Rebecca Newman investigates...
For me, intense endurance exercise was always the thing. It gives me clarity of mind, a rush, and - sure - it panders usefully to my vanity. But, when I found myself not getting pregnant a kind fertility expert (Zita West, if you’re interested) pointed out that HIIT might just be adding another challenge to a stressed out body.
Yes: if your life is frantic and so is your pace of exercise - if your candle is melting at either end and a bit in the middle - you may need to tailor your fitness regime better to suit your hormonal needs. You know, find a bit of balance.
Rhian Stephenson is a nutritionist and naturopath, a former Canadian national athlete and swimmer, and CEO at Psycle*. She tells us all we need to know...
Is there something to the notion of exercising to harmonise your hormones?
Absolutely. Learning how to exercise for my hormones has been one of the most impactful things for my health and wellbeing, and is a really important path that not enough women know about. It is the one thing that helps me feel balanced, strong and resilient, and since I’m listening to my body and mood I also achieve more specific, targeted results on a physical level.
How are exercise and stress related?
Our adrenal glands are responsible for managing the body’s response to stress, mainly through the release of the hormone cortisol. Stress in this sense can mean ANY kind of stress, ranging from immediate danger to disease, high impact or endurance exercise, financial concerns or relationship problems. If the adrenals feel the body is under attack they release cortisol to mobilise its resources to escape and survive (flight or fight).
Our cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, peaking in the morning to get us going for the day and falling at night to allow us to sleep and recover (see Sleep: Do You Get Enough?).
And if the cortisol levels are jammed on high all day, because of your annoying boss and boyfriend, then you’re in trouble?
If our cortisol levels don’t drop, then too much may flood the body, causing blood sugar imbalances, sleep disruption, impaired cognition and increased abdominal fat. What’s more, to make cortisol the body ‘steals’ the ingredients it would have put towards manufacturing other hormones, so your whole hormonal system falls out of whack.
And if the response is prolonged - for example, severe negative work stress over a year - the adrenals can then swing the other way and become fatigued. This means that the body cannot produce enough cortisol to respond how it should. Negative effects of adrenal fatigue include exhaustion, lowered immune function, depression and inflammation.
Does this mean that high intensity exercise is incompatible with a busy life?
Definitely not: my staple is cardio. It makes me happy and energised and gives my mind a break.
But, I flex my workouts depending on what I need. When I was younger, if I was fatigued I would force myself to do a hard gym session, but this just perpetuated the problem. Now when I’m exhausted, I look to yoga to help balance.
Ok so yoga when things are really tough. And no spinning or HIIT until things have calmed down?
Not necessarily: yes, do yoga if you are chronically strung out, but cardio and strength are still important - just be more calculated. Think shorter sessions, and time them well: avoid cardio at night in case it energises you away from sleep, and sleep is more important than anything when it comes to chronic stress.
Also consider supplementation. Vitamin B5 and Magneisium are needed to produce cortisol, and both are depleted by stress as well as caffeine and alcohol.
What else is good to throw into your usual weekly mix?
I do two strength sessions each week to help keep my metabolism high and strength up. Combined with cardio this is the best thing to keep my hormones, appetite and mood balanced. Coming into my cycle, I ditch the yoga and do more strength to help balance my sex hormones and give me a little testosterone boost, which is a great way to combat PMS.
Could you tell us about any specific exercises for optimal hormonal balance?
- To nourish reproductive hormones - a dynamic yoga practice is perfect, think hip opening, spinal twisting and breath work. Studies have shown that a dynamic flow followed by relaxation can help restore blood flow to the digestive and reproductive systems and will also decrease cortisol, which can inhibit sex hormones if it’s chronically high.
- To combat anxiety - cardio is the most beneficial due to it’s endorphin rush and influence over neurotransmitters that regulate mood, happiness and motivation. The more immersive the better - the key here is getting your mind to switch off so that you can have a break from your worries.
- To increase growth hormone & testosterone - strength work is good to boost testosterone & human growth hormone. Although all forms of exercise positively influence growth hormones, heavier strength sessions that include the large muscle groups (like weighted squats, deadlifts, leg press) are the ones to go for if you need a boost.
- To boost mood and cognitive function - intense cardio not only provides an incredible endorphin rush (just 30 minutes of intense cardio can improve your mood for 12 hours!), but it also specifically boosts blood flow to the hippocampus, the region of the brain that helps the consolidation of information and memory and is also involved in creative thinking - a benefit you don’t get from weight training.
- To regulate insulin and appetite - cardiovascular exercise is one of the most important to regulate blood sugar, as it helps the body’s ability to utilise glucose. It also positively influences the neuropeptides that control appetite. Longer sessions (over 90 minutes) have been shown to have the strongest influence over appetite because they suppress hunger-causing chemicals and up regulate the ones involved in satiety.
- To lower seriously strained cortisol - Yin yoga or yoga Nidra. This helps down regulate the sympathetic nervous system (decrease severe stress response) and restore parasympathetic nervous system function.