- Exercise and Hormones: 8 Hormones Involved in Exercise
- Why hormones are so important to your training
- Growth hormone
- The Importance of Keeping Your Hormones Balanced – Triathlete
- Cardio exercise and strength training affect hormones differently
- The Role Of Hormones In Running – PodiumRunner
Exercise and Hormones: 8 Hormones Involved in Exercise
In the movie Fletch, released the same year that ACE was founded (1985), comedian Chevy Chase plays the role of Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher, a reporter working undercover to expose drug dealing on the beaches of Los Angeles.
Over the course of his investigation, Fletch assumes a variety of creative characters as he identifies the corrupt businessmen and cops involved in the drug-dealing ring. In one scene, Fletch pretends to be an airplane mechanic and tries to fib his way into a hangar by saying he was there to check the ball bearings.
“It’s all ball bearings nowadays,” is one of the most memorable quotes of this iconic ‘80s movie.
If you work as a personal trainer or group fitness instructor you have no doubt been asked how exercise can help someone achieve a specific goal. If you want a fun, but honest way to answer these questions, you can channel your inner Fletch by replying, “It’s all hormones nowadays.”
The endocrine system regulates the production of hormones, which are chemicals that control cellular functions. Hormones can affect a number of different cells; however, they only influence the ones with specific receptor sites.
Hormones control a number of physiological reactions in the body including energy metabolism, reproductive processes, tissue growth, hydration levels, synthesis and degradation of muscle protein, and mood.
Hormones are responsible for both building new muscle and helping to burn fat, so it is important to have an understanding of which ones are released in relation to exercise as well as understanding the physiological functions they influence.
There are three major classifications of hormones: steroid, peptide and amines (modified amino acid hormones). Each class of hormones has a unique chemical structure that determines how it interacts with specific receptors.
Steroid hormones interact with receptors in the nucleus of a cell, peptide hormones are comprised of amino acids and work with specific receptors sites on the cell membrane, and amines contain nitrogen and influence the sympathetic nervous system.
Hormones can either be anabolic, which means they help build new tissue, or catabolic because they play a role in breaking tissue down. The term “anabolic steroids” is often mentioned as a method of cheating used by athletes who want to improve performance; however, anabolic steroids are actually natural chemicals produced by the body that are responsible for promoting tissue growth.
Listed below are some important exercise and hormones along with the physiological functions they control.
A peptide hormone produced by the pancreas, insulin regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism. When blood sugar is elevated, insulin is released to promote the storage and absorption of glycogen and glucose.
Insulin helps reduce levels of glucose in the blood by promoting its absorption from the bloodstream to skeletal muscles or fat tissues. It is important to know that insulin can cause fat to be stored in adipose tissue instead of being used to fuel muscle activity.
When exercise starts, the sympathetic nervous system suppresses the release of insulin; consequently, it is important to avoid foods with high levels of sugar (including sports drinks) before exercise because it can elevate insulin levels and promote glycogen storage instead of allowing it to be used to fuel physical activity. Wait until the body has started sweating before using any sports drinks or energy gels.
Released in response to low levels of blood sugar, glucagon is produced by the pancreas to stimulate the release of free fatty acids (FFAs) from adipose tissue and increase blood glucose levels, both of which are important for fueling exercise activity. As glycogen levels are depleted during exercise, glucagon releases additional glycogen stored in the liver.
Cortisol is a catabolic steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress, low blood sugar and exercise. It supports energy metabolism during long periods of exercise by facilitating the breakdown of triglyceride and protein to create the glucose necessary to help fuel exercise.
Cortisol is released when the body experiences too much physical stress or is not sufficiently recovered from a previous workout.
While cortisol helps promote fat metabolism, exercising for too long can elevate levels of cortisol to catabolize muscle protein for fuel instead of conserving it to be used to repair damaged tissues.
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine
These amine hormones play an important role in helping the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) produce energy and in regulating the body’s function during cardiorespiratory exercise. Classified as catecholamines, epinephrine and norepinephrine are separate but related hormones.
