Find out why even your healthy meals may be wreaking havoc on your body—and what you can do about it.
Photo: Katarína Mittáková / EyeEm / Getty Images
As with all things in wellness, balance is key—in your diet, exercise plan, and even your hormones. Hormones control everything from your fertility to your metabolism, mood, appetite, and even heart rate. Our healthy (and not-so-healthy) habits alike contribute to keeping them in balance.
And, unsurprisingly, what you put in your body every day can be a huge contributor to hormone imbalances. Here, the biggest triggers and what you can do to keep levels in check. (Also see: The Most Important Hormones for Your Health)
Just because a food is considered "healthy" doesn't mean you're protected from hormone disruptors. For example, the oils from whole grains used in cereals, breads, and crackers can go rancid, so preservatives are often added, says Steven Gundry, M.D., a heart surgeon and author of The Plant Paradox.
Preservatives disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking estrogen and competing with naturally occurring estrogen, which can cause weight gain, low thyroid function, and lessened sperm count. The concerning fact is: Preservatives, such as butylated hydroxytoluene (a compound commonly called BHT that dissolves in fats and oils), do not have to be listed on nutrition labels. Because the FDA generally regards them as safe, they don't require them to be disclosed on food packaging. (These seven strange food additives are on the label.)
Your fix: In general, it's best to eat as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible. Consider buying bread from bakeries, or eat fresh foods with a shorter shelf life to avoid added preservatives.
Phytoestrogens—natural compounds found in plants—are present in many foods including fruits, vegetables, and some animal products. The quantity varies, but soy, some citrus fruits, wheat, licorice, alfalfa, celery, and fennel have higher amounts of phytoestrogens. When consumed, phytoestrogens may affect your body in the same way as naturally produced estrogen—but there's a lot of controversy around phytoestrogens and the positive or negative health effects. Case in point: All three experts cited here had differing options. Therefore, the answer about consumption is not one size fits all.
Some research shows that dietary phytoestrogen consumption may be linked to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, menopausal symptoms, and hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, says registered dietitian nutritionist, Maya Feller, R.D.N. She recommends visiting a qualified health professional to determine how age, health status, and gut microbiome may affect how your body responds to phytoestrogens. (Related: Should You Eat Based on Your Menstrual Cycle?)
"Women with breast or ovarian cancer frequently avoid phytoestrogen compounds in soy and flax, but the ligands in soy and flax can block the estrogen receptors on these cancer cells," says Dr. Gundry. So not only are they perfectly safe but probably useful as part of an overall healthy diet, he says.
The effects of soy can vary depending on the person, the specific body organ or gland in question, and the level of exposure, says Minisha Sood, M.D., an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC. While there is some evidence that soy-rich diets actually lower breast cancer risk, there is also evidence that soy is an endocrine disruptor as well, she says. Since there's conflicting information, avoid consuming soy products in excess, like exclusively drinking soy milk. (Here's what you need to know about soy and whether it's healthy or not.)
3. Pesticides & Growth Hormones
It's worth noting that foods themselves generally do not disrupt hormones in a negative way, says Dr. Sood. However, pesticides, glyphosate (a herbicide), and added growth hormones in dairy and animal products can bind to the hormone receptor in a cell and block your body's naturally occurring hormones from binding, causing an altered response within the body. (Glyphosate was the chemical that was recently found in many oat products.)
Experts have mixed feelings on soy itself, but there's another potential pesticide issue at play: "Glyphosate-based herbicides are used extensively in soy crops and there is often a residue on soybeans that could be problematic for people who consume high quantities of soy milk, especially before puberty," says Dr. Sood. Eating too many phytoestrogens treated with glyphosate may decrease sperm count and affect levels of testosterone and estrogen.
While there is no way to completely avoid pesticides, considering even organic farmers use them. (You may want to consider buying biodynamic foods.) However, organic produce tends to be grown with less toxic pesticides, which may help, says Dr. Sood. (This guide can help you decide when to buy organic.) Also, try soaking fruits and veggies for 10 minutes in baking soda and water—it's been shown to reduce exposure, she says. When available, buy animal and dairy products from local farms with a track record of hormone-free products to avoid the added growth hormones.
Alcohol can have a profound effect on both the female and male reproductive systems. Chronic use of alcohol disturbs communication between your body's systems, including the neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. It can result in a physiological stress response that can present as reproductive problems, thyroid problems, changes in your immune system, and more. (This is also why it's common to wake up early after a night of drinking.)
Both short- and long-term alcohol consumption can affect sex drive and testosterone and estrogen levels, which could lower fertility and interfere with menstrual cycles, says Dr. Sood. Evidence on the effect of low to moderate drinking on fertility is still unclear, but heavy drinkers (who consume six to seven drinks per day) or social drinkers (two to three drinks per day) have more reproductive endocrine changes than occasional or non-drinkers. The best route is to drink in moderation or at least drink less when you are trying to conceive, says Dr. Sood. (See: How Bad Is Binge Drinking for Your Health, Really?)
Recycling, avoiding straws, and buying reusable items have a bigger impact than just saving the turtles—your hormones will also thank you. Bisphenol A and bisphenol S (you've probably seen them referred to as BPA and BPS), found in plastic bottles and in the lining of cans, are endocrine disruptors. (Here's more on the issues with BPA and BPS.)
There are also phthalates in plastic wrap and food storage containers. Studies have shown that they can cause premature breast development and block thyroid hormone function, which regulates metabolism as well as heart and digestive functions, says Dr. Gundry. He recommends avoiding plastic wrapped food (like pre-portioned meat at the grocery store), switching to glass food storage containers, and using a stainless steel water bottle. (Try these BPA-free water bottles.)