14 February 2007

Food is your medicine

Hormones can wreak havoc with your wellbeing, but they don’t have to. Here’s how to rebalance your body with nature’s medicine.

We women are particularly prone to imbalances in our hormonal make-up, in a variety of ways in our lifetime. If you think about the transitions our bodies go through: puberty, the pill, PMS, pregnancy and menopause — the subsequent pain and discomfort brought on by hormonal imbalances is not surprising.

But you need not suffer any longer, because knowing what to eat can help solve your hormonal problems.

Welcome to the kitchen dispensary

Feeling tired? Cranky? Bloated? Most menstruating women experience discomfort related to rising and falling hormone levels. Most often PMS symptoms are a result of high oestrogen and too-low progesterone levels. It’s this fluctuating progesterone level, and in particular, the sharp pre-menstrual drops, that are thought to be responsible for mood swings and irritability.

“Stable glucose levels assist in keeping progesterone elevated,” says Dr Linda Friedland, medical doctor and women’s health specialist. “The secret is to eat low GI (glycaemic index) carbohydrates fairly frequently. Preventing blood sugar crashes will go a long way towards alleviating many of your PMS symptoms,” she says.

Include the following:
  • Wholegrain carbs, in small amounts throughout the day to stabilise your blood sugar. “I would also suggest adding a small amount of fat and/or protein to the wholegrain carbs. This slows the entry of the carbs into your bloodstream”. A few almonds with fruit, or a thin layer of peanut butter or avocado on crackers will be more effective than crackers alone.
  • Low-fat dairy products, which are a good source of low-fat protein and contain calcium and vitamin D. A US study found that PMS symptoms were reduced by 30% with four portions of dairy a day. Local experts don’t recommend as many portions, so find what works best for you.
  • Fibre also helps to reduce oestrogen levels, and is a good source of B vitamins.
  • Vitamin B6. Clinical trials have shown that taken in doses of 200—800mg it helps reduce oestrogen and increase progesterone levels, thus decreasing symptoms, says nutritionist Patrick Holford in his book with Kate Neil, Balancing Hormones Naturally (Piatkus).

Shape advisory board dietician, Jane Badham, adds you can’t go wrong with plenty (at least five servings a day) of fresh fruit and vegetables, as they contain not only vital vitamins, minerals and fibre, but also a host of other phytochemicals that we are only beginning to discover and seem to offer a host of protective health benefits.

Avoid the following:

  • High GI refined foods such as white bread, sweets and sugar, which will induce sharp blood sugar crashes.
  • Sodium. Watch out for hidden salt, and don’t add it to your food if water retention is a problem.
  • Too much alcohol as it can inhibit the absorption of magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins, and how our bodies use them, says Holford. It can also trigger blood sugar crashes. If you have a glass of wine, snack on a few almonds or a piece of low-fat cheese. “Red wine contains antioxidants and the anti-ageing agent resveratrol. It may calm your nerves and relieve a bit of irritability, but remember, one glass only, two at the most,” says Dr Friedland.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
Ovarian cysts are a result of an egg failing to develop and be released normally. Linked to high levels of the pancreatic hormone insulin, symptoms include irregular periods, weight gain, acne and excess hair. As a reaction to high insulin, the ovaries can also produce excess male hormones. A low GI diet is the first step in reducing insulin levels, says dietician Annelie Smith.

Include the following:

  • Protein in your diet, as well as vitamin E and selenium to help decrease testosterone levels, says Smith. Some proteins (meat, liver, eggs) also contain chromium, which is thought to help regulate insulin.
  • Omega-3 fats improve cell membrane function, which decreases insulin resistance. Eggs — preferably free-range, organic and high in omega-3s — are also beneficial.
  • Five or more servings of fruits and vege¬tables. Choose dark green, leafy and root vegetables such as spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, raw or lightly cooked, advises Holford.

Avoid the following:

  • High GI carbohydrates that send insulin levels soaring and increase the risk of insulin resistance.

Post-natal depression (PND)
Post-natal or post-partum depression may be short-lived or last for several months, even years. New mothers become more sensitive to already fluctuating hormone levels as the baby draws nutrients from her during breast-feeding. “A wholesome, nourishing diet as well as regular exercise helps enormously, but medication and therapy is often also required, so a holistic approach works best,” says Friedland.

Omega-3s have been shown to help reduce instances of PND, says Smith. “In fact, there are so many other benefits to taking an omega-3 supplement, that I would advise it for everybody.” Marine sources are thought to be better than those from plant sources.

Include the following:

  • Iron-rich foods (lean red meat, liver, spinach), as anaemia can increase your risk of PND.
  • A 500mg omega-3 supplement each day, before, during and after pregnancy is recommended. While mothers-to-be are often advised to avoid certain types of fish, omega-3 fish oils have been linked to both prevention and cure. “These fatty acids are essential for hormone balance throughout your life. They are also essential for your joints, cellular function, brain chemistry and mental function,” Friedland confirms.

Avoid the following:

  • Trans fats: These fats, apart from existing naturally in some foods, are created when the structure of liquid plant oils is changed when they convert to solids. Trans fats are found in many baked products and snack foods, as well as margarine. “Avoid them at all costs!” warns Friedland. Trans fats prevent your body converting other sources of omega-3 (nuts and seeds) into the beneficial types found in fish. “They are not only damaging to your hormones, but cellular functioning too.”

