Hormones & Our Health: How What We Eat May Affect How They Work

Hormones play a role in almost everything your body does, which means that even small changes in your hormones can have noticeable effects. Here's what you need to know to keep your hormones functioning as they should.
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Talk of hormone health is everywhere lately. There's been an explosion of Instagram influencers selling programs that promise to "balance your hormones," and there are countless supplements on the market that claim to boost hormone health. And it makes sense that so many people are interested in these things—our hormones impact practically everything that happens in our bodies, so of course we want to do what we can to help them function properly.

The truth about hormone health is that it's incredibly complex. There's no one-size-fits-all way to "balance your hormones," and no diet that will guarantee hormone health. But there are certain things you can do (and avoid doing) to help your hormones function the way they should.

We asked three experts to give us the facts on how hormones impact your health, and what you can do to keep them working properly.

What are hormones? What do they do?

Simply put, hormones are chemical messengers that regulate countless bodily functions and behaviors. They affect practically every aspect of your health. Hormones, along with the glands that secrete them, make up the endocrine system. (That's why doctors who specialize in hormone health are called endocrinologists.)

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.  

When we talk about general hormone health and hormone-related issues, though, we're usually talking about a few areas and hormones in particular.

Digestion and metabolism

Insulin is made in the pancreas and gets released after you eat. It signals your body to transport sugar (glucose) from your blood to your cells for fuel. If you eat more sugar than your cells can use, the excess gets converted into fat (which isn't inherently a bad thing since your body often relies on fat for energy). You might think of insulin as the "diabetes hormone," since too little insulin or impaired use of insulin is what causes diabetes.

Leptin and ghrelin go hand in hand. Leptin, the "fullness hormone" or "satiety hormone," gets released from fat cells and signals to your brain when it's time to stop eating. Ghrelin, the "hunger hormone," stimulates your appetite and makes you feel hungry.

Triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) are your thyroid hormones. They help regulate your weight, energy expenditure (or metabolism) and body temperature, among other things.

Reproductive health

Estrogen is one of two main sex hormones that is predominant in cisgender women and some transgender people. If puberty blockers are not used as part of affirming transgender health care, estrogen is responsible for changes during puberty. Post-puberty, estrogen levels regulate the menstrual cycle and fertility in cisgender women and some transgender people. Estrogen keeps cholesterol in check and bones strong.

Progesterone is the secondary sex hormone in cisgender women and some transgender people. It primarily supports the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. Some forms of progesterone are used as testosterone blockers in transgender women or people assigned male at birth. Estrogen alone is not enough for transfeminine people to develop more feminine characteristics. 

Testosterone is the main sex hormone that is predominant in cisgender men and some transgender people. If puberty blockers are not used to suppress secondary sex characteristics, it's responsible for changes during puberty, and it increases sex drive, bone density and muscle strength in all people. Testosterone is sometimes used by transmasculine people who were assigned female at birth in order to see masculinizing changes in their appearance, such as facial hair, a deeper voice and fat redistribution.

Sleep

Melatonin, often called the "sleep-inducing hormone," is released at night and signals to our body that it's time to relax and go to sleep.

Stress and mood

Cortisol, known as the "stress hormone," and adrenaline, known as the "fight or flight" hormone, are both released in times of stress. Together, they elevate your heart rate and blood pressure and raise your blood sugar to provide your cells with energy. This is helpful in times of acute (short-lived) stress, but chronic stress leads to constantly elevated levels of these hormones, which can cause harm.

Serotonin, sometimes called the "happy hormone," is responsible for stabilizing your mood and making you feel happy and well. It helps your brain communicate with the rest of your nervous system.

Weight

Weight balance is affected by leptin (the "fullness hormone") and ghrelin (the "hunger hormone"). Over time, your body might start producing more ghrelin and become less sensitive to leptin—often due to poor diet or big weight fluctuations—which means you feel more hunger and your brain is slower to signal fullness.

Chronically elevated cortisol can make you feel hungrier and lead to more fat storage around your waist. Too much or too little estrogen can also lead to weight gain, and weight gain often happens naturally as estrogen decreases during menopause.

Overproduction of thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) can lead to weight loss and underproduction can lead to weight gain.

Fatigue and energy levels

Many hormone imbalances can lead to fatigue or inconsistent energy levels. Too little thyroid hormone (T3 and T4) slows down your metabolism and can lead to fatigue. Chronically elevated cortisol might cause fatigue and inconsistent energy. Low testosterone can lead to low energy as well as lack of sex drive and unstable mood. And when estrogen is too high or too low, it can affect your energy as well.

