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Nutrition for a Healthy Cycle and Hormone Balance   

May 27, 2024 . dija

Hormones: they can really interfere with your life, can’t they? You’ve probably noticed it yourself. During ovulation, you might feel energetic, happy, and on top of the world. But in the last week of your cycle, you may feel tired, emotional, your libido drops to zero, and you are somewhat sensitive to criticism 

The fact that we have a cycle and don’t feel or act the same all month long actually holds a lot of power. For instance, in the middle of your cycle (thanks to estrogen), you might experience increased energy, self-confidence, and a cheerful mood. This is the perfect time for social activities, parties, and excelling at work. 

After ovulation, the hormone progesterone takes the lead. This phase calls for rest and introspection, but you’ll also find yourself more assertive and possibly inclined to tidy up and organize your space. 

Understanding that you aren’t the same throughout the month and aligning your activities with your cycle can make life much easier. Your diet and lifestyle significantly influence your hormones as well. As an orthomolecular hormone therapist, I help women manage this daily. I’ve seen how hormonal issues like PMS, heavy or painful periods, PCOS, and the absence of periods can be alleviated or even eliminated. These issues often stem from factors related to diet, lifestyle, and stress. 

In my previous blog, “Nutrition for a Healthy Vagina,” you can learn about foods that support a healthy gut and vaginal microbiome. Maintaining gut health is crucial for balanced hormones, so start there for a solid foundation. In this blog, I will discuss additional ways your diet impacts your hormones, how to eat in a hormone-friendly way, and what to focus on during different phases of your cycle. 

Insulin Resistance and Cravings    

The key to maintaining a healthy hormone balance and steady energy levels is managing your blood sugar. You’ve likely heard this before, but let’s dive deeper because understanding this is crucial for improving your hormone balance. 

Your blood sugar is the amount of sugar (glucose) in your blood and fluctuates throughout the day and night. When it swings too much, it often leads to hormonal symptoms. 

Here’s how it works: when you eat carbohydrates and starches (bread, crackers, a cappuccino with oatmilk, chocolate, chips, rice, potatoes, etc.), your blood sugar level rises. This is because these foods introduce a lot of glucose into your blood. Glucose provides energy, making you feel alert, good, and ready to tackle your tasks. 

Glucose is absorbed from your blood into your cells with the help of insulin, a hormone released by your pancreas. The more glucose you have, the more insulin is needed. While your glucose levels primarily rise from dietary carbohydrates, factors like stress, lack of sleep, too little exercise, certain medications, and genetics also play a role. When your blood has high glucose levels for extended periods, your pancreas has to produce more insulin, which can lead to insulin resistance. It’s estimated that at least a quarter of the Western population suffers from this condition. 

Insulin resistance means that insulin doesn’t work as effectively, causing your blood sugar levels to rise quickly and then drop rapidly. You might also experience cravings for carbohydrates and coffee, leading to another rapid increase in blood sugar. This physiological imbalance can lead to emotional eating as your body tries to stabilize your blood sugar. 

This cycle can continue all day, leaving you exhausted by evening and potentially causing hormonal issues. Excess insulin can disrupt the functions of other hormones like progesterone and estrogen, leading to PMS, PCOS, and menopause symptoms. It can also increase testosterone levels, resulting in acne and excessive hair growth. Moreover, insulin promotes fat storage, particularly around the belly, leading to weight gain. 

You might experience these fluctuations for years without realizing it. That’s why, in my practice, I use a continuous glucose monitor that tracks your blood sugar levels for two weeks. This helps us identify what triggers your blood sugar spikes and whether insulin resistance might be an issue. 

What can you do to keep your blood sugar levels as balanced as possible? 

  • First, avoid eating or drinking too frequently. Allowing time between meals helps stabilize your blood sugar, gives your pancreas a rest, and allows your body to enter fat-burning mode. If you’re insulin resistant, this may seem challenging, but aim for three meals a day without snacks in between. If this is difficult, gradually reduce the number of eating occasions. 
  • To make this easier, focus on eating substantial and nutritious meals that include adequate protein, fats, and fiber. This will keep you satiated longer and prevent spikes and crashes in your blood sugar levels. Instead of having a simple sandwich with cheese and cucumber for lunch, opt for a salad with raw or cooked vegetables, olive oil, avocado, and a source of protein such as eggs, fish, unprocessed meat, beans, or legumes. You can include some carbohydrates like bread, pasta, or rice, but don’t make them the main component of your meal. The amount and frequency of carbohydrate intake should be tailored to each individual and their level of insulin resistance. 
  • Exercise helps your body use glucose, reducing the need for insulin. Make smart use of this by exercising around your meals. A gym session before dinner or even a walk after meals can significantly reduce the rise in blood sugar. 
  • Be careful with alcohol. Blood glucose readings might show normal levels after a glass of wine or beer, but this is misleading. Alcohol causes your body to produce more insulin, so while glucose is quickly absorbed and levels stay low, there is a high amount of insulin present. 
  • Remember that other lifestyle factors are just as important as your diet. Not getting enough sleep reduces your insulin sensitivity, leading to higher blood sugar levels. Stress has a similar effect. The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline increase your blood sugar levels (which your body does to help you survive: energy must be released quickly to fight or flee). 

