Can hormonal changes affect the way you exercise?
Exercise can influence your hormones (for good and for bad) but can your natural hormonal changes affect the way that you exercise? When we go through our menstrual cycles and when we experience the menopause a range of hormonal changes take place. These changes can cause fatigue and mood swings, as well as a range of other symptoms which can all impact on your motivation to exercise and the kind of exercise that you feel like doing. In most cases we won’t need to alter our exercise routines however, if we have particularly bothersome symptoms it can feel better to make a few adjustments.
Exercising is thought to help relieve PMS symptoms that can be caused by hormonal fluctuations and dropping progesterone levels. It is thought that women who exercise experience reduced emotional symptoms such as anger, irritability and low mood. It can also help with alleviating physical symptoms such as bloating, menstrual cramps and poor sleep.
Research has suggested that gentle exercise can help to reduce stress associated with PMS and that more aerobic (anything that boosts your heart rate) forms of exercise helps to relieve pain through the production of endorphins. However, it is important to be mindful when you do exercise during your period as some research suggests that your muscles may respond differently while you exercise making injury a little more likely.1 That’s not to say that you should avoid it altogether of course, but being considerate and kind to your body is important too!
As women approach the menopause a number of changes can take place due to the falling levels of oestrogen and progesterone. This can lead to symptoms such as weight gain, hot flushes, bloating, muscle and joint pain and emotional turmoil such as low mood, irritability or depression. As a result of falling oestrogen and progesterone levels, menopausal women tend to lose muscle mass and gain weight so regularly exercising can help to keep those extra pounds at bay.
What’s more, oestrogen is also responsible for regulating our fluid levels which can result in joint pain. Our joints are kept lubricated by a substance known as synovial fluid which helps to prevent stiffness and the build-up of uric acid which is known to cause inflammation. Both dehydration and falling oestrogen levels can impact on our joint health and limit the production and circulation of those all-important fluids. Exercise can help to tone muscles as well as maintain strength and flexibility and keep our circulation healthy.
Can exercise cause hormonal changes?
Moderate amounts of exercise can actually be beneficial in terms of our hormones because it generates feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. However, excessive amounts of exercise can actually throw off your normal hormonal patterns resulting in unpleasant side effects.
Physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on many important hormones that influence our mood, metabolism and our health. Some of these include:
• HGH (human growth hormone)
Human growth hormone
Human growth hormone (HGH) is stimulated when we sleep and also when we exercise. As the name suggests, HGH is important for growth itself and while you may think this only applies to height, it actually translates to the growth of our bones, muscles and collagen too! It also has roles to play in our metabolic functioning by increasing our fat metabolism and maintaining a healthy body in later life.2
Your body releases HGH periodically on its own, particularly during sleep, however some forms of exercise have also shown to stimulate its production. Explosive movement (exercise that leaves us breathless quickly) and high-intensity workouts are more likely to have this effect rather than endurance exercise.3
Irisin is often referred to as your exercise hormone and research believes it to play a role in combatting excess fat in the body by suppressing the formation of fat cells. It is thought to do this by activating genes that convert bad white fat into beneficial brown fat and by regulating stem cells to build bones rather than store fat.4 It is also thought to help protect the brain cells from aging and damage.5 Moderate exercise stimulates your body’s production of irisin with one study finding that one session of exercise was sufficient enough to increase production by 12%!6
Oestrogen is an extremely important hormone in a women’s body; it has important roles in our menstrual cycle, reproduction, bone health and cholesterol to name a few. Although oestrogen has important functions throughout our body, having too much can lead to unpleasant side effects such as skin problems, bloating, mood swings and breast tenderness.
Having too much oestrogen in the body is known as oestrogen dominance, and it is extremely common particularly in women around the age of 35. According to one study, three hours of moderate exercise per week was enough to significantly reduce circulating oestrogen levels in postmenopausal women.7
Testosterone is more commonly associated with being men’s sex hormone however, it is also produced in women’s bodies, although in smaller amounts. It is responsible for helping to grow and repair muscle which can be damaged with age and wear-and-tear.
Like many of the hormones listed, exercise helps to boost testosterone too. This is beneficial because it helps to boost sex drive, increase muscle mass, as well as reduce excess fat around the waistline. When testosterone levels increase cortisol levels drop; cortisol, also known as our stress hormone can wreak all sorts of havoc on our body causing fatigue, muscle loss, emotional stress and the formation of visceral fat.
Cortisol is most well-known for its role in stress – it is responsible for regulating changes in the body that happen in times of stress. Low-intensity exercise is thought to decrease cortisol levels whereas moderate and high intensity exercise is actually thought to increased cortisol.
Although this may seem like a bad thing, this increase is in response to your body being stressed – that is being physically put through its paces but the increase only has short-term effects. Regular exercise decreases the amount of cortisol in your bloodstream which can lead to a reduction in stress symptoms.
Exercise is one of the best ways to relieve stress; it helps to bring about positive changes to your body, metabolism, as well as your mood and is often recommended to those suffering from mental health ailments like depression, low mood, anxiety or stress. In terms of our hormones, exercise helps to reduce our stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins which are chemicals in the brain that act as our body’s natural painkillers and can even help to lift our mood.