"Am I not losing weight because of my hormones?"
As coaches, we get asked this question A LOT.
Our clients are barraged with marketing based around one key buzzword... hormones.
"This supplement balances your hormones, and helps you shed fat overnight!"
"This diet teaches you to balance your hormones, and FINALLY see fat loss results."
So how valid is all of this?
Are your hormones really what's preventing you from losing fat?
What Is "Hormonal Imbalance"?
First, we need to understand "hormones" is very much a blanket statement (and again, buzzword).
So when saying something "impacts your hormones", we need to get more specific.
What hormones specifically are being impacted? And how does this affect homeostasis (balance) within your body?
See, your body's system for maintaining balance - or homeostasis - is called the endocrine system.
Your endocrine system is a series of glands. These glands produce and release hormones your body uses for many different functions, like...
- Sexual development
...and much more.
Your hormones are essentially "messengers" - they're sent to different tissues in the body (via the bloodstream), and send signals to those tissues to tell them what to do. (1)
So when we don't have the right amount of a hormone (or multiple hormones) being produced to signal your body "how to act"... obviously some issues can arise.
We have a combination of anabolic and catabolic hormones that are MEANT to exist in a balance.
Now, while several of your hormones could be out of whack, the solution to balancing your hormones might not be quite what you think.
Today, we're taking you through a crash course of the most talked about hormones, their functions, and how to balance and improve the levels of each.
Cortisol - commonly known as "the stress hormone".
Most of us are pretty familiar with this guy.
Our body releases cortisol as a response to stress. Cortisol is one of your body's signals to begin mobilizing stored energy.
So in simplest terms, cortisol is a hormone that releasing energy by breaking things down (a.k.a. a catabolic hormone) - be that stored carbs, fat, muscle tissue, etc.
Contrary to popular belief, you NEED some cortisol. Cortisol helps you wake up in the morning. It helps you push harder in the gym. It helps you beat that high-pressure deadline at work.
Cortisol is often released as a response to...
- Intense workouts
- Stress in daily life
- Too little sleep
Cortisol levels also partially dictated by your circadian rhythm - cortisol has an inverse relationship with melatonin (a hormone that helps you sleep). For healthy individuals, cortisol should be high in the morning, and decrease throughout the day.
Really, the devil is in the dose here.
Acute Vs. Chronic Stress
Some stress is good. Our body adapts to stressors, and grows.
For example, without an intense training session (where much cortisol is likely produced), your body will never be sent a strong enough adaption signal to spark lean muscle growth.
A training session is a good example of an acute stress. It happens over a relatively short time-frame, and leads to positive adaptation.
Problems arise when that stress becomes chronic. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol lead to your body prioritizing "fight or flight" over "rest & digest".
In stressful "fight or flight" situations, your body shuts down or slows many processes you don’t need to survive in the short-term (digestion, hormone production, etc.) The elevated cortisol levels mean your body is constantly breaking things down to create more energy. This could be stored carbs, fats, muscle tissue, etc.
Whereas in “rest and digest” mode, your body is producing hormones, digesting food, absorbing nutrients, building muscle, etc.
From the above, it's clear why too much cortisol is a problem when you're trying to build your leanest, strongest body.
Optimizing Cortisol Levels
→ Follow a smart training program - Remember, training is a stressor. Anecdotally, this is most commonly an issue for clients who love (but overdo) H.I.I.T. Training, CrossFit, and even classes like OrangeTheory.
For online clients I've helped with this in the past, the solution is typically reducing high-intensity work like H.I.I.T. or CrossFit to 2-3 sessions per week, and introducing more "functional bodybuilding" and low-intensity steady state cardio (L.I.S.S.) 2-3x/week. A mixture of high and low intensity modalities like this is much more effective to building the lean, strong body you want.
→ Periodize your nutrition - Dieting is a stressor, so too much time in a calorie deficit can be a problem. This is a large part of why my online clients always follow a smart, periodized plan. (Be sure to check out the blog on Periodizing Nutrition HERE.)
→ Don't be scared of carbs - When you take in food - but especially carbs - your body releases insulin. Insulin and cortisol have an inverse relationship - insulin tells your body it doesn't need to break down energy, because you're already ingesting said energy.
This is also part of the peri-workout (around you workout) nutrition strategy I implement with more advanced online clients - strategically timing a quick-digesting carb like highly branched cyclic dextrin during your training to prevent excess cortisol production and muscle breakdown.
→ Sleep - Too much cortisol can create a vicious cycle here. Too much cortisol disrupts sleep, and under-sleeping leads to more cortisol production.
Some helpful strategies include: establishing consistent sleep/wake times, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon, sleeping 7+ hours/night, wearing bluelight blockers, avoid screens and artificial lights 30-60 minutes before bed, and establishing a relaxing nighttime routine.
