Hormones Health and Nutrition

 

Louise Mercieca

10th October 2021

 

Hormones, Health and Nutrition  

The female body is, biologically, quite complicated!  All humans are of course, but due to the ability to carry a child, there is a lot going on at various times of our lives as our body goes through its natural cycle or ‘body clock’.  For most of us, our body will do this regardless of our personal choices or situation.  Further down the line, whether we feel ready for it to happen or not, our body will also decide when our child-bearing days are over and move us into the next stage.  Even though our body clocks are something that only Mother Nature can control, there are things we can do to help us sustain optimum health at all stages of our life.

There are three distinct stages in the female life cycle; 

  • Puberty
  • Fertility & Child bearing years
  • Menopause

Throughout each of these stages our nutritional and movement needs change – and there is no ‘one size fits all’ throughout the life of a woman.  What we did in terms of our diet and our exercise when we were 20 will not work in the same way when we are 50, though many people punish themselves into thinking that this should be the case.  Once we can begin to understand the changes that we go through and how we can respond appropriately to these changes, we will naturally become kinder to ourselves and, ultimately, healthier and happier.

1. The younger years and puberty

When it comes to puberty, our bodies tend to mature more quickly than we do. In other words, as biological changes start to take place as a child begins their transition into adulthood, emotionally and mentally they may not have caught up with these changes.  There are several reasons behind accelerated puberty (which will be covered later) but first of, all what happens to us during this stage and how can we adapt?  

All children going through puberty will experience a growth spurt which increases the overall nutritional requirements of macro and micro nutrients. This is why many teenagers always seem to be hungry!.  As the physiological, physical and behavioural changes occur, teenagers’nutritional intake needs to adapt to meet this and not just by eating more foods but by eating the right foods.

Macronutrients

These are the energy giving foods that we need -  i.e. protein, fats and carbohydrates. As this  is a time of growth and development the need for energy is high.  There are general calculations for measuring the required intake of macronutrients but teenagers, like adults, vary greatly in height, weight and activity, so there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’.

We do know, however, that protein is incredibly important at all stages of development, but, unfortunately, our diets are often lacking in quality protein.  Protein is considered the building block of life as it plays many roles within the body, not only helping with growth and development but with mood management too.

Generally, protein requirements based on age are: -

Age 7-10 28.3g 
Teen girls 46g
Teen boys 52g

We can see that there is a significant jump in protein requirements between younger age groups and teenagers. The need for carbohydrates and healthy fats also increases with age but again, the amount required is dependent on the individual. As a rule of thumb, however, carbohydrate intake should make up around 45-65% of daily calorie intake and no more than 25-35g of fat should be consumed each day.

Micronutrients

  •  Iron - girls need to increase their dietary intake of Iron as they begin menstruating to compensate for losses.  
  • Calcium – needed to support the growth spurt, yet many teenage girls are lacking in calcium as they can avoid dairy produce due to concerns over the fat content of dairy rich foods 
  • Vitamin D – is required to support calcium  absorption and to help regulate moodThere are lots of hormonal changes going on including a peak of HGH (Human Growth Hormone) during puberty, most teens will reach their adult height during puberty, thereafter the rate of HGH will decline. 

The hormonal changes that girls endure can have a big impact and we all know that puberty can be a particularly turbulent and emotional time.  The biggest hormonal change that impacts on mood for teenage girls is oestrogen - a hormone that helps the development of ‘sex characteristics’ and regulates the menstrual cycle.  It does however, also impact on mood as oestrogen levels fluctuate which can cause girls to feel emotionally ‘out of control’ as they are notused to this significant influx of hormones. 

We know that being a teenage girl can be tough so managing emotions naturally is incredibly important.  Here are a range of nutritional and lifestyle factors which can help: -

  • Balancing blood sugar – not skipping meals, opting for slow-release carbohydrates (wholegrains) which don’t cause spikes and drops in blood sugar
  • Supporting good gut health – eating live cultures such as yogurt or kefir drinks and a good mix of colourful fruits and vegetables can improve the diversity of the gut microbiome.  The microbiome is strongly linked to managing mood as up to 90% of serotonin – a mood stabilising neurotransmitter) is manufactured in the gut.
  • Keeping active – in a balanced, healthy and fun way improves bone-density as well as improving mood by reducing anxiety. It can also help with weight management where appropriate. 
  • Taking care of your mental health – it’s important to be able to relax, and being a teen can be stressful. Too much stress is damaging to our overall health as is the internalisation  of problems.  Talking to someone or writing down issues can be very beneficial and enable the body to relax rather than stay on heightened alert due to feelings of anxiety. 

