The Carb Connection: Exploring the Role of Carbohydrates in Hormone Production
There’s a lot of controversy about carbohydrates and health in the media today. Are they all bad? What are they doing or undoing in our health and fertility? In this blog, we’ll look at what they are, and what they are doing to support our hormone production (yes, spoiler alert, we do need carbs!)They are one of the three macronutrients, along with fats and proteins, that make up the building blocks of our diet. While their primary function is to provide our bodies with energy, carbohydrates also play a crucial role in hormone production and regulation. In this blog, we'll dive into the fascinating world of carbohydrates and explore the different types of carbs and how they influence hormone production.
Before we delve into the relationship between carbohydrates and hormones, let's get a better understanding of carbohydrates themselves. They are found in various foods like grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products. Carbohydrates can be classified into three main categories:
- Simple Carbohydrates: These are composed of one or two sugar molecules and are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Examples include glucose (found in table sugar) and fructose (found in fruits). It’s also worth mentioning that “high fructose corn syrup” found in sodas and packaged foods is composed solely of these simple sugars, and they work to spike blood sugar and insulin very very fast! So fast, the body can’t keep up with the demand.
- Complex Carbohydrates: These are made up of long chains of sugar molecules and take longer to digest. They include starches found in foods like starchy vegetables, like winter squash, sweet potatoes, and white potatoes, as well as whole grains like buckwheat, quinoa, oats, and brown rice.
- Fiber: Fiber is also a type of carbohydrate, but it cannot be digested by the body. Instead, it plays a vital role in digestive health and regulating blood sugar levels.
Now, let's explore how different carbohydrates interact with hormones.
Carbohydrates and Hormone Production
- Insulin: Insulin is perhaps the most well-known hormone related to carbohydrate metabolism. When we consume carbohydrates, especially simple sugars, our blood sugar levels rise. In response, the pancreas releases insulin to facilitate the uptake of glucose into cells for energy or storage. This hormone helps regulate blood sugar levels and prevents hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
- Leptin and Ghrelin: These hormones play a significant role in appetite regulation and are influenced by carbohydrate intake. Leptin, produced by fat cells, signals to the brain that you're full, while ghrelin, produced by the stomach, stimulates hunger. Complex carbohydrates with fiber content can help regulate these hormones, leading to better appetite control.
- Cortisol: Carbohydrates can influence cortisol, which we often know as the stress hormone. Cortisol also will react to low blood sugar, released by the body as a way to raise blood sugar in a short time, though this can be a helpful survival strategy, in our modern times what it usually leads to is a cycle of too low and too high blood sugar, which leads to cravings for simple sugars to bring the low back up. When cortisol is released at night to raise blood sugar, we wake up and stay up, since cortisol is also the hormone that gets us up and going in the morning. In times of stress, cortisol levels rise, leading to cravings for comfort foods rich in carbohydrates. While this may offer short-term relief, it can lead to overconsumption and weight gain in the long run.
- Thyroid Hormones: The thyroid gland, responsible for regulating metabolism, can be affected by carbohydrate intake. Low-carb diets may reduce the production of thyroid hormones, potentially slowing down metabolism.
Balancing Carbohydrates for Hormone Health
Maintaining a healthy balance of carbohydrates in your diet is essential for proper hormone production and regulation. Here are some tips to help you achieve that balance:
- Choose Complex Carbs: Opt for complex carbohydrates like whole grains, vegetables, and legumes. These foods provide a steady source of energy and promote stable blood sugar levels.
- Include Fiber: Fiber-rich foods help regulate appetite hormones, promoting a feeling of fullness and preventing overeating.
- Mindful Carb Consumption: Be mindful of simple carbohydrate intake, especially sugary snacks and beverages. These can lead to rapid blood sugar spikes and crashes.
- Consider Individual Needs: The ideal carbohydrate intake varies from person to person, depending on factors like age, activity level, and health goals. Consulting a healthcare professional or registered dietitian can help determine the right balance for you.
Here are some relevant topics and potential studies to explore:
1. Carbohydrates and fertility:
- A prospective study of dietary carbohydrate quantity and quality in relation to risk of ovulatory infertility PMID: 17882137. This study concluded that high Dietary glycemic index (resulting in spikes and lows in blood sugar) was positively related to ovulatory infertility among women already experiencing a diagnosis of infertility who were attempting their first pregnancy.
2. Fiber and Hormone Regulation:
- Interestingly, fiber has a sweet spot for fertility. Too much fiber in women can reduce the amount of circulating estrogen and lower hormones needed for fertility and ovulation (FSH and LH). One study (Effect of daily fiber intake on reproductive function: the BioCycle Study) discovered a correlation between the highest fiber diets in cycling women leading to a slightly higher risk of anovulation in a cycle. This leads us to consider that using fiber strategically for women who need to reduce their hormone levels can have a positive overall effect on fertility.
3. Weight Management and Fertility:
- This study (PMID: 17982356) reviewed the findings in research on obesity and infertility in both males and females, showing a decrease in fertility with unhealthy weight gain. They cited that the main factors implicated in the association may be insulin excess and insulin resistance. These adverse effects of obesity are specifically evident in polycystic ovary syndrome in women. In men, obesity is associated with low testosterone levels, leading to lowered sperm production.
4. Influence of Sugary Beverages:
- Simple sugars that directly absorb into the bloodstream and spike blood sugar are the hardest for the body to regulate and bounce back from. Research has shown that even one soda per day decreases fertility in men and women. Check this link for a review of the article and an interview with the authors.
Carbohydrates are not just a source of energy; they also play a vital role in hormone production and regulation. Understanding the different types of carbohydrates and their impact on hormones can help you make informed dietary choices for better overall health. Striking a balance between complex carbohydrates, fiber, and mindful consumption of simple carbohydrates can contribute to hormone harmony, fertility, and overall well-being.