‘Tis the season where the best of healthy intentions can get sidetracked by all the alcohol, eggnog, Christmas baking, rich dinners and late nights. Fortunately there are simple switches you can make so that you can still take part in all the festivities without throwing your body too far out of balance, or triggering flareups if you have a reproductive health condition like endometriosis.
Three bad elves that can create hormone havoc are sugar, gluten, and dairy. Hmmm, that covers just about everything that’s in abundance this time of year!
Keep in mind that with endometriosis, you want to support estrogen balance and avoid excess estrogen contributing to the disease. This will also help with uterine fibroids and ovarian cysts. With any pelvic pain condition you also want to avoid feeding inflammation in your body so that you aren’t increasing symptoms.
One of the biggest sources of sugar during the holidays is alcohol. Alcohol is stressful to the liver and decreases the liver’s ability to metabolize hormones, which means estrogen levels can become elevated. That can trigger cramps, heavier periods and fluid retention. Alcohol also depletes B vitamins and minerals like magnesium, which can worsen muscle spasms, fatigue and anxiety. “Estrogen dominance is often associated with magnesium deficiency”,…(1) Staying well hydrated is important to manage hormone balance and inflammation, so keep the water intake up, and it will also help you feel less hungry. Try drinking sparkling water infused with berries or citrus; making home-made apple cider with cinnamon and stevia; trying out some new healthy low sugar mocktail recipes; or stay with occasional light wines instead of other alcoholic beverages.
Lack of B vitamins can make it harder for the liver to handle estrogen, and B6 in particular is required for production of good prostaglandins that have relaxant and anti-inflammatory effects. Over indulging in simple carbohydrates and sugar can create an unhealthy imbalance in your gut bacteria, and that can lead to multiple problems including bloating, indigestion, leaky gut (damage to the lining of the gut), and candida overgrowth. That means more inflammation, which can trigger pain or auto immune flare-ups.
High sugar intake causes your body to release a flood of insulin to move the sugar into your cells as fuel. Over time, consistent sugar intake can lead to insulin resistance, as insulin receptors stop responding and blood sugar levels don’t normalize. This can cause weight gain, especially around the belly. Insulin resistance causes inflammation, and it also stimulates the activity of aromatase, the enzyme responsible for estrogen production, which sets the stage for estrogen imbalance and even lack of ovulation. Insulin resistance also lowers the carrier protein sex hormone binding globulin, which allows more free estrogen to circulate. You can see why eliminating sugar is so important for healthy hormones.
A key to suppressing sugar cravings and maintaining steady blood sugar throughout the day is to always have a breakfast containing clean protein, and at every meal to include protein, healthy fat and fiber. Some substitutes when craving a sweet treat are raw nuts, plenty of cinnamon sprinkled on drinks or apple slices, small amounts of lower glycemic fruits like green apples or berries, and even small portions of 70% or higher organic dark chocolate. If you need a sweetener, use stevia or xylitol.
In North America we are dealing with animals treated with antibiotics and growth hormones, which we then ingest. The lactose (sugar) in milk is often hard to digest and is another contributor to insulin resistance. About 75% of adults worldwide are lactose intolerant, lacking the digestive enzymes needed to digest this milk sugar, and that means digestive distress. People may also have reactions to the protein casein in milk. To top it off dairy products are a dietary source of arachidonic acid, used by the body to produce “bad” prostaglandins, localized hormones which can increase pelvic pain, cramps, and inflammation. Is that cheesecake really worth it?
Many people may find that goat dairy products don’t create the digestive issues, so they can be a nice treat. There are plenty of non-dairy milk products available such as coconut milk, hemp, and nut milks. Just make sure to read the label and avoid brands with a lot of additives, especially sugars. Dairy and sugar can often be found in commercial salad dressings, so stick to quality olive oil, mixed with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar and seasoning.
Gluten is a form of protein found in wheat, barley and rye and also added to many processed foods. It’s estimated that approximately 30 to 40% of the U.S. population has some sensitivity to gluten, in addition to those diagnosed with celiac disease. Even among people who are not sensitive to gluten, it triggers the release of a protein produced in the small intestine called zonulin, which again can lead to damaged intestinal lining. Gluten expert Dr. Alessio Fasano has stated that nobody digests these proteins well, and because of this it triggers an inflammatory response.
