Dear good people of the interwebs,
I am working on a detailed list of supplements and herbs I used/ have been using/ recommend for specific conditions. That post should be ready by November. Although special herbs, dietary restrictions, or lifestyle considerations may differ depending on one’s condition anad constitution, there are certain principles that we can all agree on, and begin with. These are the principles of diet, lifestyle, and stress management- the main treatment strategies for every health concern. So, even though this post is about gaining/ maintaining hormone balance, I hope that it will help you in general, regardless of your unique health concern.
Ahara: Diet and Food
I am not going to get into my own dealing with hormone imbalance. Suffice it to say that first came a few wrong diagnoses, including one for PCOS, because, hey, if your periods are missing/irregular, and you have “cysts”, you must have PCOS, right? Wrong. Then came a correct but incomplete hypothyroidism explanation, which made me realize that the major parts of our endocrine system (from the pituitary gland to the adrenal gland; from the thyroids to the ovaries) are supposed to be working in harmony. What this means is that if one part of this system is abused, other parts will try to compromise. I was under too much stress, so I exercised constantly (I was a runner) as a way to relieve stress. This helped in the short term but contributed to my hormone imbalance in the long term. And nobody said anything to me about exercise or diet. Nobody asked. Thankfully I had common sense, and the habit of reading (a lot) so I realized that without a more holistic approach, without managing my stress, focusing on my food, changing my lifestyle, there was no way for me to get better.
All that was before I officially started to study Ayurvedic Nutrition, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and Yoga Therapy. Now that I know better, following these “Eastern” philosophies, I suggest a four-tier approach to maintain health and wellness: Ahara (diet, food), Vihara (lifestyle), Achara (behaviour), and, finally, Oshaudi (Herbs/ herbal therapy). Ayurveda says that these tiers are connected to each other- they are all affecting each other. So let’s start with a few food items that I recommend for hormone health, then move on to these other tiers.
One crucial note before we start: You CAN overdo a good thing. You do need to consider your unique situation when consuming these foods since everyone’s needs will be different. For instance, healthy fat is, well, healthy, but people with Kapha constitution (prakriti) need only a little amount, whereas Vata folks will thrive by adding plenty of fat/oil to their diet. Or, take exercise. Kapha folks can, and should, engage in more rigorous exercise when Pitta folks (me, me!) should calm it down a little (we get overheated and competitive). What is more, things might change- seasonal changes, age, a shift in your diet, exercise routine, and many other factors will constantly change your situation. Textbooks, experts, even Google (!) cannot know you that well. You should know your own body more than anyone else. Listen to it.
Dark green veggies
In order to balance our hormones, we first have to be able to make those hormones! I’m not saying this because I LOVE my kale, but greens (and it doesn’t have to be kale!) help with hormone production. They contain nutrients like magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, folate, vitamin A, and, of course, vitamin C, all of which are crucial for producing those hormones. For example, we need vitamin A to prepare for ovulation every month. We need folate to protect cervical cells and reduce the likelihood of cervical cancer.
These veggies are also natural detoxifiers. This means that they are helping out the liver so the liver will not have to overwork. This, in turn, means that the liver can spend more energy on hormone metabolism/ balance. Yes, it is the liver’s job to detox, but we should help it as much as possible so that it won’t have to overwork, because an overworked liver will affect hormone balance.
For all these reasons, do have your greens every day. Have your salad, your favorite soup, or smoothie. For my favourite green smoothie ever, have a look at the end of the article here. I also share green recipes on Instagram. Pack your salads with dandelion or parsley, to further support your liver.
Make these following herbs into tea, add them to your smoothies, oatmeals, salads, or soups.
Mint is ah.mazing. It is one of the fresh herbs I add regularly in my smoothies. Spearmint has a cooling effect, so it is especially beneficial to us fiery, hot-blooded Pitta folks. More to the point here, it decreases free testosterone levels (so it might help with acne) and increases luteinizing hormone (LH), follicular stimulating hormone (FSH), and estradiol (one of the three estrogens in the body). What is more, it can promote ovulation and thus help with fertility.
