Let’s talk about Veganuary, specifically veganism in terms of hormone health and the questions we’re all asking. Can being vegan affect my hormones?
Now, let’s get one thing straight, I think veganism is fabulous. Giving up foods that have been so deeply ingrained into our upbringing to work towards making the world a better place is selfless and a great cause. However. Do I think it’s the healthiest diet for optimal hormone health and more specifically women’s hormone health? No.
Veganism and hormones
I personally went vegan for just over two years and had an interesting experience with it. The first six months or so were great. I had endless energy and my skin was lovely and clear, two things that for one living with PCOS, I was always on the hunt for. Eventually, the honeymoon period ended, and I noticed that my PCOS related hair loss that I had got under control prior to veganism had returned. My skin flair ups were constant, and my period decided to stop showing up for work.
Hormones and a vegan diet in the eyes of health professionals
However, a lot of health professionals simply refuse to work with vegans, and I hate that. If you’re adamant that a vegan diet is the one for you, there is no changing your mind. If you need the extra help to ensure you’re meeting your dietary needs, seek a nutritionist who is free from judgment and won’t shame your decisions. I believe that working with a professional can be really beneficial, as nutritional deficiencies can lead to larger health issues and hormonal imbalances if not corrected.
I work with several vegan clients who have had success when it comes to managing their hormonal ailments and working towards optimal health. But that comes from a lot of attention to detail and smart supplementation. I’ve worked with others, who after a lot of trial and error found that adding certain nutrient-dense staples, such as eggs, wild-caught fish, collagen, desiccated liver supplements, to be highly beneficial on absent periods/irregular cycles, hair loss, fatigue and skin problems.
A happy middle ground
Here’s the thing. We’ve become absolutely obsessed with polarisation in terms of diet. We either have to be low carb or obsessed with carbs, high fat or low fat, vegan or avid meat-eaters. The healthiest diet, in my option? Is right there in the middle. Opt for tonnes of non-starchy veggies, leafy greens and whole grains with lots of stable, nutrient-dense fats and high-quality protein. Let’s take a deeper dive into what a vegan diet can and can’t provide.
A vegan diet and your….
The fundamental of balancing your hormones and supporting your endocrine system is balancing your blood sugar. Of course, there are many other aspects, but I always think this is the best place to start. When your blood sugar levels are unruly, constantly spiking and dropping throughout the day, insulin gets pumped out to clean up the mess and ferry that sugar into our cells. In too high amounts, too often, insulin directly impacts both our sex and stress hormones.
How can a vegan diet affect my blood sugar?
With vegan diets, we see an awfully high amount of carbohydrates. Think chickpeas with a side of brown rice and sweet potatoes, for example. Now, I am in no way saying carbohydrates are bad. In fact, restricting our carbohydrates too drastically can have implications on our thyroid health. However, even the healthiest diets can cause blood sugar spikes if you’re not focusing on balancing your macronutrients optimally. Especially as most plant-based protein sources also contain carbohydrates.
To achieve lovely and stable blood sugar, we need every meal to include protein, fat, fibre and a mindful portion of carbohydrates. Your carbohydrate source shouldn’t be the main and only thing on your plate. We need to balance it out with quality protein, fat and fibre to ensure a slower release of sugar into the blood. Rather than creating a drastic spike. If all of your meals cause blood sugar spikes, what goes up must come down and you’ll be left feeling tired, craving quick-acting energy and your hormones may take a beating too.
When we talk about hormone health and balancing our hormones, we sometimes forget about the wonderful thyroid, the master of metabolism. When your thyroid is off, you’ll know about it. Hypothyroidism can manifest as fatigue, feeling cold all the time, missing periods, hair loss, dry skin, constipation, low mood and weight gain. When the thyroid isn’t working optimally, we see a rise in thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) as it tries to overcompensate and pump out more thyroid hormone.
How does my diet affect my Thyroid?
Now, not only do we need iodine, iron, selenium, vitamin A and tyrosine to make thyroid hormone (T4 + T3), we also need zinc and copper to convert T4 into the more active T3. It is often that sluggish conversion of T4-T3 that is the reason behind the harder to detect hypothyroid cases. All of these nutrients are abundant in animal protein and a little harder to find in plant-based foods. Furthermore, if you’re undereating on a vegan diet or have other forms of chronic stress present in everyday life, you’ve got the perfect storm for a thyroid issue.
Now, I’m not saying that veganism causes hypothyroidism. But if you are predisposed, a vegan diet could be further driving the likelihood. I do not recommend vegan diets to those with hypothyroidism. Unless you’re working with a professional and constantly monitoring your blood work.
