There are a lot of things that can affect your fitness journey. Whether that is losing weight or gaining muscle, there is much more at play than just macronutrients and training. One major aspect to take into consideration is hormones. Hormones have many functions in the body; they are responsible for processes such as energy and metabolism, growth, and fertility. They can influence behaviour in various systems in the body as well as completely alter a cell’s behaviour. They are powerful and very important in the body. That being said, there are certain hormones that can slow down or speed up results in one’s fitness journey.
In this blog post, we’re going to look at some hormones that can alter one’s results when embarking on a health journey. Please note that the information provided hereafter is to be seen as guidance from a personal trainer and sports nutrition. Please seek advice from a health professional before making any decision following this post.
Cortisol | Stress Hormone
Stimulates abdominal fat synthesis by inhibiting growth hormone.
Cortisol is created in the adrenal glands. Linked to the brain as well through the hypothalamus & sympathetic nervous system (emotional system) to create adrenaline-like hormones.
Cortisol Impact on Body:
- Raises blood sugar, heart rate, and blood pressure;
- Stimulates abdominal fat storage;
- Catabolic hormone (muscle breakdown);
- Cortisol dysfunction leads to thyroid dysfunction.
High stress levels can look like:
Increased insulin secretion, increase fat storage (especially in the abdominal area), weakened immune function, muscle loss, hypothyroidism, memory loss, alteration in sex hormones (lower libido), increases catecholamine’s (hormones released by the adrenal glands), bone loss/mineral loss, depletes Mg, Ca, B vitamins & more, elevated blood lipids, loss of REM sleep).
What can raise cortisol levels:
Relationships, training, work, anxiety, parental stress, hormonal imbalances, nutritional status, high body fat percentage, dehydration, lack of sleep.
- Only hormone that increases with age, as the body is under more stress.
- Elevates blood glucose by as much as 50% | induces insulin resistance.
- Stimulates gluconeogenesis (creation of glucose in the body).
- Cortisol is released from fat: the more BF% you have, the more cortisol you produce, and the more cortisol management your body requires.
- Elevated stress & cortisol slows down wound healing.
- Cortisol increases when there is lack of sleep, which leads to decreased glucose tolerance (especially in the PM), decrease leptin (satiety hormone) levels, and dangerous cardiovascular events (lack of sleep also linked to increased heart attack risk & development of arterial plaques).
- High cortisol linked with decreased serotonin (happy hormones) and melatonin (hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycle). Can lead to insomnia if cortisol levels remain high.
Why do you crave “comfort foods” during stressful times?
When you eat something like a cheesecake or pizza, when you’re stressed, those yummy foods release “happy” hormones in your brain that gives you that calming effect you’re looking for at the time.
- Insulin and cortisol have an opposite reaction together. Insulin levels may decrease during stress, which may lead to hyperglycemia (affects blood sugar levels) IF not used to its advantage (i.e. managing training stress levels accordingly).
Training vs. Cortisol
If done properly (not overtraining), training can help a lot in stabilizing cortisol levels:
- improves mood (increases serotonin levels)
- Improves sugar metabolism (body distributes sugar in blood more efficiently)
- Improves oxygenation of tissues
- Increases fat burning through more calorie expenditure
- Increases bone density/muscle-fat ratio/BMR (increased testosterone levels, more calorie expenditure, increase lean body mass, lower body fat % if in a caloric deficit)
- Reduces fluid retention (through sweating)
- Reduces stress hormone altogether
Insulin | Sugar Hormone
Created in the pancreas: the more sugar is brought to the bloodstream, the more it releases insulin.
Insulin’s main role in the body is to bring glucose to the right organs for energy. It keeps your blood sugar levelled by taking out the glucose from your blood stream to avoid hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia (where insulin is going to release sugar from the liver to the bloodstream to avoid dangerous energy drops).
Works like a key to open the cell & bring the sugar in the cell.
Think of insulin as the owner of the house coming home with groceries (glucose). In order to bring the groceries inside the house (cell), the kids (GLUT-4 protein; a glucose transporter located in cell membranes of certain muscles, mainly skeletal and cardiac) are in charge of bringing the groceries inside. In order for the kids to come out of the house, the owner needs to call them out.
Insulin activates GLUT-4 protein to bring the glucose to the right cells.
