Intermittent fasting:
The great thing about intermittent fasting is that this therapeutic tool can be combined with any of the above diets to boost their already great healing abilities. I often use the various IF protocols in my clinic for their powerful ability to decrease inflammation, increase cellular repair, and to heal the gut. These are all wonderful things, but when dealing with hormone imbalances, it could potentially come with a list of side effects—particularly for those struggling with adrenal fatigue (HPA-axis dysfunction) and thyroid problems.
When it comes to adrenal fatigue, I’ve found that people with dysfunctions in their circadian rhythms don’t handle intermittent fasting as well. Women also tend to be more sensitive to intermittent fasting than men due to them having a greater amount of the protein kisspeptin, which can further throw off already irregular cycles as well as effect metabolism and fertility. Not to say that IF can never work for these particular hormone imbalances, but a lot of monitoring needs to happen, and it may need to be a more modified approach.
If you are dealing with insulin resistance, however, this is where intermittent fasting really shines. This tool is perfect for those looking to improve hunger and blood sugar affecting hormones. Research has proved IF's ability to increase metabolism and lower insulin resistance. It’s still important to be working with your doctor to monitor your progress with intermittent fasting as your glucose stabilizes. And you don’t have to worry about being more hungry even though you are eating less! Fasting can actually positively affect the hunger hormone, ghrelin, which helps to improve dopamine levels in the brain—just another example of the gut-brain axis in action.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.