The Best Foods for Hormone Health, According to a Dietitian
Our series, Hormones & Our Health: How What You Eat May Affect How They Work, explores the vast role hormones play in the body and the diet and lifestyle factors that help them function as they should.
According to what we're seeing in the health and wellness world, you'd think that hormone imbalances are an epidemic of their own these days. It's true that people are being diagnosed with hormone-related conditions—where the body does in fact produce too much or too little of certain hormones, such as diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis—at an increasing rate (largely due to advances in diagnosing) and fertility rates continue to decline.
But can hormones also be to blame for other commonly reported issues like low energy, sleep trouble, difficulty losing weight and low sex drive? While many factors are at play, small hormone irregularities may contribute to these unpleasant symptoms. And while no single food or behavior can magically fix the problem, there are some things you can do to help—like following more of a Mediterranean-style eating pattern.
First things first—let's go over the basics. Hormones are chemical messengers created by endocrine glands, which include the pituitary, thyroid, ovaries and adrenals. Hormones travel through the body to deliver messages to various organs to let them know what they need to do to keep everything running smoothly.
When we think of hormones, we generally think of the sex hormones:
However, other hormones include:
- Insulin—allows our cells to utilize energy from food
- Thyroid hormone—controls metabolism, affects weight and body temperature
- Cortisol—released during times of stress
- DHEA—or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a precursor to the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone
- Leptin—the "fullness hormone" that tells your brain when it's time to stop eating
- Ghrelin—the "hunger hormone" that stimulates your appetite and makes you feel hungry
- Melatonin—the "sleep hormone" which helps promote a healthy sleep cycle
- And hundreds of others
Where does the Mediterranean diet come in?
The Mediterranean diet is constantly touted as one of the best eating patterns to follow—and with good reason! Filled with anti-inflammatory fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and omega-3 fatty acids, it's a great place to start for overall health, as well as hormone health. Plus, it's not restrictive, which means you'll have an easier—and more enjoyable—time following it. According to research, here are some of the top foods to eat more of for better hormone health.
The 5 Best Mediterranean Foods for Hormone Health, According to a Dietitian
Salmon contains cholesterol, which is needed to make hormones, and is a good source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. One randomized controlled trial showed supplementation with fish oil and vitamin E resulted in significant reduction in menstrual pain compared with placebo or either supplement alone. Another review of 11 studies found a decreased risk for endometriosis with consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, fish oil may help lower production of stress hormones, which in turn may help decrease side effects associated with elevated cortisol levels, like fatigue.
Additionally, the protein and healthy fats found in salmon digest slowly, which means you're more likely to feel satisfied for longer after a meal with salmon. This helps to keep blood sugar—and insulin—balanced, which means more stable energy levels. Additionally, in regard to leptin (the hormone that signals fullness), protein helps increase leptin sensitivity, or how effective your body is at picking up on those fullness cues. This is helpful when it comes to losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight, as the more in-tune you are with your fullness cues, the less likely you are to eat more calories than your body needs.
2. Shrimp and shellfish
Shellfish and crustaceans—think shrimp, scallops and clams—are abundant in the Mediterranean diet. Shellfish, besides being a good source of lean protein, are one of the densest sources of minerals such as selenium, zinc and iodine. Selenium and zinc are crucial to thyroid function (our thyroid gland plays a major role in metabolism, weight management and body temperature), and iodine is a key component of thyroid hormone. Like salmon, shellfish also contain anti-inflammatory omega-3s, albeit in much lower amounts.
Unless you have a diagnosed thyroid condition, chances are your thyroid and its hormones are working fine. If you do have a diagnosed thyroid condition, like hypo- or hyperthyroidism, or if you have a family history of thyroid disease, including selenium, zinc and iodine-rich foods in your diet may be beneficial for thyroid and overall health (consult with your doctor; medication is the first line of treatment for thyroid conditions). Besides shellfish and crustaceans, foods like cereals, dairy products and salt, are now fortified with these three nutrients to help ensure you meet the requirement.
Additionally, seafood that's higher in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), like mussels, salmon, tuna, mackerel and anchovies, can be an excellent source of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid (which is a building block of protein) that supports the production of melatonin, or the "sleep hormone".
Once our bodies use hormones, they have to get rid of them. Like most things in the body, the liver works to metabolize (or break down) the hormones and they get excreted in the urine and stool. Artichokes have long been praised for their support of liver function. The liver does a good job of "detoxing" the body on its own, but including artichokes as part of a healthy diet can be beneficial to overall health.
Artichokes are also high in fiber, with one medium artichoke containing 7 grams of fiber (for reference, it's recommended that we eat about 25 to 38 grams of fiber a day). Fiber helps bind to and remove excess hormones via the gastrointestinal tract. A high-fiber diet has been associated with lower hormone levels, which may be helpful in the case of high hormone levels—think high cortisol levels from chronic stress or high estrogen levels which may increase breast cancer risk in some individuals. On the other hand, if you're dealing with low hormone levels, it's best to eat a diet with moderate amounts of fiber rather than exceeding the daily recommended amount.
Additionally, fiber works in similar ways as protein and fat, as it's digested slowly. So including fiber-rich foods at meals can further help balance energy levels throughout the day.
Nuts and seeds are nutrient-dense foods that contain a wide range of phytonutrients, minerals (such as selenium and zinc, which are important for hormone production) and vitamins (including B vitamins, which are necessary for hormone metabolism, or how hormones are used, broken down and excreted).
Some seeds, in particular, have been linked to improved hormone health. Flaxseed contains lignans, which are a phytoestrogen, or plant-based estrogen-like substance that is much weaker than the estrogens we make in our bodies. Benefits of flax on hormones include longer luteal phase (the second half of the menstrual cycle, from ovulation to the start of the next period), reduction in cyclical breast pain and lowering estrogen and testosterone in postmenopausal individuals at risk for breast cancer. Also, flaxseeds contain fiber (about 2 grams per ground tablespoon).
5. Fresh herbs
Fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, oregano and thyme and aromatics like garlic, ginger and turmeric not only help make your meals taste delicious, but they also contain potent phytochemicals that may have many benefits for health. Rosemary may block the production of DHT, the hormone responsible for hair loss. One study found rosemary oil to be as effective as minoxidil (also known by the brand name Rogaine) at promoting hair growth. Spearmint tea may also help lower androgens in those with PCOS, which helps with symptoms such as acne, hair loss and hirsutism (excess facial or body hair).
Unless you have a diagnosed hormone condition, chances are your hormones are where they need to be. That being said, small hormone irregularities may cause symptoms like low energy, sleep trouble and difficulty losing weight. Generally speaking, our hormones—and our bodies as a whole—are the happiest with a balanced diet, like what you see in a Mediterranean-style eating pattern, in addition to adequate sleep and a low-stress environment. Focus on incorporating more of these healthy foods into your weekly rotation, tweak your nighttime routine to promote better sleep and do what you can to decrease sources of stress in your life. And as always, be sure to talk to your primary care doctor or a dietitian if your symptoms are persistent.
We at EatingWell understand that most studies, including the ones we reference in this article, are based on what happens to hormone levels in cisgender people whose gender aligns with the one assigned to them at birth. This is especially true when referring to sex hormones. We adjusted our language to be sure to include all identities but recognize that based on a person's use of gender-affirming puberty blockers or hormone therapy, some of this information may not apply to transgender and nonbinary individuals in the most comprehensive way it should. We also recognize that not all transgender and nonbinary people use hormones as part of their care.