Accelerated puberty – Sometimes children can enter puberty early, certainly earlier than they would be physically and mentally ready to deal with the issues.  The most common reason behind accelerated puberty is childhood obesity.  Girls as young as eight are starting puberty with physical developments that we would usually associate with much older teens.  This can be confusing for children so young and could make them feel different from their peers.  Tackling the global issue of childhood obesity is a growing concern, particularly as children who are overweight are twice as likely to be obese adults and encounter the associated health concerns.

The Fertility and Child bearing stage is perhaps the most known for its nutritional impact on women.  There are certain nutrients that we need  to help prepare for fertility, these not only make conceiving more likely but support the development of the embryo too.  The most common myth around this stage though is that we need to ‘eat for two’ during pregnancy. In fact, calorie needs in pregnancy only increase slightly during the third trimester - and even then it’s only an increase equivalent to an extra slice of toast!  What is needed though, is a change to the micronutrients that support the body at this time.

Micronutrients for fertility and child bearing 


Vitamin D: Vitamin D is needed to help the body create sex hormones which in turn affects ovulation and hormonal balance.  Foods containing vitamin D include oily fish and eggs
Vitamin E: The full name for vitamin E, ‘Tocopherol’, literally means ‘to bear young’ so it’s clear it has an important role to play at this stage of life. Vitamin E is also an important antioxidant to help protect sperm and egg DNA integrity. Foods containing vitamin E include avocado, nuts and seeds
Coenzyme Q10: Necessary for every cell in the body for energy production, CoQ10 has also been shown in studies to increase egg and sperm health. It is also an important antioxidant that helps to protect cells from free radical damage; protecting DNA.  Foods containing Coenzyme Q10 include oily fish and wholegrains
B12: Vitamin B12 has been shown to improve sperm quality and production. It also may help to boost the endometrium lining in egg fertilization, decreasing the chances of miscarriage Foods containing vitamin B12 include meat, fish, cheese and eggs
Folic Acid/Folate: Perhaps one of the best-known vitamins necessary for pregnancy is folic acid. This vitamin helps prevent neural tube defects as well as congenital heart defects, cleft lips, limb defects, and urinary tract anomalies in developing fetuses. Deficiency in folic acid may increase the risk of preterm labour, fetal growth retardation and low birth weight. Foods containing Folic Acid include fortified cereals, chickpeas and peas
Iron: Studies have shown that women who do not get sufficient amounts of iron may suffer anovulation (lack of ovulation) and possibly poor egg health, which can inhibit pregnancy at a rate 60% higher than those with sufficient iron stores in their blood. Foods containing Iron include red meat, leafy greens and  dried fruit
Zinc: In women, zinc works with more than 300 different enzymes in the body to keep things working well. Without it, your cells can not divide properly; your oestrogen and progesterone levels can get out of balance and your reproductive system may not be fully functioning Foods containing zinc include wholegrains, nuts, chicken and chickpeas

Maternal Microbiome 
New research on associations between the maternal-infant microbiome and its role in disease onset in early life is being published at an increasing rate – but what exactly is the maternal microbiome?

Maternal microbiomes are the micro-environments that affect gestation. These include the mouth, the vagina and the gut.  We know that nutrients transferred via the placenta allow a baby to grow, however, research shows that organisms from the microbiome are transferring too. This means your microbiome is providing a future baby with their first immunity. 
Simply put – if our microbiomes are poorly functioning then developing babies may not get what they need to thrive. A healthy gut microbiome is therefore paramount in nurturing a healthy child in the womb.

The Menopause

For those who go through pregnancy this stage undoubtedly places a toll on the bod and being a new mother is physically and emotionally exhausting, perhaps the most significant change we go through is the menopause

Th menopause begins with the perimenopause stage, which is wherehormone production is reduced but hasn’t stopped completely and periods will become irregular. Some women find they can be in this phase for many years before entering full menopause. Full menopause is only diagnosed when there have been no periods for a full year.  At this stage you only produce very low levels of the hormones; oestrogen and progesterone.  It is the low levels of these hormones that carry the associated health risks.

Menopause and health

There are many side-effects of going through menopause though the severity of symptoms varies greatly from women to women - and even from country to country. So is there a nutritional link?When we look at the best foods to eat during all  stages of human life, there are clearly foods that harm and foods that nourish.  Given the health risks attached to menopause, diet becomes even more important.

So what are these health risks?

