Hormones Part 1 – What’s the norm?
Disclaimer: I am not a qualified medical practitioner. These are my personal opinions and advice. If you were unsure or struggling with your health then a visit to your own General Practitioner would be advised.
Hormones fascinate me! So complicated, so powerful, so personal.
We all have hormones. At various times in our lives they can go crazy. Few of us are lucky enough to not be effected by some of their hideous symptoms. Do you suffer with excessive weight gain that you’re struggling to explain by diet and exercise alone? Do you struggle with water retention, or mood swings, fatigue and low energy levels, memory problems or low sex drive? Or do you always seem to be hungry or prone to nagging injuries? Have you ever thought it could be your hormones that are out of balance?
I’m not going to go in to great depth here with any of these hormone changes. Each one could easily be a separate blog in itself. But here’s my brief overview of hormone changes women go through. What we can expect and what we can do to help. I have split it into two shorter posts. This first one here covering puberty, the menstrual cycle, polycystic ovary syndrome, stress and thyroid. Then part two here, covering pregnancy, post-pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause.
But first let me give you a brief overview of the main female hormone we have to contend with!
This is the primary female sex hormone. It is responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics. (Endometrium, breasts, regulation of menstrual cycle) Oestrogen also affects skeletal growth, skin, fat and protein deposition and electrolyte balance. Oestrogen also has emotional control. It increases serotonin and the number of serotonin receptors in the brain. Modifies the production and effects of endorphins (feel-good chemicals in brain). But also protects nerves from damage.
Oestrogen dominance is caused either by having too much oestrogen in the body, or an imbalance of oestrogen in relation to other hormones like progesterone. Some of the effects of oestrogen dominance are water retention, weight gain, fatigue, mood swings, slow metabolism and PMS. You could have oestrogen dominance if you have PCOS, are on the pill or HRT, or are in perimenopause or in menopause. But these are not always problematic to everyone.
There are many times in a woman’s life when hormonal changes occur:
This is when a woman’s ovaries start releasing oestrogen.
- Menstrual cycle
This is the pattern of hormone fluctuations (including oestrogen) in a monthly cycle. Mid-cycle the levels suddenly spike triggering the release of an egg at ovulation. They then fall quickly again. These hormonal shifts we experience throughout our menstrual cycle can have a major impact. Things affected include memory, sex-drive, hunger, energy levels and mood.
During the mid to late luteal phase, when progesterone reaches its peak then drastically drops at the same time as estradiol drops, immediately before menstruation, we tend to find an increase in appetite and mood swings and less motivation for working out. As the progesterone level increases our core body temperature will rise and the number of calories we burn goes up. For these reasons it’s advisable to consume 90-280 extra calories per day and be careful in extreme heat and humidity whilst training during these days of the cycle. It is also an idea to curb irritability during this luteal phase by eating extra fruit to maintain your blood sugar levels.
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Different body types are affected by PCOS in different ways due to the degree of insulin resistance and which tissues are more resistant (muscle or fat). Lean body types tend to be more resistant to storing body fat and better at growing muscle mass. Heavier body types are great at storing fat in fat tissue and less effective at getting nutrients into the muscle tissue. All women with PCOS tend to be more anabolic, meaning their bodies are overall able to put on muscle and fat easily.
Diet and training tips for PCOS
Because of this, many women with PCOS feel that they easily get “bulky” from training and struggle to lose fat. If you have PCOS and put on muscle easily and feel puffy or bulky there are a couple of things you could look into doing. Consider your diet, your carb tolerance level and any food sensitivities. Also doing more exercise or activity in general to help with the insulin resistance. If your adrenals are doing OK then metabolic or HIIT sessions should work well. If your adrenals are struggling then maybe consider two strength-training sessions per week with more rest and maybe just one metabolic session. The other days just stick to cardio – HIIT or longer steady state cardio and lots of walking.
If your body type is the leaner, more fat resistant PCOS type, you may not tolerate the metabolic conditioning and HIIT as well. You will most likely do better with heavier weights 2 or 3 times per week and lots of walking.
Doing the wrong type of training for your body type, not only won’t give you the results you’re after but may well make your hormone issues worse and lead to exhaustion, poor sleep and excessive injuries.
Cortisol is the main stress hormone. Its job is to raise your blood sugar level during any type of stress, including physical stress, nutritional stress and mental stress. Your body uses cortisol and adrenaline to release stored sugar to keep you going (for example whilst you sleep). The natural rhythm output should be at its lowest at bedtime, and rising throughout the night to be at its highest around 5am. However, many of us have abnormal secretion in terms of timing and the amount released.
Insulin is a hormone who’s job it is to control how the body uses carbohydrate and fat found in food, to keep the blood sugar down. It is released when we eat, but also it is released when cortisol (stress hormone) is high, because if cortisol is high, then blood sugar will soon be high too.
If your thyroid levels are low, you may feel like you’re having to drag yourself to the gym, but you are also at risk of pain and nagging injuries that refuse to heal. Knees, ankles, hips, wrists and shoulders can all be trouble spots if you put them under stress with repetitive use! For this reason high rep/low weight training or repetitive things like spinning can cause problems. These workouts are highly repetitive for the joints. The hypothyroid woman may have a high cortisol demand and consequently an associated lessening of the active thyroid hormone.
There is a fine line between overdoing it and not doing enough when you’re dealing with hormone issues. It is necessary to create some stress or the hormonal signals for fat burning and muscle growth won’t be triggered and you won’t make any progress. But if you push too hard, you will end up setting yourself back or just continuing to push your system, which is simply unable to recover.
So avoid the urge to push too hard. Increase your exercise a little bit at a time. Try adding just one more set of strength training exercise, or just one to five more minutes to your routine instead of another 45-60minutes.
Some small changes in our lifestyle, diet and exercise selection can have a huge impact on the control of our hormones.