WHAT IS GOING ON WITH OUR HORMONES?
What are the jobs of our hormones?
- It promotes muscle growth and strength – estrogen or estradiol to be exact, is an anabolic hormone which means it builds muscle mass. So this is why your strength declines quicker during the menopause.
- It supports your Mitochondria function, remember these, the batteries within your muscles that turn all the glycogen into energy. So without estrogen we need to find another way to produce this same stimulus and that is where exercise comes into play.
- It regulates inflammation – estradiol is anti-inflammatory, estrone (which is another form of estrogen found in your fat cells) is inflammatory. Inflammation is good if you get an injury or cut etc but not so good when systemic inflammation (which means within the body, bloodstream). It’s estradiol that we lose during menopause not estrone and so we end up with more risk of systemic inflammation when our hormones decline, like sore joints, fluid retention, puffiness, gut issues. This can again be controlled through nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.
- It manages blood sugar – estradiol promotes insulin sensitivity, insulin is the hormone that opens the door to your cells to allow blood sugar to enter and be stored as energy and estradiol helps with this. As estradiol fluctuates and flatlines we become more insulin resistant and therefore harder to get the glucose/blood sugar into the cells to be stored as energy and so the blood sugar ends up being drawn into your fat cells to get it out of your blood stream and this is how we get the sudden weight gain without changing anything. By changing your nutrition, which you have all been doing over the weeks, can help balance your blood sugar and help obtain a better body composition.
- It regulates appetite – estradiol regulates your hormones that control hunger and satiety (Ghrelin & Leptin) and like leptin helps blunt your appetite. We have managed to control this by eating more protein in your diets.
- It controls body temperature – estradiol helps maintain a consistent core temperature so you all know what happens when it starts to fluctuate, yes hot flushes!! I did a post on Adaptogens and there were some listed on there that can help with hot flushes. I always sleep with a fan on and that seemed to help with not getting the night sweats, I also have a little hand held chargeable fan I used which worked really well and avoiding hot drinks as they can bring on hot flushes. I also use a cooling towel, you wet it, rinse out the excess water & drape that round your neck & it works really well, especially during exercise. They sell them in packs on Amazon.
- It controls blood pressure – nitric oxide is a compound in your body that helps expand your blood vessels so better blood flow and enables more oxygen to be taken on. By breathing through your nose you produce nitric oxide (but not if you mouth breathe). When we lose estradiol our blood vessels don’t widen and constrict as easily and so can cause your blood pressure to increase. Exercise can also be harder if your arteries can not dilate as well and therefore your heart will have to work harder to push the blood through, and then a higher heart rate than the actual effort perceived. Maintaining your health through nutrition and exercise is important.
- It builds bone – estradiol increases absorption of calcium and is involved in maintaining bone density. So when we start losing estradiol it becomes really important to incorporate weight bearing exercise to stop this decline into osteoporosis (brittle bones)
- It keeps your vagina healthy – estradiol keeps the vagina moist and helps maintain the thickness of the lining. As estradiol declines the vagina walls become thin and dry and sex can become very painful. I have had this, burning and like using sandpaper and not amount of lube works. Only thing that does is estrogen gel that you insert or HRT (well that is my experience, normal lube might work for you). But pain can also occur during cycling and running too due to this thinning and dryness so the gel or HRT might help that too.
- It counterbalances estrogen. During peri-menopause the number of eggs in your ovaries declines and they stop being released like clockwork every month. In the month where there is no egg there is no progesterone so there will be high amounts of estrogen and no progesterone to balance it out, during this month you will not have a period. Then the next month might be normal and could end up with a really heavy period lasting longer due to the lining of the womb not shedding the month before because if the egg is not fertilized, progesterone stimulates the lining to shed as our period. So when these hormones start fluctuating it can cause irregular and heavier periods.
- It increases connective tissue stability – so estrogen loosens our tendons and ligaments which creates instability but progesterone counterbalances it by stabilsing them by increasing the tension. So during menopause, we lose this counterbalance and so stability in our joints become vulnerable. This is why stability and balance become more important during menopause and onwards.
- It protects our brain – it produces a calming, anti-anxiety effect in the brain and may enhance memory function. As progesterone declines, we lose these, and symptoms like mood swings, memory loss, and brain fog can be experienced. These symptoms are more pronounced during early peri-menopause and early post-menopause and brain fog dissipate over time (I hope so as I am post-menopause and still waiting for it to dissipate!!!!) Nutrition can help though, omega 3 has really helped my brain fog and there are lots of other foods that help (I still need to read The XX Brain book – female brain, as I know there are some other foods listed in there so I will let you know more when I’ve read it) but being hydrated will also help as water increases blood flow to the brain.
- It provides pain relief – when progesterone is high we have a greater pain tolerance and this is due to progesterone’s effects on the brain. So everything can seem to hurt more when this hormone declines. There are ways to help pain tolerance through breath work, there have been studies done showing a group who suffered from chronic back pain, those who regularly practice breathwork felt less pain than those who didn’t and that the Thalamus (part of the brain that deals with sensations) was larger and more active in the non-breathwork group compared to the breathwork group.
- It helps build bone – along with estrogen, it builds and maintains bone density. So again, it is really important to adjust diet, exercise and stress during this time.
- It affects heart rate variability – I’m not going to go into heart rate variability too much, but for the guys that do triathlons, I will explain it a little bit. Your heart rate does not beat at a set rhythm, it is more a variable beat and your HRV is the amount of time between heartbeats. Your HRV is a measure of your autonomic nervous system and can tell you how much you are in your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), and parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) so the higher your HRV the more you are in your parasympathetic nervous system and the lower your HRV the more you are in your sympathetic nervous system. So, for athletes it can be a measure of how recovered you are along with resting heart rate etc. So, during menopause with the decline of progesterone we have less stress resilience and so end up in a more sympathetic nervous system and therefore increased stress and anxiety. To increase your HRV you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and breathwork, mindfulness and meditation can help with this.
- It maintains body temperature – it increases your core temperature. During fluctuating hormones, your hypothalamus (the thermostat of your brain) gets mixed signals from the environment and what your hormones are telling you which can trigger hot flushes, sweating, or chills.
- It is anti-inflammatory – it inhibits the inflammatory responses so as this declines joint issues, metabolic disorders, and heart disease are more of a risk.
- It breaks down muscle tissue – so estrogen builds muscle tissue, progesterone breaks it down. Its main goal is to make sure an implanted embryo survives so it breaks down carbohydrates to provide energy and breaks down protein to use for building the lining of the womb.
We produce less than men but it works with estrogen and progesterone to support maintaining healthy bones and muscles. It fires up your sex drive and protects your brain. Our ovaries and adrenal glands do still keep producing testosterone even when our other hormones are declining as testosterone gradually declines with age rather than flatlines but building and maintaining muscle is still difficult during this time.
Muscle tissue starts to be marbled with fat tissue during this time too, which is why you may notice your muscle tone changing without changing your exercise. This is another reason why your training and nutrition need to change to maintain muscle and power.
Hopefully, now you know what these hormones do, will make more sense why we needed to make a nutrition overhaul and either add exercise or change up your exercise to counteract the effects of losing these hormones on your body.