Diet and Hormones

Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers. They control practically every physiological process in the body—from regulation of metabolism to activation of the immune system to the menstrual cycle and reproduction. A precise hormonal balance is vital to proper body functioning. Certain foods in the diet can restore or throw off the balance of hormones. Because menopause is accompanied by hormonal imbalance, eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong foods is especially important during this transitional period in a woman’s life.

Estrogen

Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone. Estrogen regulates the menstrual cycle and prepares the uterus for pregnancy. During perimenopause, the period that precedes menopause, a woman’s estrogen levels may fluctuate wildly. When a woman reaches menopause, estrogen levels drop significantly. The fluctuations and subsequent drop in estrogen levels lead to the characteristic symptoms of menopause - hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, and menstrual irregularity.

Although a woman cannot obtain estrogen from the diet, various plant foods contain phytoestrogens, groups of chemicals that weakly act like estrogen in the body.

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Soy is the richest dietary source of phytoestrogens, particularly a type of phytoestrogen called isoflavones. The isoflavones in soybeans bind to estrogen receptors in the body. There have been hundreds of studies on soy, and although there are conflicting results, the isoflavones in soy appear to reduce the incidence and severity of hot flashes and increase vaginal lubrication.

Flaxseed is another significant source of phytoestrogens, specifically a type of phytoestrogen called lignans. Like the isoflavones in soy, lignans have both an estrogenic and antiestrogenic effect, although to a much lesser degree.

Insulin/Glucagon

Insulin may be one of the most well-known hormones affected by your diet. When you eat carbohydrates, the glucose from these carbohydrates travels into your bloodstream, triggering your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin attaches to the glucose molecules and carries them to your cells, where they are used for energy. Glucagon is another pancreatic hormone with the opposite effect of insulin. When a woman goes without eating for an extended period of time, the pancreas releases glucagon, which signals the liver to convert stored glycogen into glucose. The sugar is then secreted into the bloodstream, where it serves as an energy source until the body receives more food. This physiological feedback system is designed to keep blood sugar levels steady.

Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance is a condition in which the pancreas produces insulin normally, but the muscle, fat, and liver cells do not respond to it properly. To compensate for this, the pancreas produces more insulin in an effort to help glucose travel into the cells. When a woman goes through menopause, the body changes from gynoid, or pear-shaped, to android, or apple-shaped. The accumulation of abdominal fat is believed to have an important role in the development of insulin resistance.

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What’s most important is that menopausal women maintain a controlled and balanced diet. Excessive caloric intake will cause weight gain no matter what. Opt for complex carbohydrates, like oats, whole grain breads, bran, beans, legumes and starchy vegetables instead of refined carbohydrates like white breads, crackers, cookies, and white sugar.

Cortisol

Your adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which is often referred to as the stress hormone. Cortisol is part of the fight-or-flight response, which is a physiological reaction triggered in times of stress or when the body perceives danger. While cortisol is vital to survival as a part of the fight-or-flight response, having chronically high levels of cortisol in the body can increase stress levels, blood pressure and visceral fat, which is the fat that surrounds your midsection and contributes to an apple-shape. High levels of cortisol during menopause are especially bothersome, because menopause already causes a shift in body fat.

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Caffeine and alcohol have been shown to cause mild increases in cortisol secretion. Women going through menopause should balance caffeine and alcohol consumption to keep cortisol levels in check.