You probably understand that a varied, balanced diet is good for your health. Eating a range of fruits and vegetables throughout the day can improve your focus and physical wellbeing, and getting enough protein can stave off diseases like diabetes.
However, you may not have heard about the impact that your diet has on your hormones — also known as the endocrine system.
The food you eat plays a massive role in maintaining healthy hormone levels in your body, and natural, whole foods can boost your health and mood through hormone receptors like serotonin and dopamine. Conversely, processed, sugar-dense foods can throw your endocrine system out of balance, and increase your chances of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But figuring out what foods help your endocrine system can be tricky. So, here’s a quick guide to help you understand the impact that diet has on your hormones.
Insulin and Glucagon
Insulin and glucagon are hormones that are commonly associated with diabetes. While it’s true that folks with diabetes do need to regulate the balance between insulin and glucagon levels, you actually need healthful levels of both insulin and glucagon to stay healthy even if you don’t have diabetes.
Glucagon secretion is usually increased when we eat high protein foods like legumes or meat and is reduced when we eat carb-dense meals like pasta or quinoa. Likewise, your insulin level may fluctuate depending on your diet and activity level. That’s because insulin is secreted from the pancreas to help your body convert glucose into energy.
Most people’s bodies do a tremendous job of regulating insulin and glucagon levels. However, if you eat too much sugar, you put yourself at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as you may experience weight gain which increases the prevalence of type 2 diabetes and reduces your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels.
Estrogen and Testosterone
Estrogen and testosterone carry strange associations in people’s minds. Estrogen is seen as a woman’s hormone, and men have been fixated on the idea that high testosterone levels are desirable for decades. In reality, both men and women need estrogen and testosterone to lead a healthy lifestyle, so you can make key dietary changes to promote a healthy balance between the hormones regardless of your gender.
If you feel tired, moody, or suffer from a low sex drive, you may need to make dietary changes to increase your testosterone levels. That’s because testosterone production is impaired in people who are overweight and hold an excessive amount of fat cells in their bodies. A healthier, protein-rich diet can help promote fat loss and increase testosterone levels, which increases bone density, strength, red blood cell production, and sex drive in both men and women.
Estrogen also plays a vital role in everyone’s health. There are three different types of estrogen in your body — estrone, estradiol, and estriol — and your diet plays a vital role in ensuring that all types of estrogen remain balanced. If you eat a Western-style diet consisting of fast foods and red meats, you may put yourself at greater risk of high estrogen levels, which can lead to conditions like breast cancer. Conversely, a diet high in fruits and vegetables can help bring your estrogen levels back in line and help you live a healthier, happier life.
Serotonin carries the title of “the happy hormone” — and for good reason. In addition to promoting bone metabolism, cardiovascular health, and vision, serotonin helps regulate your mood and avoid conditions like depression. While it’s somewhat up for debate as to whether or not serotonin is a chemical or a hormone, it does play a role in your endocrine system and can be understood as a brain hormone.
You can boost your serotonin levels by eating foods like cherries. That’s because cherries contain L-tryptophan in high levels. L-tryptophan is tied to serotonin production and also promotes the natural production of melatonin. This has a knock-on effect on your sleep duration and quality, which, in turn, helps you produce more serotonin and makes you feel happier and more refreshed throughout the day.
If serotonin is the “happy” hormone, then cortisol is the “stress” hormone. Cortisol levels are raised when we are placed under acute or chronic stress through work obligations, poor health, or traumatic events. Unfortunately, prolonged cortisol levels are associated with things like unwanted weight gain, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.
You can regulate your cortisol level and mitigate stress with a balanced diet. In particular, when you’re going through a difficult time, try to increase your intake of vitamin C through foods like sweet potatoes, broccoli, and citruses. You should also increase the amount of omega-3 and fatty acids you eat (like salmon and walnuts), as these foods will reduce inflammation in your body, and help you fight off raised stress.
Your diet and endocrine system are integrally linked. When you eat certain foods, your body responds appropriately by secreting hormones like insulin and ghrelin which regulate your weight and appetite. Fortunately, your endocrine is rather resilient — so one donut won’t exactly spell disaster. However, to get the most from your endocrine system, you should try to eat a healthy, balanced diet that is high in protein and includes natural treats like cherries.
Katie Brenneman is a passionate writer specializing in lifestyle, mental health, and fitness-related content. When she isn’t writing, you can find her with her nose buried in a book or hiking with her dog, Charlie. To connect with Katie, you can follow her on Twitter.
Just 1 in 10 adults meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations, according to a study published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). This report highlights that very few Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day, putting them at risk for chronic diseases.
Studies have shown that supplementation with extracts from fruits and vegetables may improve age-related changes.
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