Supporting Our Sex Hormones With Food (17-Minute Read)

Pictures feature strawberries, bananas, salmon, cheese, prawns, beans, nuts all foods that can support natural hormone production
Connie Pretula Headshot

Connie Pretula

Connie Pretula is an inspiring health coach and Menopause Navigator to mature women, using a holistic approach to nutrition and life.

November 21, 2023

I believe, when most people think about supporting their hormones, they think about a prescription they receive from a doctor. How many think about the foods they can consume to provide their body with vitamins, minerals and natural compounds to help balance their hormones?

Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone, also known as sex hormones, are 3 of the 50 different hormones in our body. Both women and men have these hormones, estrogen is more prevalent in women and testosterone more prevalent in men, there are exceptions in both women and men.

From a woman’s perspective, I often refer the estrogen as the partner-seeking hormone, it helps to prepare a woman’s body to conceive. I view progesterone as the relaxing hormone, it supports pregnancy and nesting habits. Testosterone is our sexy hormone. There are studies showing when a woman’s body is cycling through the different hormone stages, she will select different partners based on which hormone is more prevalent. The change in these hormones is also why women who are transitioning through the various stages of menopause, struggle with the change in their desires.

Estrogen, Progesterone, and Testosterone can also be produced exogenously, meaning outside of the body. The most popular form of estrogen replacement, called Premarin, comes from pregnant horses, most women are not aware of this fact and when I tell them that the response is usually, “gross”! Progesterone and Testosterone are derivatives of plant extracts or created in a lab from a chemical formula. Bio-Identical Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone are a derivative of plant extracts.

Estrogen is the one hormone that can also be mimicked by chemical substances which can cause women and men to become more estrogen dominant, meaning progesterone and testosterone are not produced at an appropriate level compared to estrogen. Pesticides on food, products we use on our bodies and in our homes, as well as plastics/packaging, and heavy metals are some of the factors that can affect estrogen. These exogenous estrogens are called Xenoestrogens and are 1000 times more powerful than our natural estrogen. Due to their strength, Xenoestrogens cause our natural estrogen to be displaced and unable to attach to our cells. This causes extra estrogen to be circulating in the body. Xenoestrogens affect both women and men.

There are various ways to help bring the body back to stasis or balance. I prefer to focus first on food, digestion and elimination, although, if the imbalance is causing a lot of issues, supplementation and herbal tinctures and teas can help assist with the process.

I also focus on two important organs in the body, the liver and the adrenal glands. 

One of those functions is breaking down our hormones so they can be eliminated from our body. Another important function is producing cholesterol which is needed by our body to produce hormones. I find when a person’s liver is not working optimally, they will have hormonal issues, this can affect women and men at any stage of life, I have noticed it has a major effect on women going through menopause.

The adrenal glands also help to produce hormones, one being pregnenolone which is the precursor to progesterone and DHEA and they further convert into testosterone and estrogen, this production is not affected by menopause. Our adrenal glands also produce cortisol, our stress hormone. Unfortunately, our adrenal glands are not able to discern between the different types of modern stress and why we have so much of it. Our adrenal glands think we are running for our lives to save ourselves so they keep pumping out cortisol to help our body not get sick. Continuous high levels of cortisol interfere with progesterone and testosterone production, your body is not interested in reproduction if it is running to save its life. This can also cause estrogen to become more dominant.

When I woman starts to transition into perimenopause and then menopause, if her adrenal glands have been supporting her body due to high stress, which she probably doesn’t realize she has because she has gotten so used to being stressed, suddenly the adrenals are being asked to support her body further. Exhausted adrenal glands are unable to take on the extra demand thus making menopause symptoms more severe.

Signs and Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalances

AnxietyInsomnia
DepressionIrritability
Diminished cognitive functionLoss of libido
FatigueSensitivity to cold or heat
Fertility issuesWeight loss or gain 
Hair loss

Additionally, some signs and symptoms are specific to men and women, such as erectile dysfunction and gynecomastia in men. Women who are premenopausal can experience amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) or menorrhagia (heavy periods) fibroids of the breasts and uterus in women.

What is important to remember, the foods listed in this document are not directly producing these hormones, they are supporting the body with nutrition so that the body can perform at its optimal state. In fact, all of these foods are important for overall health, not just hormones.

Our hormone production is like a symphony, they all work in harmony to produce a beautiful concerto.

Another important component is the health of the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland which are both located at the base of our brain. The hypothalamus is the maestro, without proper direction, the rest of the glands will not know when and how to play their part.