→ Manage life stressors - One unique thing I have most of my online clients do, is prioritize "self-care time". Basically, making sure you're taking time weekly to breathe, and do the things that relax you and make you happy (we literally have this in your accountability tracker so I can make SURE you do it). While life stress isn't avoidable all together, it's important to take steps to manage it to the best of your ability.
→ Caffeine - I saved this one for last, because it bums me to write this... but moderating your caffeine intake is necessary. Caffeine causes a stress response. While most don't need to avoid it all together, keep it to a reasonable dose, and cut it off 8-10 hours before bed.
Testosterone is a steroid hormone present in both males & females.
In men, testosterone is more prevalent. It's production is part of a negative feedback loop - the pituatary glad secrets luteinizing hormone (LH), which in turn triggers testosterone production. In a healthy male, your body should detect low testosterone, and release LH to create more.
Testosterone is produced (in smaller amounts) by women in the ovaries.
Regardless of gender, proper levels of testosterone are important. It helps regulate to a large degree fat distribution, muscle gain, libido, reproductive health, energy, clarity, overall feelings of well-being, and more.
Optimizing Testosterone Levels
→ Manage stress - Testosterone has an inverse relationship to cortisol. Both hormones share several base materials, so when lots of cortisol is being produced, it essentially steals base materials from testosterone production. So really, you can take all of the strategies from "Optimizing Cortisol Levels" above, and apply them here as well.
→ Follow a smart training program - In the appropriate dose, training will increase testosterone levels. That said, we have to be careful of creating too much testosterone reducing cortisol here. Follow a periodized training program like my clients do - one that is fit to your experience, goals, and lifestyle. Take deloads, and manage volume properly. (If you need more help setting up your training program, read THIS BLOG.)
→ Nutrition - Too much time in a calorie deficit, or very low of body fat will reduce testosterone levels, so a periodized approach to your nutrition is important. Adequate healthy fat intake (~.3g+/lb body weight), and carbohydrates (for the role they play in decreasing cortisol) are also helpful here.
→ Sleep - Many studies have been done on the relationship between sleep and testosterone levels. (2)(3) The concensus - most need to sleep AT LEAST 7 hours per night to maintain optimal testosterone levels.
Estrogens are a group of sex hormones that generally promote the development and maintenance of female characteristics in the human body.
The three most common members of the estrogen family are: Estrone (E1), Estradiol (E2), and Estriol (E3).
Estrogen is present in both females and males. It's generally more predominant in women, where it is produced primarily in the ovaries. For men, estrogen is primarily created by conversion from testosterone.
Both for both sexes, a balance of estrogen (neither too much nor too little) is important to staying healthy. As you'll find below, an imbalance in estrogen can have negative consequences for either gender.
Low levels of estrogen can lead to:
- Loss of muscle mass
- Reduced sex drive
- Vaginal dryness
- An increase in UTI's
- Missing or irregular periods
- Hot flashes
- Breast tenderness
- Trouble concentrating
High levels of estrogen can lead to:
- Breast tenderness
- Decreased sex drive
- Worsened PMS symptoms
- Mood swings
- Weight gain
- Reduced sperm
- Erectile dysfunction
- Slowed growth
^Again, these negative effects AREN'T all exclusive to one gender.
Optimizing Estrogen Levels
→ Follow a smart training program - Like everything else, the proper dose is KEY here. Exercise can help in reducing estrogen if you're struggling with excessively high levels. But also realize that TOO much exercise keeps your body in a fight or flight state, where hormone production is NOT a priority. This can lead to your body under-producing estrogen, and often loss of menstrual cycle.
→ Managing life stressors - Again, to avoid excessive time in a fight or flight state, I'd implement the strategies from "Optimizing Cortisol Levels" here.
→ Periodize your nutrition - Higher body fat levels can lead to an excess amount of estrogen. On the flip-side, under-eating can result in a shortage of fats essential to producing estrogen (again, it's a good idea to eat AT LEAST .3g fat/lb body weight). The stress of chronic dieting and/or low levels of body fat takes your body's focus OFF it's reproductive health - this can also lead to too little estrogen. So it's smart to periodize your nutrition like my online clients do, with phases designated to eating in a calorie deficit, at calorie maintenance, and in a calorie surplus.
Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas, and released to coincide with rises in blood sugar.
Think of insulin as a "shuttling agent" for our blood glucose/blood sugar - it allows other cells throughout your body to transform glucose into energy. Without insulin, cells have no energy source.
Basically, insulin should help you regulate blood sugar levels, convert glucose to usable energy, and store glucose as muscle glycogen and/or body fat.
Insulin levels should really only be high after eating, as the spike in insulin is needed to manage your blood sugar.
