Many people erroneously think that hormone imbalances and the symptoms that go with them are an unfortunate part of life. Exhaustion, mood swings, obesity, poor libido, brain fog, low energy, chronic hunger, and stress are all accepted as an unsolvable reality. It doesn’t have to be this way!
One of the most effective ways to balance hormones and eradicate all these debilitating symptoms is through food. By using these powerful (and delicious) nutrition strategies you can target multiple systems in the body to improve hormone balance, shed body fat, and feel better.
When it comes to nutrition to balance hormones, you have four basic goals:
1. Eat foods that support hormone production
High-quality, nutrient dense protein, whole carbohydrates, and healthy fats provide the building blocks for the body to synthesize hormones so that you avoid deficiencies. For example, adequate cholesterol from saturated fat is necessary for the body to synthesize steroid hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Amino acids from protein are used to produce peptide hormones like growth hormone and insulin. Finally, specific nutrients are necessary for certain hormones, such as iodine for the production of thyroid.
2. Get nutrients that metabolize excessive hormones
Antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fibers can help the body clear hormones once you don’t need them anymore. For example, magnesium, vitamin C, and omega-3s from fish oil all play a role in the body’s ability to clear cortisol. In addition, antioxidants (from leafy green and cruciferous vegetables) and naturally occurring fibers (from flax and sesame seeds) help the body metabolize excess estrogen.
3. Get the right amount of calories at the right times
Calories play a central role in hormone balance: Too many and you get obesity, high insulin, and diabetes. Too few and you disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which leads to metabolic slowdown, high cortisol, and long-term hormonal imbalances. Additionally, calories are necessary for circadian function, helping your body maintain wakefulness during the day, while allowing for optimal rest at night.
4. Avoid foods that impair metabolic hormone balance
Excess calories and consumption of refined foods can impair blood glucose regulation and cause high insulin. Combined with obesity and lack of physical activity, chronic consumption of refined foods impairs other metabolic hormones, including leptin, glucagon, and cortisol. Testosterone, estrogen, and melatonin can also become dysregulated.
These four aims are best achieved by adopting several simple, but worthwhile nutrition habits that allow you to make meaningful progress. Specific foods are provided below but first let’s cover the overall nutritional approach you should take towards balancing hormones.
Plan meals around whole protein, healthy fat, and vegetables.
Every meal should prioritize the highest quality protein to mitigate hunger and regulate blood sugar, while sustaining lean mass. Healthy fats and vegetables ensure optimal digestion of protein foods, while adding flavor and promoting satiety. This macronutrient combination has other hormone-balancing benefits, which are highlighted in the Food section.
Always eat whole proteins that contain healthy fat. Although pure proteins, such as egg whites or super lean meat, appear beneficial for body composition, the gut does not handle them well, reducing digestibility and absorption. Notice that protein never occurs in nature without fat: Meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, and even plant proteins always provide fat along with amino acids, and it is this combination that humans have evolved to digest optimally.
Incorporate a wide variety of whole carbs based on energy needs.
Eating a diverse diet of colorful plants will ensure you aren’t missing out on necessary nutrients that are necessary for hormone balance. Berries, apples, citrus, pears, stone fruit, green vegetables, tubers, leafy greens, eggplant, cucumbers, legumes, lentils, and heirloom grains are just some of the whole carbohydrates you can add to meals for flavor, texture, and improved nutrition. The key is to optimize carb intake based on activity levels: Highly active individuals can favor higher carb foods whereas those who are sedentary will want to get the bulk of their carbs from lower glycemic sources, saving starchy carbs and grains for special occasions.
Supplement to pad nutrient holes.
Ideally, you can get the majority of the nutrients necessary for hormone balance from food, but occasionally, it’s necessary to supplement, particularly if you are trying to overcome imbalanced hormones, such as high cortisol or elevated insulin levels. For example, magnesium is often deficient in individuals with poor blood sugar management, and this nutrient is also necessary for the metabolism of cortisol, so if you suffer from massive stress and blood sugar dysregulation or diabetes, you probably need extra.
Avoid inflammatory and refined & processed foods.
Because hormone balance is often impaired by inflammation, it’s worth the effort to avoid foods that cause inflammation. These will be somewhat different for each person, depending on genetics and health conditions, such as obesity, prediabetes, or heart disease; however, a basic list of foods to watch out for include the following:
Gluten grains and foods made from gluten-based flour
Artificial colorings and sweeteners
Soy and corn
Dairy in certain cases
It’s also necessary to swap out refined and processed foods in favor of whole foods in their most natural state for several reasons: First, refined foods are virtually absent of the deal-breaking nutrients necessary for hormone balance, including magnesium, B vitamins, and bioavailable zinc and iron.
