Welcome back to our Achieving a Healthy Balance series!
I used to be a distance runner. Like, 3 miles wasn’t really “worth it” to me. I look back and that now, and I start breathing heavy just thinking of running to the end of the street!
As women, we sometimes don’t consider how our hormones can and are affected by our exercise routines. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, amenorrhea, or chronic missed periods, affects up to 44% of women who exercise. It is very common in runners at 24-26%. That is a lot of us women who exercise!
I know as a woman who struggles with infertility, I don’t want my exercise to become a barrier. I don’t need anything else standing in my way. So, let’s talk about some of our hormones that are affected or controlled by exercise. We are just going to do a wide overview because otherwise it would get very detailed and way too intense!
We have already talked about cortisol in our post about stress. When we exercise, we put our bodies in a state of stress. Our bodies don’t know the difference between good stress and bad stress. Regardless, our cortisol rises during exercise due to the stress of it. We need this cortisol in our bodies to help repair the exercise-induced tissue damage we endure during our training sessions. This helps to repair and strengthen our bodies.
In our previous post, we talked about what all high cortisol can do, but for the sake of this post I will remind you that cortisol is our fat storing hormone. It encourages fat storage, especially around the midline. Also, cortisol breaks down 3-5 percent of muscle proteins. When we train too much, too many proteins are broken down. That’s not what we are going for at all in our workout sessions. This is why mixing up our routines, finding what works for you, and taking plenty of rest days is so important.
The stress from exercise can also negatively affect the hypothalamic- pituitary axis (HPA). It suppresses the secretion of GnRH, which in turn decreases the secretion of LH and FSH hormones. This is your luteinizing hormone and your follicular stimulating hormone. When these are suppressed, it shuts down the stimulation of your ovary. Thus, causing amenorrhea and infertility.
Not only is LH and FSH affected, research has shown that chronic exercise and training can decrease testosterone in men and women and estrogen and progesterone in women. Testosterone helps us to recover faster and also increases muscle mass.
When the HPA axis is affected, research has also shown that it can cause conditions such as hypothyroidism as well. Your thyroid hormones are extremely imperative to your body. Hypothyroidism is associated with depression, weight gain, infertility, digestive issues, and a host of other symptoms. Studies have shown that women who go 4 days with low energy availability (either from under eating or over exercise) have a decreased T3 and free T3.
Over exercise isn’t the only way you can throw these out of whack. Under eating and exercising, under eating in general, too much stress, and lack of sleep can also throw these systems out of order.
Eat well, exercise moderately, get plenty of sleep and rest, and your hormones will be able to regulate themselves and be in a good balance. If you notice your hormones are out of balance from lack of a cycle, infertility, or other symptoms you may be having, I highly encourage you to talk to your doctor about changes you need to make to your workout routine and diet.
Long- term, strenuous exercise has been shown to lead to osteopenia/ osteoporosis due to lack of hormones and/or lack of calcium and Vitamin D intake. You need estrogen to absorb calcium. Without enough calcium and Vitamin D, your bones become brittle. There is no age at which this can take effect. You can start to show signs of bone loss at any age, so don’t think you are immune! There is also an increased risk for coronary heart disease and euthyroid sick syndrome.
If you want to read about this more in depth, I highly recommend this study: Exercise and the Stress System.
Have you ever thought about how exercise affects your hormones?
How do you honor your body with your workouts?