The term insulin sensitivity describes how sensitive your body's cells are in response to insulin.
- High insulin sensitivity - The cells of the body to use blood glucose more effectively, reducing blood sugar. Higher insulin sensitivity ALSO means that your body is better able to shuttle nutrients to muscle when needed, and in turn, grow lean muscle.
- Low insulin sensitivity or insulin resistance - Your cells don't absorb as much glucose, which can lead to excessively high blood sugar levels, and eventually type 2 diabetes.
So while insulin is generally only discussed in terms of managing blood sugar and diabetes, it's also a key hormone when it comes to building lean, defined muscle.
Optimizing Insulin Sensitivity
→ Follow a smart training program - Resistance training is one of the most effective things you can do to manage insulin, as it increases insulin sensitivity, and causes nutrients to be shuttled to your muscles.
→ Periodize your nutrition - Muscle insulin sensitivity is reduced faster than fat insulin sensitivity when you gain weight. So the more fat tissue you have, the more nutrients will be shuttled to fat cells instead of muscle. Thus having too much body fat leads to poor insulin sensitivity.
Getting leaner increases muscle insulin sensitivity, and results in more of the nutrients you consume being partitioned to muscle.
But when we get too lean, your body once again prioritizes fat gain to try to return to healthy levels. (As has been the theme throughout this blog, your body WANTS to maintain homeostasis.)
→ Nutrient timing - This isn't the MOST important thing. But when it comes to improving you insulin sensitivity, nutrient timing does help. It's something I focus on with my more advanced online clients.
Here's some general reccomendations:
- Protein Timing Across The Day - Consuming protein (optimally 25-40g+) increases muscle protein synthesis for ~3-6 hours. So, to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis through your day, it's most optimal to spread your protein (and meals as a whole) across 4-6 meals, with 30-40g protein at each.
- Carb Timing Pre-Workout - Some prefer to have a fast-digesting carb source pre-workout as well (e.g. white rice), but the reality is having available glycogen to fuel your training is a product of what your nutrition has been like the last 24 hours. If you're in a building phase, it's smart to eat 25-50g carbs here. If in a fat loss phase, I'd save them for after.
- Carb Timing Post-Workout - Insulin sensitivity is highest post-workout. (Basically, your body will most efficiently use carbs for muscle-building purposes at this time.) So it makes sense to time lots of fast-digesting carbs post workout (e.g. white rice, spotted bananas). THIS is the most important time to consume carbs, as far as timing goes. Carbs also help decrease cortisol levels. So consuming carbs post workout will help you enter a more anabolic environment.
Carb Timing Intra-Workout - Ok, this is definitely more geared towards those of you trying to optimize lean muscle gain, than those just trying to improve overall health. But an extremely fast digesting carb source like highly branched cyclic dextrin can help slightly improve your training quality and recovery. This will give you a bit of extra fuel almost immediately, help give you better pumps (which helps with muscle growth), and kickstart your muscle growth by already having available carbs during the period of increased insulin sensitivity.
- Fat-Timing Pre & Post Workout - Eating large amounts of fat with your pre or post-workout meals will slow digestion a bit, so it’s best to keep these meals lower fat.
All of these recommendations combined leave your day looking something like:
Meal 1: Low carb, moderate protein, high fat.
Meal 2 (Pre-workout): Higher carb, moderate protein, lower fat.
Meal 3 (Post-workout): Higher carb, moderate protein, lower fat.
Meal 4: Low carb, moderate protein, high fat.
Following a strategy like this, you're creating the largest insulin spikes around your training (due to the increase in carbs/blood sugar), and minimizing insulin spikes the rest of the day.
But remember - adherence is the most important factor for getting results. If worrying about meal timing prevents you from sticking to your overall calorie goals and losing fat, you're missing the forest for the trees.
Summary: How To Optimize Your Hormones
You undoubtedly noticed something...
The prescription to optimize each hormone is VERY similar:
→ Follow a smart training program
→ Periodize your nutrition, with a focus on whole foodss
→ Get plenty of sleep (7+ hours)
→ Manage life stressors
Most of us have the cause and effect mixed up when we think of hormones.We think:
- Cause - Imbalanced hormones
- Effect - Suboptimal body fat levels, poor lifestyle
- Cause - Suboptimal body fat levels, poor lifestyle
- Effect - Imbalanced hormones
You don't fix your hormones, and then drop fat and improve your lifestyle. To improve your hormones, you have to start living a healthier lifestyle FIRST.
The prescription for optimizing your hormones is EXACTLY what we focus on when you start online coaching, becuase it's ALSO the prescription to build the leanest, strongest, and most confident version of yourself.
If you're ready to get accountable to a smart plan fit to you, CLICK HERE NOW to apply for online coaching.