By Lacey Dunn | Published on July 5, 2017
What if I told you that the secret to building muscle and balancing your hormones is as simple as eating your vegetables?
Yep, mom was right all along, because in order to maximize your muscle-crafting potential, you have to do more than hit the gym and consume your daily protein.
Building muscle relies on a balance of proper nutrition, training, recovery, and hormonal balance. Improper hormone balance can be the tricky devil preventing you from reaching your fitness and physique goals, while also causing major health problems.
Vegetables contain various phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that all play major roles in your body’s metabolic processes, including hormone production and regulation. A diet full of these powerpacked foods can contribute to lifelong vitality and happy hormones.
Plants regulate your hormones
Before diving into how vegetables can influence your hormone levels, you must first lay the foundation for why hormonal balance is essential. Two major hormones in the body are testosterone and estrogen. Men tend to have higher levels of testosterone, while females boast more estrogen. These hormones, along with many others, need to remain in a proper balance or they can cause adverse side effects.
Too much or too little of either can create an obstacle in reaching your health and fitness goals, and can contribute to increasing your risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. High estrogen can lead to muscle weakness, fat gain, a lack of energy and infertility; too little testosterone leads to muscle weakness, low libido, loss of muscle mass, fat gain and hair loss. It is best to have these levels checked by a doctor to ensure they’re balanced.
Eating a variety of nutrients that help to regulate these levels in your body is great way to prevent decline in, or excess, hormones, as well as contributing to overall health. Emerging science shows that many vegetables have the ability to help regulate hormone health as well as prevent the risk of a variety of chronic diseases.
Vegetables to get your hormones ahead
Cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, have powerful hormonal effects in addition to being potential cancer-fighting friends. When you eat them, the compound glucobrassicin is broken down and converted to indole- 3-carbinol, which then combines in the stomach to form active compounds such as 3,3’-diindolylmethane (DIM) and trimer (CT).
DIM has been shown to deter the transcription of estrogen-responsive genes, acting as an indirect modulator of estradiolmediated mitotic activity. A paper in Biochemistry found DIM curbs estrogen metabolism by generating metabolites with anti-estrogenic activity.
In someone with naturally-high estrogen levels, the effects of eating generous portions of cruciferous veggies could help to naturally reduce estrogen and its metabolites, as well as potentiate chemopreventative and chemotherapeutic properties. Just remember that glucosinolates are water-soluble compounds so to receive these beneficial effects, you should use cooking methods that prevent nutrient loss, such as a short bout of steaming or microwaving.
Fat burning helpers
Vegetables that prevent the production of aromatase also work to reduce the conversion of androgens to estrogens in the body, helping to maintain proper testosterone levels. Eating foods high in vitamin C – such as peppers, tomatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms – is a great way to prevent this conversion from occurring. Vitamin C also helps your body process carnitine, a fatty acid that plays a major role in lipid metabolism.
By regularly eating foods high in vitamin C in plentiful quantities, you’ll be helping your body to both regulate hormones, build muscle and metabolize fat!
– RELATED: 15 Fruit And Veg You Should Be Eating –
Up your T counts
Your testosterone levels can also be manipulated in your diet to aid promotion of fat loss and tissue growth. This hormone naturally decreases with age, and preventing a reduction of testosterone can decrease the visceral fat accumulation that can happen with age.
Testosterone aids in fat metabolism, bone health, reproduction and is a major key player when trying to increase muscle and strength. Though high testosterone in women can have negative consequences, it is essential at optimal levels for both males and females. A diet full of test-boosting foods can help ensure your body is being a fat burning, muscle-building machine.
Vegetables that boost this hormone include cruciferous vegetables, which (as previously mentioned) aid in reducing estrogen activity, and spinach, which is packed with magnesium that’s essential for hormone regulation.
Magnesium converts the inactive T4 in your thyroid to active T3, and is involved in the creation of hormones progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone. Just one cup of spinach contains 150mg of magnesium, where as two cups of spinach a day could potentially increase both your free and total testosterone values, based on a study in Biological Trace Element Research.
Other important nutrients related to testosterone include vitamin D3 and zinc, ingested via pumpkin seeds, shrimp, flax seeds, chickpeas, and cocoa powder. Being more manly never tasted this good!
Iron for iron
Getting your daily dose of iron is also as important as lifting it, because it plays a major role in thyroid function, which regulates your metabolic rate and helps to regulate T4 and T3 hormone levels. Iron deficiency reduces T4 to T3 conversion, which can lead to your metabolism slowing, iron deficiency anemia and hypothyroidism.
Having balanced thyroid levels will help equalize other hormone levels in your body. The storage form of iron, ferritin, must be at optimal levels for hormonal balance and proper thyroid functioning. Sadly, supplementing with iron tablets is often poorly used by the body, so dietary iron intake must be enough to prevent iron deficiency. Iron comes in two types – heme and non-heme – so you need to make sure you have plenty of both.
Sources of heme iron include fish, meat and poultry, while non-heme sources derive from leafy greens like spinach and kale, dried beans, fortified cereals and pumpkin seeds.
The International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research states consumption of vitamin C and the reduction of phytates and tannins aid in iron absorption. Meeting the DRI for iron (18mg in females 19-50 years old, 8mg in males 19 years and over) is essential for thyroid function and the transfer of oxygen in your blood. Forget to eat enough of it, and your endurance will suffer – even if you aren’t a regular runner.
Girly hormonal health
Estrogen is processed by your liver, where it can be excreted or reabsorbed into the bloodstream. And yes, it is important even if you’re a red-blooded male. A lack of fiber in your diet, as well as poor gut flora, can cause problems in the excretion of estrogen, causing it to be reabsorbed and potentially leading to estrogen dominance – not a good place to be if you intend on gaining muscle and burning fat.
That’s not the only negative. Estrogen dominance can lead to a variety of chronic diseases, as well as cause mood swings, weight gain and depression. The Journal of Nutrition suggests a diet rich in fiber may help to lower estrogen and progesterone activity by reducing endogenous estrogen concentration through fecal excretion. High fiber food sources can aid gut motility and reduce the risk of estrogen reabsorption.
The best high fiber vegetables include broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale, carrots and squash. Aim for at least two cups per day to optimize your hormonal health. A paper in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism also suggests physical activity may reduce estrogen levels.
Other ways to reduce estrogen levels include reducing phytoestrogens that may increase testosterone conversion to estrogen, and limiting the xenoestrogens found in polluted environments.
Along with a variety of vegetables, a diet full of nutrient-dense carbohydrates, lean proteins and healthy fats is essential for proper hormonal function. Reduction of cortisol – the body’s stress hormone – also contributes to balanced levels. High cortisol can reduce testosterone, break down lean muscle and prevent fat mobilization.
The key to proper hormone functioning lies in getting a balance of essential nutrients. Through lifestyle factors and a proper diet, you can harness your hormones so you’re guaranteeing physiological stability. By tapping into the power of vegetables, you are setting yourself up for success, enhancing overall health and creating an environment for happy hormones and an even happier self.
Lacey is a bikini competitor and Bodybuilding.com athlete with a BSc in Dietetics.