A lot of little considerations go into what we eat: taste, convenience, and cost, just to name a few. But did you know that you can also choose foods based on how they affect your hormones?
Hormones are the body’s chemical messaging system. They guide our growth and development, sexual function, sleep, mood, and more.
We usually only consider our hormones if we’re going through a transition (like puberty or menopause), or if we’ve been diagnosed with some hormone-related disease. But hormones actually impact our lives constantly, and what we eat plays a huge role in making sure this system works like it should.
For certified clinical nutritionist Autumn Bates, hormonal balance is at the heart of her dietary advice. With her clients and on her YouTube channel, Bates shares a variety of simple ways to prevent cravings, lose weight, satisfy hunger, improve sleep, and more.
“I view what I do not so much as controlling hormones but as a marker in order to determine where you need to focus on strategies in your life,” Bates said.
She began looking at the relationship between hormones and diet through her own struggle with anxiety. Beyond the typical recommendations for meditation and pharmaceuticals, Bates found another factor to help reduce her anxiety that she could use at every meal.
“I learned how to bring the body back into a state of rest and repair through simple nutritional strategies to balance hormones like cortisol, which is the body’s fight-or-flight hormone,” Bates said.
Problems With Sugar
The most significant edible offender in throwing off our hormones is also one of the most commonly consumed foods: sugar.
Sugar has always played a role in the human diet, but today we eat far more sugar than we ever have. On average, we each consume about 152 pounds a year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
There are several reasons we reach for sugar. It’s quick energy. It’s widely available. It’s cheap. And it tastes good.
However, a sugar-rich diet sets you up to fail.
“Let’s say you have a high sugar meal that some people might think is healthy—like an acai bowl that has a lot of hidden sugars in it,” Bates said.
While eating whole fruit results in a relatively slow sugar transfer into the body, once it is blended, like in an acai bowl, not only do you eat more fruit, but your body absorbs the sugar much quicker.
“If you have something like that, especially first thing in the morning, that’s going to cause a pretty big spike in your blood-glucose level. Your body doesn’t want that big spike in blood glucose because it leads to oxidation, and oxidation leads to aging.”
When your meals and snacks are high in sugar, your body gets subjected to a blood glucose roller coaster. Your body must produce a lot of the hormone insulin to clear all that sugar from your blood. However, too much insulin can cause you to suffer from hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. So the body releases another hormone, cortisol (sometimes known as the “stress hormone”) to bump the blood sugar back up.
“When you have this low blood sugar and a release of cortisol, that’s where a lot of people also experience shaky feelings of anxiety and stress,” Bates said. “This is how anxiety can be tied to blood sugar swings throughout the day, because it’s not stable.”
This instability perpetuates a vicious cycle. When your blood sugar is low, you reach for more sugar because your body becomes desperate for a quick source of energy to balance itself.
“When we’re in this state, we’re likely to choose the worst options, which will then continue the cycle,” Bates said.
Every time we eat, we trigger a cascade of hormones. In addition to insulin, we also have another hormone secreted by our fat cells called leptin. It signals when we’re full. A few hours later, ghrelin, another hormone, delivers the message that it’s time to eat again.
At least that is what’s supposed to happen. However, sugar can upset these hormonal signals in very unhealthy ways.
One of sugar’s more outspoken critics is Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California–San Francisco who specializes in the treatment of childhood obesity. In his lectures, Lustig describes sugar as an addictive poison, but he’s particularly wary of fructose. This type of sugar is found in things like fruit juice and high fructose corn syrup.
At the heart of our problem with fructose is what it does to our hormones. Lustig explains that when we eat fructose, the normal sequence of digestive hormonal reactions never occur. For example, fructose ingestion doesn’t stimulate insulin. Unlike glucose, there’s no receptor for fructose, so the liver just stores it as fat. Since insulin doesn’t go up, leptin doesn’t go up, so your brain doesn’t register that you ate something. That’s why you can consume hundreds of calories of fructose yet still remain hungry. As a result, you eat more and have more trouble burning fat.
Unfortunately, once it gets going, this cycle is incredibly difficult to stop, and it creates other problems in its wake. In a short video on sugar addiction, Lustig says that when something starts messing with our hormones to this degree, we have little power to fight the tide.
“Sleeping behavior, eating behavior, sexual behavior, drinking behavior are all hormonally driven,” Lustig says. Our hormones affect our brain with signals that create a biochemical drive. Lustig thinks this is an impossible force to resist.
“No one can exert willpower over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year,” he says. “It’s just not possible.”
To avoid the pitfalls associated with the sugar roller coaster, Bates recommends foods that have the least impact on our blood glucose: protein, fat, and fiber.
“They make it so you don’t have those spikes and falls, and it’s going to keep you satiated,” Bates said. “You’ll be satisfied, so you won’t crave something within an hour or two with a crash in blood glucose. You’ll actually be able to go 3 to 4 hours without having to snack.”
Bates advocates for a vegetable-rich diet, including using a vegetable rather than a fruit base for smoothies to avoid the sugar rush that can come with blended fruit. Fiber is best obtained through fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, foods that don’t send a surge of sugar into your bloodstream.