Gluten intolerance has also been linked to altered estrogen levels. In a 2012 study on endometriosis sufferers over the span of a year, 75% of the over 200 participants reported statistically significant improvements in painful symptoms when eating gluten-free .(2) In general grains have high levels of phytic acid, a substance that reduces absorption of minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium that support balanced hormones.
At times when you would usually reach for bread, pasta, or other sources of gluten, go with rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes or the gluten free grains millet, buckwheat, or amaranth. There are prepared gluten free products in a pinch, but they should only be rarely used. These are processed foods, so they tend to be high in sugar, low in nutrients, and can still be potentially irritating.
Let people know ahead of time that you have food sensitivities; most people are aware of dairy and gluten intolerances and will accommodate, or offer to bring food with you if you’re invited to a dinner.
Savor and appreciate when you do indulge in moderation, and enjoy. If you feel you really overdid it and are suffering the consequences, take a day off and have smoothies with protein and greens to let your stomach have a digestive rest.
There are many online recipes and cookbooks available now that are full of delicious and satisfying ways to eat dairy, gluten and sugar free. Some of my favorites include The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook, The Body Ecology Living Cookbook, The Virgin Diet Cookbook, and The Hungry Hottie Cookbook. When you sign up to be part of my community you get 45 recipes that follow these guidelines as well.
Healthy Seasonal Foods
It’s a lot more fun to think about delicious foods that you SHOULD eat! Other than focusing on organic, whole foods as much as possible, a few that are in season this time of year that I’m enjoying right now are pomegranates, meyer lemons, and cinnamon.
Pomegranates are a beautiful winter fruit with truly positive hormonal benefits. Pomegranate seeds have anti-inflammatory properties and high levels of antioxidants. Antioxidants help to prevent and reverse local tissue damage from inflammation. Pomegranate has been shown to act as an adaptogen to “…selectively modulate estrogen receptors that are beneficial, while down-regulating activity at the receptors known to be associated with estrogen-sensitive cancers.” (3) Studies on pomegranate juice have also shown protective cardiovascular effects. Pomegranates can be juiced, or the seeds can be extracted and sprinkled in with salads. I eat them just on their own, they’re that tasty. Apparently there are tricks to easily seeding pomegranates and YouTube has quite a few videos on this. I always thought pomegranates were too much work until I saw these!
This time of year meyer lemons are in season and I’m kind of obsessed! Meyer lemons are actually a cross between lemons and sweet oranges. Because of this they do have a higher sugar content than regular lemons, but with the less acidic taste they can be used broadly in cooking and baking and have an absolutely delicious flavor. They contain a small amount of Vitamin C and for some people can help ease digestion. I drink half a lemon in warm water in the morning or even during the day, and often add ginger slices, cinnamon and a bit of stevia, or if I want a cold drink, I squeeze a lemon into a glass of filtered water and add a little stevia for a fresh lemonade.
Cinnamon has high levels of anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, helps lower blood sugar levels and also can improve sensitivity to the hormone insulin. It also helps lower blood pressure and supports the immune system. I add cinnamon sticks to warm drinks, sprinkle powder into smoothies, onto green apple slices as a snack, or use it in baking.
I combined two of these faves in a fresh tasting smoothie full of anti-inflammatory and hormone balancing ingredients below.
Most importantly during the holiday season, be good to yourself. Don’t over commit to activities, claim your sleep and downtime, take quiet time each day to slow down, breathe and appreciate family and friends and the ability to make loving choices to nurture your body.
4 tbsp of protein powder
1 handful of dark leafy greens (kale, spinach)
½ organic meyer lemon – grate first and add rind to the mix
2 -3 tbsp pomegranate seeds
2 ¼ inch slices of peeled fresh ginger
½ cup coconut or non-dairy milk, ½ cup water or ice cubes to desired consistency
- Abraham and Grewal, 1990; Muneyyirci-Delale, et al., 1999
- Marziali M, Venza M, Lazzaro S, et al. “Gluten-free diet: a new strategy for management of painful endometriosis related symptoms?” Minerva Chirurgica. 2012 Dec; 67(6):499-504.
- Sayer Ji. “Amazing Fact: Pomegranate Can Serve As A Backup Ovary”, Greenmedinfo: April 18th 2014