How it affects the body: if you give your body too much sugar, your body can become resistant to insulin, which leads to a lot of sugar left in the bloodstream. This can lead to hyperglycemia, which increases fat storage, cravings & can create mood swings, lack of concentration and energy highs and lows.
Exercising can help increase your insulin sensitivity as your body releases insulin to take out sugar from your bloodstream, for energy, the second you start exercising! Insulin release and exercise increase GLUT-4 translocation and increases glucose transport into cells: mixing proper nutrient timing & exercise will help to increase insulin sensitivity.
Insulin Resistance: when your body doesn’t respond to the release of insulin in your body and leaves sugar in your bloodstream. In the long term, can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Insulin Sensitive: what we’re striving for. We want the body to respond to insulin release quickly
Estrogen | Female Sex Hormone
Found in the ovaries (in women) but also in the adrenal glands and fat cells. Higher stress levels and higher bodyfat percentage can play a role in your estrogen levels.
In Women Estrogen Affects:
Brain: helps maintain body temperature
Heart & liver: helps regulate liver’s production of cholesterol – protects arteries
Ovaries: stimulates menstrual cycle
Private parts: maintain healthy lining
Bones: preserves bone density
Uterus: menstrual cycle/prep for baby
Breasts: preps for baby & stimulates development
Impact of estrogen dominance in women: Decrease libido, cold hands & feet, irregular menstrual cycle, edema, breast swelling & tenderness, insomnia, mood swings, irritability, weight gain in the mid-section and thighs area, headaches, heavy PMS.
Impact of estrogen dominance in men: Decreased libido, breast tissue growth, enlarged prostate, difficulty urinating, decreased muscle mass, increased fat mass, hair loss, erectile dysfunction, depression.
Menstrual Cycle – changes to the body due to hormonal changes
The menstrual cycle is divided into three phases: follicular phase, ovulatory phase, and luteal phase. Each phases affects the body differently. During the luteal phase, most women will start feeling the common symptoms that comes pre- and post-menstrual cycle: cravings, problem sleeping, headaches, inflammation, bloating. During this period, it’s important to keep stress levels low and activity level high.
- Follicular phase (first day of cycle) estrogen & progesterone are low.
- Ovulatory phase (release of egg) estrogen decreases and progesterone starts to increase.
- Luteal phase (post to right before cycle starts) estrogen is high! In this phase, there’s thickening of mucus lining in the sex organs, which may create inflammation & bloating in the lower abdominal area. Body temperature also increases as estrogen levels increase. This increase in hormone also affect the breasts as the body prepares for child (even if you’re not pregnant).
** altogether, estrogen levels will affect a woman’s weight, water retention, and bloating during and pre-menstrual cycle. From heat waves to extreme bloating in the lower abdomen area (uterus/ovaries area), and inflammation/water retention in the lower abdominal area.
Thyroid | Metabolism Hormone
Goal of thyroid hormone: increase the ability of the cells to convert caloric energy to heat .
- Increases rate of aerobic respiration in the cells (helps bring more oxygen to the cells during training and every day activities).
- Increase metabolic rate by increasing muscle catabolism (muscle breakdown).
- Maintains set point for energy expenditure (the new ceiling set through activity levels).
People who have low thyroid levels, they will gain weight a little bit more.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism: weakness, dry skin, coarse skin, lethargy, slow speech, deem of eyelids, cold hands and fee, decreased sweating, cold skin, memory impairment, constipation, weight gain (59%), loss of hair, pallor of lips.
Symptoms of Hyperthyroid: high and speedy metabolism. Hyperactive most of the time. Hard time gaining weight. Not hungry very often. Hard time gaining muscle mass.
These are the four hormones that play a major role in anyone’s health journey. It’s important to look at your fitness and health journey as a lifestyle change and not just something that will put a bandaid over your current weight issues. You want to make changes to your lifestyle to be healthier, which means balancing any hormonal imbalances you may have. The healthier you eat, the more your workout, and the more sleep, the better your hormones react. The better your hormones react, the better you will feel and look.
There are many other hormones, which we’re not going to dig further in for this blog post, but are still important to mention: testosterone, androgen, progesterone, growth hormone, leptin, ghrelin. We will look at those hormones a little deeper in Part II of this series.