Physicians who treat women with hormonal imbalances know that some women respond very well to regular consumption of certain carbohydrates, to maintain the delicate balance of hormones and neurotransmitters, control their moods and soothe their anxiety.
As one of these physicians, I can tell you it’s more common than you might think that a young woman tells me excitedly about her “new-found love for paleo” (or the increasingly popular ‘vegan paleo’ – whatever that is), but complains of wild mood swings and weepy moments about unwanted weight-gain soothed only by coconut milk ice-cream.
For many women, a no-carb diet is not the answer to perfect hormone balance.
And the reason why isn’t too surprising when you think about it – if you have adrenal fatigue (or HPA-axis dysfunction), a no-carb diet might be making your hormone imbalances worse.
HPA-axis dysfunction is a fairly common syndrome that results from chronic stress. It presents with a fairly classic symptom picture (low morning and mid-afternoon energy, a “second-wind” before bed or trouble falling asleep, trouble maintaing the second half of the sleep cycle, abdominal weight gain, anxiety, brain fog, high or low blood pressure, and/or dizziness), and low cortisol and/or DHEA on a saliva or blood hormone test.
With chronic stress comes chronically elevated levels of cortisol, to which the body eventually becomes resistant (causing the HPA-axis dysfunction, or ‘adrenal fatigue’); this cortisol-resistance also impairs serotonin production (a feel-good neurotransmitter) and induces insulin-resistance. This insulin resistance leads to blood sugar imbalances and hormone imbalances follow suit.
So essentially, chronic stress = cortisol response impairment = insulin dysregulation = blood sugar imbalance = hormone and mood imbalances
Whenever I see this picture, and discover that my patient is restricting carbohydrates, I know that getting her to eat some simple, gentle carbohydrates on a daily basis will greatly improve her moods and stress-management capability.
And what does that mean?
It certainly does not mean that I tell my patients to go pick up some Wonder Bread and grab a muffin on the way home. Refined flour products like these might as well be labeled “sugar,” in my opinion, and do nothing to help balance blood sugar or regulate hormones. The type of gentle carbohydrates I’m talking about include the following starches:
Eaten, of course, with a meal containing protein, fat, and vegetables, and in appropriate serving sizes (different for everyone, but 1/4-1/2 cup of starchy carbohydrate should do the trick, depending on your activity levels and current weight). In some cases, women will be sensitive to a certain type of carbohydrate that will cause bloating and weight gain – when I suspect this, I recommend Natasha Turner’s Carb Sensitivity Program.
There is actually some research to back this up:
In this article, carbohydrate intake was shown to improve the cortisol response in people with high stress.
No carb diets cause low insulin levels, which reduces the amount of leptin that is released. Research shows that there is a critical leptin level required to maintain proper female hormone balance which may be missed on a no-carb diet.
This article shows that diets too high in protein decrease GABA, a soothing and calming neurotransmitter. Dr. Lara Briden discusses this link between Gentle Carbs and balanced GABA/cortisol in her article.
Chris Kesser explains in his book that a no-carb diet can exacerbate adrenal fatigue (HPA-axis dysfunction); he favours starches and fruits as carbohydrates of choice, as I do, because the refined flours wreak havoc on insulin and other hormone levels.
I have seen so many cases of this recently in the clinic, that I had to get it out to the masses – paleo is popular and has many health benefits for many people. But if you’re a female with hormonal imbalances, suffering with HPA-axis dysfunction, and dealing with mood swings and a daily blood sugar roller coaster – I’m talking to you. Try adding a small serving of nutrient-dense carbohydrates to each of your meals, and tell me how much better you feel.