Epinephrine, often referred to as adrenaline because it is produced by the adrenal gland, elevates cardiac output, increases blood sugar (to help fuel exercise), promotes the breakdown of glycogen for energy and supports fat metabolism.
Norepinephrine performs a number of the same functions as epinephrine, while also constricting blood vessels in parts of the body not involved in exercise.
Testosterone is a steroid hormone produced by the Leydig cells of the testes in males and the ovaries of females, with small amounts produced by the adrenal glands of both genders.
Testosterone is responsible for muscle protein resynthesis and the repair of muscle proteins damaged by exercise, and plays a significant role in helping grow skeletal muscle.
Testosterone works with specific receptor sights and is produced in response to exercise that damages muscle proteins.
Human Growth Hormone
Human growth hormone (HGH) is an anabolic peptide hormone secreted by the anterior pituitary gland that stimulates cellular growth.
all hormones, HGH works with specific receptor sites and can produce a number of responses, including increasing muscle protein synthesis responsible for muscle growth, increasing bone mineralization, supporting immune system function and promoting lipolysis, or fat metabolism.
The body produces HGH during the REM cycles of sleep and is stimulated by high-intensity exercise such as heavy strength training, explosive power training or cardiorespiratory exercise at or above the onset of blood lactate (OBLA, the second ventilatory threshold).
Insulin- Growth Factor
Insulin- growth factor (IGF) has a similar molecular structure to insulin and is stimulated by the same mechanisms that produce HGH. IGF is a peptide hormone produced in the liver and supports the function of HGH to repair protein damaged during exercise, which makes it an important hormone for promoting muscle growth.
Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a neurotransmitter that helps stimulate the production of new cells in the brain.
The production of BDNF is closely related to the production of HGH and IGF—the same exercises that elevate levels of those hormones also increase amounts of BDNF.
High-intensity exercise can stimulate anabolic hormones for muscle growth while elevating levels of BDNF, which can help improve cognitive function.
Understanding how exercise influences the hormones that control physiological functions can assist you in developing effective exercise programs for your clients. Hormones have both short- and long-term responses to exercise.
In the acute phase immediately post-exercise, testosterone (T), HGH and IGF are produced to repair damaged tissue. Over the long-term, there is an increase in the receptor sites and binding proteins, which allow T, HGH and IGF to be used more effectively for tissue repair and muscle growth.
For clients who want muscle growth, the levels of T, HGH and IGF are produced in response to the amount of mechanical stress created during resistance-training exercises.
Moderate to heavy loads performed until momentary fatigue generate high levels of mechanical force, which creates more damage to muscle protein, which signals the production of T, HGH and IGF to repair protein, which results in muscle growth.
While there are a myriad of hormones responsible for an almost infinite number of physiological functions, the hormones listed above are directly influenced by physical activity and play important roles in helping the body adapt to the imposed physical demands of exercise.
Many fitness professionals understand that the nervous and muscular systems play important roles in determining the outcomes of an exercise program. However, the reality is that hormones influence many of the physiological adaptations to physical activity.
That means that, “It’s all hormones nowadays,” is the appropriate response to many questions about how the human body responds to exercise.
Why hormones are so important to your training
If you spend any time in a gym, you’ll probably hear guys talking about how their training is going. You’ll also hear them discussing their nutrition strategies for bulking up or getting lean. And you may even hear them chat about what they’re doing to speed up the recovery process ahead of their next session.
What you’re unly to hear, however, is talk about what they’re doing to optimise their hormones. You won’t hear it because, even though your hormones dictate everything from your mood to your ability to pack on muscle, this is an area of performance that’s almost entirely overlooked.
Our guide to the key players in your hormonal cascade (the term used to describe how they work together) will help you solve the final piece of the training puzzle.