The other gland that can often be forgotten is the thyroid which is located at the base of the front of the neck, it does not have a starring role, yet it is a key player and when it is out of balance, the concerto can be a complete mess.

When working with clients, my main goal is to understand them and listen for clues to the root cause of what is going on. We live in a society of quick fixes and bandages, it’s important for me to be curious and ask questions. I explain to my clients that it takes time for me to get to know their body and how it will react to changes we are making. If they are looking for a quick fix, I am the wrong person to work with. For me, it is very important to know my client is committed to making lifestyle changes so that I can get them off the treadmill of short-term fads and onto freedom.

Liver and Digestive Support 

Nutrition is clearly foundational when it comes to hormone balance. Plant foods play a large role by providing nutrients needed for estrogen metabolism, liver detoxification and removing excess estrogen from the body via the colon. A colourful, fibre-rich diet is a good place to start and specific foods including cruciferous veggies (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), flax seeds, onions, garlic, raw carrots, beets, dandelion, are superstars when it comes to lowering estrogen levels. Apples contain calcium d-glucarate which helps increase estrogen elimination from the liver. Avocado, beets, berries, carrots, artichokes and broccoli, in general, are great liver-supportive and protective options. Since estrogen metabolites leave the body via the digestive tract, it’s so important to have regular bowel movements and plant food fibre helps keep our bowel movements regular. If you are constipated, estrogens that are flagged to leave will recirculate in the body contributing to higher levels, this can be the start of health issues.

Silymarin Milk Thistle and Artichoke contain an active component called silymarin which is hepatoprotective meaning it protects, and even regenerates liver cells. My preferred form of silymarin is a tincture, the seeds have been soaked in a substrate, typically alcohol, for a number of weeks to help extract the beneficial compounds. The substrate is then strained from the seeds and bottled.

Adrenal Support

As I mentioned above, stress can have a major effect on how much cortisol our body is producing. Finding natural ways to reduce our stress through meditation, exercise, and deep breathing can be very beneficial. When someone has been under a lot of stress, sometimes it is hard for them to use these methods to relax. Some of the herbal options I use are, ashwagandha, rhodiola, schisandra, holy basil, and maca, these are all known as adaptogens, they help our body heal from stress. The one I select is based on the client, for example, rhodiola can increase anxiety, even though it is beneficial for adrenal glands, it’s not for everyone. Licorice can also be used provided the client is not on any medication. It can interfere with blood pressure and heart medications, blood thinners as well as others.

Motherwort is another herb that can help reduce anxiety so in a way it is supporting the adrenal function. It also promotes blood flow to the female reproductive system, balance hormones and support thyroid hormones.

Adrenals are one part of the equation, as I mentioned earlier, the health of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands are important as they are the key precursors of hormone production. We also can’t forget about thyroid health, all of these components work together.

Hypothalamus and Pituitary Health

Hypothalamus Support

The hypothalamus is about the size of an almond. Chromium found in grass-fed beef, broccoli, garlic, oranges, and apples, is a trace mineral needed by the body in small amounts for a healthy functioning hypothalamus. Chromium can help to reduce sugar cravings and some research suggests that it can help keep the hypothalamus in a more youthful state.

Healthy fats are important for our brain in general, especially omega-3, they also help the body produce cholesterol which is important for hormone production.

Pituitary Support

The pituitary benefits from the same nutrition as the hypothalamus.

These are the hormones released by the pituitary gland, it is about the size of a pea yet has a major role in how our body functions:

Growth hormoneEndorphins
Thyroid-stimulating hormoneEnkephalins
Adrenocorticotropic hormoneBeta-melanocyte-stimulating hormone
Follicle-stimulating hormoneVasopressin
Luteinizing hormoneOxytocin
Prolactin

Estrogen Supporting Foods 

Broccoli Sprouts – very high in glucoraphanin, the precursor to sulforaphane which has shown to potentially prevent and fight cancer

Cruciferous Vegetables – Fibre, sulforaphane and I3C (converts to DIM* in the stomach) supports hormone detoxification

Flaxseeds – fibre, phytoestrogen**, can help with estrogen balance

Soy – phytoestrogen**

Peaches – phytoestrogen**

Beets – liver supportive, convert to nitric oxide, improves blood flow

Cashews, almonds, peanuts, and pistachios – phytoestrogens**

Fermented foods – sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented vegetables, coconut yogurt and kefir, miso, kombucha and fermented dairy. Fermented foods contain beneficial probiotic bacteria that support microbiome balance and a healthy estrobolome, the part of the microbiome associated with estrogen metabolism. Without adequate levels of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine, this could be part of the reason you are unable to release weight.

