Hormone-Balancing Foods: How Your Diet Can Help Keep Your Hormones Functioning Well
When we think about what to eat to nourish our bodies, hormones may not always be top of mind. But our hormones play a very important role in our bodies. Hormones are chemical messengers that are part of the endocrine system and help with growth and development, metabolism and digestion, fertility, stress and mood and more.
Pictured recipe: Salmon-Stuffed Avocados
When hormones get out of balance—too much or too little are produced or something interferes with signaling pathways—it can lead to issues like diabetes, weight loss or gain, or infertility, among other problems.
A healthy diet can help keep hormones in sync. Here's an overview of what your hormones control and which foods keep them balanced.
How diet affects hormones
What we eat affects the production of hormones and their signaling pathways. "Our hormones like healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, as well as ample fiber from fruits and vegetables and quality proteins like eggs, fish and meat," says Melissa Groves Azzaro, RDN, LD, PCOS, hormone, and fertility dietitian at Avocado Grove Nutrition. In contrast, pesticides, alcohol and artificial sweeteners can negatively impact hormones.
You need enough calories too. "Women's bodies especially are very sensitive to scarcity. If your body doesn't feel like it's getting enough, it downregulates production of sex hormones. Your body doesn't know the difference between a war or famine or a new weight-loss diet you're following," says Azzaro. (Learn more about how losing weight can also slow your metabolism.)
How to know if hormones are imbalanced
"During reproductive years, women can look to their cycle to give them signs that their hormones are out of balance. Infertility, 'period problems' like PMS, heavy, painful periods, and migraines all can be signs that hormones are out of balance," says Ayla Barmmer, M.S., RD, LDN, owner of Boston Functional Nutrition and creator of Full Circle Prenatal.
Sudden weight fluctuations or changes in energy levels could also signal a hormonal imbalance. "But, really, the best way to know for sure is to get tested," says Azzaro.
How hormones work in your body
There are over 200 hormones in the body. Estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, insulin, leptin, ghrelin and thyroid hormones are the most commonly known. These are linked closely to metabolism, fertility and mood.
Insulin: Insulin is released from the pancreas after you eat and takes sugar (glucose) from the blood to cells for energy. Insulin is also the hormone responsible for storing extra sugar as fat.
Leptin: This is released from fat cells and helps control appetite, maintain weight and tell the brain you are full. It's often referred to as the "satiety hormone."
Ghrelin: This hormone is responsible for stimulating your appetite and is often called the "hunger hormone."
Thyroid hormones: Triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) help regulate weight, energy, temperature, growth of hair, skin and nails and more.
Learn more about what may impact your metabolism, such as eating protein and drinking tea.
Estrogen: This is the female sex hormone that leads to changes during puberty and helps regulate menstrual cycle, maintain pregnancy, keep cholesterol in check and keep bones strong.
Testosterone: The male sex hormone that leads to changes during puberty; increases sex drive, bone density and muscle strength (in both men and women).
Stress and Mood
Cortisol: Cortisol is released in times of stress and increases blood pressure and heart rate. Too much isn't good for your health, and it's often referred to as the "stress hormone."
Adrenaline: Our "fight or flight" hormone is released in times of stress and increases heart rate.
Melatonin: This hormone is released at night and prepares the body for sleep. It's often called our "sleep-inducing hormone."
Best foods for hormone balance
"Cruciferous veggies, especially broccoli and broccoli sprouts, are superstars at helping our livers metabolize estrogen in an efficient and healthy way," says Barmmer. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and bok choy are cruciferous vegetables too. "Consuming them regularly is one way to protect yourself from developing estrogen-dominant cancers," says Barmmer. Roast them with a drizzle of olive oil, which helps increase absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K or try them in our broccoli-cauliflower soup.
Salmon and albacore tuna
Fat and cholesterol are the building blocks of hormones. You need enough cholesterol to make sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone. The key is to choose fats high in omega-3s and to limit saturated fats (and eliminate trans fats). Salmon, canned albacore tuna, walnuts, flaxseed, olive oil, avocados and chia seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
"Salmon also stabilizes your hunger hormones and is high in vitamin D, which helps regulate female testosterone levels," says Carrie Gabriel M.S., RDN, a dietitian and owner of Steps2Nutrition. "The good fats in fish improve overall hormonal communication. The endocrine system uses hormones to communicate with the brain, which in turn boosts our mood and gives us better cognitive skills."