Small fragments of endometrial tissue (womb lining) migrate into the muscular wall of the womb, causing pain and often infertility. Endometriosis affects about one in 10 women. Holford notes that there has been an escalation in hormone-related health problems over the last few decades. Endometriosis is one such problem, affecting women as early as in their teens. While the causes are not known, it’s thought to be linked to high oestrogen levels.

Include the following:

  • At least one daily serving of vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli, which contain chemical compounds that metabolise oestrogen. If you’re aiming for five a day, you should be covered.
  • Vitamins B6, B3 and C from fresh vege¬tables, like peppers, carrots and cauliflower, help reduce inflammation.
  • Soya, which includes phyto-oestrogens — plant substances which can help to block the effects of excess oestrogen.

Avoid the following:

  • Wheat products which are thought to have an inflammatory effect on the body. Opt for rye bread, potatoes or gluten-free pasta.
  • Likewise, animal fats, as they promote inflammation.
  • Excess red meat. Some research indicates that women who eat red meat often are more likely to develop endometriosis than those who eat less meat and more veg and fruit.
  • Alcohol. as it can interfere with the way the body processes oestrogen.

Levels of oestrogen plummet as the reproductive years draw to a close, resulting in menopausal symptoms like hot flushes, reduction in bone density and an increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Increasing levels of oestrogen in the system is your main aim. “As hormones fluctuate so does brain chemistry, including the powerful chemical serotonin. While low levels of the chemical may cause a woman to crave sweets and feel grumpy, an increase in serotonin reverses these symptoms,” explains Friedland.

Include the following:

  • A carbohydrate-rich low GI snack to boost serotonin levels.
  • 50g soya protein per day, or two teaspoons of flaxseed oil daily. The phyto-oestrogens in soya seem to help reduce the severity of hot flushes.
  • Calcium is an essential supplement after the age of 35 and particularly through menopause. Decreasing bone density often leads to osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercise throughout your life is the best way to avoid this.

Avoid the following:

  • Coffee and alcohol, as well as saturated fats. Stimulants aggravate symptoms, while saturated fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Spicy, chilli-flavoured foods exacerbate hot flushes by dilating blood vessels.

Thyroid troubles
The thyroid gland controls metabolism through the release of the hormone thyroxine. A sluggish metabolism is common with an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), which makes it easier to gain weight and become fatigued. Other symptoms include low mood and listlessness.

Include the following:

  • Iodine and zinc as they’re essential to thyroid health. Good sources are seafood and tyrosine, an amino acid found in protein-rich foods.
  • Selenium, an antioxidant found in seafood, sesame seeds and Brazil nuts.
  • Vitamins B3 and B5 are vital. A B- complex supplement is recommended. Try one with 1 000mg of vitamin C and 10mg of manganese daily, to get all the nutrients you need for hormone production and regulation, suggests Holford.

Avoid the following:

  • Gluten (in wheat, rye and barley) as it can interfere with the absorption of nutrients and deplete thyroid function.
  • Caffeine, sugar, alcohol and cigarettes as they may stimulate the release of adrenaline.

Essentially a chronic disorder where glucose levels (from carbohydrates) in the bloodstream are consistently too high, the balance between glucose and insulin is all-important. Diabetes disrupts the production and release of insulin. There are different types of diabetes and symptoms differ but commonly include excessive urination, thirst and blurred vision. Managing glycaemic load is the key to managing these symptoms.

Include the following:

  • Fibre from beans, lentils, oats and brown rice aids digestion and regulates insulin.
  • Five pieces of fruit and veg a day is a good guide for nutrients and additional fibre.
  • Plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Cinnamon. Holford recommends half a teaspoon a day to significantly reduce blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol.
  • Chromium. Tiredness, sweet cravings and depression are tell-tale signs that you are lacking. “Supplement 400 or 600mcg if you have diabetes, taken in the morning or at lunch,” advises Holford.

Avoid the following:

  • Refined and sweetened carbohydrates.
  • Trans fats. They block the receptors used by hormones leptin and insulin to enter cells.

Key minerals

  • Omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds), are required for the production of oestrogen and progesterone. These fats also make cell membranes more permeable to the hormone leptin, which is a natural appetite suppressant. “If you are not eating oily fish four times a week, it’s important to supplement with omega-3,” says pharmacist Brent Murphy. He says omega-3s also reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30%, and here’s an added bonus — they’re good for your skin.
  • Zinc and vitamin B6 are required for insulin production.
  • Magnesium is essential in the brain for hormone production, yet experts say up to 80% of women are deficient. Naturally it’s found in green vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.
  • Vitamins C and B12 assist in optimum functioning of the adrenal gland.
  • Calcium is a must from the age or 30 or 35 and even from earlier if you are slight-framed or pale-skinned.
  • A good daily multivitamin and mineral supplement is good “nutritional insurance”. “Most women skip meals, diet, are stressed and can easily fall behind in certain trace elements and vitamins,” says Friedland. This is especially pertinent as stress and fatigue can interfere dramatically with hormone function, and can trigger depression, anxiety and burnout, and eventually serious illness. – (Vanessa Rogers and Joanne Lillie, Shape)

Article courtesy of Shape magazine

Read more:
Food as medicine/specific diseases
Woman Centre

February 2007


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.