Ever thought about what role your diet is having on your ovarian health… and how that’s impacting your overall fitness? Here’s why it’s time to put your ovaries front and centre of your dietary decisions.
Ovaries are the kind of organ that we tend to ignore until there’s a problem. We pay attention when we’re cramping around our periods or hear of someone passing away from ovarian cancer (4,200 women a year), but otherwise, our ovaries don’t get much attention.
But we should care how healthy our ovaries are because they play an absolutely vital role in our overall health, wellbeing and fitness. They have three important functions: secreting hormones, protecting eggs and releasing eggs ready for possible fertilisation, and they keep on producing hormones after menopause. So, if we’re concerned with hormonal health and the impact that hormonal imbalances are having on our menstrual cycles, energy levels and mood, then we need to care about our ovarian health.
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The topic is especially pertinent if, like many of us, you’ve lost your periods or you know that you’re not ovulating as you’d normally expect. Holly Dunn, clinical nutritionist and specialist in amenorrhea, hormones and disordered eating, tells Stylist that ovulatory health goes beyond reproductive capability and has been linked to adequate endocrine and gonadal function.
“While ovulation (the actual and physical rupture and release of an egg from an ovary) is important, it is the consequence of this event which is key – namely, the role ovulation plays in regulating levels of sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone,” she explains.
“These hormones have vast and multidimensional effects on female physiology, impacting everything from bone health to metabolism, mental health, cognitive function, sleep quality, cardiovascular health and more.”
How to spot poor ovulatory health and why it matters
For many women, it takes a while to recognise missing periods as being a negative. If you’ve lost your periods after months or years of hard exercise, not having a bleed can be quite convenient. But irregular or missing periods isn’t healthy, even if it is quite common, Dunn stresses. Other signs of poor ovulatory health include anxiety, poor sleep, low sex drive, PMS symptoms and changes to hair thickness.
These issues might be caused by an absence of ovulation or another issue such as egg quality or follicular development.
How to eat to improve ovulatory health
We know that nutrition can play a massive role in our energy, capacity to recover from exercise and ability to perform, but what we eat can also significantly change our hormonal output.
“Depending on the underlying cause, nutrition potentially has a large role to play in supporting ovulatory health,” Dunn says. “Adequate energy and macronutrient intake support brain-to-ovary communication via multiple neuroendocrine pathways.”
Carbohydrate intake is especially influential on insulin (a hormone released by the pancreas to stimulate glucose uptake into cells) production, which Dunn says may play a role in the development of anovulatory endocrine disorders such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
“Proteins and fats provide the structural building blocks for various hormones, including peptide hormones like FSH and LH, and steroid hormones like oestrogen and progesterone.
Vitamins and minerals also have important roles in physiological processes that support egg quality, egg maturation, implantation and reduced oxidative stress.”
If you think your ovarian health could do with a boost, Dunn says that your micronutrient status is one modifiable risk factor that may have a big impact. In fact, this 2015 review of 28 studies, published in the journal Thrita, claims that women who have been diagnosed with infertility often have lower than recommended levels of certain micronutrients.
Those micronutrients include:
- Zinc (plays a role in ovulation, egg development, hormone balance). Found in nuts, sesame seeds, wholegrains, beans, oysters, lean red meat.
- Vitamin D (has an important role in fertility with receptors in the ovaries, placenta and endometrium). Found in oily fish, egg yolk, beef liver, mushrooms, sunshine.
- Folate (egg quality). Found in dark leafy greens, legumes and fortified cereals.
- Vitamins A, C, E and selenium (provide and support important antioxidant quality and protect egg viability and development). Found in fresh fruit and veg, milk and yoghurt, turkey, eggs.
“Nutritionally, there is potentially a lot we may wish to consider when it comes to supporting ovulatory health,” says Dunn. “Avoiding restrictive diets, intermittent fasting and focusing on an abundance of foods from all different food groups and a balance of all three macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) is key.
Wherever you are on your hormone journey, she recommends that it’s always good practice to think about blood sugar balance. Adding protein (derived from foods such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese, tofu, tempeh, legumes and quinoa), fat (from olive oil, avocadoes, oily fish, butter, nut butters and coconut oil) and fibre (found in whole plant foods) to a meal or snack rich in carbohydrate is helpful, especially if you live with PCOS. That’s because adding protein or fat slows down the rate at which the body breaks down carbs for sugar – keeping us energised for longer and demanding less insulin to be produced.
How to exercise for good ovulatory health
Perhaps you’re wondering why all this matters still, or what this has to do with fitness. Think of your hormonal health as the trainers in your running kit. You could run without a good pair of shoes that fit and which suit your running regime… but you will end up crippled with sore feet and shin splints if you do; running in decent trainers (having good hormonal health) is the difference between reaping the benefits of training and managing to just about survive an exercise session.
“If you have a history of missing or irregular periods, you may be more sensitive in the mid-follicular phase to exercise-induced suppression of LH secretion and therefore a delay or absence of ovulation,” says Dunn. If that’s you, you may want to spend some time reassessing your training schedule during week two of your cycle.
A lot of ovulatory health is personal, so what works for one person may not have a massive impact on someone else. Saying that, however, Dunn says that stress can play a massive role in disrupting things, so finding ways to unwind is really important. She suggests limiting caffeine intake to one cup of coffee a day to reduce that fight or flight response, and prioritising sleep when possible. That may also mean cutting down the amount of HIIT you do in favour of slower and more mindful ways of moving like jogging, swimming or pilates during the second week of your cycle.
If you’re looking for some slower ways of moving, check out our 15-minute mobility sessions over on the Strong Women Training Club.
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