I had a close friend that was diagnosed with PCOS in her late twenties. She would get only one period a year ever since she was 16. She had been vegetarian (mostly vegan) for most of her life and had been able to maintain a stable weight. Once she received her diagnoses her doctor immediately suggested she needed to eat meat in order to help her blood sugar balance and improve her insulin resistant PCOS. She did this and proceeded to put on a lot of weight very very quickly. In a few months, she had put on 30kg and was well over 100kg. I knew nothing about hormones at the time but she was convinced that eating meat made her PCOS even worse and that is was responsible for her rapid weight gain. You can read my article about PCOS on a plant-based diet here: https://hazelandcacao.com/5-steps-to-improving-insulin-resistance-pcos-with-plant-based-diet/ Her story stayed with me for a while and even though I never suffered PCOS her story influenced my decision to go plant-based.
Truth be told, I never considered eating for my hormones until I had to. If you have read my birth control story you will know that I had to embark on a very long process to regulate my HPA Axis (the connection between my brain and adrenals/ovaries) increase my severely low progesterone levels and replenish my body from the nutrient depletion’s caused by my poor diet and birth control. I was not aware of what my hormone imbalance actually was for many years so I researched broadly and found the most compelling evidence for overall hormone health pointing to predominantly plant-based diets. Although I’m aware that you don’t need to be plant-based for your hormones, I can not overlook the evidence that guided me towards a plant-based diet. I have personally been mostly plant-based for about 8 years. I started as a vegetarian and slowly worked on reducing the dairy as much as possible. I was never one to eat a lot of meat so for me going plant-based was much more about adding in a variety of plant-based foods that I simply was not eating before. The more plant foods I added, the better I started to feel.
Here are the main reasons that I decided to go plant-based for my hormones:
1. Plant-based diets are anti-inflammatory: inflammation is the driver to basically all chronic diseases today and hormone imbalance is no different. There is an abundance of evidence surrounding plant-based diets and their ability to lower inflammation and fight and reverse chronic disease. This was important to me not only for my hormones but also because heart disease and diabetes run in my family. Plant-based diets are also shown to reduce inflammatory prostaglandins which are responsible for period pain
2. Plant-based diets are good for the gut: the gut is the foundation of good health and is important in excreting excess hormones and toxins as well as to a small degree making some of our hormones. Most gut health experts agree that the secret to a strong digestive system lies in microbiome diversity. The best way to do this is to eat a wide variety of plant foods. Plant foods contain their own unique microbiome that gets transferred to our own. They also contain fibre and things like resistant starch to feed our microbiome.
3. Plant-based diets are rich in micronutrients. Plant-based diets are rich in micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Vegan and vegetarian diets have consistently rated highest on the nutritional index. Although plant-based diets are often criticized for being low in a few key nutrients like zinc, iron, and b12, the truth is that they are higher in all the other nutrients and easily adapted to meet all nutritional needs. Plant-based foods also come perfectly balanced with other nutrients and phytochemicals needed for adequate absorption. For example, a food that is high in magnesium eg. almonds also contains calcium, b6, and vitamin e to ensure proper assimilation of nutrients
4. Plant based diets are rich in fibre: fibre is needed to feed our microbiome and flush out excess estrogen and other toxins that can interfere with our hormones.
5. Plant-based diets are less toxic: our environment is increasingly toxic and I agree that pesticides and other chemicals used in plant-based foods are a problem, however eating animal fat exposes us to environmental and normal biological toxins at concentrated doses because animal fat stores and concentrates toxins. Toxins are known to interfere with hormones and neurotransmitters.
5. Plant-based diets help prevents and reverses estrogen dominance: all meat and dairy, even grass-fed organic meat, contain hormones and other chemicals. Eating estrogen in animal products can lead to estrogen dominance, especially if the liver can not metabolize estrogen well. It is estimated that the estrogen consumed from animal products is 10 times more powerful than xenoestrogens from our environment. Plant-based diets have been shown to be lower in estrogen and help lower excess estrogen from the body. (Please note estrogen is vital and very important, problems arise only when there is too much estrogen or the wrong type of estrogen)
6. Plant-based diets help improve fertility. Just a single serving of meat a day increases the chance of anovulatory cycle and infertility by 30% scientists speculate that this is because of IGF factors in animal protein. Plant-based proteins did not show to cause the same effects. Researchers found that women with the lowest intake of fruit had a higher risk of infertility (taking more than one year to fall pregnant), with the risk increasing from 8% to 12%. For those who ate fast food over four times a week, the risk was even higher, increasing to 16%
6. Plant-based diets help maintain good insulin sensitivity and can help treat diabetes and PCOS. Stress and blood sugar balance is often an underlying factor for other hormone imbalances. There is an abundance of evidence showing that whole food low GI plant-based diets can treat and even reverse type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and PCOS
7. Plant-based diets ensure an easy transition into menopause: plant-based or vegetarian women frequently report fewer symptoms transitioning into menopause. A possible reason is due to the lower estrogen levels in women that follow plant-based diets.
8. Plant-based diets lessen period cramps and reduce PMS symptoms. This is due mostly to the anti-inflammatory effects of plant-based diets which in turn lowers inflammatory prostaglandins that are responsible for period pain. High estrogen is one of the main drivers behind PMS symptoms, plant-based diets help with PMS because they lower excess estrogen.
9. Plant-based diets are powerful treating and recovering from depression and anxiety. Mood disorders often accompany hormone imbalance. Plant-based diets lower inflammation and are a great source of tryptophan and other amino acids and nutrients needed to build healthy neurotransmitters. Read my foods for anxiety article here: https://hazelandcacao.com/the-best-plant-based-foods-to-beat-anxiety-and-build-healthy-neurotransmitters/
9. Plant-based diets ensure quality cholesterol production: cholesterol is the building block of all our hormones and without it, we can not make hormones. Our body makes the majority of the cholesterol we need. It can sometimes be difficult to get enough cholesterol especially if a woman under eats and has low body fat or overly low-fat diet however there is evidence that suggests the type of cholesterol our body uses is important. Dietary cholesterol from animal products or excess cholesterol in general has been associated with a rise in DHEA and testosterone levels. This can lead to issues like PCOS, acne, and infertility.
As I research more into hormone health I am confronted by women’s stories about how going plant-based helped to regulate hormones. Less often I’m also confronted by stories of women that don’t do as well on plant-based diets. Interestingly I heard one of the hormone specialists on one of the podcasts I was listening to say “I eat meat but I also eat more vegetables than most vegans that I know” I think therein lies the problem. Many vegans and vegetarians simply don’t eat well enough to sustain healthy hormone levels. Eating an impoverished plant-based diet or a highly processed vegan junk food diet or restricting our diets to conform to society standards only wreaks havoc on our hormones. Variety and abundance are key to plant-based diets which is one of the reasons plant-based diets can be so enjoyable. When done properly whole food plant-based diet can be a powerful tool (amongst others) in regaining hormone balance. Diet is only part of the answer but in my case, it was the most crucial lifestyle change that I made in my recovery.
Tomova A, Bukovsky I, Rembert E, et al. The effects of vegetarian and vegan diets on gut microbiota. Front Nutr.Published online April 17, 2019.