We all want balanced hormones, which means, ideally, eliminating hormone disruptors from our diets. With that in mind, we surveyed some of the country's top functional medicine practitioners to find out exactly what foods are wreaking havoc on our hormones. Here's what they had to say!
The quality of your food matters, especially where it is sourced from. Farmed meats and fish raised on an un-natural diet that is focused on producing quantity but not quality may contain high levels of hormones, antibiotics, PCBs, and mercury. These are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs)—they come into your body and send your hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, into a tailspin. They disrupt hormone signaling. Farm-raised fish are particularly loaded with PCBs and mercury—two very powerful disruptors. Beware of farm-raised or even Atlantic salmon (most of it is farm-raised)—a "healthy" food, which turns out to be anything but that. Stick to wild-caught seafood instead. Any woman having issues with her cycle or fertility needs to strongly consider eliminating these types of EDC-containing foods from her diet.
We all know that eating more vegetables is a good idea. However, focusing on the wrong ones for you can trigger inflammation, which is not ideal for hormone health. One common, unsuspecting, and seemingly healthy plant group that I see cause inflammation flare-ups are nightshades. White potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are all a part of this botanical family. The majority of hormone problems are somewhere on the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum, with the most common being Hashimoto's disease. Instead of nightshades, I suggest focusing on sea vegetables such as nori, kelp, kombu, and dulse. These superfoods are amazing thyroid hormone boosters and detoxifiers.
The food that wreaks havoc on your hormones is sugar. Sugar leads to the spikes of the hormone insulin, which works to move the sugar out of the blood stream and into the cells. Normally, the body needs to have a balanced intake of sugars, proteins, and fats to choose from to get energy. A healthy body with balanced hormones is able to shift back and forth between sugar and fat metabolism. When you eat a diet high in sugar, your insulin levels will be elevated chronically until such time that your cells will develop resistance. As this is happening, your body is focusing more on insulin and processing the sugar and not on the other hormones, causing an imbalance in estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone, for instance.
—Eva Selhub, M.D.
Most often, I see sugar wreaking havoc on the body's hormonal system. When we eat sugar, including foods that turn to sugar (like carbohydrates), insulin is released to balance blood sugar by managing where and how glucose is stored in the body. This hormonal response is wonderful for managing the occasional natural sugar or complex carb, but when faced with a diet high in these foods (like the standard American diet), the body is forced to overproduce insulin in an effort to keep blood sugar balanced. When this type of diet is eaten over a period of time, the body can eventually become resistant to insulin, lessening the effects it has on managing blood sugar, and often causing an imbalance with other hormones such as cortisol, progesterone, and estrogen.
There are seven hormones (testosterone propionate, trenbolone acetate, estradiol, zeranol, progesterone, melengestrol acetate, and bovine somatotropin) that are used in industrial food production of meat, eggs, and dairy that may wreak havoc on human estrogen levels in humans. In 1999, the European Union's Scientific Committee for Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health said in a press release that six commonly used growth hormones had the potential to cause "endocrine, developmental, immunological, neurobiological, immunotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects," adding that "even exposure to small levels of residues in meat and meat products carries risks, and no threshold levels can be established for any of the six substances." The EU subsequently banned imports of U.S. beef because of scientific concerns about hormones.
White bread wreaks havoc on all the hormones in the body. Gluten plus sugar increases inflammation in the body that causes stress on the adrenal glands (and subsequently the thyroid and gonads) and autoimmunity. This leads to dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-hormone axis, a decrease in the production of the hormones from the adrenals, thyroid, and gonads due to the stress, and increased autoimmunity to these glands.
Dairy works on a variety of levels to disrupt hormonal balance. It can be irritating to the gut, inflammatory, and, if it's conventional dairy, it can even be packed with antibiotic residue and recombinant bovine growth hormone. One sign that dairy is messing with your hormones is if it gives you acne. In fact, if you have acne of any kind, give it a shot going dairy-free. Your dermatologist may deny that dairy has anything to do with your acne. But it doesn't hurt to try a month off dairy and see if he or she just might be wrong!
Milk contains an abundance of IGF-1, which is a growth hormone. Too much causes inflammation and a spike in insulin, which causes the liver to produce even more growth hormone. Excess IGF-1 may lead to increased risk of diabetes and increased triglycerides. Dairy can also cause your skin to produce more sebum or excess oil leading to clogged pores and acne.
When I'm working with a patient on hormone balance, the first step I take is to remove alcohol for a time. Anyone who's had a night out with a few cocktails knows that alcohol interferes with your brain and that leads to an interference with your hypothalamus and pituitary gland, aka the parts of your brain that tell your body when to make the hormones it needs.
Our hormones are so tightly regulated that even a temporary disruption in their production can have drastic effects. Alcohol reduces testosterone production leading to lower energy levels in both men and women, along with decreased fertility in men. It augments insulin secretion causing a deregulation of blood sugar. Regular alcohol use can also increase cortisol levels, triggering more belly fat storage and an inability to deal with everyday stressors. The good news is that even one month sans alcohol can help restore your hormone function back to where it should be.
Soy can wreak havoc on estrogen because it acts to mimic estrogen (phytoestrogen), and therefore blocks normal estrogen from binding to receptors, and disrupts various other hormones due to elevated estrogen such as decreasing testosterone, and inhibiting thyroid function by facilitating production of "thyroid binding globulin" (binds up thyroid hormone). Common associated symptoms of high estrogen in women include irregular menses, swelling and tenderness in breasts, inability to lose weight, problems sleeping, mood swings, and poor energy. In men, it may manifest as erectile dysfunction, and gynecomastia (breast tissue growth). Estrogen also acts as a growth hormone, so various symptoms and risks for disease are related to elevated levels such as cancer (especially those that are hormone sensitive like breast and prostate), swelling of breasts, weight gain, and heavy periods (thicker endometrium lining). Soy is also one of the most genetically modified crops, meaning that it is loaded with toxic pesticides that can further lead to hormone imbalance.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.