The Bittersweet Truth About Sugar and Hormones
Hold on to your hats! You know those inevitable, uncomfortable, often embarrassing symptoms of hormone fluctuations we’ve all had to suffer with? Whether it’s teenage acne or debilitating menstrual cramps, we tolerate them with a defeating “there’s nothing I can do about it” kind of acceptance. What if I told you those symptoms were not inevitable, but rather, manageable and even avoidable?
Let’s Back Up: What are Hormones and Why are They Important?
Hormones are chemical messengers which are produced and released by glands in our endocrine system. Hormones are sent where they’re needed, when they’re needed, to perform various functions. They regulate:
- body temperature,
- sleep cycles,
Small, but mighty, hormones run the show behind the scenes. Any disruption to even one hormone can cause other hormones to be thrown off balance. Hormones control major bodily functions in men and woman, all day, every day, and hormonal imbalances can lead to significant health issues long after we’ve outgrown puberty.
Although changes in hormone level and activity are expected during certain life stages (e.g., puberty, menopause), the extent to which hormones shift and create discomfort can be managed by eating hormone-balancing foods and avoiding sugar.
The Endocrine System
The endocrine system is made up of nine glands and organs. Together, they are responsible for producing hormones that are designed to keep us healthy round the clock, every day of our lives.
- The adrenal glands (located above the kidneys) produce cortisol, which regulates our stress response, and aldosterone, a hormone that regulates pH balance and blood pressure.
- The hypothalamus (located in the brain) connects the nervous system with the endocrine system to maintain homeostasis. It produces oxytocin, which causes labor contractions during childbirth, dopamine, a pleasure hormone, as well as a variety of hormones that control growth.
- The pancreas (located below the stomach) produces hormones to regulate blood sugar: insulin to lower blood sugar and glucagon to elevate it.
- The parathyroid glands (located behind the thyroid) create hormones which regulate calcium levels in the blood, as well as the health of our bones, muscles, and nerves.
- The pineal gland (located in the brain) is the one we have to thank for getting a good night’s sleep. It produces melatonin, which controls our sleep cycles and contributes to a healthy gut.
- The pituitary gland (located in the brain) produces hormones that manage other endocrine glands: the adrenals, thyroid, and sex organs. The pituitary gland also produces prolactin, which helps new mothers produce breast milk.
- The thyroid (located at the front of the neck) creates female hormones, as well as hormones that regulate metabolism, energy, and circadian rhythms.
- The thymus (located behind the sternum) protects our immunity. It produces thymosin, a hormone that stimulates white blood cells/T-cells to fight off disease and infection.
- The ovaries/testes (located in a woman’s pelvic region/on a man’s external genitals) create various sex hormones in women/men, which regulate reproductive health. Cortisol is also produced in both the ovaries and the testes.
Note: This is not an exhaustive list of all the hormones that are produced by these glands. There are over 50 hormones in the human body!
In addition, our gastrointestinal tract, though not a gland or part of the endocrine system, creates hormones needed in various stages of digestion. Ghrelin and leptin in particular send important messages to us – namely, “I’m hungry” and “I’m full.” Ghrelin is the hormone that makes us feel hungry, whereas leptin tells our brain that we’ve had enough.
These messages should come through loud and clear, however, high-sugar diets can cause leptin resistance. When we become resistant to leptin, we no longer recognize the feeling of fullness, leaving us prone to eat more – a vicious cycle in weight management.
Sugar’s Effects on Hormones and the Endocrine System
With over 50 hormones in the human body, there’s always work to be done! They never stop working; they’re programmed to maintain homeostasis at all times (e.g., if your blood sugar is low, hormones raise it; if your blood sugar is high, hormones lower it).
Additionally, hormones don’t work in isolation—they perform as an orchestra where even one instrument out of tune will spoil the entire performance. When it comes to hormones, balance is the difference between health and disease, and excess sugar is the fastest way to upset that balance.
Insulin and Sugar
To keep our hormones balanced, our blood sugar needs to be stable throughout the day, which is unlikely to happen if we skip meals or survive on sugary snacks.
Every time we consume sugar, our pancreas produces insulin, a hormone which converts sugar into glucose, then escorts the glucose into our cells for energy. But when we eat too much sugar, our pancreas produces more insulin to keep up with the high demand, and now insulin can’t respond the way it's supposed to. This can lead to insulin resistance and the body will struggle to convert glucose into energy. This leaves excess glucose in our bloodstream (high blood sugar). If blood sugar levels continue to rise, we become prediabetic, and if it keeps rising further, this can develop into type 2 diabetes.
Unlike type 2 diabetes (which develops over time due to diet and lifestyle), type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition. Individuals with type 1 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin because their body attacks the pancreatic cells that produce it.
Testing, Monitoring, and Reversing Insulin Resistance
Because insulin resistance is a precursor to type 2 diabetes, it’s important that it be monitored by a medical professional. Testing ranges from fasting blood samples to the “gold standard” hyperinsulinaemic–euglycaemic clamp test. Additionally, a doctor may diagnose insulin resistance based on a person’s blood pressure readings, fasting glucose and triglycerides levels, cholesterol levels, and waistline measurement.