Second, these foods often contain additives or sugar, which alters hormone balance. Finally, consumption of these foods are associated with obesity and impaired insulin sensitivity. Although not a complete list of foods to avoid, you want to stay away from soda and sugar sweetened beverages, refined grains (bread, pasta, cereal, cookies, crackers, chips, pastries, cookies, cakes), sweets and desserts, processed fats, including soybean and corn oil, and anything made from flour or with added sugar.
With those goals in mind, here is a list of 14 delicious foods that you can use to swap out unhealthy foods. Designing meals around these foods will allow you to get your hormones balanced for easier fat loss, improved energy, overall well-being, and better performance.
Seafood is a perfect hormone balancing food, providing high-quality protein for satiety and blood sugar regulation along with healthy omega-3 fats that fight inflammation and help the body metabolize excess estrogen. The omega-3s have also been shown to improve insulin signaling and lower cortisol in a series of studies.
Eat This: Salmon, mackerel, and sardines are all nutrient-rich and high in omega-3s. Cod and other varieties of white fish don’t provide the same omega-3s but they are a high-quality, digestible protein that can improve mood.
Flax and sesame seeds provide a special kind of fiber called lignans, which can bind to estrogen in the digestive tract so that it will be readily excreted from the body. Seeds like fenugreek also increase levels of SHBG, which protects the body from estrogen, while simultaneously improving balance of related hormones. Finally, most seeds, especially pumpkin and chia, are high in magnesium, an anti-stress nutrient that helps the body clear cortisol and manage blood sugar release, for healthier insulin levels.
Eat This: Sprinkle sesame, flax, or pumpkin seeds on a salad. Get creative and add fenugreek, cumin, or chia seeds to stir fry. They can also be ground and added to a smoothie or yogurt.
In addition to providing healthy fats that aid digestions, nuts contain fiber and antioxidants that help sensitize cells to insulin. For example, one study of volunteers with heart disease found that when they supplemented their diets with almonds they had a significant reduction in insulin levels compared to a group that age a whole wheat muffin. Nuts are also packed with B vitamins, which impact release of almost every hormone, including cortisol, melatonin, testosterone and estrogen, and insulin.
Eat This: Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts, and even cashews provide fiber and antioxidants that improve satiety and insulin sensitivity. Brazil nuts deserve special attention because they are packed with zinc, which is necessary for optimal testosterone levels.
In addition to being a perfect protein source that is great for regulating appetite and balancing blood sugar, eggs are provide with amino acids and cholesterol that provide the building blocks for hormones. What you probably didn’t know is that eggs are high in antioxidants that lower inflammation. This pays off in terms of better insulin and cortisol levels, but it also regulates blood cholesterol levels: One study found that overweight men who ate 3 eggs a day while on a low-carb diet improved their LDL bad cholesterol and decreased inflammation related to heart disease.
Eat These: Hard boiled, poached, over easy, or scrambled are your best bet. The key is to avoid all the unhealthy eating habits that surround eggs: Frying them or eating them with high-carb and processed foods, like bacon, pancakes and syrup, toast, pastries, or hash browns.
#5: Leafy Greens
If there was one food group you should add to your diet to improve hormone balance it would be leafy greens: Swiss and rainbow chard contain exotic antioxidants that help the body manage blood sugar and metabolize cortisol. Collards, kale, and bok choy all contain unique compounds that bind with estrogen to hasten its elimination from the body. Finally, spinach, arugula, and other leafy greens are packed with hormone-balancing nutrients, such as magnesium and B vitamins.
Eat These: Chard, collards, kale, bok choy, spinach, arugula, basil, parsley, lettuce, and any other delicious greens can make for amazing salads. If you have thyroid problems, it’s recommended that you steam your greens. Many leafy greens contain goitrogens, which can inhibit thyroid hormone function.
#6: Organic Meat
Organic beef, turkey, chicken, and other meats provide an array of nutrients necessary for hormone balance in a source the body can easily absorb, including zinc (for testosterone), vitamin A (for thyroid hormone), and vitamin D (for testosterone and cortisol). Animal foods also provide the cholesterol and amino acid building blocks for hormone production, while regulating satiety and blood sugar.
