Does sugar impact your hormones in midlife? The short answer? Yes. There is a direct relationship between blood sugar regulation and hormonal health. Different types of sugar and carbohydrates send different messages to your body. These messages can cause dysregulation of your hormonal balance and menstrual cycles, especially through midlife. So it’s important to understand the dysregulation to be able to then address exactly how much sugar messes with your hormones as you age.
Is sugar really that bad for hormones?
Sugar in and of itself is not bad, especially when it comes packaged inside of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. However, when it is consumed as high fructose, as simple sugars or in highly processed states it is a significant driver of insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction. Think processed sweets, baked goods, desserts, and white table sugar.
When we consume high sugar carbohydrates, they convert readily into glucose, which is then released into our bloodstream. Our body identifies that our blood sugar levels have increased and releases some insulin to help move the sugar from the blood and into the tissues. This process works amazingly well until we force the body to do it many times every single day. Thank you modern diet high in sugar and processed food!
All cells in the body have super-sensitive glucose and insulin receptors. In turn, insulin is super sensitive to diet. Insulin resistance occurs when there is so much glucose in the blood that our cells can no longer absorb it. Over time our liver, muscles, and fat cells that store glucose become resistant and don’t respond appropriately to insulin’s signals to take up the excess glucose. It is left in the blood, and insulin resistance is the result.
At worst, insulin resistance can lead to the development of prediabetes and eventually Type 2 diabetes mellitus, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and many other health concerns.
Sugar and women’s hormonal health
Women’s hormonal health is also directly affected by insulin resistance. When the body is struggling with a high sugar load, it can produce more of certain hormones, and less of others. In women, this can lead to vicious cycles of excess or deficiencies in oestrogen and progesterone, which can drive things like abdominal weight gain, visceral fat deposition, the development of polycystic ovarian syndrome, heavy, clotty or painful periods, systemic inflammation, and more.
Luckily, there is a proven way to combat insulin resistance: consume a small number of complex carbohydrates within a balanced diet, along with supportive specific herbs and nutrients. A low inflammatory calorie-controlled diet with low consumption of carbohydrates (mostly in the form of complex carbohydrates) provides sugar to the body in an easy to digest, slowly-released way that does not contribute to insulin resistance.
Complex carbohydrates are packaged up with a heavy dose of nutrients and fibre, which actually helps to balance your gut health and hormonal health. When you consume these types of carbohydrates, you are sending a message to your body that the world is a safe place to be.
The Mediterranean diet is a great guideline to follow as it is more of a healthy lifestyle than a ‘diet’ as we have come to understand diets.
Best (and worst) foods for healthy hormones
You can find complex carbs in the following types of food:
- Legumes, chickpeas, black beans, etc
- Pulses, lentils of all types
- Root vegetables such as sweet potatoes
- Berries, green apples
- Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, millet, rolled oats
In contrast, simple carbohydrates provide mostly sugar/glucose and no or low fibre content and cause significant spikes in blood sugar levels, promoting insulin resistance and the mood disturbances associated with these steep sugar spikes and crashes. They are best in small amounts for special occasions.
The following foods are examples of simple carbohydrates:
- Table sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar
- Maple syrup
- High fructose fruits
- Fruit juice
- White bread, pasta and rice
- Breakfast cereals
- Sweets and desserts
- Soft drinks, alcohol drinks and cordial
As women, we need small amounts of these nourishing complex carbohydrates in our diets to maintain hormonal balance; they’re an essential energy source for our cells. They help to prevent us from experiencing high stress and contain soluble fibre that helps our digestive system to effectively metabolise and detoxify estrogen and other hormones.
Having complex carbs in our diet is especially important at the last meal of the day because they calm and soothe the nervous system. Carbs are satiating and prepare your body for a good night’s sleep.
Here is what a day’s worth of complex carbohydrates could look like:
- 2 to 3 servings of whole fruit – berries, apples, pears etc
- 1 serving of root vegetables – roasted veggies, pumpkin or mashed sweet potato
- 1 serving of leafy greens – such as in a salad or as a steamed/sauteed side
- 1 serving of wholegrains – 1/3 cup brown rice, brown pasta or quinoa at dinner
Different strokes for different folks
Each woman is different. Some women experience reproductive system and hormonal issues related to endometriosis, poor gut health, perimenopause/menopause transition, menstrual cycle irregularities and PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome or dysfunction). These need to be taken into account with personalised nutritional plans and may present alongside issues with blood sugar regulation, weight management, inflammation and insulin resistance.
When it comes to women’s health, it’s vital to take a case-by-case approach, looking at the person as a whole and targeting the cause or source of their issues in relation to one’s health and wellbeing.
What’s the most important message in considering how sugar impacts your hormones as you age? There is no such thing as ‘bad’ carbohydrates. Both types have their place in a happy and healthy life. What would a special occasion be without a special cake or treat to go with it? However, to maintain healthy and balanced hormonal health, keep the overall focus of your carbohydrate intake on healthy complex carbs found primarily in fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
It’s not what you do that really matters, it’s what you do most days.