Try these healthy salmon recipes to get your fill.
"Avocados are loaded with beta-sitosterol, which can positively affect blood cholesterol levels and help balance cortisol," says Gabriel. "The plant sterols in avocados also influence estrogen and progesterone, the two hormones responsible for regulating ovulation and menstrual cycles." A 2019 study found that the combination of fat and fiber in avocados increased hormones that promote satiety, including peptide YY (PYY), cholecystokinin (CCK) and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1). Add half an avocado to breakfast or lunch to help you stay full for hours, or use avocado in these healthy avocado recipes.
Fruits and vegetables (preferably organic)
"There are studies that show that even one serving of a high-pesticide fruit or vegetable (such as strawberries) has a negative impact on fertility," says Azzaro. "Many pesticides act as hormone disruptors, meaning they either mimic hormones in your body or they affect the actions of your own hormones."
Barmmer agrees, noting, "It's important to avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and it is well documented that glyphosate, for example, is an endocrine disruptor." By eating organic, you can greatly reduce your exposure to glyphosate, Barmmer says.
But Azzaro notes that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh not eating them if you can't afford to eat organic. Minimize exposure if you can, but know that all fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Consider shopping organic from the "Dirty Dozen" list, which is ranking of the most contaminated produce from the Environmental Working Group.
Think fruits, vegetables and whole grains. "Eating a diet high in fiber can help clear excess hormones from the body," says Azzaro. Fiber, as well as lignans, which are abundant in flaxseed, "facilitate binding and removal of unbound active estrogens," says Barmmer. Focus on making half your plate nonstarchy vegetables at most meals and a fourth of your plate starchy vegetables like potatoes or whole grains. "Root vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and squashes can be helpful, along with whole grains and beans," says Isabel Smith, M.S., RD, a dietitian and hormone expert at Isabel Smith Nutrition and Lifestyle in New York City. Including some starch at dinner may help to regulate the hormones melatonin and cortisol too, Smith says: "In fact, some carbs can really help to mitigate elevated cortisol levels." (Learn more about which foods can help with stress.)
Prebiotics and probiotics
Probiotics are the good bacteria that reside in the gut, while prebiotics are fibrous foods those bacteria nosh on to flourish. The gut is the largest endocrine organ in the body and synthesizes and secretes more than 20 hormones that play a role in appetite, satiety and metabolism. Smith recommends eating prebiotic foods like raw garlic and oats, asparagus, dandelion, almonds, apples, bananas, Jerusalem artichokes and chicory. Incorporate probiotics like kimchi and yogurt too, she adds.
Worst foods for hormone balance
Eat less processed foods, fried foods, sugar and artificial sweeteners—and drink less alcohol—to avoid hormone imbalances. "Research suggests that downing artificial sweeteners may alter our gut bacteria, which may impact the balance of hunger and satiety, those same hormones leptin and ghrelin," says Gabriel.
Alcohol interferes with several hormonal processes, from blood sugar control to estrogen metabolism. Booze is associated with an increased risk for breast cancer, as well as other cancers. Stick to no more than one drink a day if you're a woman and no more than two drinks per day if you're a man.
Stress, sleep and exercise
In addition to a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, keeping stress levels low and exercising regularly are all crucial for hormone balance. Sleep deprivation is linked to low testosterone in men, and lack of sleep interferes with leptin and ghrelin (hence, why you tend to crave carbs and all the snacks when you're tired).
Chronic stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol, which suppresses the digestive and immune systems and can cause high blood pressure. Cortisol also leads to carb cravings. Exercise, meditation, sleep and eating chocolate (we like that recommendation) boost levels of norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine boosts energy, and serotonin is the "feel good" hormone.
Hormones impact growth and development, metabolism, digestion, fertility, stress, mood, energy, appetite, weight and more. Eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and protein keeps hormones balanced. Not eating enough total calories, healthy fats or fiber can disrupt hormones and may lead to conditions like obesity, diabetes, infertility and cancer. Lack of sleep, stress, alcohol and processed foods can also throw off hormones directly or indirectly by influencing the gut microbiome, which keeps hormones balanced.