More often than not, reversing insulin resistance can be done naturally. Though medication may be needed in some cases, insulin resistance can be managed and reversed with healthy diet and exercise.
Cortisol and Sugar
Cortisol rises under any type of stress - emotional, physical, chemical, and perceived stress. Consuming too much sugar is a form of chemical stress on the body. In addition to depleting the adrenals, elevated cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream (your brain thinks you’re in danger, so it pours glucose into your bloodstream, so that you have the energy to fight or flee).
While our bodies need a certain amount of cortisol, especially in actual stressful situations (running from a lion), excess cortisol is harmful, especially if it’s chronic. In modern times, we’ve replaced the lion with bills, bosses, family obligations, and deadlines, keeping us in a perpetual state of worry. Additionally, we consume too much sugar (more than twice the recommended limit)—what was once a rare sweet treat in caveman days has become the main source of our calories today.
The Thyroid and Sugar
According to Sarah Wilson, sugar expert and wellness coach, it’s mandatory for anyone with an autoimmune disease to quit eating sugar, particularly for autoimmune diseases that affect the thyroid (e.g., Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease). In general, sugar-induced insulin spikes harm the thyroid, and when the thyroid is compromised, so are our energy and metabolism.
Fertility and Sugar
Sugar impairs the functioning of all the sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone). Diets high in sugar can make conception difficult because sugar can decrease fertility in both men and women. Increased insulin from excess sugar interferes with egg maturation hormones; sperm motility is weakened in men with high-sugar diets.
Hormonally Related Health Conditions
Aside from inflammatory diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s (now being referred to as type 3 diabetes), sugar is an instigator or agitator of many hormonally related conditions, due to its direct impairment to hormones. Some of these conditions include:
- hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
- PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome)
- endometriosis (lesions on the outside of the uterus)
- adrenal fatigue (HPA axis dysfunction)
- leptin resistance
- insulin resistance
- hypogonadism (little-to-no sex hormone production)
- cushing syndrome (chronic, excess cortisol production)
- Addition’s disease (not enough cortisol production)
- estrogen dominance (high levels of estrogen in relation to progesterone)
- andropause (decreased sexual function and testosterone in men)*
*Around the same age women go through menopause, some men experience andropause, lower sexual function due to a decrease in testosterone. And it’s no surprise, sugar has been linked to lower testosterone levels in men.
Though sugar’s impact on hormones is detrimental and far-reaching, at any moment we have the power to move in a healthier direction. Consider the following tips and tools to increase sugar awareness and reduce consumption, and in turn, balance hormones:
- Know your vocabulary.
When consumers started catching onto the dangers of sugar, food companies responded… just not ideally. Many companies renamed sugar, swapped it for different sweeteners, or replaced them with artificial sweeteners that have no calories, but all the harmful effects as regular sugar. By doing this, companies were able to advertise a product as “sugar-free,” misleading consumers into thinking these products are healthy, when in fact, nothing has really changed. Look out for any of these 56 other names for sugar.
- Know where to look.
Read the back of food labels.
The next time you’re at the grocery store, turn the can or box around and look at the list of ingredients on the back. You may be surprised to learn how many of our pantry staples are loaded with sugar. The fronts of labels are cleverly designed to manipulate and influence purchases, often making claims like “natural” and “low-fat” that are misleading and misdirecting. Not everything in a package or can is unhealthy, but you’ll only know by reading the ingredients.
Shop on the edge.
In the grocery store, choose whole foods with naturally occurring sugars (fruits and veggies). They will be in the outer aisles or the edges of the supermarket. These are foods that require refrigeration. Real food is not supposed to have a long shelf life.
Shop at conventional or health food stores.
While health food stores and organic markets tend to carry more healthy options than conventional stores, not everything in a health food store is healthy. Something can be organic, low-fat, or gluten-free and still be loaded with sugar. Choose whole foods from any store that are non-processed or minimally processed (five ingredients or less) and opt for foods with low sugar content. Use the above tips (reading labels and shopping in the outer aisles) as a guides for grocery shopping in any store.
- Swap out your sweets.
Adding naturally sweet foods to any diet can not only help you wean off sugar, it can improve hormone health with their inherent fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Stock up on:
- low-glycemic fruits,
- roasted veggies,
- dark chocolate (70% or higher),
- vanilla extract,
- unsweetened nut butters,
- homemade chia seed pudding
- warm and sweet spices like ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom
- Understand sugar’s larger context.
Understanding sugar’s impact on our overall health can help put our hormone health into perspective. Read some of the ways sugar affects the whole body and consider how prevalent added sugar is in our lives—there’s just as much sugar (if not more) added to a jar of pasta sauce as a bag of cookies.
- Consider low-carb brands and diets.
A Keto diet may be particularly helpful for balancing hormones, not only because it’s low in sugar, but it emphasizes healthy fats and protein which are essential for hormone health (hormones are made from fat and cholesterol).
Rather than succumb to the overwhelm of all the products and labels out there, familiarize yourself with one or two brands you can trust—brands that have healthy ingredients and minimal to no added sugar.
This information is not intended to prevent, diagnose, prescribe, or treat any illness or condition, nor does it take the place of sound medical advice. You should always seek out your own medical care and determine the best diet and course of treatment for your unique health needs.