Taz Bhatia, MD, is a board-certified integrative medicine physician and bestselling author. Her new book, The Hormone Shift: Balance Your Body and Thrive Through Midlife and Menopause, is available for preorder. She’ll be in conversation with Gwyneth and answering your questions live tonight, October 3, at 4 p.m. PDT—it’s not too late to get a ticket to join virtually. (If you’re going through the Eventbrite app, use this link for tickets.) As always, consult with your doctor for individual medical advice.
The hormonal shifts that happen during perimenopause and menopause don’t come with a user’s manual, leaving many women in a perpetual state of trial and error when it comes to managing symptoms. One of the most powerful tools at your disposal for reclaiming control of your hormones is one you already use every day: the foods you eat. Some contribute to hormone balance (and minimize symptoms of perimenopause and menopause), and others contribute to a state of imbalance in the body.
Think of it this way: Just as a car needs fuel to run efficiently, your body requires the right nutrients to maintain hormonal balance during this transformative phase of life. Without essential nutritional components, your hormones can find themselves in disarray, leading to mood swings, weight gain, hot flashes, and low libido.
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HOW FOODS HELP BALANCE HORMONES
Estrogen, progesterone, insulin, and testosterone are the major hormones that fluctuate during perimenopause and menopause. Your diet can disrupt the delicate balance of these hormones. For example, excessive sugar consumption can increase insulin levels, drive up inflammation, and worsen just about every symptom of perimenopause.
On the other hand, vegetables, nuts, and seeds contain phytonutrients and healthy fats that can help you manage the worst menopause symptoms (yes, even the ones that make you feel like you’re going crazy). In The Hormone Shift, I cover nutrition and hormones in detail and give you a 30-day hormone-reset plan to guide you through each step. The basics are all below.
Nourishing our bodies with healthy food has become complicated, but getting the nutrients your body needs is easy if your gut is working properly and you follow a diet that includes minimally processed whole foods. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet, but there are a few foods I’ve found to be beneficial for most people when it comes to balancing their hormones.
Estrogen dominance—higher levels of estrogen relative to progesterone levels—is common in midlife and is the culprit behind some of the more painful symptoms of perimenopause like PMS, irritability, breast tenderness, and fibroids. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage contain a compound called indole-3-carbinol, which helps metabolize estrogen in the gut and liver.
Avocados, nuts, seeds, and fish are full of omega-3s and other fats that help reduce inflammation in the body. Healthy fats are the building blocks for hormones and key for progesterone. I recommend aiming for 30 to 40 grams per day, especially if you’re having hot flashes and night sweats caused by hormone imbalance.
Fiber is essential for gut health—and without a healthy gut, your hormone balance will absolutely struggle. It’s also involved in the breakdown of estrogen (which helps decrease estrogen dominance) and blood sugar management. I recommend low-starch fruits and veggies (like berries, asparagus, and broccoli), nuts, seeds, and whole grains (like oats) to increase your fiber intake.
FOODS (AND DRINKS) TO LIMIT
I call foods that are best to limit “hormone traps”—to describe the way they hold us back from achieving hormone balance before and during perimenopause. You’ll probably recognize a few.
I know that an energy drink or an extra cup (or more) of coffee can seem like the best way to get you through the day, especially when it’s difficult to wake up or you’re struggling to stay awake in the afternoon. But it might be making your fatigue worse. Caffeine causes your adrenal glands to increase the production of stress hormones, specifically cortisol. Over time, chronically high cortisol can lead to chronic fatigue and elevated estrogen levels.
Processed Carbs and Sugar
One effect of getting older is that we become less tolerant of sugar in all its forms. This means that sugar does not support hormone balance during perimenopause and menopause. Simple carbohydrates like table sugar, baked goods, white bread, pasta, and packaged foods cause the most imbalance when it comes to blood sugar regulation and insulin.
And if you’re thinking that a zero-calorie sugar substitute is a better option, you might want to reconsider. (There are more details on sugar substitutes below.) My suggestion: Aim for a total sugar intake of under 25 grams a day, or three to four teaspoons at most.
Women tend to overestimate how much they can safely drink. Even what the CDC considers a moderate intake for women—one drink per day—can disrupt hormones and cause premature aging in the brain. Alcohol can also cause insulin levels to spike, leading to Candida overgrowth and estrogen dominance. I don’t recommend alcohol consumption at all, but if you choose to, I suggest that you keep the amounts limited to fewer than four drinks per week.
I’m noticing that an increasing number of women are unaware they’re sensitive to gluten. Gluten can cause issues in the gut, but it can also interfere with the thyroid and autoimmune conditions. If you have an underactive thyroid, there’s a very good chance gluten is making things worse, as was the case for me.
COMMON NUTRITION MYTHS
I can’t talk about foods and hormone health during perimenopause and menopause without addressing some of the misinformation I see out there. There is way too much to list—you can find more in The Hormone Shift—but here are a few of the most common myths.
Myth 1: A nightly glass of red wine is good for you.
I know red wine has resveratrol and antioxidants, which are beneficial to our health. It’s also packed full of sugar. If you’re eating to support healthy hormones all day long but then having two glasses of wine after dinner, you’ll probably experience nightly hormone fluctuations, which can lead to symptoms like night sweats, mood swings, and poor sleep.
Myth 2: Salads are the healthiest meal.
Salads can be good for your health and provide decent nutritional value when they’re high-fiber and not drenched in a sugary dressing or full of low-nutrient ingredients. But if you’re like many of my patients who have a difficult time digesting a lot of raw food at once, which is hard on the gut, raw salads may not be the best option for you. A higher-fiber and gut-friendly alternative: lightly steamed or sautéed vegetables.
Myth 3: Artificial sweeteners are better for weight management.
When artificial sweeteners first came on the scene, they seemed too good to be true. And knowing what we know now, they kind of are. Most of them disrupt the gut microbiome and still cause an insulin spike, and emerging research suggests that some of them might be cancer-causing. None of this is good for hormone balance.
Whether you’re just beginning to have symptoms or in the middle of experiencing them all, balancing your diet can help ease the transition into perimenopause and menopause with more vitality.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.