Our hormonal system, or “endocrine system” is a complex communication network between our brain and various organs. When it comes to the menstrual cycle, we often focus on hormones such as FSH, LH, estrogen, and progesterone. While these are definitely important factors for our balanced menstrual cycle, they are not the only hormonal factors at play. Today I want to talk about nutrition and how it relates to reproductive hormone balance.
The food we eat plays an important part in how we are fuelling our bodies. We’ve got our macronutrients – proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, which help with energy production. And we have our micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, which are required for and drive all of our chemical pathways. This includes hormonal production, detoxification, running our immune system, our stress system, our nervous system – everything! In the presence of nutritional deficiencies, these pathways can become compromised and work at suboptimal levels. Over time, this can show up as fatigue, issues with sleep, issues with metabolism and weight, issues with reproduction, and more.
Often society focuses on eating too much – and restricting calories, eating low-fat foods, “clean eating”. The problem that presents, and what I see clinically – is either a calorie deficit (ie. not eating enough for energy production), or nutritional deficiencies (not support our body’s chemical pathways). This is problematic.
Let’s start with a quick overview of how our endocrine system works, we’ll use the commonly known reproductive hormones as an example. The “master gland” is the hypothalamus, located in the brain. This gland detects subtle changes in hormone levels within the body and communicates with our pituitary gland to make changes. For example, fluctuating estrogen levels during the menstrual cycle are detected by the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus responds by adjusting its release of “gonadotropin release hormone (“GnRH”). This is detected by the pituitary glands, which in turn adjusts its release of FSH and LH. Finally, FSH and LH act on the ovaries, impacting the estrogen levels. Maybe too technical with this example – but the take away is: the hypothalamus is the master regulator.
Hypothalamus → (GnRH) → Pituitary Gland → (FSH/LH) → Ovaries → (Estrogen)
What’s important to keep in mind is that the hypothalamus is responsible for MANY hormonal pathways, not just the reproductive one. This includes thyroid, stress response (i.e. cortisol), and our hunger cues, to name a few.
What does this mean?
There are MANY hormones feeding back/detected by the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus can then cross-talk with other hormonal pathways and directly influence their balance. This means your stress, your thyroid, your nutritional patterns ALL influence reproductive balance.
How does Nutrition effect your Period?
Our diet also results in the release of hormones. There are several nutritional hormones that are detected by the hypothalamus:
- Ghrelin – inform the brain of calories consumed. When calorie intake is low, ghrelin levels increase to stimulate the appetite.
- CCK/PYY – Cholecystokinin and peptide YY increase after ingestion of fats and protein respectively, and are detected by the hypothalamus
- Insulin/Glucose – your ability to regulate blood sugars are detected by the hypothalamus
- Leptin – indicate fat stores to the hypothalamus, and can signal you to eat more/less accordingly.
If your hypothalamus detects nutritional deficiencies or low-calorie intake – it can communicate with your reproductive system can lead to a delay in ovulation, cause low estrogen or progesterone, and/or other imbalances.
Often, when it comes to nutrition, the focus is all about the micronutrients – “What vitamins and minerals can I take for fertility or hormones balance?” However, sometimes the issue can be your macronutrients – are you getting enough protein, fats, and carbohydrates?
A common example I see when asking patients about diet through a typical work day looks something like this: A quick smoothie in the morning. Workday was super busy and didn’t get a chance to grab lunch. Instead, they opted for a handful of nuts. This was followed by a “clean dinner”. When I assess for macro and micronutrient intake – in this case, the micronutrients are often reasonable, but the macronutrients show some deficiencies – not enough protein, fat, and/or carbohydrates. And these are the primary ways we fuel our bodies.
A nice at-home assessment I like is the cronometer app. Pick 3 typical days and input your meals to gain a general sense of macro and micronutrient intake. Using this data, we can tailor nutrition a little more specifically for you.
Interested in learning more and having more tailored nutritional support? Book a free 15 minute Q&A to learn more!
Naturopathic Doctor – Vancouver, BC