NO LADY is immune to what I like to refer to as the "estrogym woes."
I was doing my usual post QUICKSHOTS chatting last week with a few of my fellow women, and the conversation ventured into how our hormones impact both our workout performance and physical characteristics in our pre-menopausal and peri-menopausal phases in life. Granted that most of the readers of our blog are female, I thought it might be helpful to dive into the not-so-always-pretty side of female sex hormones and workouts.
Pre-menopause: How to cycle your workouts around your cycle
Any woman who hits the gym regularly has no doubt experienced the "Jekyll and Hyde" nature of workouts throughout each month. One week, you are smashing your HIIT workouts and lifting with increased intensity. The following week, just looking at a dumbbell ticks you off. If you are pre-menopausal, it's highly likely that your cycle is coming in to play here. Let's talk about the two phases of your menstrual cycle and how the hormones associated with each (estrogen and progesterone) can impact performance of certain types of workouts.
Day 1-14 of your cycle is referred to as the follicular phase. During these first two weeks of your cycle, estrogen levels rise, peaking at day 14 (ovulation), while progesterone levels stay constant. This is when you feel like a million bucks. The world is great, and this is the time when you will feel like an absolute beast during anaerobic training (like HIIT). At ovulation, when estrogen is at its highest, overall strength is peaked. This is the time to take advantage of your super crunk estrogen glory and perhaps push the intensity during your workouts and/or go for PR's in lifting, running, cycling, etc.
Have a good first 2 weeks? Well great, because it's about to come crashing down in the luteal phase (days 14-28). Just kidding. However, it sure doesn't feel super great. Directly after ovulation, progesterone surges and estrogen plummets. Cortisol levels rise and serotonin levels also drop slightly (bye bye cloud 9). Because your body uses carbohydrates to make serotonin, guess what happens when serotonin levels drop? Light bulbs with the word "CARBS" on them start going off in your brain. That's why it's been postulated that a drop in serotonin during this phase leads to cravings for all things carbolicious. GET IN MY BELLY. Oh also moodiness and bloating due to water retention start. Can't forget those gems. Point is, things get a little cray cray.
The luteal phase is not the time to try and PR on running, lifting, or max out during the HIIT workouts, especially if you feel like crap anyway. Be good to yourself here and take it steady. You can and should work out during the second half of your cycle, but recognize that you may not be able to perform to your usual capabilities during higher intensity workouts in this phase of your cycle. I often find myself naturally migrating to steady state cardio like rowing or running, and moderate lifting.
Luteal phase = no shoes while biking and somebody lifts for me
There's obviously a lot going on during your cycle internally, and please know that there is a TON of research still being conducted to try to periodize training plans to your period. So, while there are many other factors that come into play for women and performance (thyroid, obesity, macronutrient/micronutrient imbalances), understanding the hormone fluctuations during your cycle is still a great place to start and consider when training
Perimenopause: Jesus take the wheel.
The hormonal changes that occur during perimenopause cause a lot of stress to your body. You're not crazy, you're just realizing how important losing estrogen really is. It's like the glam metal band Cinderella said in their 1988 power balled hit "You don't know what you got till it's gone."
You don't know what you got till it's gone.
The gradual petering out of our ovaries and estrogen production is called Perimenopause. Estrogen is a big-stinkin'-deal-hormone. It has the capacity to turn on and off your genes. Turning on and off genes has BIG TIME effects on other hormones, and if this process gets screwed up, things can get nuts in a hot minute. No pun intended.
Loss of estrogen is what makes us feel bat poop crazy, gives us hot flashes, and screws with fat distribution in the body. Because estrogen is involved in so many different biological processes, when it gets screwed up, it's like a domino effect. Lots of other downstream processes get funky. And not in the good way. This unsurprisingly causes stress levels to rise, which means our ole pal Cortisol is nearby.
Dramatic, yet accurate for this context.
Being the incredibly smart machine that it is, your body is hardwired for survival. If your body thinks that you're threatened/stressed, it reacts in order to try to protect itself, beginning with protecting the parts of you that keep you alive. This is why cortisol is released. Cortisol directs fat storage to your abdomen because this is where all of your vital organs/processes except the brain live (kidneys, liver, digestion, heart nearby). Your body doesn't know that you're in the 21st century and that you've got food and shelter. When you are super stressed from all directions (perimenopause, exercise, emotions, work, family, significant other), your body thinks you're in the desert.
In reality, the side effects of weight gain during perimenopause that we view as unfavorable are really just a sign that your body is doing exactly what it was meant to do: protect itself in times of stress.
How do we lessen these side effects? Here's my two-cents:
1) Do everything you can to de-stress. I know, I know. Listen, I know you can't drop everything and move to Europe and get massages everyday. I'm saying take a good hard look at your life and your day to day tasks. For example, exercise is a form of stress, so if you don't want to give that up (especially for those of you who use exercise as therapy), consider prioritizing more time for yourself to relax, even if that means giving up other things that are keeping you running ragged. Tell Stacy "No, I can't." when she invites you to her cousin's baby's gender reveal party bash. And DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR IT. Let. It. Go. Stop committing yourself to completely optional things that do not improve your quality of life.
2) Diet wise, consider lowering carbohydrates moderately to 25-30% of your daily calorie intake versus 40% and above. This is helpful for belly bloat (carbs bind to water and cause you to hang on to it. Lowering carbs = less water retention = less bloat). Lowering your carbs to this level should not cause you to feel like a zombie. This ain't Atkins. I love a carb.
3) Get plenty of Calcium and start resistance training ASAP. As we get older, our metabolism slows and bones build more slowly than they break down due to loss of estrogen. Muscle protects our bones. Pick up some dumbbells and come work out with me.
Above all, TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF and remember, you're totally normal and it'll be okay.
Cheers to being a lady.