Prebiotic fibre – Fibre from whole plant foods provides great microbiome support. In addition, there are certain fibres, namely inulin and FOS (fructooligosaccharides), that directly feed beneficial bacteria. Healthy digestion and probiotics support estrogen clearance. Foods rich in these fibres include: artichoke, asparagus, onions, garlic and sunchokes.

*Diindolylmethane (DIM) is a compound created when you digest cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Some studies have shown that DIM may stimulate the production of a less potent, more beneficial form of estrogen called estradiol and reduce the more harmful form of estrogen called estrone.

**Phytoestrogens are plant-derived dietary compounds, found in a wide variety of foods. They are similar in structure to one of the estrogens called estradiol (E2), the primary female sex hormone. There is some thought that consuming too many phytoestrogen foods can cause an estrogen imbalance, this is why I always recommend variety.

Estrogen Supporting Herbs

(All phytoestrogen sources)

Black Cohosh 

Red Clover

Dong Quai

Progesterone Supporting Foods

Magnesium (supports adrenals) – dark green vegetables, avocado, brown rice, almonds, pecans, cashews, brazil nuts, dried apricots, sesame seeds, cacao

Zinc (supports FSH, stimulates progesterone and testosterone production) – oysters, crab, grass-fed beef, lobster, pork, pumpkin seeds, cashews, chickpeas

Vitamin B6 (helps liver metabolize estrogen) – beef liver, tuna, salmon, chicken breast, turkey, avocado, grass-fed beef, pistachios

Vitamin C – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green peppers, citrus, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, tomatoes

L-Arginine (improves blood circulation) – turkey, chicken, pumpkins seeds, peanuts

Vitamin E (improves blood circulation) – almonds, sunflower seeds, trout, olive oil, hemp seeds

Healthy Fats – help the liver produce cholesterol which supports the body’s hormone production

Progesterone Supporting Herbs

Chasteberry (Vitex)

Evening Primrose Oil (Omega 6, Always balance with Omega 3) – helps regulate prostaglandin production which is related to inflammation and menstrual cramping. Also, an inflamed body will not be focusing on getting pregnant.

Rhodiola – Adrenals

Ashwagandha – Adrenals

Schisandra – Adrenals

Testosterone Supporting Foods

It is important for women to support their testosterone levels but it is usually a hormone that is associated with men. Testosterone helps with motivation and libido in both men and women.

Honey and Avocado

Honey and avocado contain boron which is a natural mineral that can be found in both food and in the environment. It is associated with helping to increase testosterone levels and is also useful for building strong bones and for building muscles, as well as improving thinking skills and muscle coordination. A study showed an increase in testosterone in males when they consumed honey.1

Bananas and Pineapple

Bananas and pineapple (higher in skin and stem) contain an enzyme called bromelain which is known to help boost testosterone levels. Due to the lower fibre levels in bananas and higher sugar levels, I always recommend eating them with a small handful of nuts. Pineapples are high in sugar as well so pair them with a fat.

Garlic

Garlic contains a compound called allicin which can be useful for lowering your cortisol levels. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which is where testosterone is produced. When your body is under stress it produces cortisol and this has an impact on other bodily functions, including the production of testosterone. Therefore, by reducing the amount of cortisol in your system you allow testosterone to be produced more effectively by the adrenal glands. So while garlic doesn’t itself act as a testosterone-boosting food, it is a cortisol reducer and by association boosts testosterone levels.

Eggs

Eggs are a fantastic source of protein, cholesterol, vitamin D and omega-3s, all of which aid in the production of testosterone. Eggs help to build muscle and muscle supports testosterone levels.

Zinc

Zinc-containing foods (generally deficient in cases of PCOS***2) such as almonds, oysters, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds/hearts, chickpeas, lentils, beans, and grass-fed beef. If you are low in zinc this could stop the pituitary gland from releasing some of the key hormones for stimulating testosterone production.

Some additional testosterone-supporting foods are:

Spinach

Spinach contains vitamin B6 and Iron which are both excellent testosterone boosters.

Oatmeal

Oatmeal is an excellent source of B Vitamins which help testosterone production. Vitamin B6 suppresses the production of estrogen, thereby helping testosterone levels to rise.

Lemons

Lemons contain vitamin A which is required for the production of testosterone and can help lower estrogen levels which means testosterone can be more effective.