You can't really "balance" your hormones

Given the fact that hormones have such an impact on how we feel, you might be wondering how to balance your hormones. Turns out, that's not exactly a thing. "This isn't really a medical term," says Heather Huddleston, M.D., director of the PCOS clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, and medical advisor at Allara, explaining that hormone levels are constantly fluctuating in response to what's happening in and around your body. They typically stay within a certain range, but they're never really "balanced" at a specific level.

But, Huddleston explains, "it is possible to have hormones that are in an abnormal range for a variety of reasons." When one or more of your hormones is being over- or underproduced, or isn't triggering the proper response in your body, you might experience some hormonal imbalance symptoms.

Certain health conditions can lead to (or be caused by) abnormal hormone function.

There are things you can do to help keep your hormones functioning optimally (more on that in a moment). But in some cases, hormone dysfunction is the cause or the result of a medical condition that needs to be treated by a doctor. These are some of the most common hormone-related conditions:

Diabetes is caused by a lack of insulin (type 1) or by your body's inability to use insulin properly (type 2), which means your body can't keep its blood sugar levels under control.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a collection of various symptoms that might include polycystic ovaries, irregular periods and weight fluctuations. The exact cause is unknown, but excess insulin and androgen (a reproductive hormone) production are thought to play a role.

Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are caused by too little (hypo) or too much (hyper) thyroid hormone being produced. This leads to changes in your metabolic rate, which can lead to weight loss or weight gain, changes in heart rate and irregular moods. Hashimoto's disease is the most common type of hypothyroidism and Graves disease is the most common form of hyperthyroidism.

Addison's disease is caused by not enough adrenal hormones (cortisol and aldosterone) being produced. It can lead to low blood pressure and low blood sugar, weakness, weight loss and irregular moods.

Osteoporosis, the thinning of bones and loss of bone mass, is common among older cisgender women and some transgender peopleA primary cause is decreased estrogen and parathyroid hormone (which regulates calcium and phosphorus in your body) due to aging. The use of androgen blockers, estrogen or testosterone as part of one's hormone therapy can vary the risk of osteoporosis in transgender individuals.

If you suspect that you have a hormone-related health condition, talk to your doctor about it. In many cases, medication and hormone replacement therapy is essential. And don't fret about whether or not to get bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (which means the hormones you're getting are chemically identical to the ones in your body). The Mayo Clinic explains that bioidentical hormone replacement therapy isn't any more effective than traditional hormone replacement.

Certain diet tweaks can help keep your hormones functioning properly.

Even without a diagnosed condition, small hormone irregularities can lead to uncomfortable symptoms or just make you feel off. Trying to fix these things through lifestyle changes can be tricky (and sometimes impossible, if you have an underlying condition) and there's no one-size-fits-all fix to pesky symptoms like poor sleep or an irregular period. But that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to support hormone health.

"We know that hormones behave their best when they are maintained through a balanced diet, adequate sleep and low-stress environment," says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian and author of The Better Period Food Solution. A Mediterranean-style diet rich in plant foods, proteins and healthy fats is a great way to keep your endocrine system healthy. But beyond that, there are more specific things you can do if you're experiencing certain common hormone-related issues.

creamy roasted red pepper peanut soup

Feeling stressed after a busy day? Unwind with a bowl of this comforting soup, which contains ingredients—like red bell peppers and peanuts—that can help combat inflammation caused by too much stress.

Credit: Andrea Mathis

If you're extremely tired and irritable, your diet may be too restrictive.

Certain influencers recommend cutting out entire food groups in order to "balance your hormones," but Beckerman says this does more harm than good. "Extracting big food groups could omit key nutrients from someone's diet, even worsening their hormonal imbalance and health status," Beckerman says. Unless you have an allergy or intolerance, it's not necessary to cut out gluten, dairy or carbs or any other food for that matter.

If you're gaining weight quickly, see a doctor or dietitian.

If you gain an unusual amount of weight and can't figure out why, your hormones may be to blame. While cutting back on sugar and prioritizing nutritious foods might help, Beckerman warns that it's not a good idea to try and deal with rapid weight gain on your own. Going on a diet can send your hormones even more out of whack, because you're not getting adequate energy for hormone production. Plus, quick weight gain might be a symptom of a medical condition that requires treatment.

cheesy spinach artichoke casserole

This high-protein casserole clocks in right around 400 calories to help you end your day feeling satisfied—not starved or overly full. Leptin is the hormone that signals fullness and tells your body to stop eating, and protein—be it chicken, beans or tofu—helps increase how effective your body is at picking up on those fullness cues.

