What types of conditions are caused by out-of-balance hormones?
Diabetes (insulin is a hormone)
Female-specific conditions like PCOS, infertility, menopause, and breast cancer
Male-specific conditions like erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer
Hair and skin conditions
Moodiness and stress
With the rise in the modern Western diet came a huge rise in conditions like these. Coincidence? I think not.
Let's dive into why hormones are linked to these various conditions and how to possibly return your body to balance. If you are intrigued by this blog, you should check out Dr. Neal Barnard's book Your Body in Balance: The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health.
Maybe you didn't know, but type 2 diabetes is NOT caused by carbohydrates. What is it caused by? In type 2 diabetes, we see an insensitivity to insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas that travels the body to unlock cells and let glucose (sugar) in. Over time, your pancreas has to produce so much extra insulin just to get over the insensitivity that you may stop being able to produce insulin altogether (think of a machine that has been running on high with no breaks for the last 20 years).
What causes the insensitivity to the hormone in the first place? It's not carbohydrates, although high blood sugar is a sign of this disease. Your cells become insensitive to the hormone due to excess fat in the cells. This keeps the hormone from binding effectively (think gum in a keyhole making it difficult for the key to fit in).
You can improve this hormone-related condition by limiting added fat in your diet. Feel free to keep some whole-food sources of fat in your diet (like avocados, walnuts, seeds, etc), but get rid of the excess saturated fat from animal foods and added calories from vegetable oils.
Almost a 100% guarantee, when you include lots of plants and thus lots of fiber in your diet, you will see improvements in the signs of diabetes like blood glucose and hemoglobin A1C. Eating a more plant-based diet has been proven over and over to cure, yes cure, diabetes. People are able to reverse the disease process (fat blocking insulin's action) and therefore see a complete reversal of insulin insensitivity.
Infertility, Cramps, PCOS, Menopause, and Breast Cancer
While these conditions are not caused by the same things, they are linked in that they are caused by hormone irregularities.
A possible cause of female-related hormonal issues may actually be excess fat on the body. Fat tissue is actually a hormone factory, so by having excess body weight, we may inadvertently be causing more hormones (especially estrogens and androgens) to flow through our veins than we need. Excess body fat also reduces the amount of sex hormone-binding globulin, a protein molecule that keeps hormones in check.
It may seem counterintuitive, but having excess estrogen in our body usually does more harm than good. So we want to keep this pesky hormone in balance as best we can, and limit our exposure to it. When we have excess hormones flowing through, we may mess with the precarious balance of hormones we need for healthy menstruation, ovulation, and fertility. Having excess estrogen may be a contributor to painful menstruation, fibroids, endometriosis, PMS, and is linked to a more severe reaction to the lack of estrogen that comes after menopause.
What else leads to higher estrogen levels?
Dairy may contribute to higher estrogen levels due to the fact that almost all dairy cows are pregnant while they are being milked. The hormones are not filtered from the milk and even in small quantities, researchers are thinking that they are affecting our hormone balance. Unfortunately, the more concentrated the dairy product becomes (for example butter and cheese) the more estrogen it may contain.
A low fiber diet may also be contributing to elevated estrogen levels. Fiber has a unique role in helping our liver sort out excess unwanted compounds. The liver sends things like excess cholesterol and estrogen to the gut for excretion, but without fiber to bind it and pull it through the gastrointestinal tract, the compounds end up being reabsorbed and recirculating in our blood.
The average American doesn't even consume half the recommended daily fiber amount. Add on that the current fiber recommendations are inadequate, and we are consuming less than a third of what is considered healthy for our gastrointestinal health. The recommendation by most plant-based doctors is actually 40 grams per day.
Erectile Dysfunction (ED) and Prostate Cancer
Okay, okay. ED is actually NOT a hormone issue. It's not related to low testosterone or excess estrogen. ED has a similar cause to diabetes. Having an unhealthy cardiovascular system (from excess fat and cholesterol) is actually what keeps the pumps from working correctly. ED is often the first sign that you have some blockages forming in your arteries. Tackling heart disease with a low-fat plant-based diet and exercise will actually solve this one for you.
