Why Protein Is Essential For Good Hormone Health
If you’ve hung around here for more than a few minutes, you probably know how I feel about protein.
After being a vegetarian for 2 years, followed by 7 years of veganism, my health and hormones took a huge nose-dive in my 20s.
I had no idea that this diet, which aligned with my ethical side, was causing so much harm to me until I landed in nutrition school.
While many people assumed I would learn how healthy vegetarianism is in school, I learned the opposite: that it was extremely hard to get the proper amount of bioavailable vitamins, minerals and protein from a vegetarian diet (and nearly impossible on a vegan diet!).
I’m not here to try and talk you out of being vegetarian or vegan, if you are one or the other. I understand that there are some people out there, including cycling women, who thrive on these diets.
But I’ve found that this is the exception – not the norm – especially while you are in your menstrual years. I’ve seen many more issues from a vegetarian or vegan diet, like hypoglycemia or elevated blood sugar levels, missing periods, fried adrenals, exhaustion, and bad PMS.
If being a vegetarian or vegan is working for you, go for it. You ultimately have to decide what’s best for you. I would just say that it’s worth really watching your body over time – keeping up with labs to make sure your B vitamins, selenium, zinc, iron, iodine, Omega-3s, protein levels, and blood sugar are staying steady.
And check in with your energy levels, cravings, and how your reproductive system is doing (including liver detox, as your liver needs the amino acids prevelant in complete-protein foods to do its job).
Okay, now let’s talk about *why* protein is so important.
Protein’s Role In Hormones
First and foremost, protein plays a role in hormone synthesis and regulation.
Some hormones – like epinephrine (aka adrenaline), norepinephrine, thyroxine (thyroid hormone) and melatonin (aka sleep hormone) – are built from a couple of amino acids, aka the building blocks of protein.
Other hormones, such as follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), oxytocin, and insulin, come from chains of amino acids.
While sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA are lipid-based – meaning they come directly from cholesterol! – the hormones previously mentioned all play a role in the hormonal symphony that makes up your menstrual cycle.
Which is why consuming adequate amounts of protein helps ensure that the body has the necessary raw materials to produce these hormones.
Furthermore, adequate protein intake can help support healthy blood sugar levels, which can in turn help regulate hormone levels.
Why We Need Enough Protein
There are both direct – and indirect – ways that our hormones are impacted when we don’t get enough protein.
Our blood sugar levels can get whacky, and this underlies most health issues, including hormonal dysregulation.
How does protein help our blood sugar?
- Protein slows down the rise of blood sugar: Protein slows down how quickly your blood sugar rises and falls, helping to regulate blood sugar levels. The hormone insulin is released when we eat sugary or high carb foods in order to get the sugar out of our bloodstream and into our cells. So eating enough protein leads to a slower and more sustained release of insulin into the bloodstream.
- Protein reduces insulin resistance: Insulin resistance occurs when cells in the body become less responsive to insulin. High protein diets have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
- Protein helps regulate appetite: Protein can help regulate appetite and reduce hunger, which can in turn also help regulate insulin levels.
When our blood sugar is stable, that helps also stabilize the pattern of cortisol, our stress hormone. We like a stable cortisol pattern (higher in the morning and lower at night) not only because we feel better that way, but because this allows our brain to focus on our sex hormone production, especially progesterone.
We know that many hormone issues stem from an issue of too much estrogen as compared to progesterone. So if progesterone is being lowered because your brain in focusing on cortisol production instead, it feeds into this issue of estrogen excess.
There are many things that impact our cortisol production, from external stressors to gut issues, but stabilizing your blood sugar is going to help with most of these.
Hopefully you can see how important it is to get enough protein in your diet to help your sex hormones work as they should, via helping insulin and cortisol balance.
Yes, you can eat a combination of meat and vegetarian sources to get enough protein in. It doesn’t all have to be just one!
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