Hormones and Eating Times
Evidence also suggests that restricting our feeding time to specific hours of the day, instead of eating whenever we want, can have a positive effect on our hormonal balance. One benefit is improved insulin sensitivity, which means our cells are better able to take in food energy. Restricting our eating times can also result in higher levels of other helpful hormones.
“When you eat anything, it shuts off various hormones,” Bates said. “Testosterone is one. This is not just for men, but also for women. There are a lot of women I work with that suffer from low testosterone, and that can result in an inability to lose weight.”
Bates has several videos to help people implement a safe and effective intermittent fasting routine. The technique may not be for everyone, but it can be a much more sustainable slimming solution than the typical technique for weight loss, cutting calories. Although extreme calorie restriction can allow us to lose weight, the strategy can eventually hit a dead end.
“I just had a client today who illustrates this perfectly,” Bates said. “She has not been able to lose any weight, even though she’s had a 1000 calorie deficit for weeks. She’s at a complete plateau.”
Although your goal in calorie restriction may be weight loss, your body has another agenda: survival. This means that no matter how much you cut your calories, your body may become even more determined to hold on to fat.
“I equate it to the power-saving mode on your phone,” said Bates. “If you’re at five percent battery, your phone is going to shut off some applications that are available when you have a full battery. That’s why people see a plateau in the calorie-deficit type of diet.”
All About Balance
To clinically assess your actual hormonal levels, diagnostic blood testing is required. For people who suffer from hormonal diseases, regular testing may be required. However, Bates says that most people can learn to tune into imbalances without a blood test. For example, problems with sleep may signify issues with melatonin. Anxiety may point to a cortisol imbalance.
And it’s not just food. Lots of lifestyle choices affect hormones. How much stress we endure, how much sleep we get, and our activity level all play a significant role in health and hormonal harmony.
But if hormone balance is the goal, why bother with food and lifestyle? Why not just take hormones? Bates says that unless you have a disease that requires hormonal supplementation, this strategy can invite even bigger problems.
“We love fast solutions, but our bodies have this mechanism within us called a negative feedback loop,” she said. “So if you take testosterone, for example, your body will stop producing it. It takes energy to produce this hormone, and your body is always trying to preserve energy. So you can actually get into a situation where you have to take more and more hormone replacements in order to achieve the same result.”
Sometimes it’s tempting to blame your body for working against your wishes. You put all this effort into weight loss, yet your body seems to stubbornly hold onto excess pounds.
However, if you take the time to tune into your body’s needs, you may find a mutually beneficial solution.
Stress and Hormones
For example, if you’re trying to lose weight and your diet is in order, the next thing to consider is stress. Stress triggers cortisol and cortisol is often tied to belly fat. It’s a frustrating feature, but it exists for a reason.
The main job of cortisol is to provide you with an instant source of blood glucose for your body to tap into when you’re in danger. When you’re under constant stress, your body adapts by creating a storehouse of fat in your gut.
“It wants to provide you energy to get out of a bad situation,” Bates said. “It’s not that your body is faulty. It’s just responding to the environment that it’s in.”
Of course, some of the stress of life is unavoidable. However, there are techniques that we can employ to reduce much of it. Practicing meditation and mindfulness can help ease emotional stress, but physical stress can be even easier to control.
This is why regular, moderate exercise is so important. Everyone knows that too little movement can result in weight gain and increased inflammation. However, people who become overzealous about exercise in an attempt to lose weight may also be inadvertently holding themselves back.
“If you’re exercising too much, too often, and not following proper guidelines from a trainer or a program, this can result in increased cortisol levels that persist after your workout,” Bates said.
For people putting everything they’ve got into losing excess weight, Bates recommends trading some of their strenuous workouts for a more laid-back routine.
“If you are a runner, you might actually want to swap in some walking days instead, in order to balance your cortisol levels. You could also walk in the middle of the day during your lunch break. Or you can walk outside, which has been shown to decrease serum cortisol levels as well.”
Another way to cut out a big chunk of unnecessary stress is to ease off on your cell phone use. There is clear evidence that the microwave radiation our wireless devices emit causes cell damage, and oxidative stress. But the notifications also contribute to our stress level. When we’re constantly monitoring the alerts and texts our phones receive, these little stresses add up.
“Every time that notification pops up on your phone and you see it, it results in a slight spike in your cortisol level,” Bates said.
At the very least, Bates advises that people lay off the devices an hour before bed, and leave them plugged in outside the bedroom. These small changes can improve the quality of our sleep, which can help resolve a variety of hormone-related health problems.
Of course, changing your diet and lifestyle can’t make you slim and carefree overnight. Finding balance takes time, practice, and patience. It’s a process of learning which lifestyle factors you can implement to create the life you want. Your hormones can help, if you give your body what it needs so it can deploy them properly.
“This is something you continue to incorporate, so you can allow your body to balance. You can reap the benefits of this balance with increased energy, weight loss, and mental clarity—all the things your body wants you to have,” Bates said.
“It’s not a diet pill, and it’s not going to give you immediate solutions.”
That said, the solutions you do get will be lasting—and without side effects.