Eat These: It’s important to choose organic beef, chicken, and turkey, or seek out wild game to avoid the hormones used on factory farmed animals. Additionally, factory farmed animals are raised on mixtures of genetically modified corn, chicken manure, antibiotics, hormones, and ground-up parts of other animals, which are harmful, cause inflammation and have a negative effect on blood cholesterol levels.
#7: Cruciferous Vegetables
The cruciferous vegetables, which include cauliflower, and broccoli, contain powerful compounds that help the body eliminate excess estrogen, which is one reason they are considered excellent cancer fighters. They also provide an array of vitamins and minerals necessary for hormone synthesis and are abundant in antioxidants that allow for improved insulin health and blood sugar regulation.
Eat These: Although broccoli and cauliflower are probably the best known cruciferous vegetables, you can get similar benefits from cabbage, brussels sprouts, bok choy, and other leafy greens.
#8: Lemon & Citrus Fruits
Lemons and the other citrus fruits are packed with the compound D-limonene, which increases liver enzymes so that the body is better able to metabolize and remove estrogen. They also provide vitamin C, which has been shown to help clear cortisol after a stressful experience such as an intense exercise protocol.
Eat These: Lemon, lime, grapefruit, and oranges may all have hormone-balancing effects, but you may want to supplement to realize notable effects. One study found cortisol lowering effects from 1 gram of vitamin C after a tough workout, but to get this amount, you’d have to eat roughly 35 lemons. D-limonene can also be supplemented to aid with estrogen metabolism.
#9: Yogurt & Fermented Foods
Fermented foods provide beneficial probiotic bacteria that has been shown to moderate blood sugar and lower the insulin release of high-carb meals. Probiotic foods can also help moderate cortisol release and they impact neurotransmitters, which function similar to hormones, impacting everything from energy levels to mood.
Eat These: Along with high-quality yogurt, other cultured dairy products contain probiotics, such as cheese, sour cream, and kefir. Pickled vegetables such as sauerkraut, ginger, and kim chi are additional probiotic foods to use as condiments to spice up your meals.
#10: Blueberries & Tart Cherries
Blueberries and other dark-colored, delicate fruits are packed with antioxidants that improve insulin action, lowering markers of inflammation that impair hormone release. Different fruits may have unique hormone balancing benefits: Tart cherries have been shown to raise levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, resulting in a more restful night.
Eat These: Along with blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and more exotic berries like lingonberries all have insulin sensitizing benefits, making them great for adding to oatmeal and other higher carb foods that raise blood sugar. For more concentrated effects, you can get supplemental juice or powder—try tart cherry juice concentrate added to water to counter insomnia.
#11: Green Tea
Green tea reduces levels of the aromatase enzyme that transforms testosterone into estrogen, thereby avoiding excess production of estrogen. This pays off in terms of lower cancer rates in people who regularly drink green tea. The antioxidants in green tea may also improve insulin signaling and lower cortisol, for less stress and better blood sugar balance.
Drink This: Avoid adding sugar to green because this will negate the insulin benefits.
#12: Avocado, Olives & Coconut
Most people think of these plants as vegetables but they are actually high fat containing foots that provide abundant nutrients necessary for hormone balance: Magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C are a few. Additionally, they all contain robust levels of antioxidants that lower inflammation and the healthy fats they contain improve insulin signaling and lower cortisol.
How To Eat Them: By eating these healthy fats with high-carb foods you can lower the insulin response by slowing digestion and moderating the rise in blood sugar.
Lentils and legumes are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and contain a decent amount of protein for a plant-based food. This combination makes them effective for improving insulin sensitivity and lowering glucose levels when they are regularly consumed as part of the diet. The fiber they contain may also assist with elimination of excess estrogen that is on its way out of the body. White beans in particular contain a powerful cortisol lowering nutrient called phosphatidylserine.
Eat These: Lentils, chick peas, and other beans (black, pinto, red, white, etc.) are all associated with less inflammation and an improved health profile. Cook them with spices (cinnamon, cumin, turmeric) and add them to salads or vegetable dishes.
#14: Dark Chocolate
The antioxidants in super dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cocoa solids) has several hormone balancing benefits:
They can improve serotonin and improve mood.
They reduces inflammation and improves insulin sensitivity of higher carb foods.
They aids gut health and improves digestion—a key action that will lead to altered cortisol if not functioning properly.
How To Eat It: Science hasn’t identified an optimal chocolate dose, but a good bet is a square or two of dark chocolate that is more than 70 percent dark because this will be higher in the protective polyphenols. Check the label and make sure there are no chemicals, fake sweeteners, or high fructose corn syrup in your chocolate.