MyMT™ Blog

Pass (up) the butter: How naturally occurring hormones in food could spike your menopause symptoms

She was sitting in the front row of one of my UK seminars a couple of years ago. It was a bit distracting having her there because I could tell from her folded arms and her body language that she was grumpy. She looked very trim and fit but quite young (as in around 40ísh). The slide I had up which sent her off the edge was the liver slide. I was talking about fatty liver disease and how, when women are oestrogen dominant and therefore, putting on a lot of weight, then one of the strategies that they need to consider is to cut back on animal fats and additional sources of oestrogenic compounds from certain foods, including some dairy products.

She couldn’t control herself – “So, you’re against butter then?”

It depends” I answered. “If women are overweight and oestrogen dominant, it’s about cutting back on fats, especially saturated fats and butter is a saturated fat.

Well, my Personal Trainer says that Women need to be on a Keto diet in menopause with high amounts of butter” was her response. Then she walked out. Gone. Just like that. There were some telling looks in the room, but I trusted the lifestyle and medical science specific to menopause that I had studied, so I didn’t miss a beat and kept going. 

When I think about that moment, I just wish that I had been able to share this slide below, during that seminar. However, the research about hormones in foods hadn’t been undertaken back then. If I’d had this information, I would have shown her that butter has the highest total number of hormones in it – oestrogen and  progesterone. 

I often see women (young and older) putting lumps of butter into their lattes or other milky drinks. It seems to be part of the Keto diet as well as being part of the information that resonates in the fitness industry. But should we be having a lot of foods that contain hormones as we transition menopause? And if so, then which is best – butter or beans – animal or plant?

What about you? Do you eat a lot of butter, cheese, eggs, chicken and meats? And do you then have numerous menopause-related supplements sitting in your pantry that may or may not be working for your night sweats, hot flushes, depression or weight management?

Does the accummulation of all these hormone-containing foods AND supplements impact negatively on the balance of our reproductive hormones during our menopause transition?

To be honest, I don’t actually know. But it’s a curiosity that I’m throwing out to you based on new research on hormones in foods that arrived in my inbox recently. (Palacios, Cortes et al, 2020). 

If women have a fatty liver or are oestrogen dominant and putting on lots of weight during menopause, then I might assume the answer is yes – there may be an impact of eating foods that have the highest amount of animal hormones in them. Butter is one of these foods, but it’s not the only one. 

The hormone content of foods has been studied for decades, mentions the study. It was absorbing me because I’m always curious about why so many women come onto my coaching programmes and are on various supplements (and/or HRT) for menopause, but tell me that these products are no longer helping with their hot flushes, night sweats, sleep or anxiety. That’s why I’m curious about what their diets are like and whether they are getting too many hormones from foods as well as other substances and this is all too much for their liver clearance of oestrogens. But it’s not just oestrogen that’s the issue. Many common foods from animal origins, don’t just contain oestrogen, but progesterone too. 

Whilst safety evaluations in the United States and Europe indicate that naturally occurring hormones found in foods are safe for human consumption, there is not one mention in the report about the potential effect of the total accumulated daily intake of these foods for women in menopause who have livers (and a gut) that are ageing and changing.

Nor is there mention of the potential overload on liver clearance if women are also on menopause supplements or HRT and their intake of animal foods and foods containing phyto-oestrogens (e.g. soy) is high throughout each day. 

Animal and plant foods contain hormones. And at a time when our hormonal profile is changing in menopause, we need to be aware of foods that help our symptoms or hinder them. 

Hormones are a class of signalling or messenger molecules produced by various glands throughout the body. These hormones are transported by our circulatory system to organs in order to assist to regulate physiology and behaviour. They have key roles that they play in growth, development and reproduction for animals. In plants, hormones help with immunity and growth of the plant as well. 

However, plant hormones are structurally different from animal hormones. Some commonly consumed plant foods, such as soy, nuts, seeds, and cereal grains, among others, contain substances that have hormone-like characteristics similar to the animal-based oestrogens, however, these hormone-like substances are termed phytoestrogens. [I’ve talked about these in the past in this newsletter HERE (and for women on my 12 week Circuit Breaker programmes, I have lists available in my Food Guide].

Phytoestrogens resemble the structure of oestrogen and therefore have the capacity to bind to oestrogen receptors throughout the body, under certain circumstances or conditions, exerting both oestrogen-like and anti-oestrogen properties. So, don’t be fooled – you can have too many phyto-oestrogens in your diet  and if you have breast cancer, then please take note. Some phyto-oestrogens are fine, too many are not. There is a dose-response level. 