Licorice is another one I use regularly, for 3-4 months (or until I feel it has served its purpose). It balances cortisol levels, reduces testosterone, therefore alleviates common PCOS symptoms like hirsutism, or hair growth on the face or body. It is truly an amazing herb. I usually use it in smoothies, or as a tea- it has a sweet taste. Be careful, though: As I said before, you can overdo a good thing. The same food that can be the best medicine can also harm you. You don’t want to consume more than half a teaspoon a day (or, say, one cup of licorice tea a day) because it is potent, and increases blood pressure.
I mention stinging nettle in my post on detoxing. We LOVE it. It alleviates our seasonal allergies, helps with breathing, aids digestion. We have it in tincture form from Gaia Herbs. I add it in a big glass of water, a couple of times a day, following the instructions on the bottle. It has a light taste, lovely, actually, and it even helps me drink more water! Another way to consume nettle is by making tea with it. Either way, it is anti-inflammatory, testosterone lowering, and blood-sugar-lowering. I can’t say enough good things about it.
Red Reishi is the actual magic mushroom to me! It is an adaptogen, meaning, it helps the body adapt to stress. It has also been shown to have anti-androgenic effects. Among all the mushrooms, to my knowledge, reishi has the strongest effect preventing/reducing testosterone. You can find reishi in teas, in a powder form to add to food or drinks, or as an ingredient in mixes to make a “latte” or a “healthy hot chocolate” with. As always, make sure to buy from a reputable source.
Other than these, I highly recommend marjoram, dandelion, ginger, and rosemary, all of which regularly go in my yummy morning smoothie, salad dressings and dips.
Along with leafy green vegetables, increasing healthy fats is crucial if you are suffering from period problems and hormone imbalance. I try to include at least one source of healthy fat with every meal and snack. Besides helping to feel more satiated and full for longer periods, healthy fats literally feed hormones. Think avocados, ground flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, raw nuts- especially walnuts. Oh, and, hemp seeds.
Hemp seeds are definitely a favourite: Good protein source, low carb (if you are watching your carb intake), great omega 3- omega 6 ratio. These tiny buddies also give us magnesium, potassium, and zinc. Magnesium and zinc are crucial to maintain hormone health.
Sesame seeds are another favourite of mine mostly because I just LOVE tahini- along with avocados and cashews, it is one of my most-used ingredients for salad dressings. Sesame seeds are a rich source of zinc which helps boost progesterone production and, like flax seeds, they contain lignans that help block excess estrogen while progesterone rises. In menopausal women, this is believed to potentially reduce breast cancer risk.
Digest those goodies: Herbs and spices to strengthen your metabolism
Digestion is one of those areas that depend on one’s situation. Some folks will have no problem with increasing the fiber in their diets. Some folks actually can eat anything (I am those folks!). BUT if your digestive system is not particularly strong, you might have a problem with “going”, especially after a dietary change. If that is the case, you might want to look into food combining and adding spices and herbs to your regimen to help with metabolism. If you can’t digest the food, it won’t make much of a difference to eat healthy food! We really are what we digest. Besides, a healthy bowel movement is critical for hormone balance, because that’s how we remove excess hormones from our system! See how everything is connected to each other?
Drink warm water throughout the day, don’t consume anything freezing cold, make lunch your biggest meal, add warming spices like pippali (long pepper), cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, fennel, cayenne pepper, etc to your diet. You might also try starting your day with a glass of lemon water, and chewing fennel seeds before and after a meal.
Foods to avoid
This post is about what to eat for hormone health, so I don’t want to take too much time/space focusing on what not to eat. But do keep in mind that, generally speaking, when it comes to foods that contribute to hormone imbalance, there are two main categories to consider:
Conventional animal products, including dairy; and highly processed foods like prepackaged, ready-made, or fast food.
I am sorry to tell you this, but I have to add coffee and alcohol to this list- these are not as harmful as fast food when consumed in moderation, but it helps if you can try to watch your intake. Whenever you can, as much as you can, sub for delicious coffee alternatives, for instance, or try my sahlep recipe here.