Osteoporosis – 


This is perhaps the biggest issue. Bone density starts to decline from 35 onwards but women can lose up to 20% of their bone density in the five to seven years after the menopause. This makes post-menopausal women more at risk of osteoporosis (weak bones) and fractures. The rapid dip in bone density after the menopause is caused by falling levels of the female hormone oestrogen.  Oestrogen helps to protect bone strength.  While you can’t halt bone loss entirely after the menopause, there is plenty you can do to slow it down: -

a. Even if you haven’t been physically active before, adopting an active lifestyle after the menopause will help to protect your bones.
b. You should also try to avoid sitting for long periods of time
c. Weight-bearing exercises and resistance exercises are particularly important for improving bone strength and helping to prevent osteoporosis. This is because they place stress on the muscles and bones, which helps to strengthen them.
d. A healthy, balanced diet that includes calcium and vitamin D will help slow down bone loss after the menopause. Good sources of calcium include green, leafy vegetables (but not spinach), nuts, seeds, dried fruit, tinned fish with the bones in, and dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese
e. Smoking is linked to a higher risk of osteoporosis, as is drinking too much alcohol

How to maintain hormone balance

As mentioned,  the body’s lack of oestrogen during the menopause can create many health problems.  As phytoestrogens (plant oestrogens such as soy) act as a weak oestrogen, they may help relieve symptoms by boosting levels slightly. Soya’s two prominent isoflavones (polyphenolic compounds that have oestrogen-like effects) are genistein and daidzein. Once in the digestive tract, isoflavones are converted to the phytoestrogen composition by bacteria. While weaker than the body’s oestrogen, these ‘phytoestrogens’ may help to maintain health during menopause.

Sources of soya include;

  • Edamame (fresh soya) Beans, You can even get dark chocolate coated edameme beans
  • Frozen soya beans
  • Sushi
  • Soya milk
  • Soya flour
  • Vegan and vegetarian soy based products 

Cardiovascular health ¬  

During and after the menopause, your risk of getting coronary heart disease and other circulatory conditions rises.  Oestrogen (which is now at a very low level) protects different parts of the body, including the heart and blood vessels. The menopausallack of oestrogen therefore leaves them less protected.  A contributory factor to some of the side- effects of the menopause is excess weight.  Carrying excess weight will contribute to the overall CHD risk.

Mood 

For many women the mood swings are the worst part of the menopause. There is emerging evidence that diets rich in processed foods, trans fats, sugar and additives will worsen menopause symptoms in general and they certainly won’t help with mood! 

Weight gain

Most women will experience some weight gain particularly around the abdomen, and it is thought that the lower levels of oestrogen have a role to play in this as oestrogen is linked to metabolism.   There are factors to consider when trying to lose excess weight and improve your mood naturally: -

  • Looking after your gut microbiome will ensure that your natural brain chemistry supports you in the right way (processed foods are likely to alter your brain chemistry and worsen mood swings, cravings, stress management etc).
  • Exercise – endorphins will help you to feel better naturally along with supporting your bones and helping to manage weight.
  • Lifting weights or any form of resistance exercise is the best way to improve your body composition and increase metabolic activity
  • Ensure that you eat plenty B vitamins which aid metabolism and energy transfer
  • Managing stress – meditation, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, walking, reading, painting – anything to lower stress and enable you to feel relaxed.
  • Nature – research shows that our external environment increases/decreases our stress, taking a moment to take in nature can dramatically reduce heart rate and cortisol levels.

Hot flushes 

Some women experience these worse than others and again, evidence shows that populations consuming diets full of processed foods have worse symptoms.  Managing your weight is a big factor here too; as is alcohol, coffee, smoking and spicy foods which may all increase flushes.

Digestive problems 

For many, stress manifests itself as digestive problems and hormones of course have a role to play here. Oestrogen and cortisol (the stress hormone) are linked, and when oestrogen levels start to fall cortisol levels may rise – leading to excess adrenaline being produced which will have an adverse effect on your digestive system.. 



Summary 

We are really quite complicated - but our bodies  are also pretty amazing! Society hasn’t always recognised the female hormonal changes and the huge impact that these have on physical and mental health and well-being but thankfully this is changing.  Biological changes are inevitable at every stage of life, but we can work with these changes, respond to the signs and equip ourselves with nutritional and lifestyle information that can support our overall health and in turn, balance our emotions

 

Reference sources  
Childhood Obesity and the timing of puberty – Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism Volume 20 issue 5

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1043276009000587

Maternal microbiome and pregnancy outcomes – Fertility and Sterility – Volume 104 issue 6 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0015028215019652

Menopause and cardiovascular disease – Post Reproductive Health – Jan 17 2018 

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2053369117749675

Biochemical Markers as Predictors of Rates of Bone Loss After Menopause – Journal of Bone and Mineral Research – 2 December 2009 

https://asbmr.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1359/jbmr.2000.15.7.1398

Mediterranean diet as tool to manage obesity in menopause: A narrative review – Nutrition Volumes 79-80 December 2020 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0899900720302744

Dietary intake and menopausal symptoms in postmenopausal women: a systematic review – 8 May 2020

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13697137.2020.1828854

Obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, sex differences and role of oestrogen receptors – December 2010 
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