The New Year often starts with well intentioned resolutions. One of the most common resolutions involves improving our diet. While maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle is a good goal for everyone, it is even more important for people with a pituitary disorder who are more susceptible to certain cardiovascular and metabolic complications.
This first WAPO blog of 2024 will cover how nutrition plays a role in the overall wellbeing of patients with pituitary disorders and will explore the intricate relationship that pituitary hormones play in maintaining our health.
The pituitary gland and its hormones
The pituitary gland, often called the “master gland”, is located at the base of the brain and controls several hormone glands by releasing hormones that are responsible for various bodily functions including growth and metabolism, water balance, reproductive health and our response to stress.
A disorder of the pituitary gland leads to either too little or too much of one or more of these important hormones being produced. One of the main causes of pituitary disorders is a pituitary adenoma, which is a benign tumor of the anterior pituitary. If the tumor is “functioning” (secretes hormones) it will lead to an excess of that hormone in the blood. For example, a pituitary adenoma that secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) will cause an increase in ACTH levels in the blood, which in turn stimulate the adrenal glands to produce excessive amounts of cortisol, resulting in Cushing disease. If the pituitary adenoma is “non-functioning” (does not secrete hormones) it may still disrupt the functioning of the pituitary gland and therefore the production of one or more hormones. Hypopituitarism is the term used when the pituitary gland is not producing (or producing only small amounts) one or more of its hormones.
Diet plays a major role in maintaining hormone health, with the food we eat having an impact on our hormones and consequently on the evolution of a pituitary disorder.
Nutritional recommendations for hormonal harmony
Each pituitary disorder is unique; however, there are some common nutritional recommendations that can be followed to ensure optimal health for everyone. Starting with:
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet with a variety of non-processed foods including:
- Whole grains for dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and whole-grain bread;
- Protein-rich foods (e.g. meat, fish, eggs, dairy or plant-based proteins);
- healthy fats (found in nuts, seeds, and avocados)
- Foods rich in essential vitamins and minerals such as calcium (in dairy products, salmon, leafy green vegetables) and vitamin D (in oily fish, egg yolk, fortified cereals) for bone health; iodine (in iodized salt and seafood) to maintain thyroid function; magnesium (avocadoes, seeds and legumes) as it plays a role in modulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis; manganese (in nuts and leafy vegetables), as it is important for normal growth and reproduction; potassium (apricots, lentils, potatoes, tomatoes), which plays an essential role in cardiac function and regulates fluid balance, etc.
- Reducing the amount of foods you consume that are high in refined sugars and sodium
- Limiting your alcohol intake
- Making sure to drink enough water (4-6 cups of water a day)
While there is no special diet for patients with a pituitary disorder, those at risk of certain complications related to their disease may benefit from adding or restricting certain foods from their diet. A recent study, for example, showed that a very low-calorie ketogenic diet and a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet are effective in improving the metabolic and cardiovascular comorbidities seen in Cushing Disease (CD), when combined with conventional CD therapy.
There are several complications which have been associated with pituitary disorders, such as:
While obesity is a problem in the general population, it is also associated with several endocrine disorders such as hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, hypogonadism, and growth hormone deficiency. Increased cortisol levels, as seen in Cushing’s disease, can cause weight gain. Monitoring of calorie intake may therefore be suggested in order to prevent weight gain and obesity. For more information on this topic watch the WAPO presentation Obesity, nutrition and latest insights by Professor Liesbeth van Roosen.
Osteoporosis is another complication of many pituitary disorders, including hypopituitarism, Cushing disease and acromegaly. Prolonged glucocorticoid use can also lead to reduced intestinal absorption of calcium and is a known cause of secondary osteoporosis. Adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D is therefore essential.
- Cardiovascular comorbidities
Cardiovascular comorbidities such as hypertension, cardiomyopathy, heart valve disease and arrhythmias are also complications of certain pituitary disorders, such as acromegaly. A heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, omega-3 fatty acids and low in sodium can help manage blood pressure and may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular complications.
Diabetes type 1 is another possible complication of several pituitary disorders including acromegaly, prolactinomas, Cushing disease and growth hormone deficiency. Maintaining a healthy weight, keeping active and eating a healthy diet can help regulate blood sugar levels and prevent the onset of diabetes.
Other factors that have an impact on your hormones and overall wellbeing
- Stress: Stress leads to the release of cortisol (the stress hormone) and chronic stress induces the redistribution of fat to the abdominal region which can counteract your healthy eating habits. Chronic stress is also linked to anxiety and depression as well as other chronic diseases. Try to reduce your stress levels as much as possible by practicing various coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques (e.g. meditation, journaling, etc).
- Medications: Medications can have an impact on your hormones and your weight. Certain antidepressants, for example, can cause weight gain. Glucocorticoid replacement therapy, used to treat adrenal insufficiency, can also lead to unhealthy weight gain and metabolic perturbations by stimulating appetite and increasing preference for foods high in calories and fat. Talk to your healthcare provider about any side effects that you are experiencing (e.g. significant or unusual weight gain) so that the dosage can be adapted to your needs.
- Sleep: Sleep deprivation is associated with increased levels of stress hormones, which affect metabolism and can lead to weight gain. Insufficient sleep can also worsen any fatigue you may already have, so aim to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep daily in order to feel well rested and at your best.
- Physical activity: Regular physical activity helps maintain muscle strength and overall physical and mental health. It is also has anti-inflammatory effects and protects against stress-related disorders. Getting in 30 minutes of physical activity per day, 5 days a week is ideal. What’s most important is to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, so start moving your body with whatever exercise feels comfortable.
Finally, make sure to talk to your endocrinologist/dietician so that they can monitor your hormone levels and give you personalized nutrition tips that are tailored to your pituitary disorder and your individual needs. Everyone is different and maintaining close communication with your team of healthcare professionals is the best way to ensure optimal management and treatment for your condition.
Starting the year off right by eating a healthy and balanced diet may not be an original resolution but through informed decisions and proactive self-care, your unique nutritional roadmap can lead you towards an increased quality of life. And that is something we wish for everyone in 2024.
To learn about the various pituitary disorders, please refer to the WAPO website’s page on pituitary disorders.
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