Hormone balancing diets and the effect of diet on hormones and health are being discussed a lot at the moment. But what does this actually mean? Are there specific things that we can eat or not eat to improve our hormone balance? Let’s start with the basics.
What are hormones?
Hormones are (very important) chemical messengers that control a lot of the functions of your body. These include your mood, your appetite and your weight. Usually, your body is very good at regulating the amount of each hormone that is produced. It makes sure all the different hormonal systems are working together. Sometimes hormonal imbalances are caused by serious underlying health conditions such as hypo/hypothyroidism or diabetes. If you are concerned about your hormones, it is important to speak to a medical professional. Sometimes though, all the tests come back “normal”, but people are still struggling. Modern life has all sorts of stressors that can make it difficult for our bodies to function properly. Some people find that modifying their diet can help them to feel better and more able to function as they want to.
A lot of people think of hormones as things like oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone (these are the sex hormones). However, there are lots of other really important hormones in the body like cortisol (the stress hormone), thyroid hormone, insulin, adrenaline and so many more. They all work together to maintain our bodies in a “balanced” state called homeostasis. This article will focus mainly on the female sex hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) and the conditions that can arise if they are not balanced. There is some evidence that these conditions can be helped with a more hormone-balancing diet.
The importance of language
Before we start, I would just like to say that we need to be careful with the word “diet”. I think that it can put a dangerous amount of pressure on women to follow strict rules about what they can and cannot eat. I also think that making these kinds of rules can be harmful to some people.
If you google “hormone-balancing diet” it might show you a very strict diet with a lot of rules. This “hormone-balancing diet” claims to help “reset your hormones” and help with weight loss. This is not what I am talking about in this article. When I use the phrase “hormone-balancing diet”, what I mean is the combination of foods you are eating, not a set of restrictions you have to follow.
What we eat can affect our bodies in lots of different ways. If you are feeling like something is out of balance in your body, sometimes changing what you eat can be helpful. The aim of this article is to give you information that might be useful if you are trying to manage annoying symptoms by changing what you eat. These are only suggestions, they are not rules that you have to follow in order to be “healthy”. What works for one person might not work for someone else.
I am not a dietician – I had to research this article in order to write it but have tried to take the evidence available and turn it into something that is easy to understand. In the end, I have listed the studies that I read while writing this article. If you would like to read more about the research happening around a hormone-balancing diet, most of them are open access so you don’t need a subscription to the journal to read them. If you need help with your diet or your hormones it is always best to consult a professional – either your GP or a dietician in the first instance.
Best foods for hormone balance
Protein’s role in a hormone balancing diet
Protein is an important component in any meal. The hormone that makes you feel hungry is called ghrelin and this can be reduced by making sure you eat enough protein. Protein also increases the hormones that tell you that you are full. Keeping these hormones balanced is important for maintaining a healthy weight. Meals that contain enough protein are more likely to leave you feeling full for longer and not cause quick highs and lows in your blood sugar.
Mono-unsaturated fatty acids (fats from plant sources such as olive oil, rather than animal products) are known to be beneficial and are considered “healthy fats”. They protect cells from damage and reduce inflammation. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (from walnuts, oily fish, rapeseed oil and flaxseed) might reduce the risk of developing hormone-related cancer through regulating hormone metabolism(1).
Olive oil contains anti-inflammatory compounds which can improve the action of insulin in the body(2).
Foods high in vitamin D have been associated with later menopause(1). Vitamin D has also been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and other metabolic (hormonal) disorders.
Vitamins B6, B12, C, E, D and folate may all be important in preventing hormone-dependent cancers as they help the body to repair cell damage(1). When we think about how these vitamins are used by the body it makes sense that they would protect us against cancer. BUT, there are currently no studies that prove a link between diets high in these vitamins and a lower risk of cancer.
Flavonoids and phytoestrogens
Flavonoids are also known to be beneficial for health. They are found in foods such as vegetables, fruit, tea and wine(1). A subgroup of flavonoids is called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are dietary compounds that are often discussed in relation to hormone balance. They are found in a lot of foods but especially in soy products and legumes, and have a very similar structure to a form of oestrogen(5). They can bind to oestrogen receptors and modulate the way that oestrogen works in the body (either increasing or decreasing its action). Many health benefits have been claimed in relation to phytoestrogens, however, they can also have negative health impacts. Rietjens and colleagues published a review in 2017 that concluded that, currently, we don’t have evidence that the health benefits of phytoestrogens outweigh the risks(5).
Flavonoids, in general, are still being researched. Scientists are trying to find out how they influence hormones and whether they can be used to reduce the risk of hormone-related conditions. There has been some evidence so far that they might reduce the risk of breast cancer (especially after menopause) and ovarian cancer(1). It is important to note that caffeine and alcohol also have negative health effects so the flavonoids in fruits and vegetables are the ones recommended by studies currently.
Green tea’s role in hormone balance
It isn’t just food that has can be part of a hormone-balancing diet. Green tea has also been shown to improve the functioning of insulin in the body(3).
Foods that aren’t so good for hormone balance: what you might want to avoid
Eating a lot of simple carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, white rice etc) can increase inflammation within the body. This can then lead to insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes) and other hormonal imbalances such as the high androgen levels seen in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). A diet high in these foods has also been linked to the earlier onset of menopause(1).
Less good fats
Diets high in fat and meat products have been linked with higher levels of oestrogen exposure and a higher risk of hormone-related cancers (such as ovarian cancer, breast cancer and endometrial cancer). These foods are also thought to delay the onset of menopause because of the increase in oestrogen levels. Delayed menopause means longer exposure to oestrogen over a lifetime which can also increase the risk of hormone-related cancers. Through the same mechanisms, these types of food can also worsen the symptoms of endometriosis(4).
The effect of diet on specific hormonal conditions
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder in women. It affects approximately 18% of women between puberty and menopause(2). PCOS involves a disruption in the hormone balance that causes problems with ovulation, increased testosterone levels and polycystic ovaries(2). It can also be associated with other health conditions such as insulin resistance (which can turn into diabetes), chronic inflammation, obesity and infertility.
There has been evidence that following a “Mediterranean diet” can be beneficial for many health conditions, including heart disease and PCOS. The Mediterranean diet is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, and it is thought that this is why it can help with health. The Mediterranean diet involves eating more vegetables, fruits, unsaturated fats (plant sources of fat, rather than animal sources) and less meat, dairy products and refined sugar. One of the key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet is extra virgin olive oil.
The hormone balancing effect of a Mediterranean diet in PCOS
In a 2019 study by Barrea et al.(2), women with PCOS were compared to women without PCOS in terms of their diet, inflammatory markers and hormone levels. They found that the women with PCOS had less extra-virgin olive oil, fish, seafood, nut and legumes in their diet compared to women without PCOS. There was also fewer complex carbohydrates, and unsaturated fatty acids and less fibre in the diets of the women with PCOS. The women with PCOS also had higher levels of inflammation and more hormonal imbalance than those without PCOS.
This study suggests that the Mediterranean diet can be helpful in reducing inflammation, and in turn, reducing the hormonal imbalances involved in PCOS. The way this study was done means that it could only find associations between diet and hormonal imbalance. It was not possible to determine a causal relationship between diet and hormone levels. There are also many different lifestyle factors involved in hormone balance, not just diet. It is difficult to disentangle the effects of diet and other factors on hormones.
Endometriosis is a chronic inflammatory condition that is affected by hormones(4). Approximately 5-15% of women between puberty and menopause are affected and it can have many consequences including chronic pain, and trouble with fertility. Studies have suggested that diet might play a role in preventing or improving the symptoms of endometriosis.
It is not yet completely understood what causes endometriosis, but it is thought that inflammation plays a role. There have been several studies looking at diet and endometriosis. A 2017 review by Jurkiewicz-Przondziono and colleagues(4) found that a lot of the evidence is inconsistent.
High fibre intake has been linked to higher risk of endometriosis(4) (but then fibre is very important for other aspects of wellbeing such as bowel health).
Omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines) are known to be beneficial to health, not only in terms of hormones. They have been shown to reduce the risk of endometriosis(4) but also to be good for heart health. Heart UK recommends eating two portions of fish each week, and one of these portions should ideally be oily fish. The fish does not need to be fresh to get the benefits, it can be canned or frozen.
The evidence around other dietary sources of fat at their relationship to endometriosis is unclear(4). Some studies have shown a benefit with high-fat diets while some found a negative relationship. Just to make things more confusing, one study suggests that high consumptions of vegetable sources of fats (which were beneficial for other conditions) might increase the risk of endometriosis(4). The evidence for red meat is reasonably consistent with a higher risk of endometriosis associated with diets high in red meat(4).
There is also some evidence to suggest that eating 3 or more portions of dairy per day might reduce the risk of endometriosis(4). This is thought to be due to the calcium and vitamin D content of dairy products. High levels of vitamin D are associated with a lower risk of endometriosis.
It has been suggested that high alcohol intake can increase the risk of endometriosis but the evidence for this is not clear(4). There is also inconsistent evidence about the relationship between caffeine intake and endometriosis.