Salmon

Wild salmon contains magnesium, vitamin B and omega-3s. It also helps lower the levels of the ‘Sex Hormone Binding Globulin’ which makes testosterone non-functional. If this is lowered testosterone can have more of an impact on your body.

Tuna

Tuna is an excellent source of Vitamin D which, according to a study on men, can help to increase testosterone levels.3 Vitamin D may help to improve sperm count and quality.4

Cacao

Cacao beans when roasted and ground produce various forms of chocolate which has long been associated with love and known as an aphrodisiac. Raw cacao is a great source of vitamins A, C, D, E, B-complex vitamins B1, B2, B3, and pantothenic acid. Raw cacao beans are also loaded with many essential minerals which are magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, potassium and phosphorus. A study conducted showed that cacoa5 can increase testosterone levels.

Cordyceps Fungi

Cordyceps have become more popular in the last 10 years. Many athletes consume them to increase their energy and improve their blood oxygen levels. Did you know they can also increase testosterone levels and support prostate health? Here is the link to an abstract from a study on cordyceps fungi. 6 I prefer studies that are conducted on humans rather than rats or mice, I feel they are more efficacious.

Testosterone Supporting Herbs

Tribulus Terrestris/PuncturevineHorny Goat Weed
Aswagandha – AdrenalsYohimbe
Pine Bark ExtractFenugreek
White PeonyLicorice
NettlesSpearmint

I have had a lot of success with a tincture I make that has ashwagandha and fenugreek for erectile and libido issues in men. One of my clients said it also helps his Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or enlarged prostate. In most men, the prostate starts to enlarge in the mid-30s. For some men, this can enlarge at a greater rate and start to cause issues with being able to completely empty their bladder. BPH does not automatically mean it will turn into prostate cancer but it is important to be monitored. You might be wondering why I included this section since I focus on working with women. This is where the holistic side comes in, if my client is in a heterosexual relationship, it is beneficial for her to know what her partner may be experiencing and there is a potential solution.

***Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

High testosterone levels can be seen in women with PCOS, but not in every case. There can also be a high rate of insulin resistance and higher overall body fat percentage, again, not in every case.

Maca

I decided to give maca its own section. Not because it is more special than the other foods and herbs but because its benefits for hormone balancing are commonly talked about.

Maca is an adaptogen, meaning it helps counteract the effect of stress on the body. Adaptogens give the body support where it needs it. In the case of hormone function, it helps to nourish the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands which control the release of hormones.

It is a cruciferous vegetable, there are also different coloured roots and each assists the body differently.

The best maca comes from Peru, that is where it originated and locals have been consuming it for thousands of years. The growing conditions of the high Andes are what gives it the benefits we gain in our bodies.

It is high in antioxidants, enhances memory, mood and energy, it contains the 8 essential amino acids and is high in copper.

There is raw maca and gelatinized maca, studies have been done on both forms and I was not able to find an independent opinion on whether one form is more beneficial than the other.

One of the main concerns is about the farming and production demands. Once a food is declared a superfood, this changes how it is grown and produced from a less natural state to a farmed state. There have also been incidences around theft of plants form Peru so they can be grown in other countries.

Here are a few links to studies if you are interested in reading more about maca7 8 I have had more success in women with ashwagandha for menopause symptoms and libido.

In Conclusion

If you have made it all the way to this point, you probably have noticed that many of the foods support all three sex hormones, that is the beauty of food and eating a variety of food ingredients. I always go back to the thought, there is no one food, supplement or herb that is not going to change someone’s health.

It has been nine years since I first started on the formal path of holistic nutrition. I am still amazed at the body’s ability to heal itself given the right support. I’m also amazed at how food supports our body and how one food ingredient can play so many roles in the body because of all of the components it contains.

Hormone imbalances are a detailed topic and can be overwhelming when trying to figure out where to start. When nutrition changes aren’t providing relief, I will then recommend a specialized test called the DUTCH Test to get a clearer picture. Would you like to talk about symptoms you have been experiencing? I’d love to hear from you. Click here to schedule a 30-minute complimentary consultation.

Please read my Disclaimer, this post is informational and is not meant as treatment advice. Any changes you might make should be discussed with your healthcare practitioner. Never stop taking medication without the guidance of a healthcare practitioner.

Thank you for reading my words.

Sources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6612531/ ↩︎
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468694/ ↩︎
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21154195/ ↩︎
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7541170/ ↩︎
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35129040/ ↩︎
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33375244/ ↩︎
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18784609/ ↩︎
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3614604/ ↩︎

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