Cravings, fatigue, cramps, headaches…we have ALL been there. Our hormones have always seemed to get in the way of our health goals. But no more!
This is your guide to exercise, nutrition and how to work WITH your hormones to achieve better performance in the gym, and in the kitchen.
Hormones and Our Metabolism
It is a blessing to be a woman. There are many incredible parts to our bodies and our metabolism that we should celebrate. For this article I want to zero in on two major role players: Estrogen and Progesterone. If you understand what’s happening with these two hormones during the month, then you can take advantage of the metabolic changes and optimize your diet and training.
As a little disclaimer, there are definitely other hormones you need to be mindful of when it comes to weight loss and exercise performance such as cortisol, thyroid hormones etc. It’s always a good idea to reduce your stress levels where possible (thus addressing cortisol), and get your thyroid checked if you have been struggling with a sluggish metabolism for a long time. For the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on estrogen and progesterone and their effects on your metabolism throughout the monthly cycle.
It’s important to never think of our hormones as “good” or “bad”. All of our hormones exert positive effects on the body in relation to diet and exercise, along with effects that we may think of as less favourable. Here are a few of the benefits of Estrogen:
- Increased bone density
- Improved cognition and mental function (although the role isn’t clearly defined)
- Increased production of and sensitivity to leptin (a hormone that suppresses our appetite)
- Decreased storage of visceral fats (the fat sitting around our internal organs)
- Decreased risk for heart disease (due to the decreased storage of visceral fat)
- Increased uptake of triglycerides into muscle tissue (which then serve as fuel during exercise)
- Decreased storage of dietary fatty acid intake
- Increased activity of fat burning enzymes in muscle tissue (increasing our ability to burn fat for fuel during exercise)
- Increased insulin sensitivity, leading to better blood sugar balance
- Decreased inflammation
- Improved rebuilding and remodelling of muscle tissue post exercise
There are some downsides of course, which include:
- Increased sodium retention, leading to water retention
- Thickening of connective tissue in the skin (leading to cellulite)
- Increased overall body fat, particularly in the lower body
Too often, Estrogen is blamed for all aspects of a woman’s body such as fat accumulation around the hips and thighs, but the picture is a bit more complex than that. Estrogen does have some negative effects but in relation to metabolism, body weight regulation and appetite control, the effects of estrogen are largely positive. In fact, whilst we often blame Estrogen, Progesterone may be causing more problems.
As another of the major reproductive hormones in women, progesterone has a number of roles in the body that are not relevant specifically to diet and exercise. Progesterone levels remain low during the first half of our menstrual cycle, and so its effects are really only felt during the second phase.
The major benefit of progesterone (in relation to metabolism, diet and exercise) is an increased body temperature after ovulation.
This contributes to an increased Energy Expenditure and Increased Resting Metabolic Rate during this time. You may burn an additional 100 – 300 extra calories per day during this time which SHOULD contribute to weight loss.
However, the negative effects of progesterone seem to outweigh this benefit:
- Slightly increased insulin resistance, contributing to less balanced blood sugar levels
- Slightly increased leptin resistance, contributing to increased appetite and hunger
- Increased enzyme activity in fat cells, contributing to increased fat storage from dietary fat intake
Overall, progesterone’s effect on training can be considered quite negative. However there are specific strategies that you can implement to work WITH these metabolic changes.
The Phases of Our Monthly Cycle
First off, there is no such thing as “normal cycle”. However, there are general trends that we see happening regardless of whether your cycle is 28 days or 34 days long. The simplest way to think about it is to divide your cycle into four phases:
- Early Follicular (the first phase during which we have our period for ±3-5 days)
- Late Follicular (the ±7 days leading up to ovulation)
- Early Luteal (the ±7 days post ovulation)
- Late Luteal (the ±7 days leading up to our period)
These can be seen in the diagram below:
Your cycle can get rather complex. To simplify things I will summarise the changes briefly, and then give you the PRACTICAL steps that you can take to work WITH these metabolic changes.
Hormone Changes in the Early and Late Follicular Phase
After menstruation, during the early follicular phase both Estrogen and Progesterone are fairly low. Estrogen will begin to increase towards the Late Follicular phase, so it will have the dominant effect overall. Essentially insulin sensitivity will be high, and thus our bodies will be burning more carbohydrates for fuel at rest. Hunger and appetite will be relatively stable and controlled, especially in comparison to the previous phase (Late Luteal). Blood sugar tends to be more balanced, metabolic rate is normal, and fat storage is normal – lowered (at least in relation to the Luteal Phase).
