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Hormones are chemical messengers that are released by different glands and travel through the bloodstream to influence organs and processes throughout the body. The endocrine system is made up of glands such as the thyroid, adrenals, pituitary, ovaries, testes, and pancreas, which work together to control the levels of different hormones and help the body function and maintain balance.
Each woman has a specific hormonal milieu within her body that influences mood, digestion, weight, energy, and overall health. Some common hormones include:
- Sex hormones—estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone
- Adrenal stress hormones—cortisol and epinephrine
- Hormones that influence your blood sugar and fat storage—insulin, ghrelin, and leptin
Many factors influence your hormone balance. Hormone imbalances can result from:
- Intense or persistent levels of stress
- Exposure to hormonal disruptors in the environment from things like certain personal care products, cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol, and cleaning supplies
- Under- or overstimulated thyroid
- Food allergies
Imbalances in hormones, especially the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, are significant contributors to many of the symptoms that women commonly experience at menopause.
Women’s Hormone Balance During Menopause
Perimenopause and menopause are normal biological events in a woman’s life. During this period, hormonal shifts occur, and menstruation and fertility begin to decline and eventually end. Menopause is defined as a lack of a menstrual period for 12 months or more in a woman who is over the age of 40, while perimenopause occurs in the period leading up to menopause when ovaries start making less estrogen. The average age of menopause onset in the U.S. is 51 years, but perimenopausal symptoms can begin to occur anywhere from around 35 to 55 years of age and vary from woman to woman.
During menopause, levels of hormones that influence female sexual characteristics and functions, such as the menstrual cycle and preparing the body for pregnancy, begin to change. Alterations occur in the levels of hormones such as:
- The major female gonadal sex steroid hormones estrogen and progesterone that play a major role in the development, maintenance, and regulation of the reproductive system.
- Androgens like testosterone, DHEA, and DHEA-S. These are hormones produced by the testes (in males), adrenal cortex (in males and females), and ovaries (in females). Androgens influence the growth and development of the male reproductive system and are present in smaller amounts in females as well where they influence sexual traits and are converted into estrogens.
- Hormones released from the hypothalamus in the brain, which influence reproductive and sexual traits and functions including luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and gonadotropin-releasing hormone.
Since these hormones interact with many other hormonal and neuroendocrine systems in the body in a complicated symphony, menopause is a complex biological process and can be different for each woman.
As the levels of these hormones fluctuate and sex hormone levels begin to decline, women can experience a variety of symptoms including:
- Menstrual irregularities such as changes in the timing, spacing, and flow rate of periods
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Weight gain
- Changes in fat distribution, including increased abdominal fat
- Decreased libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Insomnia and changes in sleep quality
- Hair loss or abnormal hair growth
- Mood swings, irritability, and/or behavior changes
- Breast changes
- Memory issues
Natural Hormonal Balance During Menopause with Whole Foods
While the hormonal shifts in menopause are a normal part of a woman’s life, there are some strategies that can help reduce distressing symptoms by keeping other aspects of your lifestyle balanced. Dietary choices are especially impactful for managing menopausal symptoms.
NOTE: Hormones and endocrine balance are complex issues to consider in a comprehensive evaluation with a trusted medical professional. Every body is unique, so be sure to check with your healthcare provider before making any dietary or lifestyle changes.
Swap Out Refined Carbohydrates
The foods you eat have an important influence on hormonal balance. Diets high in refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, white rice, and sugary drinks) trigger a hormonal response in the body to try to reduce blood sugar levels. Over time, this can contribute to insulin resistance and obesity that influence hormone levels. In fact, research suggests that a diet that is rich in refined carbohydrates is linked to an earlier onset of menopause compared to a diet rich in legumes such as beans and lentils.
For example, excess processed sugars and refined carbohydrates can trigger elevated insulin levels and lead to insulin resistance, metabolic dysfunction, and weight gain over time. Insulin resistance can further provoke increased production of androgen hormones like testosterone at the expense of decreased estrogen production, contributing to exacerbated menopausal symptoms. To counter these effects:
- Focus on consuming an abundance of anti-inflammatory, hormone-supporting whole foods.
- Cut out artificially-altered foods that are highly processed or contain artificial colors, flavorings chemical preservatives, or refined sugars, which contribute to inflammation and hormone imbalance.
Embrace Healthy Fats
Cholesterol and essential fatty acids are key building blocks of many hormones. Therefore, eating a variety of whole foods that provide healthy fatty acids is necessary to keep hormones in balance and inflammation at bay.
Embracing moderate amounts of healthy fats can also boost metabolism and promote a balanced weight. Omega-3 fats are especially effective at facilitating balanced hormone production and may help alleviate menopausal symptoms, cardiovascular complications, and postmenopausal osteoporosis.
Replace refined seed and vegetable oils like canola, corn, cottonseed, soybean, and peanut oil, which are higher in omega-6 fatty acids, with satisfying, organic fats such as organic, unrefined coconut oil, avocados, organic coconut butter, organic ghee, olives, and natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids like wild-caught salmon and walnuts.
Cultivate a Healthy Microbiome
Emerging science shows that your gut bacteria play many important roles in regulating health. Certain bacterial species in the gut, known as the estrobolome, produce essential enzymes that help metabolize and keep estrogen levels balanced. Therefore, a healthy gut is essential for hormonal balance and reduction of the risk of many diseases.
Given the importance of your gut bacteria, a diverse, whole-foods–based diet is crucial to keeping your microbiome healthy and your hormones in balance. Studies show that the gut rapidly responds to changes in diet, so you can begin to influence your microbiome, and therefore your hormones, with your next meal.
- Incorporate prebiotic foods like inulin, a type of insoluble fiber found in chicory, onions, garlic, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes, which provide food for beneficial gut bacteria and support a healthy microbiome.
- To rebalance and keep gut bacteria diverse, enjoy probiotic-rich foods like kimchi, kefir, and raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut.
- Incorporate high-fiber foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and a variety of vegetables into your diet. Adequate fiber intake is associated with less weight gain, healthier cholesterol levels, and reduced constipation, and may lead to more balanced levels of estrogen.
- Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale, and other leafy greens, are also helpful in regulating beneficial gut bacteria, supplying fiber to keep the gut healthy and supporting healthy detoxification of hormones.
While hormonal changes are a normal part of menopause, these dietary habits can help you minimize and cope with symptoms, and bring your body back into balance!
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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