Eating According to Your Cycle  

So, the basis of hormone-proof eating involves keeping your blood sugar stable by not avoiding frequent eating and being mindful of sugar, carbohydrates, coffee and alcohol. Aim to eat plenty of vegetables (400 grams per day) and two pieces of fruit. Proteins and fats are the building blocks of hormones, so include them in every meal. Also, consider omega 3 fats, which are essential for good hormonal balance and improving insulin sensitivity. You can find these primarily in oily fish or through good fish oil or algae oil.    

Once you have this under control, you can start to tailor your nutrition to the different phases of your cycle. 

Menstrual Phase (winter)   

During your period, your body is hard at work. Your estrogen and progesterone levels are low, breaking down your endometrium and causing menstrual bleeding. You may feel tired and crave comfort food, so eat “winter” foods such as hearty soups, curries, stews and bone broth. To support your hormones, you can include ingredients rich in iron (that you lose during your period), vitamin C and magnesium:  

  • Iron is best absorbed from animal foods (red meat, chicken, fish, eggs), but you can also find it in plant foods like dark green leafy vegetables, seaweed, legumes, beans, whole grain products, nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, peaches, apricots and watercress.   
  • Vitamin C helps absorb iron more effectively, so eat lots of vegetables like broccoli, peppers, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, parsley, spinach, and tomatoes, and fruits like citrus fruits, berries and kiwi.    
  • Magnesium helps with easing menstrual cramps, relaxation and boosting energy. You can get it from mackerel, salmon, chives, legumes, almonds, green vegetables, whole grain products, banana, flaxseed and cocoa. Do you have chocolate cravings? Then opt for raw cacao powder or nibs in your breakfast or yogurt. I also recommend taking extra magnesium as a supplement or putting magnesium salt in a (foot) bath. Wonderfully relaxing!   

The Follicular Phase (Spring).   

This phase starts after your period and lasts until ovulation. During this time, estrogen levels rise, thickening your endometrium in preparation for the implantation of an egg. You might notice increased energy, a better mood, and beautiful skin during this phase.  

Often during this period, you’ll crave lighter foods like fruits and salads rather than heavier meals. This is also an optimal period for intermittent fasting, where you might fast for 15-16 hours. You can support your estrogen production by eating plenty of phytoestrogens (substances like estrogens in our bodies) and protein. Phytoestrogens can be found in plant products such as tempeh, flaxseed, sesame seeds, legumes, oatmeal and green leafy vegetables.   

Ovulation Phase (summer)  

You are most fertile in the days around your ovulation. Your estrogen peaks during this phase and you’ll notice it in your confidence, energy, libido and mood. Your body temperature rises, so it’s beneficial to eat some more cooling foods. For example, include vegetables like cucumber, lettuce and celery, fruit, mint tea and coconut water. B vitamins and zinc are important for proper ovulation. These nutrients can be found in meat, chicken, fish, eggs, whole grains, legumes, pumpkin seeds, and other seeds and kernels. By maintaining a varied and balanced diet, you’ll be fine! 

Luteal Phase (fall).  

After your ovulation, estrogen drops and progesterone rises. This hormone makes your endometrium thicker and firmer, preparing for a possible pregnancy. This is often a challenging phase because you become a bit more insulin resistant, have more cravings and are more tired. You also consume more energy, so it’s important to have filling, nutritious meals. To avoid unhealthy cravings for chocolate, chips and bread, incorporate more complex carbohydrates into your meals. Think sweet potatoes, millet, whole grain products, oatmeal and whole grain or black rice.   

During this phase, your liver works hard to break down estrogen. If this does not go well, you may experience symptoms such as PMS. To support your liver, keep your blood sugar stable and be very careful with coffee, alcohol and processed foods. You can also help your liver by eating cruciferous vegetables. These contain the substance DIM, a compound that helps break down estrogen. Think broccoli, (broccoli) sprouts, kale and all kinds of cabbage like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy and sauerkraut. Eat at least 500 grams of these per week.   

Remember to always listen carefully to your body. Maybe you prefer to eat vegetarian, but still crave some meat during your period. Or in the days before, you want to eat more than three times a day and have a hearty snack with protein or fats. If you can’t work it out yourself and keep having hormonal symptoms, get help from an orthomolecular hormone therapist to find out what you need.   

Laura Barbara is an orthomolecular therapist and hormone coach. She coaches women with hormonal complaints such as PMS, PCOS, menstrual problems and mood swings that are cycle related. In her Hormone Balance program, she helps you by explaining in an understandable way how your body and hormones work, knowledge that really every woman should have. You discover how to keep your blood sugar stable (with a blood glucose sensor) and learn which nutrition and lifestyle suits you. This way you experience more peace, relaxation and energy, your intestinal health is strengthened, your hormones come into balance, and you create a smooth cycle. Do you have hormonal complaints and want to know how to address them? Then follow the free mini training Healthy hormones.

https://www.laurabarbara.nl/  
https://www.instagram.com/laurabarbara.nl/ 

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