Happy Hormones for Athletes
Guest Post By Meg Reburn BScH RM
The other day I was sitting around a campfire surrounded by a pack of rad mountain women. Naturally, the conversation went from, skiing, climbing, and running to poops, cake, and periods. These women had many things in common, besides the unanimous love of chocolate cake, about eighty percent of them had lost their periods at one point or another or had experienced menstrual irregularities, myself included. This got my wheels spinning: “WOW, everyone is having hormone issues WTF? ”
What went wrong?
Recently, I’ve been working with a number of women, mostly athletes, who have lost their period. Fuelled by my own struggles with HA (hypothalamic amenorrhea/secondary amenorrhea or loss of your period) my functional nutrition practice has morphed a bit over the years to focus not only on pregnancy nutrition, but also hormone balance, especially for female athletes. So, let’s dip our toes into the turbulent waters of hormonal regulation and explore this topic a bit further.
Not having a regular period or having periods longer than thirty-five days can signal that there are some pretty big imbalances going on in your body. Our monthly cycles involve a delicate interplay of many different hormones including sex hormones, like estrogen and progesterone and the hormones that originate in the brain such as GNRH, FSH, and LH.
While there are SO MANY amazing benefits of being a female athlete that Brittany has talked about a number of times, female athletes are way more sensitive to hormone imbalance than their male counterparts. Physiologically, women are more hormonally sensitive to nervous system stressors than men and take a longer time to recover from these events.
When you think about this from an evolutionary perspective, it does make sense, it was the man’s “job” to hunt and chase lions using short bursts of maximum power and then cycling into total rest. This was stressful. From an evolutionary perspective, if women are under piles of stress the body surmises it is probably not a good time or safe place to add a new baby to the tribe, thus, ovulation and fertility shut down. (Cause let’s be honest, we don’t stop having sex especially in times of stress!) Both of these reactions to stress are adaptive given how we evolved as a species but can be problematic with all the stressful inputs we have in modern life.
As I mentioned before, mountain endurance sports, when done unskillfully, can have a similarly negative impact on a female athlete. If we continue training in an aroused nervous system state, our bodies interpret this as an environmental stressor and shuts down our fertility to compensate. As a quick nerdy run-down here are the body’s responses to inappropriate training:
The body perceives training and/or sport as a stressor and produces cortisol (the stress hormone);
If there are significant life stresses and/or this training is not balanced with rest, recovery, and properly-timed nutrition, cortisol levels never go down and you find yourself in a chronic state of cortisol domination;
Chronically-elevated cortisol signals to the hypothalamus to down-regulate hormone secretion and as a result levels of growth hormone, thyroid releasing hormone, and gonadotropin releasing hormone all take a nosedive;
Without GH you won’t get stronger or recover properly; without TSH your thyroid hormones go down making you tired and sluggish; and without GnRH your pituitary fails to initiate reproductive activity and signal the release of LH and FSH which are the backbone of a healthy menstrual cycle;
Low levels of GNRH mean your estrogen levels fall, you stop ovulating and your progesterone tanks and then you have HA;
Without proper sex hormones your risk of osteoporosis, and some studies suggest dementia, goes way up.
While this is the simple version, everybody regardless of gender is unique. We all have our own special needs for rest and recovery that can change from day to day and year to year. It’s also important to note, as we get older, we need more good ol’ R&R.
How to fix it.
Proper nutrition is the CORNERSTONE of HA recovery and prevention.
Properly-timed training, recovery, and periods of rest are critical. (Talk with Brittany about this one!)
Stress-management techniques also help a ton but you can’t meditate your way out of HA, you need to eat and rest. Period (pun intended).
I’m an open book. If you want to learn about my very personal journey with HA you can read about it here. I also consult with athletes combining my decades of experience in nutrition, midwifery, and mountain athleticism; you can book a consult with me here. I work together with Brittany to help athletes plan custom training, recovery, and nutrition programs, so if you’re curious ask how we can all work together to keep you doing what you love while you stay healthy.
Why rest? By Lydia Zamorano
My first event on the power of the period!