Life is full of cycles - from the daily rhythms of exercise and sleep to the ups and downs of our emotions. And at the center of it all are the natural hormonal cycles that impact our bodies and minds. Lately, social media has been buzzing with talk about hormones, and as a result of my own research, I wanted to delve deeper into the subject and share some of what I’ve learned with you.
At eMpower performance, I believe in affirming gender identities, care, and the unique experiences that come with them. For the purposes of this blog post, I may use the terms "male" and "female" to differentiate between the dominant hormone phases and biological processes in the body. However, I acknowledge that gender is expressed in many amazing ways beyond these binary terms. It's also important to note that most scientific studies on hormone balance in athletes have focused on male athletes. As Dr. Stacy Sims notes, "Women are not small men," and, while some of the findings from these studies can be applied to female athletes, it's essential to approach hormone balance for female athletes with a unique perspective.
In this blog post, we'll cover the basics of hormones, their cyclical patterns, and offer some next step recommendations. In Part 2 of this post, we'll dive into my recommendations for food, nutrition, movement, rest, and more during the different phases of your cycle. Let’s begin on a solid, grounding foundation of definitions for this discussion.
Hormones are chemical messengers in the body that play essential roles in mood, emotions, growth, sexual function, and more. Hormones are synthesized in the endocrine glands, and even the slightest of changes to levels can have significant impacts on the body. The hormones we'll discuss in this blog post, present in all people, are:
Follicular stimulating hormone (FSH)
Luteinizing hormone (LH)
Other hormones we'll touch on include cortisol, insulin, and thyroid hormones. While this list is not fully inclusive, these hormones tend to be key players in the hormone health of the menstrual cycle.
When it comes to athletic performance, hormones influence body temperature regulation, cardiovascular stamina, and more. So what can this mean for your cycle? Hormones levels fluctuate over the course of your cycle and tend to align with specific phases.
Follicular Phase - Typically a 7-10 day timeframe that includes menstruation. Your “period” tends to last 3-7 days and is a time of bleeding, cramping, headaches, bloating, and any other number of symptoms you might experience - or none at all. FSH levels are high and it signals estrogen levels to begin to rise. Progesterone is at its lowest, and LH remains relatively stable. As estrogen levels increase, LH levels rise stimulating ovulation. When our stress hormone cortisol (one responsible for our fight or flight response) is high, it decreases synthesis of FSH and LH which can influence ovulation. Additionally, imbalance in insulin and thyroid hormones can influence ovulation typically in the form of suppression. When balanced, the higher estrogen levels (triggered by FSH) can improve your energy, mood, creativity, and you might even experience lower stress levels.
Luteal Phase - Towards the end of the Follicular Phase, LH levels decrease, while progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone reach their peak levels before decreasing (and triggering menstruation once again). The Luteal Phase is often 10-14 days, and as these hormone levels begin to decrease, you might start to experience food cravings because of key nutrients that support the metabolism and signaling of these hormones.
There are many factors that can influence the length of these cycle phases such as age, weight, lifestyle, and more. Before we continue into Part 2 of this post, I might recommend that you begin to track your cycle, if you’re not already. As you’re tracking, take note of your energy levels, any physical symptoms you experience, stress levels, sleep quality + quantity, or any other metrics with which you might find a pattern. I’ll be honest I just started doing this a few months ago, under the guidance of a fellow nutritionist and I found it immensely helpful to inform my food + nutrition habits as well as my dance and cross training routines during cycle phases.
Stay tuned for both Part 2 and a fun tracking resource coming your way this week!
Additional Resources I have found helpful: (you can find them here in my Bookshop)
ROAR by Stacy Sims
Menopause Manifesto by (even if you're not near this cycle of life!)
The Hormone Cure by Sara Gottfried
More coming soon