How Carbohydrates Effect Women’s Hormones
Hormones are extremely sensitive to diet (and everything else) and so it’s no wonder that carbohydrates have a direct effect on our hormones and how they make us feel. The exact amount of total carbohydrates needed for hormone health is different for every woman, so rather than focusing on total carbohydrate levels, I thought it would be best to talk about the different types of carbohydrates and the effects on our hormones.
Carbohydrates are essentially energy giving foods. Although the body can convert fats and proteins into energy, carbohydrates are our bodies first choice for energy production. They are also an important source of fiber and micronutrients. Carbohydrates have been divided into many different categories but in my opinion, there is only really two categories that we need to worry about for hormone health: refined carbohydrates and whole food (gentle) carbohydrates. These can have profound differences in our hormones.
These are sugars and starches that have been processed into a form that no longer resembles the form found in nature. These foods have been processed and stripped of fiber, micronutrients or both. The best example of this is refined sugar which has the most devastating effects on health. Other examples include white flour found in bread, cakes, pastries etc as well as white pasta and white rice. I also wanted to mention soft drinks (these are the worst and are my pet hate) and highly processed fruit juice.
What effect do refined carbohydrates have on hormones?
• Raises insulin levels and testosterone levels and is the main cause of the most common type of PCOS (insulin resistant polycystic ovarian syndrome)
• Associated with acne
• Raises estrogen levels too high and can lead to estrogen dominance
• Worsens symptoms of PMS and PMDD
• Can effect proper thyroid function
• Associated with hormonal imbalances that cause anxiety, depression, mood swings, and irritability
• Can lead to diabetes (in both men and women)
As always hormonal imbalances are very complex and it is unlikely that refined carbohydrates are the sole cause of a hormonal imbalance, however, nearly all imbalances will improve in the absence of refined carbohydrates (especially sugar)
Whole food carbohydrates:
These are carbohydrates foods found in their whole form and include whole grains like oats, barley, rye, spelt, brown or wild rice, millet, quinoa and whole wheat, lentils, beans, vegetables, starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes and whole fruits. Although some processing may be necessary for optimal digestion, carbohydrates that still retain the majority of their fiber and nutrient profile are generally healthful for the body provided our gut and digestion is not compromised (some people may have a difficult time digesting high fiber foods like whole grains as well as have intolerances to gluten or fructose until healing is restored to the gut)
Effects of whole food carbohydrates on hormones:
• Assists with steady blood sugar levels that prevent against insulin resistant PCOS, diabetes and PMS associated mood swings
• High fiber content helps to flush out excess estrogen from the body helping to prevent estrogen dominance
• Crucial for fertility as the body needs carbohydrates to maintain a healthy pregnancy
• Helps maintain a healthy pregnancy and the formation of a healthy placenta especially during the first trimester when the placenta is being built and energy needs are very high.
• Helps in preventing against some types of amenorrhea (loss of period) also beneficial in helping lost periods (and fertility) return.
Carbs have gotten a bad wrap especially when it comes to weight gain and with good reason. Processed sugar and refined carbohydrates have negative effects throughout the entire body (not just our hormones) however carbohydrates are still necessary for overall hormone health. Restricting carbohydrates intake too much has the same effect on the body as starvation or restricting total calories, which is why it can lead to fast and effective weight loss (and even improved health and energy in some people for a short while). However, low carbohydrate levels will drop estrogen levels and stop ovulation as the body deems it unsafe to make a baby under low energy conditions. Over time low carbohydrate diets have been associated with muscle weakness and chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
For optimal hormone health focus on the quality of the carbohydrates and not the amount of carbohydrates. Whole food carbohydrates like whole grains and legumes are often already balanced with plenty of protein to help stabilize blood sugar levels. They are slow release carbohydrates which means they do not create the sugar highs and lows that disrupt hormone balance. They’re also loaded with lots of fiber and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) which are health-promoting for all areas of our health.
• Ditch the processed refined sugar. Switch up refined sugar for healthier natural sweeteners with lower GI’s like coconut sugar or maple syrup etc (but these should only be eaten in moderation)
• Switch white bread, white pasta, and white rice to good quality whole grain varieties and
• Start adding a larger variety of good grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts seeds, and whole fruits.
• Avoid drinking fruit juice and eat whole fruits or blend fruits into smoothies instead.
• Keep a lookout for unnecessary added sugar in foods (like nut butters, pasta sauces, and yogurts, even healthy ones)
• Cut out alcohol as this contains a lot of sugar and isn’t good for hormones on the whole
Ditching sugar and switching to whole grain bread pasta and brown rice was actually the very first step I took in my health journey to balancing my hormones. I did this way before cutting out meat and lowering my dairy intake. It’s a very good place to start because if you can get your blood sugar under control with good carbohydrates and regular eating patterns all other dietary changes are much easier to follow!
Depending on the type of hormonal imbalance it may be necessary to be strict with your carbohydrates for a while however don’t beat yourself up for having the odd pasta or bread roll or naughty treat. Refined carbohydrates are very difficult to avoid especially when eating out or traveling etc but that’s ok! Your body can deal with a little. Obsessive restrictive attitudes around food are terrible for hormone health so it’s best to do the best you can and allow yourself the rest. Perfection is not the aim. You absolutely will feel like crap the moment you eat refined carbs after you have been avoiding them for a while (I get an instant headache if I eat refined sugar and get gas, bloating and constipation if I have too much white bread) but that just makes it even easier to make healthier choices next time if possible.