How Food Affects Your Hormone Levels
By: Sasha de Beausset, B.A., M.Sc.
We usually only talk about hormones when someone we know is going through puberty or menopause. Apart from that, hormones don’t usually make an appearance in our daily conversations, especially when it comes to food and eating. It seems that hormones levels may be affected by our diet, resulting in effects on our mood, appetite, and overall health. This makes yet another case for the importance of always eating a balanced diet. In this article we’ll go over the basics about hormones and discuss what the research says regarding the relationships between food and our hormone levels.
The food you eat has a big impact on your hormones
First of All, What Are Hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers produced in special glands in the body, known as endocrine glands. Many of the major bodily functions are controlled by hormones, including hunger and emotions. The endocrine glands, altogether, form the endocrine system. Some of these glands include:
- The ovaries: they secrete estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone in females
- The testes: they secrete testosterone in males.
- The pituitary: found at the base of the brain, it secretes hormones that control growth, and it controls other glands.
- The adrenal: produces cortisol (the stress hormone) and controls sex drive.
- The pancreas: produces insulin to help control blood sugar levels.
- The hypothalamus: secretes hormones responsible for hunger, moods, thirst, sex drive, and body temperature. It also triggers the release of other hormones in other glands.
- The thyroid: controls energy use, metabolism, and heart rate.
These and other glands make up the endocrine system and ensure the body’s health and wellbeing, while also having an effect on our social interactions. Some of the major types of hormones include:
- Estrogen: the main sex hormone for women. The level of estrogen fluctuates in women during menopause, causing a range of symptoms.
- Progesterone: assists in the menstrual cycle and is important during pregnancy.
- Cortisol: known as the stress hormone, because it is secreted during stress.
- Testosterone: the main sex hormone for men, which is important in sexual development, muscular growth, and bone density.
- Insulin: Essential to bring glucose into our cells for use.
- Leptin: An appetite suppressor. Is generally lower in people who are very thin.
- Ghrelin: Increases appetite, and plays a role in body weight. Is generally lower in overweight people.
By regulating hormone levels, your body is looking to achieve balance (homeostasis)
How Can Food Affect Your Hormone Levels?
It is important to keep in mind that our hormones are constantly looking to maintain homeostasis in our bodies; homeostasis is about keeping the body more or less the same (in a healthy state) indefinitely.
If we have just eaten a big slice of cake, insulin will kick in to make sure our blood sugar levels stay stable. If we consistently have a diet high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, we can develop insulin resistance, since homeostasis can’t be achieved and insulin receptors on the cells are damaged or altered. If this isn’t controlled, it can lead to diabetes.
Foods high in sugar can lead to insulin spikes
If we sleep less, our ghrelin levels will increase, and leptin levels will decrease, making us feel hungry to sustain the extra energy need. If we don’t control the quality and quantity of food we eat during these bouts of increased appetite, it can lead to weight gain.
Lack of sleep affects hormone levels too!
In other cases, changes in hormone levels don’t have to do with maintaining homeostasis, rather to an interference. There are some foods that contain isoflavones, which are estrogen-like chemicals found naturally in some plants, like soy, peanuts, alfalfa, and fava beans. Some research, while highly contested, shows that eating significant amounts of these foods can affect your estrogen levels.
Some meta-analyses suggest that consuming soy leads to decrease in breast cancer risk, and still other researchers find that it may be beneficial to women during and after menopause in terms of, symptoms of menopause, cholesterol levels, and cognitive function, among others.
What Else Can Affect Your Hormone Levels?
According to the Hormone Health Network, various factors affect hormone levels throughout your lifetime. Some of these changes are natural and healthy, while others are not. These factors include:
As we age, the endocrine system adapts to our needs. As women enter into menopause, for example, there is no longer a need to menstruate, so estrogen levels will drop, and the production of the growth hormone reduces. However, if cell damage has occurred in our lifetime, our hormone production may also be altered, leading to alterations is hormone production and secretion, metabolism, hormone levels in our blood, response of cells to hormones.
Aging affects hormones too
Diseases and Conditions:
Certain chronic diseases, especially those of the heart, liver, or kidneys, can affect the way hormones are produced and broken down. Some of the conditions that can result in abnormal endocrine function include: congenital birth defects, surgery, injuries, tumors (cancerous and benign), infections, and autoimmune damage.
Stress can be caused by both physical (like heat, cold, and disease) and mental factors (work load, anxiety, and traumatic experiences). The body responds to stress by making more cortisol, and adrenaline production can also increase. With chronic stress, exposure to too much cortisol can lead to other health issues.
- Environmental Factors:
There are chemicals outside of the body that can interfere with normal hormonal function. These are called endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC). These can prevent the proper functioning of natural hormones, or interview with the transport, storage or metabolism of hormones, thus affecting sexual development and functioning, birth defects, problems with immune response, and neurological behavior changes.
- Genetics: There are some genes that can affect the amount or kind of hormones produced. These, if not detected, can increase your chances of having different diseases.
There are several variables that can lead to alterations in normal hormone levels. One of them may be your diet. Certain foods contain substances that act like hormones in the body, while other diet patterns can lead to changes in hormone levels, gradual and abrupt. The best way to support hormone homeostasis, and thus, your overall health, is by consuming a balanced diet, learning how your specific body reacts to different foods, and informing yourself about nutrition of course!