Protein for Hormonal Harmony
By Ellen Albertson, PhD, RDN, NBC-HWC
In this article:
Feeling tired or sluggish? Struggling with unexplained weight fluctuations, cravings or digestive problems? Experiencing insomnia or alterations in your skin, hair and nails? Hormonal changes or imbalances may be responsible for your symptoms.
Some hormonal changes, such as those experienced during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and perimenopause are normal. Others occur when endocrine glands produce too much or too little of a hormone.
Fortunately, there are numerous ways to correct hormonal imbalances and bring your body back into harmony. The first step is to talk with your doctor and determine if any hormone levels are abnormal. Once specific hormonal issues are identified, lifestyle changes such as improving your diet can help. Why? The foods you eat, including the types and amount of protein you consume, can increase or decrease hormone levels.
Hormones are chemical messengers made in the endocrine glands—including the thyroid, adrenals, pancreas, ovaries and testes—that communicate with other parts of the body and have a powerful impact on physical, mental and emotional health. There are approximately 50 different hormones, including insulin, estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, melatonin, thyroid hormones and testosterone. They control and regulate behavior and most major body functions from metabolism and appetite to body temperature, growth, sleep, reproduction, sexuality, mood and stress response.
Several factors including age, gender, activity level and health influence how much protein you need. Sources differ on how much is ideal. The Dietary Reference Intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound. This is about 49 grams a day for a 135-pound woman and 65 grams a day for a 180-pound man. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults get between 10 and 35 percent of their calories from protein.
If you are trying to lose weight, consuming enough protein can create hormone changes to help you stay on track. Studies show that eating protein lowers levels of the appetite-stimulating “hunger hormone,” ghrelin, and increases the production of PYY and GLP-1, which increase satiety. Carry a high-protein snack like jerky or add protein powder to your morning smoothie to ensure you get adequate amounts.
However, eating too little or too much protein and too many calories overall can cause hormonal changes. Overeating increases levels of insulin and lowers insulin sensitivity particularly for overweight or obese individuals. Eating too few calories can increase levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that when high promotes weight gain, especially around the middle.
The type of protein that’s best for you depends on your individual hormonal issues and dietary preferences. Here’s a summary.
In general, seafood is a lean, healthy source of protein that can be great for overall health and hormonal balance. What’s key is selecting seafood that is low in contaminants like mercury and PCBs, which can negatively impact both estrogen receptors and the thyroid gland. Good sources include albacore tuna, Alaska salmon, Pacific wild sardines, farmed oysters, rainbow trout and freshwater coho salmon. Fish to avoid include bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, monkfish, grouper and orange roughy.
Consuming too much red meat can increase levels of estrogen, the hormone responsible for female characteristics in the body. This may be due to hormones fed to animals, the lack of fiber inherent in diets high in animal products or consuming too much-saturated fat.
While animal sources of protein can be part of a healthy diet, to optimize hormonal balance reduce how much meat you eat and choose lean and organic when possible. In addition, to improve gut health and increase the removal of excess estrogen, consume 25–30 grams of fiber daily. Adding fiber powder to smoothies or eating high-fiber whole-grain products can boost your intake.
If you are experiencing problems with your thyroid hormones consider eliminating gluten, a protein found in certain grains. Gluten is associated with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that damages the thyroid gland and is the leading cause of hypothyroidism. Avoid grains containing gluten (wheat, rye, barley and triticale). Choose naturally gluten-free grains like corn and rice, and substitute gluten-free products (pasta, snacks, bread, crackers and baking mixes) for regular varieties.
Eating more vegetarian sources of protein is a wonderful way to balance your hormones. Unlike animal sources of protein, plant sources are naturally fiber-rich and free of chemicals that can elevate hormone levels. Eating more fiber can also boost gut health, which can improve overall hormonal balance. Plus, fiber helps lower blood sugar levels, which normalizes insulin.
One easy way to increase plant protein is to add vegan protein powders to smoothies. These powders are made from a variety of sources, usually pea protein, brown rice, soy and hemp. You can also eat more beans and soy foods—tofu, edamame, soy milk and soy protein granules. Some research suggests that consuming soy foods might help reduce menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes.
- Aubertin-Leheudre, M, et al. Diets and hormonal levels in postmenopausal women with or without breast cancer. Nutrition and Cancer 63, no. 4 (2011): 514–524.
- Blom, WA, et al. Effect of a high-protein breakfast on the postprandial ghrelin response. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Feb;83(2):211–20.
- Belza, A, et al. Contribution of gastroenteropancreatic appetite hormones to protein-induced satiety. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 May;97(5):980-9. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.047563. Epub 2013 Mar 6.
- Fung, T, et al. A dietary pattern derived to correlate with estrogens and risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Breast cancer research and treatment132, no. 3 (2012): 1157–1162;
- Harmon, BE, et al. Oestrogen levels in serum and urine of premenopausal women eating low and high amounts of meat. Public Health Nutrition 17, no. 09 (2014): 2087–2093.
- Tomiyama, AJ, et al. Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol. Psychosom Med. 2010 May; 72(4): 357–364.