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If you suffer from monthly cramps that get better with the help of something like Advil, this is for you! In this post, you’ll learn all about how to balance your hormones through food, and why changing the types of fats you consume (for example, specific sources of omega-3) can actually work in a similar fashion to NSAIDs like Advil and Tylenol when it comes to mediating inflammation on a cellular level.⁣

First things first: we know that the reason Advil works for cramps is because pain is a prime symptom of inflammation, right?

Advil and other NSAIDs inhibit inflammation (and thus, pain) by directly blocking the production of inflammatory signaling molecules called ‘prostaglandins.’ ⁣This key word is important, because prostaglandins are the natural chemicals that our bodies produce in order to tell our cramps to come on full force.

Here’s the crazy part: When someone is having painful periods, most of those inflammatory prostaglandins are actually coming from their OWN CELLS.

This is because your body’s cell membranes are made up of lipids (fats) which are further made up of fatty acids. Where do these fatty acids come from? Your diet! The type of fat you eat becomes the type of fat that makes up your cells and tissues. And the type of fat that makes up your cells, determines the type of prostaglandins your body produces on a daily basis. 

FATS TO REDUCE FOR HORMONE HEALTH

At the most basic level, the fats you want to reduce in your diet in order to support hormone health and period pain via prostaglandin modulation are: excess omega-6 oils such as soybean, corn, and canola oil. Unfortunately, restaurants often fry in these oils, so sometimes if you ask they can use a different oil or cooking method like steaming or roasting. Furthermore, high levels of insulin convert omega-6 fatty acids into inflammatory prostaglandins, so balancing blood sugar with fiber and protein is key which we’ll talk about more below as we expand.

FATS TO INCREASE FOR HORMONE HEALTH

On the other side of the coin, the short version of what fats to increase in order to lower those pesky prostaglandins include: omega-3 and ALA fatty acids including wild fish, hemp seeds, leafy greens and more. A great way of getting started is balancing red meat consumption with wild fish, so that healthy levels of EPA are able to compete with arachidonic acid for binding to the COX enzyme. Furthermore, include legumes in your diet, such as pressure cooked beans, as research shows peptides derived from legume proteins can regulate and reduce inflammatory markers such as prostaglandin E2 (PGE2).

IT’S NOT JUST “WHAT” YOU SHOULD EAT, BUT “WHY”

Now, when learning how to eat “healthier fats” for hormone health, it’s important that we understand the “why” behind the swaps we’re making so that we truly stick with them. Although we covered an abridged version of what to eat more of and what to reduce below, let’s break it down further when it comes to omega-6 (too much = pro-inflammatory) vs omega-3 (anti-inflammatory) fatty acids.

The breakdown: Essential Fatty Acids

Both Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “essential fatty acids,” or EFAs, meaning your body cannot make these fatty acids from other substances and they must be consumed through your diet.

The fatty acids your consume through your diet end up becoming part of your cell membranes, which determine the type of “prostaglandins,” or cell signaling molecules your body produces. Prostaglandins are essential to the body, as they assist in the healing process by either promoting (pro-inflammatory prostaglandins) or reducing (anti-inflammatory prostaglandins) your inflammation levels. Not all inflammation is bad, since acute swelling, redness, and more is required to heal an injury, for example. When inflammation becomes chronic, however, is how chronic illness arises.

Omega-6 vs Omega-3

Omega-6 fatty acids tend to drive pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. For example, Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) is a prominent molecule derived from the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA), found abundantly in meat and dairy. A dominant action of PGE2 as a messenger molecule is to increase sensitivity of pain neurons, including those involved in menstrual pain and cramping. PGE2 comes in handy when we’re acutely injured, but chronically high levels lead to consistently painful cycles and reproductive inflammation.

Omega-3 fatty acids tend to drive anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. For example, Prostaglandin E3 (PGE3) is derived from the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), found in fish and fish oils. ALA from leafy greens, algae, walnuts, and flaxseed can also be converted into EPA, but only at a rate of  about 10% of total intake. Higher levels of PGE3 decrease sensitivity to pain, relax blood vessels, increase blood flow and support the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response.

The magic is in the balance

We need both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats, just like we need both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. The goal is not to demonize any one type of fat, but rather to reduce and balance certain oils in order to support a healthier balance or ratio of the prostaglandins we produce on a consistent basis when we’re not injured or in acute need of the inflammatory process. 

By reducing overconsumption of Omega-6 fats and replacing them with more Omega-3s, we support higher levels of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins that reduce PMS, relax muscle spasms in order to decrease menstrual cramps, and reduce our sensitivity to pain. This promotes hormone health, proper circulation, and happier periods, especially if you are someone who experiences digestive issues or chronic pain around your cycle (all driven by excess inflammation).

An important note about animal products

As mentioned, Omega-6 fatty acids like arachidonic acid are still considered essential fatty acids, but those found in meat and dairy can be balanced with more Omega-3s when you focus on sourcing.

Conventional livestock, poultry and farmed fish are fed cornmeal and soy-based feed, which raises the Omega-6 content of factory farmed animal products. When animals are raised on grass, worms or other natural diets, their tissues are naturally higher in Omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, grass-fed cattle can contain up to 4% omega-3 fatty acids, while corn-fed cattle typically contain 0.5% (O’Sullivan et al., 2002). 

For a healthy omnivore diet, balance red meat intake with wild fish, and incorporate ALA-rich vegetables and plant foods like hemp seeds and leafy greens. Furthermore, including legumes in your diet, such as pressure cooked beans, can regulate and reduce inflammatory markers such as prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). 

Most importantly: blood sugar balance is key!

While we often demonize ‘sugar’ itself, chronically elevated insulin levels are the real issue when it comes to balancing inflammation driven by erratic blood sugar levels. Elevated insulin levels are on the rise, especially when it comes to hormone imbalances like PCOS and metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes. High insulin not only drives inflammation and hormone disruption via increased testosterone production, it also lowers sex hormone binding globulin resulting in greater amounts of free, unbound estrogen (contributing to symptoms of estrogen excess i.e. fibroids, heavy periods, and PMS).

In fact, when there is too much insulin, the body converts some of the fats that would normally drive anti-inflammatory PGE1 production over to pro-inflammatory PGE2 production.

The increased consumption of refined or simple carbohydrates and sugars in the Standard American Diet (especially when eaten alone) are what lead to soaring insulin levels. Chronically high insulin levels can hijack our biochemical pathways and cause even healthy Omega-6 fats like nuts and to create inflammation within the body.

Tips for balancing high insulin

Lowering and balancing insulin levels requires a whole separate conversation, but some key places to start for hormone health include:

– eat a balanced breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up

– plan ahead so you don’t skip meals, especially when stressed

– eat protein throughout the day to keep blood sugar stable

– include a balance of fat, protein, and carbs in each meal and snack so you’re not eating carbs alone

– furthermore, choose complex carbs like fruit, whole grains, and root vegetables over simple sugars

– eat consistently throughout the day to avoid dips

– exercise regularly, such as walking for 30 minutes daily

– get up and walk around every 1-2 hour when working from home to break up long periods of sitting

– increase soluble fiber intake, especially pressure-cooked beans

– increase omega-3 intake

– drink green tea and add cinnamon to your coffee

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