That said, don’t stress too much if you “fall off the wagon”. What matters is what you do consistently. Just last week I mentioned on Instagram how I couldn’t stop eating hazelnut spread on slices of bread. In one sitting! And sometimes I eat so much that I can barely walk (how graceful is that (!)). I’m not kidding. It happens. Hormones!
Vihara (lifestyle)+ Achara (behaviour): Stress reduction
I am doing a crude job here by summarizing Vihara and Achara in this manner, because they are much more than “stress reduction”, but for our purposes here, I want you to think of a combination of habits, behaviours, the ways in which you talk to yourself, the ways in which you relate to others and to life itself—- what helps you to live in a more balanced, still, harmonious way.
Calm. Traditional Chinese Medicine interprets health as the balance between yin (the calming, building energy, our sex hormones), and yang (the digesting, acting energy, our stress hormones). We need both of these, in balance. Our modern societies demand so much from us that stress is constant and overwhelming. When the stress hormones can’t cope with this constant and overwhelming stress, our sex hormones try to help out and weaken. This is very likely the main reason why we are in this hormonal mess in the first place. Whatever you do, try to reduce and manage your stress levels. Everyone is different: You might benefit from using calming essential oils, candles, lotions, calming music- you get the idea. Another person might try acupuncture, infrared sauna. I love walking in nature, swimming, meditating, yoga. One other thing that has greatly helped me is visualization. Have you realized how hard it is for adults to actually dream? We are so used to constantly analyzing and rationalizing our wishes, that we keep limiting our creativity. Here is your chance to let go and visualize the heck of your dreams.
Relationships. Try to set clear boundaries, whenever you can. Respect yourself first, and attract respect from others. Try not to react, but, respond, instead. We are all in this mess (which we call living) together, and you don’t have to prove anything to anybody. Try to let go of competitions, jealousies, regrets, what if’s and should have’s. Life’s too short, and your hormones are too precious.
Move it. Don’t force yourself to be the best runner, the fastest swimmer, or the more flexible yogi, BUT do move your body. Exercise helps elimination, increases dopamine levels in the brain, helps to reduce stress and keep cortisol levels in balance. It also assists in stabilizing blood sugar levels which helps with insulin sensitivity. Exercising regularly can also boost estrogen levels and temper menopause symptoms.
Oshaudi: Herbal treatment and supplements
I always brag about maca because it gave me the energy when I needed it most; it helped with regulating my cycles; and I like the way it tastes! I also tell people to look into vitex (chaste berry) if they complain about PCOS and weight gain, or if they miss their periods; and black cohosh if they are suffering from night sweats. One adaptogenic herb I use daily is Shatavari. This helps with anger and irritability, cools down this fiery Pitta a little bit. Because it is cooling, it helps with hot flashes. I benefit from shatavari so much that my husband can tell when I run out of it! There is a mix from Yoursuper which is called Moon Balance. I use it every day- it’s a mix of maca, amla, and shatavari, along with hibiscus and beetroot. I find this combination helpful, as the ingredients work in harmony with each other. BUT it is crucial for everyone to check possible contraindications, their unique condition, complaints, and medical backgrounds.
Since this post is about what generally helps people, I want to mention one supplement that I think most of us, if not all, are lacking: Magnesium.
Magnesium is a crucial mineral in energy production, to be able to stay focused, regulate stress, even to balance blood sugar. It is helpful to people with PCOS, to those suffering from pre-diabetes; it helps with sugar cravings, and with feeling lethargic after meals. Magnesium is needed to actually produce sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone. It also promotes restful sleep, which, in turn, reduces stress, increases hormone production, and supports the body to repair itself, if you will. Oh, it also helps you go. Isn’t it brilliant?
Please make sure to buy your supplement from a reputable company. Expensive does not mean good quality, BUT cheaper ones are rarely gentle on the tummy. I recommend magnesium citrate since it is most easily absorbed. Also, obviously, it is best to consult with your healthcare provider before buying supplements as the dosage you should take may differ based on your unique needs.
There you have it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will be visualizing my beloved Mediterranean. Just look at this picture from last summer!
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Editor’s note: The information in this article 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 programme.
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