The truth (and real power) of fitness stems from building strength within. But we often have physical goals we want to achieve, too. After all, it’s natural to want consistent effort and hard work to shine from the inside out. But if you ever feel like your body’s stopping short of showing results, a sex hormone imbalance could be the culprit. Here are a few that can make it harder to reach your goals and what to do about it.
Sex hormone imbalances affecting workout progress
Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are all sex hormones that regulate reproduction, along with a wide variety of other functions in the body. But imbalances in any one (or a combination) of these hormones can also put the brakes on whether or not you see physical results from exercising.
Having high levels of estrogen has become more and more common. It can happen due to a variety of reasons, like xenoestrogens in our environment or the inability to eliminate excess estrogen through the gut. Estrogen dominance can also occur when progesterone levels are low. Progesterone is a natural diuretic and counterbalances the effects of estradiol (our strongest form of estrogen).
The good news is: exercise helps some women keep high estrogen levels in check. But the bad news? Symptoms of estrogen dominance make goals harder to reach. Fatigue from estrogen dominance puts a serious hurt on stamina. Because it affects mood, it can also dampen workout motivation.
Plus, estrogen dominance fuels fat storage where many women already store weight: in the hips, thighs, and glutes. Even without excess estrogen, it often takes longer for females to see results in the lower body compared to the upper body.
Lowering high estrogen
Taking steps to reduce estrogen can help you better achieve your fitness and health goals. There are many small everyday changes that make an impact on estrogen levels. However, estrogen dominance isn’t just about being uncomfortable or dealing with symptoms. It can raise your risk for some cancers and other issues. So, talking to your doctor about testing and monitoring levels is always a good idea.
Not having enough progesterone in relation to estrogen can bring on the bloating. And holding on to excess water weight makes it hard to feel good and see progress. Even if you’re shedding fat and building muscle, clothes may still feel tight and too small.
But just as importantly: progesterone plays an important role in metabolism. It helps determine how your body processes and uses proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Even the best-laid nutrition plan might not work fully if progesterone levels aren’t optimized.
So, what causes low progesterone? Progesterone declines in perimenopause and sometimes earlier (around age 35). Most forms of exercise won’t negatively affect progesterone levels. But intense overtraining can. Also, know you can experience symptoms of low progesterone even when your lab results come back within the reference range. When looking at blood work, make sure your doctor takes into account where you are in your cycle. He or she should also calculate your progesterone to estradiol (E2) ratio. If your estradiol is too high, even a progesterone level that looks normal may not be enough to counter its effects.
Raising low progesterone
To raise progesterone naturally, reduce anxiety and anxiousness. Many mind-body modalities, like yoga and breath work, offer stress relief. So do other lifestyle modifications, like Epsom salt baths, meeting up with friends, asking for help when overwhelmed, and journalling or speaking to a mental health counselor. The reason it’s so important to reduce stress? Stress causes the body to release more of a hormone called cortisol. Over time, high levels of cortisol eventually deplete progesterone.
Another way to boost progesterone is to provide your body with plenty of nutrients via a well-rounded diet. Foods that promote production of progesterone include pumpkin, beans, and spinach. Also, progesterone is made from cholesterol. So, you want to include good sources of fat in your diet. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are two types of omega-3 fatty acids that are good for hormone health. Depending on whether lifestyle modifications work or your history, your doctor may also suggest supplementing with progesterone.
Testosterone levels in women often go untested or overlooked. It’s vital to have enough testosterone for your age. (And that goes for males and females.) Testosterone fosters bone health, overall energy, libido, and more. Plus, you need it to lose fat, build muscle, and feel your best.
In women, testosterone is made by the adrenal gland and ovaries. In perimenopause and menopause, the ovaries become less active. Testosterone levels may naturally decline for some women. However, other conditions can make testosterone levels to drop, too. Anything that affects the pituitary or adrenal glands, like adrenal fatigue or adrenal insufficiency, may be a root cause of low testosterone.
Endurance athletes can also experience low testosterone. That level of repeated training puts stress on the body. The stress leads to increased secretion of cortisol. Even though cortisol is a hormone necessary to survival, too much can create issues with insulin, belly fat, muscle weakness, a puffy face, high blood pressure, and low testosterone and progesterone.
Boosting low testosterone
Consistent regular activity helps raise testosterone. A qualified trainer can build a well-rounded program tailored to this goal. You can expect steady-state cardio and interval training, as well as strength-building exercises. Fuel your body by getting enough protein and fats. And don’t forget quality carbohydrates from whole foods and whole grains. In some studies, low carb diets have led to lower testosterone levels.
Testing for sex hormone imbalances
Think you might have a sex hormone imbalance? Make an appointment with your healthcare provider. It’s common to think sex hormones only regulate reproduction. But they have significant influence on the body. They can affect many other aspects of health and overall well-being.
Some providers use saliva testing to check sex hormones. But many order a blood draw. If you’re still getting a period, track your cycle. Aim to have your labs drawn on days 19–22. (Consider your first day of bleeding day 1.) You may also want to discuss having a few other tests at the same time: thyroid levels, cortisol, and blood glucose. Along with other functions, these hormones influence your basal metabolic rate and can impact fat storage and results.