Nutritionists explain how women can eat to help balance hormones

Some principles of healthy eating apply to almost everyone – drink enough water and eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, for example.

But when it comes to hormones, a lot of diet advice ignores the big difference between women’s and men’s health.

“Women are so underrepresented in studies, especially because we have menstrual cycles,” says functional nutritionist and author Pauline Cox.

“My passion and mission is to empower women with information and knowledge that can radically change their immediate health and long-term health.”

Cox, 43, who started her career as a physiotherapist before becoming a nutritionist, now mainly works with women’s groups online and just released her second book, Hungry Woman: Eat for Health, Happiness and Good Hormones.

“I feel like there’s a lot of information that can be shared with women to help them understand their hormones, and understand that we don’t have to get frustrated with ourselves and fight our female physiology.”

At the heart of the problem is the balance (or lack thereof) between estrogen and progesterone levels.

“When our progesterone levels are low, our estrogen can become predominant, and that’s when we start to see things like PMS, heavy periods, painful periods, flooding into the start of our periods,” says Cox, who lives in Somerset.

“Many women accept that as part of their monthly cycle, but when we get our progesterone levels back up, it helps balance the effects of estrogen.”

Here, she explains five ways women can adjust their diet to keep their hormones in check…

1. Take care of your heart

“Estrogen is a growth hormone,” explains Cox, using the analogy of grass growing on a lawn to explain how the two hormones interact.

“Progesterone is like a lawn mower. It comes and keeps the grass under control. When we lose progesterone, estrogen gets out of hand.”

That’s why it’s important that our bodies are able to efficiently clear estrogen through the liver, gut, and intestines.

“How much estrogen we secrete can be affected by what we eat and how we live,” says Cox.

“There are lots of cruciferous vegetables in this book – cauliflower, broccoli, these are great vegetables to support liver detoxification.”

2. Add fermented foods

To deliver beneficial bacteria to your gut, try including fermented foods like pickled vegetables, kefir, kombucha or natural yogurt as part of your daily diet.

“Our gut diversity declines with age and microbiome diversity has been linked to longevity and good health,” says Cox, who suggests just one tablespoon of sauerkraut a day can make a difference.

“This is an easy win… to maximize our longevity and optimize our gut-brain axis, which is so important.”

3. Avoid ultra-processed foods

There has been a lot of talk recently about how harmful ultra-processed foods can be, and that includes their effect on hormone levels.

“When we eat high-sugar, processed foods, our inflammation levels go up and our cortisol levels go up, which robs us of progesterone,” says Cox.

Plus, filling up with these empty calories – as delicious as they often are – means we have less room for nutritious food.

“They often lack nutrients, so you don’t get the nutrients you need to build hormones and support hormonal health such as magnesium, zinc, B vitamins and omega three fatty acids.”

4. Create a feeding window

It’s not just what you eat, but when. Cox recommends having an “eating window” during the day that ends around 6 p.m., so there’s a few hours off before you go to bed.

“When your blood sugar rises at night, your kidneys have to work to try and get rid of this excess blood sugar, which means you wake up at night to urinate,” he says.

“Many women associate this with drinking a lot before bed, but actually eating late at night can also be for that reason.”

Choosing foods that are nutritious and satisfying is the next step.

“Within that window, start becoming a little more conscious of your carbs and increase your protein,” he continues.

“So you feel full, your body gets all the amino acids it needs, and you probably don’t have as many ready-to-eat foods as sandwiches, pasta, chips.”

5. Monitor your magnesium

“Most women are subclinically deficient in magnesium,” explains Cox, which can lead to insomnia, and the risk increases with age.

“When we reach our 40s, we absorb less magnesium than we did in our 20s.”

Diet also plays a role: “If we have high blood sugar and levels of inflammation when stressed, we lose magnesium.”

She recommends taking a magnesium glycinate or bisglycinate supplement before bed to increase your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.

“It’s the glycine part that helps reduce your core body temperature, which is what your body wants when it’s going to sleep,” he says.

“The compound also helps you enter what’s called REM sleep, which is sleep where you consolidate memories and learning.”

‘Hungry Woman’ by Pauline Cox (Ebury Press, £27).

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