But back to butter – and eggs and chicken. These foods are not only higher in oestrogen, but according to this new research are also high in progesterone. For women, high progesterone is associated with symptoms including anxiety, bloating, depression, reduced sex drive and/or weight fluctuations.

As Palacios et al (2020) state,

‘’Progesterone is more likely to be present in full-fat dairy foods and egg yolks compared to lower fat or fat-free foods, and oestrogens, per 100 g, were more concentrated in eggs versus the other foods. Eggs likely contain oestrogens since they are produced directly in the hen ovaries, a steroid-hormone synthesizing gland. Progesterone concentrations in milk, particularly the full-fat variety, likely reflect the variation of progesterone production and secretion during the lactation phases of the dairy cow.

Progesterone is the naturally occurring progestin which is secreted by the ovary and has a multitude of actions on many organs, but predominantly on the reproductive tract, mammary glands and central nervous system.

This powerful hormone can also get a bit out of balance as we transition menopause. Its main effects in the body vary from the development and maintenance of our mammary glands (breasts) and, in the central nervous system, progesterone increases body temperature and ventilatory responses. Progesterone also has androgenic (testosterone effects) and anti-estrogenic effects and causes an increase in basal insulin levels, enhances fat deposition and decreases bone turnover. A powerful hormone indeed. 

Some of you benefit from high amounts of hormones in foods, some of you don’t. And whatever category you are in, may also depend on how much oestrogen, progesterone or testosterone you produce as a natural part of your genetics. 

As I’ve been saying to women on my coaching group this week, if you are oestrogen dominant and overweight, then the foods containing the highest amounts of hormones may be contributing to a liver that is struggling to clear excess oestrogens. Afterall, the liver is the site of excess oestrogen clearance, and when we focus on our liver health in menopause, then we help to manage our weight at a time of life when we become vulnerable to weight gain. 

I believe that the difference lies in whether you are overweight or not. It’s something that you are going to have to figure out yourselves, so don’t be afraid to add or remove animal foods and think about how your body responds. I also believe that it’s also to do with which phase of menopause you are in as well as how healthy your liver is as you approach this critical stage of life. 

If you are in peri-menopause, then your body is still producing lots of oestrogen and progesterone. But by the time you are in post-menopause, your oestrogen and progesterone levels are lower, and if you still have your ovaries and you are overweight, then higher testosterone may be an issue for you in post-menopause – another reason to get off high amounts of animal foods.

Nuts and oilseeds contain the most phytoestrogens in the Western diet.

Soy products, cereals and bread, legumes, meat products, soy-containing processed foods, vegetables, fruits, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are also sources.

Among specific phytoestrogens, soybeans and soybean products, followed by legumes, contain the highest concentrations of isoflavones, whereas lignans are the primary sources of phytoestrogens found in nuts and oilseeds. Lignans are also found in cereals, fruits, and vegetables, and coumestans are found in peas, beans, alfalfa, and clover sprouts.

However, there’s more to this oestrogen dominant story too. As the report concluded, it’s not ‘just’ about sources of hormones in foods. It’s also about how much you produce naturally in your body. These oestrogens that we produce inside us as part of our genetic makeup are called endogenous hormones.

Some of you (like me) may have a genetic predisposition to produce higher amounts of oestrogen and progesterone. Being on the contraceptive pill for years, was also challenging for my weight management, especially after having children. Many of you may have found this as well – your weight went up no matter the food you ate or exercise you did. 

Which brings me back to the role of our liver and gut in our menopause weight and symptom management. Studies indicate that endogenous oestrogen production in women always exceeds dietary intake levels. As such we are constantly producing reproductive hormones and metabolising these.  Furthermore, 90% of hormones that we eat in foods are inactivated by the liver in normal oestrogen clearance mechanisms. But there’s a catch. 

For all of us, there is significant variation in the production and metabolism of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, as well as in the circulating levels of them. Fluctuations occur in the amounts of these circulating hormones, in relation to the following factors: 

  • the regularity of our diurnal circadian rhythm
  • the phase of the menstrual cycle we are in (or not in, if you are in post-menopause)
  • your age,
  • your sleep quality(!!)
  • illness
  • your level of physical activity.

Which gets back to what I’m always saying to women on my programmes and that is when it comes to symptom management, including weight loss in menopause, it’s not necessarily lots of butter that we need (nor all the expensive supplements), but a good night’s sleep and the restoration of a healthy liver instead. 

Dr Wendy Sweet (PhD)/ MyMT™ Founder/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine 


LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012-. Progestins. [Updated 2020 Jun 1].

Palacios, O. Cortes, H., Jenks, B & Maki, K. (2020). Naturally occurring hormones in foods and potential health effects. Toxicology Research and Application, Volume 4, 1-12.

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