Also known as: The ‘man’ hormone
What it does: Improves muscle mass, strength and bone density, improves brain function and protects against everything from Alzheimer’s to cancer
To harness its power you should: Live a caveman
How to do it: ‘The simple way to boost testosterone is to live a hunter-gatherer and part-time nun,’ says nutritionist and trainer Ben Coomber (bodytypenutrition.co.uk). ‘Get lots of sleep, preferably with the sun’s cycle – 10pm to 6am is ideal if you can manage it. Eat lots of meat, fats and whole, natural foods.
Train with big compound lifts, adding some sprinting, jumping and playing. Avoid alcohol binges – they can halt testosterone production for up to two days – but do enjoy the odd glass of red wine. Drink lots of water – around 2.5 to 3 litres a day is ideal for most guys. Avoid coffee after 4pm and rest and relax when you can.
Also, have lots of sex if you can manage it.’ Hence the ‘part-time’ caveat.
Also known as: HGH, when it’s injected as a prescription muscle-builder
What it does: Stimulates growth, cell reproduction and regeneration
To harness its power you should: Manage your mealtimes
How to do it: Your testosterone-boosting plan will also help with your production of growth hormone, but you can improve it further by timing your food intake. ‘The most effective way to boost HGH varies depending on when you exercise,’ says Coomber.
‘If you train early in the morning, try taking on caffeine and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), working out on an empty stomach and then eating 30 minutes after training.
The first two or three sessions will seem tough, but you’ll quickly adapt as your body becomes more efficient at using its own energy stores.’
If you train in the evening, though, your body should be fuelled without the caffeine and BCAAs.
‘You should still have a post-workout meal 30 minutes afterwards but it should include simple carbs such as potatoes, white rice or protein pancakes,' Coomber says.
‘They’ll promote quicker recovery and larger spikes in insulin, but your high blood glucose level will drop around two hours later, leaving HGH to rise.’
Also known as: The man-maker
What it does: Boosts your mood, increases your strength and improves your sex life
To harness its power you should: Eat good fats from organic and free-range animals
How to do it: Dihydrotestosterone – to use its full title – is the most important hormone you’ve never heard of. According to Warrior Diet creator Ori Hofmekler, it’s ‘the king of male hormones, and ten times stronger than testosterone’. It also can’t be converted into oestrogen, un testosterone.
So how do you optimise your levels? ‘The best way is to consume adequate dietary fat,’ says strength and conditioning coach Mike Mahler. ‘Coconut oil and milk are good sources. Magnesium oil and zinc can also help.’ And eat free-range.
‘Meat from factory farms is loaded with toxins and stress hormones,’ says Mahler. ‘You can’t eat healthy meat from unhealthy animals, and the fewer toxins you consume, the more energy you’ll have available for optimal hormone production.
Also known as: The stress hormone
What it does: It’s released in response to stress, freeing up glucose for the brain and generating energy from your stored reserves – but there’s a price to pay
To harness its power you should: Keep calm and reassess your life
How to do it: Let’s be honest you can’t eliminate all the stress from your life. Work, family life, emotions, food, booze, late nights and your mindset all contribute to an increase in stress, so you should focus on what you can control and stop worrying about what you can’t.
‘The best advice is to force yourself to look at the stress factors in your life, which are unique to every individual,’ says Coomber. ‘Is your boss acting an arse? You need take steps to address that.
Do you overdo cardio-based training? Cut back and factor in some more resistance training or therapeutic exercise, such as yoga. Is your diet too high in alcohol, processed foods or other unhealthy things? Clean it up. Do you stay up late watching TV? Switch to reading for the 30 minutes before bed.
Is a family member or friend causing you stress? Tackle the issue head on and resolve the conflict.
As well as solving problems, you may find you need to alter your mindset. ‘If you’re generally a stressed person, you need to change your thought process and look at problems and scenarios from a different perspective,’ says Coomber.
Also known as: The carb-and-fat regulator
What it does: Helps cells take up glucose for energy, and regulates metabolism
To harness its power you should: Avoid bread and cereal
How to do it: You’ve probably heard of insulin because of its role in diabetes – Type 1 diabetics can’t produce it, while Type 2 sufferers produce too much because the body isn’t using it effectively.
