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Here it is! The long-awaited final installment in my five-part series on PMS and hormonal balance. Today, I'm going to talk about the issues that are some of the most loathed – and most common – side effects of those menstrual cycle–related fluctuations of your lady hormones: weight gain and water retention.
How Hormones Cause Weight Gain and Water Retention
As discussed in an earlier post, your estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate throughout your (roughly) 28-day menstrual cycle. Aside from all the other bodily functions they play a role in, estrogen and progesterone also affect fluid regulation, which is why you may experience water retention issues around your period.
Now for the one that really bugs so many of my readers: hormonally related weight gain. Here's how it works: when estrogen levels climb too high, cells that produce insulin (the blood-sugar balance hormone) can become strained and you can become insulin-resistant; that's when insulin starts to usher less glucose to the liver and muscles, raising the levels of sugar in your bloodstream and ultimately storing that sugar as fat.
Remember, it's not fat that makes you fat, it's sugar.
Your fat tissue can expand by as much as four times to accommodate the storage of glucose. This fat storage might be useful if you're a paleolithic hunter, and you might need those extra stores to get you through a difficult winter where food is scarce, but since we have the luxury of being able to go to the supermarket and get as much food as we want, even in the depths of winter, this isn't a storage system we need to use that much anymore.
Higher levels of estrogen also increase the levels of leptin (the “satiety” hormone that tells you you’re full), while increased testosterone levels cause leptin levels to go down. Since estrogen levels are at their lowest right before menstruation, testosterone levels are higher, relatively speaking, so leptin levels go down with the estrogen. This means your body has a harder time knowing when it feels full. So you can thank low leptin for your PMS-induced food cravings.
But it's not just the estrogen crash right before your period that can contribute to weight gain. High levels of estrogen earlier in your cycle (especially of you have estrogen dominance issues) can overwhelm your body’s natural testosterone levels, which can slow your metabolism. So too little estrogen and you'll crave calories you don't need, too much and you'll have trouble burning off excess calories. To top it all off, studies have found links between excess estrogen (estrogen dominance) and hypothyroidism, which also slows your metabolism and promotes weight gain. So experiencing excessive hormonal fluctuations during your menstrual cycle is like trying to navigate a weight gain minefield!
So what's a girl to do?
Zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 all help support the breakdown and elimination of estrogen, and aid the enzymes that convert testosterone to estrogen.
High-fibre foods help keep things moving and promote the elimination of excess estrogen.
Probiotic foods promote overall gut health for the effective breakdown and elimination of excess hormones.
Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale and cauliflower contain indole-3-carbinol, which helps your body break down and excrete harmful estrogen metabolites. Plus, they're a great grain-free source of fibre. Kale is probably my favourite veggie in this family. Try it out in my healthy take on the classic Caesar salad.
Green tea helps promote healthy liver function and the detoxification of harmful hormonal byproducts. You could always steep yourself a cup, or try out my matcha smoothie recipe.
Turmeric, like green tea, is a liver-loving, detoxification-helping superfood. Try my Curry Cauliflower Quinoa Stew, (turmeric is one of the main ingredients in curry) or try it on popcorn for a joyously healthy movie night treat.
Beans, peas and lentils are collectively known as pulses and have more estrogen-eliminating fiber than any other food. Beans are so versatile you can even use them to make brownies!
Tempeh packs a hormone balancing one-two punch. Because it's made from soybeans, you'll get the benefits of the high-fiber content of that food group, but because it's also fermented, it's also a probiotic food, which will keep your gut healthy so it can properly process and eliminate excess hormones. I've got a fantastic recipe for tempeh-based chili in my book.
What to Avoid
Refined grains are grains that have all that lovely, detoxifying fibre stripped right out of them. Without this fibre, they're able to cause insulin spikes that can throw other hormones out-of-whack too.
Refined sugars, just like refined grains, are nutrient-poor but calorie-rich food sources just waiting for an opportunity to wreak havoc on your blood-sugar balance.
Alcohol can spike estrogen production and mess with your blood sugar levels. Just another reason to drink responsibly!
Extend detoxification principles to personal care and household products and avoid xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens are “fake” estrogens that can be founds in pesticides, herbicides, plastics and many man-made chemicals, so choose organic foods whenever possible, avoid using plastics and check your personal care products for endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Keep stress to a minimum. When your body is stressed, it “steals” progesterone to make cortisol, leading to an estrogen imbalance. So take a few deep breaths, draw yourself a bath or do whatever it takes to help you chill out.
Get some exercise. Sure, there's the obvious weight loss benefit of calorie burning from exercise. But did you know that regular exercise also helps balance your hormones by changing the way your body metabolizes estrogen? Studies show that premenopausal women who exercise regularly have higher levels of "good" estrogen metabolites and lower levels of "bad" ones.
For more hormone-balancing and PMS relief tips, check out the earlier posts in this five-part series:
Have you discovered any natural, hormone-balancing tips we need to know about? Let me know in the comments below!