Estrogen exerts it’s anti-inflammatory effects during this time, and supports muscle rebuilding after exercise. Water retention will be low and generally this is where we will be at our lowest in terms of bodyweight.
In the days leading up to ovulation, estrogen surges and appetite will be significantly reduced in the 3 – 4 days before you ovulate. If you’re on a high sodium diet you can expect some water retention at this time.
Hormonal Changes in the Early and Late Luteal Phase
As we enter the Early Luteal Phase, after ovulation, the previous processes start to reverse. Body temperature can increase slightly, triggering a small increase in resting metabolic rate. Cravings and overall appetite can be increased due to the fall in estrogen after ovulation, as well as the increasing progesterone levels. Increased appetite may make it difficult to benefit from the increased resting metabolic rate.
As progesterone increases, fat storage can be slightly increased relative to the Follicular phase. There will be slightly increased insulin resistance, and as a result slightly less balanced blood sugar levels. Our bodies will tend to burn more fat for fuel both at rest and during exercise, but this comes from triglyceride stores in the muscle and not from our fatty tissue (sadly).
As we enter the Late Luteal Phase, Estrogen and Progesterone both go on the rapid decline in the days leading up to our period. Blood sugar levels can become even more unstable, which can contribute to decreased energy and mood, and increased hunger. You may also experience more cravings for high fat, high sugar foods. This is also when you will begin to feel the symptoms of PMS (such as breast tenderness, muscle aches, digestive distress, headaches etc.), and water retention.
The Late Luteal Phase is the time of the month where a woman may be at her heaviest weight. This can be due to water retention, coupled with an increased appetite.
Summary of the Metabolic Changes
In the table below you can see a summary of the different metabolic changes caused by the dominant hormone during each phase.
Practical Tips to Match your Diet and Exercise Pattern With Your Hormones
You can optimise your diet and exercise pattern to work with the metabolic changes, due to your hormones, that you experience during your monthly cycle. It is simply a matter of first knowing in which phase you are, and then what to expect during this phase.
- During the Follicular Phase
The metabolic changes in this phase are extremely favorable. In this phase your hormones are actually fantastic for your exercise goals. This is the best time to focus on increasing the intensity and duration of your training. This may be heavier weights, higher repetitions, or simply higher intensity workouts. It is also the better time to begin a new dietary program as your hunger and blood sugar levels will be more stable.
Because your body tends to be burning more carbohydrate at rest during this phase, a moderately increased carbohydrate intake to support your increased training load will be better tolerated. You should experience greater muscle gains and quicker muscle recovery during this time.
- During the Luteal Phase.
Especially during the late luteal phase, it may be more difficult to stick to your eating program during this time. This is due to less balanced blood sugar levels, coupled with increased hunger and appetite. This is a good time to slightly increase your healthy fat intake, slightly decrease your carbohydrate intake, and focus on getting foods that are rich in fiber (i.e. adding foods like oat bran, nuts and seeds, or psyllium husk to meals). Both of these nutrient groups will help improve your satiety at meal times and help prevent giving in to cravings. Due to increased water retention, this is also a great time to cut back on salt and increase your intake of potassium-rich foods (think spinach, broccoli and other dark green leafy vegetables).
In terms of your training during the Luteal Phase, it may be prudent to decrease the intensity slightly. However, due to an increased use of fats for fuel during exercise, you may tolerate endurance exercise better. If you manage to control your caloric intake during the Luteal Phase, you may experience greater weight loss due to a slightly increased metabolic rate.
The female body is a mysterious and complex thing, and hormones should never be discussed lightly. That being said, many of us can relate to feeling hungrier than usual (for no apparent reason), or moodier and more tired than usual (for no apparent reason) at particular times of the month. Take these as signs that your body is simply working through its monthly changes, and work WITH your hormones in order to still achieve your diet and exercise goals.
Overall: During your Follicular Phase, give your diet and exercise program all you’ve got. Then give yourself some grace during the Luteal Phase because things will be more challenging during that time.
You can take your training to the next level through a personalised nutrition program. If you want to improve your sports performance, get in touch today.