Jurkiewicz-Przondziono et al. (2017) concluded that increasing vegetables in your diet, increasing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, soy, vitamin D and dairy products that are rich in calcium could reduce the risk of developing endometriosis(4). They suggest that foods to avoid might include fruit, fibre (although these are beneficial in other areas of health), alcohol, pork and beef and fats in general. It is important to keep in mind that tailoring your diet to achieve a certain goal can be difficult when the evidence is contradictory or inconsistent. Even the authors acknowledge that, in looking at all available evidence, they were unable to find a clear connection between diet and endometriosis(4).
A vegetarian diet has been associated with earlier menopause. It is thought that the high fibre content of most vegetarian diets affects the hormonal pathways of oestrogen and other sex hormones. High levels of green and yellow vegetables in one’s diet, as well as fresh legumes, are associated with later menopause(1). Foods high in antioxidants (e.g. dark chocolate, blueberries, strawberries, kale, red cabbage, raspberries, spinach and beetroot) might slow the loss of eggs from the ovaries and delay the onset of menopause.
The Mediterranean diet, as well as a diet that contains a lot of fruit, has been shown to improve symptoms of menopause such as night sweats and hot flushes(1). On the other hand, a high intake of fat and sugar can increase these symptoms.
Hormonal balance and cancer
Diets high in fat increase the risk of obesity. This is related to an increased risk of endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the womb). Diets high in simple sugars are also associated with endometrial cancer by increasing the chance of developing insulin resistance.
High cholesterol levels (which can be caused by high-fat diets) are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. This is especially in women who have been through menopause or are going through menopause(1). This evidence is not completely clear though, so we do not know yet how strong the link is. Breast cancer is a very complex illness with many things contributing to cancer risk. Insulin resistance has been linked to breast cancer in women before they go through menopause(1).
Hormone balancing foods and fertility
In 2019, Gaskins et al. published a study looking at the effect of diet on the success of fertility treatment(6). They found that women who followed the Mediterranean diet had a higher chance of having a baby through fertility treatment(6). However, this association did not improve the stricter women were with following the diet. In other words, following a Mediterranean diet “pretty well” was beneficial, but there was no extra benefit to following it perfectly. The study also found that a “profertility diet” was associated with better outcomes from treatment. This diet was also associated with a lower risk of miscarriage during the study(6).
The profertility diet involved folic acid supplementation, foods high in vitamins B12 and D, low pesticide fruits and vegetables, seafood, dairy, soy products and whole grains(6). They also found that the women who were following a profertility diet were more likely to be eating more calories overall and have higher levels of physical activity.
Other factors that might contribute to hormone balance
Physical exercise is also an important part of a balanced and “healthy” lifestyle. Exercise can help to balance hormones such as insulin and improve the way your body is able to process sugar. This can improve energy, strength and general quality of life.
Stress is a HUGE factor in disrupting our bodies’ functioning. It disrupts many of the different hormone systems in the body. In order to achieve balance, in all aspects of life, managing stress effectively is really important. Everyone is different in the way they manage their stress. Constructive coping mechanisms such as meditation, yoga, physical exercise, soothing music or social interaction can help you feel more balanced.
Suggested read: What’s in Your Stress Bucket? The Stress Bucket Model
So what does this mean for my diet and my hormone balance?
In summary, diets that are low in animal products and high in plant products seem to be beneficial in terms of hormonal balance. The Mediterranean diet has been researched quite extensively. It has been proven to help with inflammation and health conditions that are associated with inflammation.
A balanced diet, that includes fruit, vegetables and fibre, and avoids processed foods as much as possible can affect hormone levels and possibly improve symptoms related to hormonal imbalance. We still need to do more research about this topic though, and everyone is different. It is just a matter of finding what works for you.
- Dunneram Y, Greenwood DC, Cade JE. Diet, menopause and the risk of ovarian, endometrial and breast cancer. In: Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2019. p. 438–48.
- Barrea L, Arnone A, Annunziata G, Muscogiuri G, Laudisio D, Salzano C, et al. Adherence to the mediterranean diet, dietary patterns and body composition in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2278.
- Liu K, Zhou R, Wang B, Chen K, Shi LY, Zhu JD, et al. Effect of green tea on glucose control and insulin sensitivity: A meta-analysis of 17 randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98(2):340–8.
- Jurkiewicz-Przondziono J, Lemm M, Kwiatkowska-Pamula A, Ziólłko E, Wójtowicz MK. Influence of diet on the risk of developing endometriosis. Ginekol Pol. 2017;88(2):96–102.
- Rietjens IMC., Louisse J, Beekmann K. The potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens. Vol. 174, British Journal of Pharmacology. England: Wiley Subscription Services, Inc; 2017. p. 1263–80.
- Gaskins AJ, Nassan FL, Chiu YH, Arvizu M, Williams PL, Keller MG, et al. Dietary patterns and outcomes of assisted reproduction. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2019;220(6):567.e1-567.e18.
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