We often rely on the monthly cry, bitch fest, carb cravings or breast soreness to tell us our period is on its way—and we feel sorry for those who cross our paths (amiright?). But there’s something you didn’t know about PMS. According to naturopathic doctor Natasha Turner, “People think cravings are normal—you should never have cravings, you should never have PMS, you should never have sleep disruptions.” These are, in fact, all signs of hormonal imbalances. The list goes on, BTW, and somehow I feel like I haven’t been fully living up until now. Now for the second newsflash: Our hormonal hell could be caused by what we eat. “The digestive system is actually the largest hormone-producing tissue in the body, and so it produces hormones that have an effect locally, like within the digestive system, as well as throughout your whole body,” says Turner, a New York Times Bestselling author, who wrote The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. “So any type of digestive disorder, like gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, will increase your change of having hormonal disruption, so you have to focus on your digestion first if you want to improve your hormonal health.” There are five steps to getting your hormones in check, and—lucky us—Turner lets us in on her tried-and-true process here.
Step 1: Figure out what foods work for you
Pizza, salt and vinegar chips and wine—those are the foods I *wish* worked for me. But Turner means the stuff that stokes the fire that is your digestive system. “You need to remove anything that can be inflammatory and anything that can be allergenic. Because anytime you eat these foods, it causes a stress reaction and an immune system reaction that can disrupt your hormones.” Some examples of inflammatory foods are red meats, saturated fats and citrus, whereas allergenic foods could be wheat (and gluten-ridden grains), dairy and corn. Before you stop reading—stay with me now—know that not all of these will cause you to react. That’s why Turner recommends a two-week elimination diet, for which you eliminate potentially inflammatory and allergenic foods. Then, add them back in one by one to see if you react. If you get itchy or balloon out after eating pasta, for instance, it could be a sign that gluten is more foe than friend.
Step 2: Pop a probiotic
There’s a reason for it. “Taking the probiotic is linked to healthy estrogen balance,” says Turner. “It helps to break down and eliminate estrogen, so it reduces PMS, breast tenderness, all that stuff. It’s also linked to healthier blood sugar and insulin balance, so it helps get rid of belly fat.” Though it’s important to eat probiotic foods, like kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut, Turner mentions that it’s hard to get enough of the good stuff via food. So look for a pill with between 10 and 30 billion bacteria per capsule, she advises (make sure it’s the kind you store in the fridge, too).
Step 3: Try Digestive Enzymes
This might be where things start to seem complicated, but it’s actually quite simple. When we eat, we need a steady supply of digestive enzymes to help break down the food. Our stomach does this with hydrochloric acid, whereas our pancreas uses lipase and protease—all of which can be found in capsule form at a health food store. When we don’t have enough, digestion doesn’t happen optimally. “So if you see food in your stool, if you have heartburn, if you have gas, if you have bloating, if you feel full a long time after eating, it’s a sign that you need to take some enzymes to help support digestion of your foods,” says Turner.
Step 4: Eat. More. Fibre.
This seems like a no-brainer, right? Yet how many of us can actually say we got our 25 grams-plus of fibre needed every day for women? Just for reference, an apple has about four grams, whereas a slice of pizza has around three grams. “It actually helps to bind estrogen and eliminate it from your body,” says Turner. “It helps to lower insulin levels, so people who eat more fibre have better appetite control, lower cholesterol and lower blood sugars.” That’s why you need to poop errday, ladies. Many women in the 20s to 40s have an estrogen overload, says Turner. “You get it in the environment because there are so many chemicals now that act like estrogen in your body, like the example of parabens. So you’ve really got to become aware of your skincare products and get rid of those things. It also comes in BPA. Pesticides. We also take medications that have estrogen: the birth control pill.” So when you don’t break down and eliminate the hormones through poop, it can stick around in your system for longer than necessary. Turner often recommends liver-supporting supplements like milk thistle, artichoke, turmeric or her blend, Clear Detox Hormonal Health, which work in conjunction with dietary tweaks to get your back on track.
Step 5: Zzzz Well
“I tell people the most important thing they can do is focus on their sleeping, because it’s impossible to balance your hormones if you’re not sleeping enough or sleeping properly,” says Turner, adding that this is actually more like the first step of the process, even before assessing your diet. “You have to sleep naked, it has to be in total darkness—people don’t realize there’s a proper way to sleep.” This sleep hygiene also includes relegating iPhones, laptops and TVs to faraway places—well, just not in your bedroom. The reason for all of this is because the hormone melatonin is produced in the dark, when you sleep, so if you have too much light or keep waking up, you won’t get it. This throws your body off-kilter, and the cycle continues. If you don’t have black-out curtains (let’s be honest, who does?) try a sleep mask. And keep a housecoat by your bed just in case you have house guests—no need to have a surprise encounter in the hallways.
How to know your hormones are balanced
This is a lot of work for someone with an already-busy life, but the payoff is huge. Though our hormones are elusive in so many ways, there’s a way to find out if you’ve managed to balance them: “Within a month, you can notice a difference for sure,” says Turner. “I tell patients that how you’re going to know is your periods should come and go, and the only symptom you should have is a loss of blood. You shouldn’t have breast tenderness, you shouldn’t have mood issues, irritability, you shouldn’t have bloating. As soon as those symptoms go away, it means your hormones are balanced.” Excuse me while I go dump my coffee and grab a kale salad. If ever there were motivation to clean our diets, this is it.
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