Prostate cancer may also share roots with diabetes. Insulin resistance may lead to higher cancer risk. Losing the excess weight may not only resolve insulin resistance but improve your risk factors for prostate and testicular cancer.
Similar to female hormone problems, dairy is linked to more prostate and testicular cancer. This time, instead of estrogen being the cause, we look to a substance in milk called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). IGF-1 causes baby humans and baby calves to grow in a similar fashion, but in adults who no longer need to grow, it may turn evil and lead to the growth of cancer cells. The excess calcium from dairy products may also lead our bodies to suppress vitamin D activation. Vitamin D has known anti-cancer effects.
Your thyroid is responsible for pumping out hormones that control your body's use of energy. Having too many of these hormones leads to a ramping up of energy and you may feel warm, have a high pulse, have trouble sleeping, have brittle hair, and even have your eyes begin to pop out a little. Having too few of these hormones leads to a slowing down of your metabolism, which may mean weight gain, tiredness, and mood and memory sluggishness.
The most common cause of thyroid issues is an autoimmune attack. What triggers your body to go after its own cells instead of foreign invaders? Well, research is indicating this happens a lot more when we have an unhealthy microbiome. For more information on how to care for our microbiome, read my post about it here.
Even without a clear understanding of how foods like dairy and animal products lead to thyroid conditions, we know they do, and there appears to be a protective effect of a vegan diet against these conditions. People are actually able to recover with a healthy diet alone.
Hair and Skin Conditions
Wondering what hormones have to do with hair? This was new to me too! It turns out that the number one contributor to hair loss in males is a compound called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). On the head, this compound triggers balding, while on the face and chest it may actually trigger MORE hair production (ever wonder why men seem to lose the top but are able to grow immaculate beards? This is why!).
We may not know the exact mechanism, but we do see that hair loss was relatively uncommon in Asian countries until recently when a more western diet has been adopted. Part of the explanation could be that a plant-based diet increases sex hormone-binding globulin, which reins in testosterone and therefore DHT. Having a healthy diet can also improve insulin response which may be part of the reason.
In terms of skin, acne is an inflammatory condition, so avoiding inflammation triggers like meat, dairy, and added oil may help improve the skin condition.
Moodiness and Stress
Maybe it seems intuitive to you that this is true. Maybe not. The reality is that our mood and overall feeling of psychological wellbeing can and often is impacted by what we eat.
Why? It turns out that your gut is responsible for upwards of 90% of our serotonin (the happy hormone) production, along with many other neurotransmitters, so having an unhealthy gut (dysbiosis) may be a cause of anxiety and depression.
Dairy may also play a role due to its casomorphins that act a great deal like opiates and morphine, messing with brain function.
Western diets also tend to be high in inflammatory compounds such as arachidonic acid. Inflammatory markers (like CRP) have been linked to depression and anxiety, so by eating a more anti-inflammatory diet, you may see improvements in mental health.
How to Regain Hormonal Balance
There may be some specific foods and behaviors that relate to one of the conditions above. Again, I recommend reading Dr. Neal Barnard's book Your Body in Balance: The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health or listening to his talks if you want to learn more.
However, here are the basics:
#1: Ditch the Dairy (and meat, eggs, and other animal products)
#2: Emphasize the Plants (vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains)
#3: Limit the oil (whether it comes from plant sources or not)
#4: Supplement with B12, Vitamin D (if sunshine is limited), and possibly plant-based EPA and DHA.
#5: Get lots of sleep, manage stress, exercise, get daily sunshine, and have a support system.
For tips on how to switch to a more plant-forward diet, read these other blogs by me:
I promise you that by having more plant diversity in your diet, you will not only be addressing these issues but many other issues such as weight, insulin insensitivity, cardiovascular risk factors, gastrointestinal health, and much more.
So with all these benefits, and no downsides, why not give it a try?
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