First things first, I’m not against wellness blogs or wellness bloggers. I would hope that is obvious, since this blog is a “wellness blog” and I am a “wellness blogger.” However, knowing that actual, real people read my blog is an important reminder for me to write responsibly. That means I take care to ensure that the things I write are not only factually sound, but also relevant and helpful to readers, and worded in such a way that I don’t cause unnecessary harm (i.e. not using certain words or referencing certain numbers, providing warnings for potentially triggering content.)
I also have a medical degree which brings a whole additional layer of responsibility. My point in saying this is not to suggest that individuals without the same education as me can’t offer sound, accurate, and helpful health advice, because I definitely think they can. However, the fact that I have a medical license means that I’m legally forbidden from dishing out health advice on the internet (outside of telemedicine, of course), because it’s unethical and unsafe to do so. So, if I can’t on account of the fact that the legislature surrounding my license prohibits it, individuals without training absolutely shouldn’t either for the very same ethical and safety reasons.
But they do.
And not only is information shared by individuals who know what they’re talking about (good), there are also many blogs hosted by individuals who either don’t know what they’re talking about (bad) or are intentionally spreading misinformation (very bad.)
Bad Health Advice:
At first glance, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this picture. It’s not really harmful to consume a moderate amount of any of those foods for most people, under most circumstances. The biggest piece of the problem comes from the title…”Hormone Balancing Foods.”
First of all, no. Individual foods are not capable of “balancing hormones” except in the case of nutritional deficiencies. Second of all, there’s no such food (or even group of foods) that can singly “cure” all hormone imbalances, because there are so many types of hormone imbalances that are so very different from each other. The “cure” (i.e. therapy) for one type of hormone imbalance would worsen another type. A person with too much thyroid hormone, for example, absolutely should not follow a protocol designed to increase thyroid hormone. Such an intervention would only be appropriate for someone with too little thyroid hormone (i.e. hypothyroidism) but even then, there are seven different types of hypothyroidism! So, seven people with a hypothyroid condition would each need one of seven different types of interventions to “balance their hormones.”
Do you see the problem?
So, let’s circle back to that info graphic above for a minute. There are so many problems with the foods advertised as a cure-all for hormone imbalances:
- Flaxseed: flaxseed is helpful for some hormone imbalances, such as correcting the elevated androgens in PCOS because of a chemical called lignans that they contain. Not only would this not be a helpful intervention for women suffering from low androgen levels, but flaxseed also contains phytoestrogens which would be harmful for someone with elevated estrogen levels.
- Cruciferous vegetables: the “hormone balancing effect” of cruciferous vegetables comes from a compound called diindolylmethane, which is an estrogen blocker. This is good for women with high estrogen levels, but bad news for someone with low or normal estrogen levels. (Not to mention, the amount of cruciferous vegetables that would need to be consumed in order to have a therapeutic effect is extremely high, which is why most functional medicine doctors supplement DIM with their patients instead of asking them to eat absurd amounts of broccoli.) Additionally, raw cruciferous veggies contain a chemical called thiocyanate which displaces iodine from receptors. This isn’t a big deal except for situations in which a person has hypothyroidism (aka a hormone imbalance) induced by iodine deficiency. In that case, raw cruciferous veggies in any amount could be harmful.
- Bitter greens: First of all, the picture on this graphic isn’t even of bitter greens, such as dandelions. Rather, it’s a picture of bitter melon, which contains compounds that mimic the action of insulin in the human body. (Bitter greens can have this effect too but on a much smaller scale.) This is great news for someone who has high insulin levels, but terrible news for someone with reactive hypoglycemia or other types of stress disorders.
- Bean sprouts: Like flaxseed, bean sprouts contain phytoestrogens. This is not good for estrogen dominance, but could be helpful in someone with low estrogen.
- Seaweed: This is one of the best natural sources of iodine which is great for most people, most of the time. However, let’s circle back to the conversation about hypothyroidism again for a moment. While a natural source of iodine would be great for someone with iodine-deficiency hypothyroidism, it would be really bad for someone with Hashimoto’s Disease (a form of hypothyroidism) because giving iodine to those patients actually worsens the condition. That’s because iodine stimulates the production of a chemical called thyroid perioxidase, which is one of the targets of the autoimmune reaction that defines Hashimoto’s disease.
I won’t dive into the minutiae of the other foods on that list, mostly because this post is already getting a little too long but also because some of them actually aren’t so bad. Eggs? Coconut oil? Salmon? Probably a good idea for most people who don’t have allergies. But I definitely wouldn’t say that they have the power to balance all hormones because, as we discussed in excruciating detail, no food has the power to do that.
First, do no harm.
The Hippocratic Oath starts out with the statement above: “First do no harm.” It’s the whole principle of medicine, and I firmly believe that it applies to the online health and wellness community, too.
If you like to read blogs, please…be careful! Don’t take any advice that isn’t given by your own healthcare team, and always run new ideas by them first. That’s not to say that the ideas aren’t good for you as an individual, but there might be unintended side effects that you might not be aware of. Oh, and yes…that caution applies to my blog, too! Although I am indeed a doctor and I spend all day, every day talking about this stuff, I’m not your doctor. That is, unless I am…in which case please bring up your questions, comments, concerns and ideas at our next appointment together.
Dr. Alexandra MacKillop