Hormones are the chemical messengers produced by the endocrine system that help to regulate most metabolic processes like anabolic growth, digestion, and reproduction. Hormone levels fluctuate both daily and throughout life, with surges often experienced during puberty and pregnancy.
Hormonal balance occurs when the body is producing enough of the various hormones needed to adequately execute the various jobs for a functioning metabolism.
A Dancer’s Hormones
While it’s nearly impossible to name all hormones and their specific roles, the most common families of hormones include:
- Hunger hormones like leptin and grehlin. These hormones regulate appetite, including feelings of hunger and fullness.
- Thyroid hormones like growth hormones regulate our metabolism and body composition. Click here to read more about the specific hormones that play a role in the regulation of your metabolism.
- Reproductive hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These not only support reproductive health but are also involved in bone health and cardiovascular health.
Hormone Imbalances in Dancers
When hormones are imbalanced, we can experience a plethora of physical ailments, including but not limited to:
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Thinning hair
- Unexplained changes in weight
- Changes in mood
- Recurrent bone injuries (like stress fractures)
Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport is a syndrome of negative health implications that results from energy imbalances. Much of the body’s hormones rely on energy balance to function optimally. In a state of energy imbalance, such as from RED-S, hormonal disruptions lead to multi-system consequences relating to impaired bone health, poor immunity, slowed metabolism, impaired heart health, and declines in cognition. According to the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, primary amenorrhoea (the complete absence of a period) is when periods have not started by age 16. Secondary amenorrhoea is when periods stop for more than 6 months. Both conditions are red flags of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport and warrant consultation with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and medical doctor.
The bottom line: restrictive eating habits (whether intentional or unintentional) and exhaustive exercise routines limit the body’s use of calories and nutrients, both of which are needed for anabolic growth. The end result? Hormonal dysregulation.
The Role of Stress
The stress response is your body’s way of responding to a perceived threat. At the time of threat, your hypothalamus, a tiny region of your brain triggers nerve and hormonal signals that release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Physical stress (from intense dancing) and emotional stress (such as that experienced from weight stigma and poor body image) can impact the delicate balance of our hormones. While the body’s short-term stress response is self-limiting, prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol from chronic stress can disrupt many bodily systems.
In addition to ensuring a daily eating routine that supports you, partaking in behaviors to reduce stress is encouraged. A few examples include:
- Mindful movements like pilates and yoga
- Listening to music
- Spending time with friends
To further support your hormonal balance through food, consider these meal plan additions:
10+ Foods to Support Hormone Health and Balance
Oatmeal is high in B vitamins. B vitamins are commonly deficient in dancers who limit consumption of animal products. Oats are also a great source of soluble fiber, which is known to support steady blood sugar levels.
Insulin is a hormone that, when under normal conditions, promotes the body’s absorption and utilization of nutrients like carbs and protein. Insulin sensitivity is the degree at which the body responds to insulin. Insulin sensitivity increases after exercise, making this hormone a key player in overall muscle and energy recovery. When compared to instant oatmeal, steel-cut or rolled whole-grain oats retain a higher percentage of fiber during processing, making these options extra beneficial for blood sugar regulation.
Enriched bread is a great source of iron, which supports thyroid functioning. Sourdough bread is especially rich in probiotics. Some research supports the role of probiotics in lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Eggs, Avocados, and Salmon
These foods are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. In regard to hormonal balance, omega-3 fats are precursors to many hormones that play a role in blood clotting and in the contraction and relaxation of artery walls. These heart-healthy fats are also known to reduce levels of inflammation.
Flax is a versatile ingredient rich in plant-based phytoestrogens known as lignans. Lignans are known for their antioxidative characteristics that play a role in regulating estrogens.
Flax also contains a high percentage of omega-3 fatty acids (specifically ALA) per serving. These fatty acids convert into usable forms in the body (EPA and DHA) both of which are two important for heart health and brain health. Remember, flaxseeds must be ground in order to digest and gain full health benefits.
Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is rich in zinc. Zinc is a micronutrient involved in the synthesis of thyroid hormone, which aids in the regulation of our metabolism. Zinc is often seen as deficient in those who experience menstrual irregularities.
Full Fat Dairy
While the association does not equal causation, some preliminary research supports the consumption of full-fat dairy for fertility. More research is needed for this to be conclusive, but when compared to fat-free or skim milk, full fat offers a more satisfying mouthfeel and the inclusion of fat enhances the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D. Despite its name, vitamin D is technically a hormone that regulates the body’s utilization of calcium (especially important for bone strength!)
Butter, Olive Oil, Canola Oil
Foods high in fat are key to the growth and maintenance of hormones. To learn more about fat and why you should not feat this macronutrient, click here.
Peanut butter, cashews, almonds
Magnesium is a nutrient that helps to regulate serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone that can easily ebb and flow throughout your day. Peanuts and nuts (like cashews and almonds) are rich in both magnesium and fat. Fat promotes feelings of fullness between meals and supports appetite hormones (learn more about them here).
To learn more about your hormones, check out these guides specifically for dancers: