The interaction between hormones and food is complex and at times the language and the medicine can be very confusing, so it’s no wonder there’s a lot of misinformation here. There are many people who claim various foods or diets can provide hormone fixes, cures, and resets for women in the menopause continuum. But food doesn’t change hormone levels in an eat-this-change-that-hormone kind of way. If plants contained hormones that could be digested and used by humans, then we’d know by now because these foods wouldn’t just improve symptoms of menopause—they’d also cause premature puberty, irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, as well as breast development for men. And those who ate the most plants—vegetarians and vegans—would have more of these health concerns. But that isn’t the case.
Humans don’t get hormones from plants and we’re not able to convert plant compounds into hormones. We make all our estrogens, testosterone, and progesterone from cholesterol. This is a complex, multistep process and not a conveyor belt where adding more raw ingredients results in more end product. Also, the gut can’t tag a specific molecule in a meal as soon as it hits the stomach with a “Don’t touch, for ovary use only!” sign.
Misperceptions about plants and hormones likely stem in part from many people not understanding how hormones are made and the knowledge that plants have compounds known as phytoestrogens. The word “phytoestrogen” is very similar to estrogen, so it’s easy to understand any confusion between the two, but phytoestrogens aren’t estrogens and they’re not converted into estrogens. Another source of confusion is the fact that most hormones in menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) are synthesized in a lab from a substance found in a specific type of yam or soybeans. That transformation involves a multistep process and is hardly natural, and our bodies are not able to convert these substances from yams or soybeans into hormones.
Hormone levels can be affected by malnutrition and/or changes in eating patterns that lead to rapid or extreme weight loss due to the impact on the complex, coordinated hormone signaling required for regular ovulation. Some women are more sensitive to dietary changes than others. Dietary patterns that increase visceral fat can affect sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). Fibre can also affect how estrogen is reabsorbed, but if this produces an effect it’s over the long-term.
Excerpted from The Menopause Manifesto: Own Your Health with Facts and Feminism by Dr. Jen Gunter. Copyright © 2021 Dr. Jen Gunter. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.