Which Foods Balance Hormones? A Cycle Dietitian’s Definitive Guide
Posted by Courtney Mayszak, RDN, LDN
Sep 23, 2021
Food matters for balancing female reproductive hormones.
Hormonal health is like a jigsaw puzzle. Foods that support hormonal balance are just one piece, but you can’t achieve your full picture of hormonal health without them.
This article explains which types of foods balance hormones and why, according to science. It focuses on preventing hormonal issues that can show up as menstrual irregularities, period pain, and PMS symptoms.
How does food balance hormones?
Hormones are considered “balanced” when the right ones are produced in the right amounts in relation to each other. In the context of the menstrual cycle, the “right” hormones usually refer to the female reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone—the two main hormonal drivers behind your period.
Period problems like heavy bleeding and PMS are often the result of having too much estrogen in relation to progesterone (1). Therefore, eating your way to hormonal harmony can involve:
- Foods that prevent excess estrogen levels
- Foods that support progesterone production
- Or ideally, both
This doesn’t mean estrogen is all “bad” and progesterone all “good”; it means the ratio between them is really important. Choosing a diet rich in the foods below is an evidence-based way to help optimize your estrogen to progesterone ratio, so your hormones can work in your favor.
Foods that help balance the hormone Estrogen
How they work:
Phytoestrogens are special plant compounds. They’re not estrogen, but have ‘estrogen’ in their name because they have very weak estrogen-like effects—so weak that they actually act more like anti-estrogens. They help prevent excess estrogen because they bind to estrogen’s receptors, blocking it from communicating with the rest of the body.
Research shows phytoestrogens are beneficial in small amounts. They help make the feel-good chemical serotonin (2), prevent skin aging, improve heart health, bone health, and immunity (3), and may lower risk of some types of cancers (4). Small amounts are good for your cycle, too; they may help prevent PMS and lighten periods that are too heavy (5).
But too many phytoestrogens can tip the balance toward too little estrogen, which can lead to irregular periods. Generally, the amount of phytoestrogens you’d get from eating reasonable portions of foods like soy or flax offer more cycle benefits than risks (6, 7). Supplements with the ingredient isoflavones (a type of phytoestrogen) may offer too many phytoestrogens, so we recommend focusing on food sources only.
Add flaxseeds to oatmeal, smoothies, or yogurt. Snack on edamame or add to stir-frys. Saute crumbled, extra-firm tofu with olive oil, hot sauce, and spices, then add to burritos or bowls.
How they work:
DIM, or diindolylmethane, is a natural plant compound found in cruciferous vegetables. It helps balance hormones by helping to get rid of unwanted estrogen (8). Not only can DIM help with PMS problems related to estrogen excess (9), research shows it may also reduce risk of hormone-related cancers like breast, endometrial, and cervical cancers (10).
Chop veggies into bite-size pieces, toss with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and roast at 400 degrees until browned around the edges (about 25 minutes).
How they work:
The friendly bacteria that live in your gut, or your microbiome, help regulate estrogen (11). When your bacteria are healthy, they help safely remove extra estrogen via your poop. Prebiotics are foods that break down into components that, in turn, feed your friendly bacteria so they can do their job. Foods that act as prebiotics are high-fiber foods that offer the additional benefit of keeping bowel movements regular. Constipation can lead to estrogen excess because extra estrogen may be reabsorbed back into the body if left in the gut for too long (12).
Add chopped apples or banana to oatmeal. Saute sliced leeks with garlic and onions.
Foods that help balance the hormone Progesterone
Foods for lasting energy
How they work:
You only make the helpful hormone progesterone after ovulation (i.e. the mid-cycle release of an egg from your ovary). The better nourished your body through ovulation, the more progesterone you make—which is great news for your hormonal health, even if you’re not trying to get pregnant. Generally, the more progesterone you make after ovulation, the lighter your period (13), and fewer painful cramps and PMS symptoms come with it (14).
Progesterone responds well to diets that emphasize overall balance and quality. Think real foods without a lot of processing, and try to get all the major food groups covered. Lean proteins (e.g. beans, lentils, fish, nuts) and slow-digesting carbs (e.g. oats, brown rice, winter squashes, potatoes, carrots) will help keep your energy levels consistently strong.
Healthy progesterone balance also requires you to eat enough. Too few calories will tell your body it’s a bad time for a pregnancy, and ovulation will shut down. You’ll likely still bleed, but it might be mistimed or problematic.
Lean into East Asian flavors. US immigrants from Japan were found to have lower rates of endometrial cancer compared to Asian Americans who were born in the US, and researchers pointed to their diet—lots of fish, soy products, and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cabbage—as a big contributing factor (15). Interestingly, research shows only 16% of Japanese women get period cramps (16), versus up to 95% of the rest of the world’s women (17). Coincidence?
How they work:
Inflammation is a major culprit behind virtually all menstrual issues. It’s a triple threat to hormonal balance: it blocks hormone receptors, impairs estrogen metabolism, and prevents healthy ovulation and progesterone production (18, 19).
Chronic inflammation in particular causes hormonal imbalances. It’s a type of underlying inflammation that happens over the long-term. It’s different from acute inflammation, which is temporary and a normal part of the healing process (you jam your finger and it gets red and swollen, for example). Chronic inflammation can result from stress, pro-inflammatory foods or habits, or medical conditions (20). Anti-inflammatory foods are an important tool for reducing chronic inflammation and balancing hormones.
Embrace dark chocolate as your go-to period snack. Add walnuts and blueberries to a kale salad. Try a baked salmon recipe with a soy ginger glaze. For quick relief from period cramps, get a potent, research-backed dose of ginger extract and other anti-inflammatory ingredients in Cramp Aid.
Foods with nutrients that nourish your cycle
How they work:
Vitamin B6, magnesium, and calcium are front-line nutrients for PMS relief and hormonal harmony. They’re your period’s bffs because they support hormonal balance in a number of ways:
- Vitamin B6 is essential for progesterone production. It also helps safely remove excess estrogen, helps make the anti-PMS brain chemical serotonin, and regulates the body’s response to stress and inflammation that can derail hormonal balance (21).
- Magnesium is a big deal for menstrual health. It helps reduce inflammation that can lead to hormonal imbalance and period pain; it’s a tried and true PMS reliever; and it improves the stress response (22, 23, 24). Research shows most women ages 14 to 50 don’t get enough magnesium (25).
- Huge studies show that women who don’t have enough calcium in their diet get the worst PMS (26). Research shows that when women supplemented with calcium, it improved their PMS mood swings, bloating, cravings, and fatigue (27, 28).
How to meet your needs every day:
While it’s always best to eat lots of nutrient-dense foods often, life happens, and getting everything you need from food alone can be challenging. Plus, research shows some nutrients only help with menstrual symptoms when taken in amounts far greater than what even the healthiest diets can provide (29, 30). Food helps, but supplements are often needed for real relief.
We formulated Steady Mood—our full-cycle support for multi-symptom PMS relief—to bring you all the most important nutrients and herbs for healthy hormone balance, always in safe amounts that research shows really work.
Courtney Mayszak, RDN, LDN, is the co-founder and Chief Product Officer at De Lune. She’s a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who completed her degree and dietetics training at Cornell University. When she’s not formulating products or obsessing over menstrual health research, find her educating the De Lune community about cycle health on Instagram @delunecare.
This information is for education purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any condition.
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