Blog posts about women’s hormones
More and more women are following a vegan diet for lifestyle and health reasons, as well as animal welfare concerns. A diet which is rich in grains and legumes and lower in fats and proteins can be beneficial for certain health conditions, such as those caused by inflammation. However this type of diet can also cause problems for your hormones and their proper balance.
How does a vegan diet affect your hormones?
The primary cause of the hormonal issues experienced by vegan women are linked to protein intake. This is because protein, and the amino acids contained within it, are the essential building blocks for healthy, balanced hormones. A complete set of these amino acids are found in animal proteins. However, plant based protein sources do not always contain the full nine essential amino acids needed by the body. Plus these proteins can be more difficult to absorb by the body because they contain phytic acid. This is an anti-nutrient which impacts on the absorption level of proteins. A diet which is lower or deficient in the right sorts of proteins can impact on the levels of oestrogen, insulin and prolactin (the hormone responsible for milk production)
Phytic acid also inhibits the absorption of key nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium. These minerals are vital for proper hormonal performance, as is vitamin B12 which can also be deficient in a vegan diet.
Most people do not consume the recommended level of Vitamin D, irrespective of their type of diet. Food sources of vitamin D include oily fish and fortified dairy products, so vegans are likely to need to take supplements to increase their levels. Vitamin D is essential for normal periods and can have a beneficial impact on irregular bleeding, PMS and PCOS.
Levels of iron consumption also need to be higher in a vegan diet. Although iron is found in vegetables, it requires more processing in the body than the iron found in red meat.
Vitamin A is another crucial vitamin for fertility and healthy pregnancy, especially in relation to facial bone development. Liver is an abundant source of Vitamin A, because it contains it in a redily available form. Carrots and sweet potatoes are excellent sources of beta-carotene which the body converts into Vitamin A (retinol). However, the extent to which this is done depends on the BCM01 gene, so some people may convert less into retinol. Therefore, a supplement of Vitamin A would be required.
Omega 3 fatty acids are important for all women, but especially so during pregnancy. Whilst there are plant based omega 3 rich foods, such as chia, flax and walnuts, these do not contain DHA and EPA, which are the active forms of omega 3. Plant based sources contain ALA, which the body has to convert into EPA & DHA, and your efficiency at doing this depends on the activity of gene FADS1 (usually linked to ethnicity). Deficiencies in omega 3 fatty acids can lead to dry or brittle hair nails and hair as well as dry skin issues.
What are the signs to look for?
Eating a vegan diet doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have issues with your hormones, but eating an unbalanced or unplanned diet will. Not consuming enough protein and healthy fats, and eating too much of certain foods such as soy can lead to a drop in your levels of oestrogen and progesterone. If these drop below their normal levels, you can experience irregular or missing periods or bleeding which is shorter and lighter. Although this may seem like an advantage for some women, healthy periods are essential for boosting fertility. Urinary tract infections can also be caused by low levels of oestrogen.
If you become deficient in nutrients you may see the following side effects:
B vitamins – hair loss
Zinc – frequent colds or infections
Vitamin A – skin issues such as acne
If your thyroid is not functioning correctly you may experience unexplained weight gain, fatigue and dry and brittle nails and hair. Thyroid disorders can have a number of causes, but significantly for vegans a deficiency in iodine, B vitamins and amino acids can cause an under-active thyroid.
Although this does seem scary, many women find that they have issues with their periods when consuming a diet including animal products. In particular, dairy products specifically from cows and eggs can cause painful periods or make endometriosis symptoms worse. Also, thanks to modern farming methods producing much more poor quality meat, our levels of omega 6 fatty acids are too high. This can increase inflammation and cause issues like painful periods.
What can you do?
If you do want to continue with a vegan diet, there are some options which can help you maintain a healthy hormone balance.
If you want to eat ‘complete proteins’, those which have the nine essential amino acids, there are plenty of plant based options. It is also possible to consume the essential amino acids across a range of foods during a day.
Complete proteins include quinoa, pea protein, soybeans, buckwheat and seitan, plus specific combinations of foods such as rice with beans or chickpeas, and grains with legumes.
Hemp protein is also great for amino acids, as well as fibre and omega fatty acids. Sacha Inchi (a Peruvian plant) is a great source of important omega 3 fatty acids if you are not eating eggs or fish.
Soy, whey and rice proteins may be unsuitable for women who are lactose intolerant or hypoglycemic.
There are many supplements available to boost your nutrient levels. Look for those containing zinc, iron and vitamins A, D and Bs in particular, as well as iodine for healthy ovaries and thyroid function.
Please consult with a medical professional if you are considering a new supplement programme, especially if you have an existing condition or are trying to conceive.
If you want to eat animal products, try to source quality meats, fish, eggs and dairy so that you maximise the amounts of omega 3 fatty acids and iron. Look for grass fed meat and dairy, as well as free range poultry and eggs and wild caught fish.
There is certainly no one-size-fits-all diet that will guarantee you a healthy hormone balance. What works for one women won’t work for another, including those following the same diet. In fact, ensuring that you are consuming the correct levels of nutrients and proteins is the key, no matter what source these come from.