For many people low carbohydrate diets are the go to program for weight loss and it was only last week that I had a discussion with a PT on the topic. He recommended all of his female clients try a low carbohydrate, high protein diet along side training to assist in losing weight.

My response was to gently remind him that everybody is created differently – so one diet for all is never going to be effective or safe!

This conversation prompted me to write a post on the incredibly important relationship between complex carbohydrates and sex hormones, as majority of women need adequate complex carbohydrates for healthy functioning hormones.

Carbohydrate restriction can lead to:

– Menstrual or reproductive irregularities

– Mood swings

– Low energy

– Thyroid or adrenal issues

– Trouble loosing weight

– Long recovery times following exercise

Of course there are always exceptions, for example if you are insulin resistant or have severe digestive problems, following a reduced carbohydrate diet may be beneficial. However, if you experience one of the above symptoms I urge you to read on.

How do carbohydrates affect our sex hormones?

Carbohydrates are our main source of glucose necessary to regulate blood sugar. When we haven’t eaten for 4 hours or are restricting our body of carbohydrates, our blood glucose levels drop causing dizziness, fatigue, confusion and anxiety. To avoid this our body allows only small deviations in blood glucose levels, so when there is a drop and no glucose from carbohydrates a message is sent to our adrenal glands to secrete one of our stress hormones, cortisol. Cortisol signals our liver and muscles to excrete stored glucose to fuel our body and re balance our blood sugar levels. If we continue to fast or follow a low carbohydrate diet, cortisol continues to be secreted to maintain equilibrium.

Cortisol is a very diligent hormone and part of its job is to relay to our brain that we are under stress and in this case quite possibly a famine. This message switches our nervous system into a sympathetic state (known as fight or flight) in order to prepare our body for survival mode – unfortunately our endocrine system does not understand that we are just on a diet.

Several complications can arise from prolonged sympathetic nervous system dominance as our hypothalamus (the master messenger in our brain) signals all the systems in our body which are not necessary during famine to slow right down and increases all the functions that are fundamental to keep us alive.

Guess what is on the low priority list when we are fighting for our lives? You got it – making babies, so the hormones that are sent from our brain to our ovaries, which regulate our menstrual cycle and promote fertility, are reduced.

But that’s not all…

In addition to secreting stress hormones the adrenal glands are responsible for sex hormone production. Our body is very clever and prioritises according to our nervous system state; when the adrenals require high levels of cortisol to maintain our blood glucose levels and ensure we have enough energy to last the famine, the hormones needed for production of our sex hormones are ‘stolen’ and used to make cortisol. This reduces the production of our fundamental sex hormones even further.

So, to re cap – increased ‘stress hormones’ resulting from reduced carbohydrate intake interfere with hormonal messaging from our hypothalamus to our ovaries and decrease sex hormone production from our adrenal glands, both of which greatly interfere with healthy menstruation, libido, energy, weight, stress adaption and mood to name a few. 

Are you experiencing any of these symptoms? It may have something to do with your diet.

If you would like to find out more email to book a comprehensive naturopath consultation. Together we can tailor an individualised treatment plan to support you on your journey to your most vibrant, balanced self.

Here’s to happy, healthy hormones.