Here’s the deal with this post:
I’m not bashing low carbohydrate diets in any way. I think they have a wonderful place in the world and some people have had absolutely phenomenal results on them. If you’re healthy, loving life on a low carb diet, and have no complaints, I encourage you to skip this article entirely.
This article, instead, is for people who are struggling with hormonal health and might need a change of carbohydrate scenery.
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Some Starting Thoughts
The reason hormonal problems can get so confusing is because all hormones interact and intertwine in a very complex system using positive and negative feedback loops between pretty much every step in the process. It’s an astoundingly beautiful system and the fact that so many of us walk around functional at all never ceases to boggle my mind.
So for the purposes of this discussion, we will, of course, have to break down these processes into simpler steps that appear more discrete than they really are. It’s important to realize that some of the intricacies of the complete story that may be lost…but that’s ok!
Reasons Low Carbs Can Lead to Hormonal Problems
Let’s start with the most commonly known process of this whole system. We’ve likely all heard that eating carbs leads to an insulin response that allows the sugars that we intake to actually be transported into our cells. Chronically high insulin responses from eating lots of processed sugars or carbohydrates leads to insulin resistance or insulin burnout that causes the disease state we refer to as diabetes.
Conversely, low carbohydrate intake naturally leads to low insulin levels. This is fantastic for people who have insulin resistance; however, in people who don’t have this problem, low insulin levels lead to low leptin levels. Leptin is the “satiety” hormone in the body and so conveniently, ovaries have leptin receptors in order to stay up to date on if it’s a good baby-making time or not. Low leptin basically tells the ovaries that it’s a time of deficiency…and that building a baby would be catastrophic at that time.
Low insulin and low glucose levels also interact at the level of the hypothalamus, one of the primary endocrine/hormonal control centers in the body. The hypothalamus normally goes on to signal to the pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, and ovaries but with such low insulin and glucose levels, the hypothalamus shuts down hormone product in order to preferentially signal the production of stress hormones (aka: more cortisol…this also occurs at the level of the adrenals). Furthermore, it goes to on to play a role in pathologically heightening central nervous system activation and increasing stress modifying neurotransmitters. (That’s why Megan and I are combining both hormonal and neurotransmitter testing for our Adrenal Health Program!)
Furthermore, insulin is crucial for thyroid health because it is required to carry out the conversion of the inactive T4 hormone to the active T3 hormone. Low levels of insulin naturally decrease this process from occurring at the level it should for optimum function. It’s no secret that low thyroid levels will make anyone feel awful, from dry skin to low energy levels to major constipation to infertility…no chump change in terms of living a full, healthy, and hormonally balanced lifestyle.
Lastly, hormonal health is intimately linked to our gut health, as well as the immune system (again, these all intertwine, though I’ve made the sound separate there). By limiting even quality sources of carbohydrates, we’re most often limiting source of prebiotics that upkeep a healthy bacterial balance in our GI tracts. Yet another reason to chow down on some delicious (good) carbohydrate sources, yes please!
My Favorite High Quality Sources of Carbohydrates
Since I stay away from gluten-containing grains, I focus on eating all types of vegetables, root veggies (sweet potatoes, white potatoes, rutabagas, parsnips, etc), rice, and sometime quinoa. Fruit can be a dicey-er subject because of common gut issues so I’ll reserve that for a later discussion…but I generally don’t say no to a few pieces of fruit per day.
As my personal general rule of thumb, I try to get at least 100 g of carbohydrates per day but usually I end up eating close to 150g. However, I mostly go by how I feel based on energy levels, regular ovulation and cycles, the quality of my menstrual periods, skin/hair/nail health, and stress response.