Carbohydrates and Female Hormones – Do we need carbs?
A few weeks ago, I went to a nutrition seminar in Melbourne that was all about women, hormones, exercise and health. It was run by two specialist in their field, Lara Briden, author of the period repair manual, and Kira Sutherland, Nutritionist and Naturopath from Uber Health. This seminar brought to light a lot of the concerns I have had over the last few years around low carb, which left me feeling relieved and enlightened. I wasn’t alone in my concerns.
You see, one thing that i’ve have noticed in the low carb community, particularly in the sporting community, is that there isn’t really much talk about the effectiveness (or safety) of low carb for men verses womens. They are often seen as one and the same.
However, due to my own experience of losing my menstrual cycle to a very low carb diet, I have always been cautious with lower carb when working with females.
I want to share with you some of the information that was discussed in the seminar, so as promised, here is the low down on low carb and female hormones:
Before we get started….
Lets just clarify the different levels of carbohydrate restriction:
Moderate carbohydrate diet <100-150g/day
Low carb diet <80-100g/day
Very Low Carb Diet <50g/day (Ketosis range)
The question: Who does well on low or very low carb?
Answer: WOMEN (and men) with INSULIN RESISTANCE
There is no argument here. The literature is already abundant that low carb diets are an effective treat for type 2 diabetes (a condition which is brought on by IR).
(Note: If client has insulin resistance, it means they find it difficult to metabolise carbohydrates – you could say they are “carbohydrate intolerant”)
Common causes of insulin resistance include, but are not limited to
High carb/high sugar diet
Genetic predisposition to IR
Poor gut composition
Estrogen improves insulin sensitivity
Low estrogen occurs post menopause and in some PCOS cases (NOTE: If you have PCOS it doesn’t necessarily mean insulin resistance)
This is why post menopausal women often do quite well on a very low carb diet. The drop in oestrogen means a drop in insulin sensitivity (carbohydrate tolerance), and this is often what contributes to unwanted post menopausal weight gain.
A low carb diet can be a good solution, combined with short and regular bouts of exercise (to improve insulin sensivity). Post menopausal women also no longer need carbs for ovulation. (However there is still the issue of hypothyroidism, and low fibre in VLCD).
I was happy to hear that Lara and Kira recognised that some females do very well on very low carb diets and based on my clinical experience, I agree.
BUT now lets look at those of us who DON”T have insulin resistance.
Those of us who are of reproductive age, doing various levels of activity.
As quoted by Lara and Kira…
“”THE REST OF US NEED CARBS”
LOW CARB AND HYPOTHALAMIC AMENORRHEA (loss of menstrual cycle)
Whether you are wanting to have a baby or not, if you are of reproductive age (haven’t gone through menopause) your brain is continuously assessing your current situation in terms of whether or not you are in a “safe” environment to bring a baby into the world. If there is not enough “perceived” food available, or you are under stress, your brain thinks you are in a “famine”, which is not an ideal situation to have a baby, and shuts off ovulation until it thinks you are “safe” again. This is called “Hypothalamic Amenorrhoea”.
HOW IT WORKS
Ways very low carb and cause amenorrhea
Impaired luteinising hormone signalling
Lack of carbs = signals famine – stops the signalling from the hypothalamus to the ovaries (shuts off ovulation)
Poor T4-T3 conversion
We need insulin and therefore carbohydrates for the conversion of T4-T3. Low carb diets can lead to hypothyroidism which often coincides with amenorrhea.
Suppressed appetite from higher fat diet or ketosis that leads to under eating
Low calories = sign of famine
VERY COMMON in clinic.
Food for thought: Since when did having no appetite become a good thing?
Impaired microbiome – if not done properly e.g. avoidance of high fibre foods on VLCD
Whats wrong with not getting my period?
I could write a whole post on this but just to give you a few things to think about:
No period, no hormones.
Why you want oestrogen:
Estrogen increases your insulin sensitivity, bone mineral density, mood, and protein synthesis (muscle building – yes, oestrogen is anabolic).
Why you want progesterone:
Progesterone is mood boosting, calming for our HPA axis, and needed for healthy thyroid function.
They also both counter balance each other. For example, oestrogen increases menstrual flow (heavier periods), whereas progesterone lightens them.
NOTE – The progestin you get in your pill is NOT the same as progesterone that your body makes (it doesn’t have the same benefits)
SO HOW MUCH CARBS DO WE NEED ?
Unfortunately, science hasn’t really seen this as being high on the importance list SO there is very limited research around the optimal amount of carbohydrates needed for optimal sex hormone production.
However…One paper concluded that women need 90-130g of glucose per day to maintain pituitary Luteinising hormone pulsatility, and anything under that can mean menstrual regulation gets disrupted.
That carbohydrate range may be a good place to start, and from clinical experience, I would say that range is where a lot of my female clients feel good. Some need a lot more than that (especially those doing a lot of training) , some can get away with less.
(NOTE: 90-130g is still considered LOW CARB compared to mainstream).
Where to go from here?
Having healthy hormone production is important, so if things are abnormal, it needs to be addressed. The best way forward is to get professional advice that is based on YOUR body. Don’t copy what some one else is doing, and if its not working for you, re-asses.
If you are concerned, or not sure where to start, seek a qualified health professional that will take into account your insulin sensitivity, current diet and symptoms, exercise regime, and track changes to symptoms as you go along.
I hope this has been helpful
For any questions or queries on this topics please don’t hesitate to leave me a message via the contact page.
And stay tuned for the next topic on female hormones and fasting
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