The Progesterone Paradox: How Hormones Can Affect Women's Training

The natural cycle of hormones a woman experiences can affect her performance in the gym in many ways. Learn exactly how & what you can do to maximize results!

Did you know the root of the word “hysteria” means uterus (think hysterectomy)?

This is because doctors originally attributed hysterical behavior to our womb.

We know better than that in modern day medicine, but we have similar tendencies to attribute irregular and irrational behavior to “our hormones”.

What are Hormones?

“It’s just our hormones”. We hear the term get thrown around constantly and it seems that everyone agrees – not only are hormones important but having balanced hormones is crucial for overall health.

Before we talk about disease processes and the repercussions of hormone imbalance, I would like to discuss the basics. What exactly is a “hormone”?

Related: How Should Women Approach Weight Training and Exercise?

Hormones are first and foremost signaling molecules. They are the words our body uses to communicate within itself. Hormones are secreted by different glands in the body. For the most part, once a hormone is secreted by a gland, it travels by the circulatory system.

Once at its destination, the hormone binds to a cell receptor and triggers a pathway cascade that will regulate a certain function. These functions include digestion, hunger, fertility, metabolism, sleep, stress, growth, perception, mood and many other processes. The gland system responsible for hormone production is known as the endocrine system. Today, we will be talking about the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Let's review the phases of our cycles to understand why we HAVE to take them into account when training or dieting:

Women's Hormone Cycle

Follicular Phase

During the first phase of your monthly cycle, estrogen levels are fairly low. Low estrogen tends to cause fatigue and a depressed mood.

As estrogen increases, your mood and energy should improve. There is an increase in libido and muscle-building during resistance training. This is combined with suppressed appetite along with confidence and increased learning skills.

These effects continue during the second week of your cycle along with decreased pain sensation. Sometimes the excessive estrogen might trigger anxiety from over stimulating the brain during this phase. The follicular phase is a great time to increase training volume.

Ovulation

At the end of the follicular phase, luteinizing hormone peaks and the egg is released.

It is alive for only 24 hours and dies if not fertilized. If fertilization does not occur, the menstrual cycle continues.

Luteal Phase

In week 3, the pre-menstrual phase is on the horizon. After the egg was released, progesterone starts to increase.

Progesterone triggers cravings, boosts appetite and makes you physically fatigued while thickening the lining of the uterus. If the egg was fertilized and implants, progesterone continues to increase during pregnancy.

Menstruation

If no pregnancy occurs, progesterone and estrogen plummet.

The drop in estrogen still contributes to some cravings and mental fog, but the drop in progesterone causes some energy levels to return. The uterine lining is shed and the cycle starts again.

Did you know? We can shut down our periods! This doesn't just mean taking hormonal birth control (or getting pregnant). A period of extended dieting or calorie restriction can cause amenorrhea - or the absence of a period. Times of stress, aggressive exercising and disordered eating behaviors can all trigger our body to deactivate the menstrual cycle.

The Progesterone Paradox

The Progesterone Paradox

Though estrogen almost seems like the “good hormone” and progesterone, the “evil PMS hormone”, both are absolutely essential for healthy function and must be maintained in a good balance.

Estrogen boosts mood and energy. It increases fat deposits and impacts where the body stores fat; giving preferential treatment to thicker thighs and lower body fat deposits. Adequate estrogen is necessary for bone formation - in menopause, as there is a drop in estrogen, bone resorption can outweigh bone formation, creating a risk of osteoporosis.

Conversely, progesterone lowers insulin levels, stabilizes thyroid function, improves deeper quality sleep and helps appetite regulation1.

Both hormones are extremely important, what usually causes unpleasant symptoms is improper estrogen/progesterone balance. This can lead to manifestations such as irregular periods, water retention, mood swings, decreased sex drive, insomnia, abdominal weight gain, depression, fatigue, hot flashes, depression, drowsiness, bloating, anxiety, irritability, migraines, etc.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or think you have a hormone condition, you MUST see your family doctor. Don't self-diagnose!

There are also some practical things you can do to improve your progesterone/estrogen balance.

Now, this might all seem frustrating and unfair when trying to build muscle compared to our male counterparts, but the key to successful muscle gain is to understand your body and work with it to achieve more consistent results. For example, our menstrual cycle phases have a direct effect on fat loss and muscle gain. You need to sync your training to your cycle for optimal results.

Related: 38 Women Fitness Experts Share Tips on Fat Loss for Women

During the follicular phase, you can train harder and have more carbohydrate refeeds. Higher energy and pain tolerance in week 1-2 should be used to your advantage to push for progress and load heavier. The muscle is also more prone to use glycogen, and carbohydrate is a preferred method of fuel.

When ovulating, be prepared to try some personal bests! Women have a strength increase of about 11% at mid-cycle compared with both the follicular and luteal phases2. However, during ovulation, ligament relaxation could result in a higher incidence of injury.

During the luteal phase, as progesterone increases, energy levels plummet. The body starts to use fat storages for energy and the Thermic Effect of Food is increased3. Fat loss is more efficient at this time.

And when your period starts, you must do what feels right. Most women feel much better during this phase. Workout intensity can be increased. However, pay close attention to your body. These are general guidelines, not set-in-stone rules.

There are also some practical things you can do to improve your progesterone/estrogen balance.

1. Avoid "estrogen boosting" foods. The key with these hormones is balance. Unless you have low estrogen avoid dried fruits, flax seeds, soy products, and dark rye bread.

2. Eat High Zinc Foods such as oysters, lean red meat and dark chocolate. Zinc is critical to a good E/P balance4.

3. Eat Iron-Rich Foods such as leafy-green vegetables, fish and lean meats. Female athletes are especially prone to iron depletion after their periods5.

4. Eat foods rich in Vitamin B such as potatoes, bananas, and whole grains. The liver needs Vitamin B to break down estrogen.

5. Eat foods rich in Vitamin C such as citrus and tomato. Vitamin C is necessary for progesterone production and a healthy uterine lining6.

6. Take Diet Breaks every 12 Weeks. These can be necessary to prevent the shutdown of your cycle7.

As you can see, you can have a high degree of control over the situation. Train smart, listen to your body, and use your hormones to your advantage!

References
  1. Reed BG, Carr BR. The Normal Menstrual Cycle and the Control of Ovulation. [Updated 2015 May 22]. In: De Groot LJ, Chrousos G, Dungan K, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279054/
  2. Sarwar R, Niclos BB, Rutherford OM. Changes in muscle strength, relaxation rate and fatiguability during the human menstrual cycle. The Journal of Physiology. 1996;493(Pt 1):267-272.
  3. S J Solomon, M S Kurzer, D H Calloway; Menstrual cycle and basal metabolic rate in women, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 36, Issue 4, 1 October 1982, Pages 611–616, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/36.4.611
  4. Maktabi, M., Jamilian, M. & Asemi, Z. Biol Trace Elem Res (2018) 182: 21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12011-017-1085-0
  5. Charles R Pedlar, Carlo Brugnara, Georgie Bruinvels & Richard Burden (2018) Iron balance and iron supplementation for the female athlete: A practical approach, European Journal of Sports Science, 18:2, 295-305, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2017.1416178
  6. Sami R. Al-Katib*, Meissam MH. Al-Kaabi* and Karim A. Al-Jashamy. Effects of Vitamin C on the Endometrial Thickness and Ovarian Hormones of Progesterone and Estrogen in Married and Unmarried Women. American Journal of Research Communication .2013.
  7. Maclean, P.S., et al., Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 2011. 301(3): p. R581-600