Protein is made up of teeny tiny building blocks called amino acids which have an endless amount of functions within the body. These essential amino acids are found in full range in animal proteins. Whilst plant-based proteins contain a selection (hence why we need to combined plant-based protein sources to achieve a full amino acid profile).
What do Amino Acids do?
When we look specifically at their role in hormone health, we require amino acids for phase 1 liver detoxification. The way that we transform hormones once they had done their job in the body, ready to be packaged up and excreted. If there are any hiccups in this detoxification process, we risk oestrogen dominance or a build-up of toxins that haven’t been effectively dealt with. We also need amino acids to support the integrity of our gut lining which if compromised, can influence the way we absorb our nutrients and stress the body out. Many of our neurotransmitters are made from tyrosine and choline – think mood + memory!
Can my Amino Acids be affected on a vegan diet?
Long story short, you can get a full range of amino acids on a vegan diet. But it requires a bit more thought and planning than those opting for animal sources of protein. Protein combining is key on a vegan diet. It’s not enough to have a portion of beans and think the work is done. We need to complete the amino acid profile throughout the day. Many say that its super simple to get enough protein on a vegan diet and as long as you’re getting in your required calories, you’ll be fine. I disagree – put some thought into it!
I really believe that we’re much more aware of how important fat is than we once were. And in fact, vegan diets aren’t necessarily always low in fat. The most important thing to remember when it comes to optimal hormone health is that cholesterol is a precursor for our sex hormones. Whilst we can make cholesterol endogenously, it’s also not the root of all evil in dietary form as so many make it out to be. If you’re opting for a vegan diet and you’re suffering from symptoms of low oestrogen or low progesterone, for example, it may be time to up that fat.
Adding good fats on a vegan diet
Think avocados, coconut yoghurt and coconut oil, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. If you’re opting for a vegetarian diet, eggs and grass-fed butter are great options. It is important to stress that not all fats are created equally. Try to avoid sunflower oil, vegetable oils, canola and rapeseed oil, for example. Especially when heated, as these are inflammatory and not the best options when it comes to optimal health.
How to Optimise Your Vegan Diet to Help Your Hormones
Input your food into an app such as Chronometer
I’m not a fan of obsessively inputting calories into calorie counting apps. For some, with very specific goals, it can be helpful. But for others, it can be a little triggering and lead to unhealthy habits. However, apps such as Chronometer can be helpful in terms of observing your nutrient intake and ensuring you are getting sufficient calories from your vegan diet. You can observe your full nutrient intake, from zinc to omega 3 / omega 6 ratios. Then fill in the gaps with supplementation, protein powder or just upping your game in terms of particular macronutrients.
Balance Your Blood Sugar
As we’ve already discussed, learn how to balance your blood sugar and do it relentlessly. Every time you sit down to eat. It’s not about eating every few hours to keep blood sugar “stable”. It’s about opting for the right sources of carbohydrates in the right portion size for you. And pairing them with fat, protein and fibre that help to ease the release of sugar into the blood. We want stable curves over sharp spikes!
Listen to Your Body
Sorry for the cliché, but we need to start honouring what’s right for us over listening to everyone else’s opinions on diet. I knew strict veganism wasn’t right for me after experiencing such drastic symptoms. Yet was so focused on making it work to prove that I could to others
Phytochemicals and Fibre
One of the best things about vegan diets is that they are often abundant in phytochemicals and fibre. Whilst there are unlimited vegan options on the market for sweet treats and meat replacements, don’t forget that the majority of your plate should be crammed full of colourful plants. We need fibre for optimal excretion of those hormone metabolites. Ensuring that they’re not lingering causing chaos (think daily poos!) as well as supporting blood sugar stabilisation. Phytonutrients are often antioxidants, highly anti-inflammatory, supporting optimal health and wellness.
Supplements + Nutrients to Be Mindful Of On a Vegan Diet
- Omega 3
- A Decent Multivitamin – specific nutrients include vitamin A, B vitamins (I would maybe look into an additional B complex), iodine, zinc, magnesium, iron, selenium, choline and vitamin D.
- A High-Quality, Complete Plant-Based Protein Powder (I like Garden of Life, Vivo Life and Innermost).
A post by Megan Hallet
Megan Hallett is a women’s health expert and nutrition coach and cookbook author. Megan specialises in women’s hormone health. Her work ranges from endocrine conditions such as PCOS and Hypothalamic Amenorrhea to addressing the root cause of symptoms including acne, PMS, hair loss, low mood and fatigue, to name a few.