Credit: Andrea Mathis

If your period is missing or irregular, you might need to gain weight or cut back on exercise.

"Being underweight or overexercising can cause your hypothalamus (in the brain) to change its signals to the pituitary in ways that shut down hormone production from the ovaries," Huddleston says. If your period has unexpectedly disappeared or become irregular, if you're having trouble conceiving or if you're experiencing an abnormally low sex drive, talk to your doctor about potential causes. Being underweight, not eating enough and overexercising are all possible reasons.

If your energy levels are all over the place, or if your skin is breaking out more than usual, try eating less sugar and fewer processed carbs.

There's no need to cut sugar or processed carbs out of your diet entirely. But relying too much on these foods makes it difficult for your hormones to function properly, explains LaKeischa McMillan, M.D., a gynecologist who specializes in hormonal health. Consuming lots of sugar (without fiber, protein and fat to slow down its absorption) on a regular basis can wreak havoc on your metabolic hormones by causing you to become less sensitive to insulin (which lowers your blood sugar) and leptin (which helps you feel satisfied). Increased insulin production can also trigger the release of more androgen, leading to acne.

apple pie energy balls

These delicious energy balls are the perfect snack to help you fight that familiar midday fatigue. Rather than reaching for something sugary that will quickly cause your blood sugar—and energy levels—to spike and then plummet, go for a snack that will give you a steady stream of energy. These no-added-sugar energy balls have high-fiber oats, healthy fats and a touch of natural sweetness from dates for lasting energy.

Credit: Andrea Mathis

If you have terrible PMS, try adding vitamin B6 and calcium.

"Basic PMS symptoms like cramping, irritability and bloating can be mitigated through dietary changes," Beckerman says. "In fact, a big reason why people get PMS is because they may be low in a vitamin or mineral like vitamin B6 and calcium. That's why it's recommended that those with PMS boost their diet with vitamin B6-rich foods, like chickpeas, salmon and whole grains, and calcium-friendly foods like dairy, broccoli and tofu."

If you can't focus, melatonin-rich foods before bed might help.

"Sleep is so important to the body's ability to make certain hormones and wash out others," McMillan says. Lack of sleep can elevate cortisol levels in particular, which can make you feel irritable and unable to focus—a feeling some people describe as "brain fog." Many hormones also get produced while you sleep, and not getting enough sleep can interfere with this.

In order to get better sleep, habits like not drinking caffeine and alcohol before bed and giving yourself time to wind down can boost melatonin production, which signals to your body that it's time to sleep. Taking melatonin supplements and eating foods rich in melatonin, like cherries, may also help.

tart cherry nice cream

It's no fun trying to function on insufficient sleep. And besides making us feel groggy, consistent poor sleep can impact our immune system, heart health, weight and mental health. Thankfully, certain foods may help improve both sleep quality and duration, like tart cherries, which are naturally rich in the sleep hormone, melatonin. Try this no-sugar-added Tart Cherry Nice Cream as an after-dinner treat!

Credit: Andrea Mathis

Remember that hormone health is complicated and individual. Good habits can help, but it's always best to see a doctor if something is wrong.

Small lifestyle tweaks like the ones mentioned above might be helpful if you're experiencing minor symptoms, but Huddleston reiterates that hormones are complicated and what works for one person might not work for another. If a few habit changes help you feel better, that's fantastic. But if you make these tweaks and still don't feel your best, the next step is to talk to your doctor. Going to extremes in an attempt to self-treat your symptoms will probably just make things worse.

Food items that are apart of the Mediterranean diet
Credit: Adobe Stock / Aamulya
An illustration of food items included in the Mediterranean diet on a designed background
Credit: Julian Birchman
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Credits

Editors: Victoria Seaver, M.S., RD

Contributors: Christine Byrne, M.P.H., RD, Karen Ansel, M.S., RDN, Melissa Groves Azzaro, RDN, LD, Johane M. Filemon, M.S., RDN, Victoria Seaver, M.S., RD

Recipes & Photography: Andrea Mathis, M.A., RDN, LD

Visuals & Design: Evan de Normandie, Tyrel Stendahl, Jesse Blanner, Julian Birchman, Jenna Brillhart

Special Thanks: Penelope Wall, Jessica Ball, M.S., RD, Sophie Johnson, Addie Knight, Anne Treadwell, Beth Stewart, Carolyn Casner, Ingrid Killian, David Willey, Amber Leventry, Julia Dennison, Kelly Glass, Heather Huddleston, M.D., Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, M.S., RD, LaKeischa McMillan, M.D., Arti Thangudu, M.D.