Insulin is necessary for carrying nutrients to cells, including glucose for brain function. The thing you need to avoid is insulin resistance. ‘Carbohydrates are the biggest stimulators of insulin,’ says Mahler.
‘Protein is a mild stimulator, but it also stimulates glucagon, which helps to balance out the effect. To optimise your insulin levels, get your carbohydrates from low-glycaemic fruits, legumes and vegetables.
Focus on healthy fats from nuts and seeds, olive oil, coconut oil and omega 3s. Try a meal with a tablespoon of coconut oil two hours before a workout, and enjoy the benefits.’
Also known as: The happiness hormone
What it does: Helps you stay organised, social and confident and free from addictive behaviours
To harness its power you should: Swap salt and sugar for spices
How to do it: ‘Dopamine is what gives your body the boost it needs to get bed in the morning and take charge of your day,’ says Mahler.
‘It’s important in mood, motivation, attention and learning, and is also connected to addictive behaviour – people with low levels are often addicted to quick pleasure and succumb easily to addictions.
’ If you’re lacking motivation or feeling tired and burned out, dopamine is the hormone to address.
Start by cutting out foods that lower your levels: ‘Sugar, white bread, pasta and other processed snacks hamper dopamine production,’ says Mahler. ‘To raise your levels, try supplementing with vitamin B and L-carnitine. Fresh spices will help: nutmeg is great for a boost in your morning shake, but cinnamon, basil, cumin and turmeric are all great additions to your diet.’
Also known as: The hunger hormone
What it does: Acts as the go-between for your fat cells and your brain.
To harness its power you should: Eat less frequently and better
How to do it: ‘Leptin is a hormone in fat cells that communicates with the brain to determine energy expenditure,’ says Mahler. ‘When functioning adequately, leptin acts as a fuel gauge and lets us know when we have enough fuel to stop eating before nutrient spillover occurs, leading to the storage of body fat.’
You’re ly to have enough of this hormone, but problems start when leptin resistance sets in and your brain doesn’t receive the signals properly. Thankfully, it’s easy to fix.
‘Cut out high-fructose junk foods, and focus on high-quality organic food,’ says Mahler, ‘You should also eat protein at every meal – especially breakfast. I a power shake with 40g of protein, low GI fruits such as blueberries and essential fats.
’ Take longer gaps between meals for fat loss – you can eat more frequently on training days, but leave longer gaps a few times a week.’
Also known as: The sleep hormone
What it does: Helps the quality and quantity of your sleep, which in turn affects every other hormone
To harness its power you should: Sleep longer and better
How to do it: ‘Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain – it increases in
response to darkness and decreases in response to light,’ says strength coach Phil Learney. ‘It plays a large part in sleep, so if its production is disrupted it can affect sleep patterns and hormonal cycles. People with jet lag or those who work night shifts can often have trouble producing melatonin, which affects their sleep and subsequent recovery from stresses.’
To give it a helping hand, you need to improve your sleep environment. ‘As we no longer wake to the sun rising and sleep as the sun goes down, we need to replicate complete darkness in order to sleep effectively. Any light source, including LED lights on alarm clocks, is enough to disrupt this cycle,’ says Learney. In other words, turn them off.
If you’re deficient you can be prescribed melatonin supplements. You can avoid this, however, by eating foods high in folic acid and vitamin C (which includes most green vegetables) and protein (such as beef, poultry and dairy).
The Importance of Keeping Your Hormones Balanced – Triathlete
Your hormones decide whether you crush or crash. Here’s how to keep them happy.
Under most circumstances, you don’t have to think about hormones. If you’re eating and sleeping and generally a healthy human, your endocrine system hums along on autopilot. But triathletes are often far from normal.
Inveterate tinkerers, triathletes are always looking to tweak the system, and hormones are a tempting piece of the performance puzzle to manipulate. But Dr.
Anthony Hackney, professor of exercise physiology and nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, warns not to try this at home.
“Hormones fluctuate and interact in different ways at different times,” said Hackney, author of Endocrinology of Physical Activity and Sport.
“They also have primary jobs, secondary jobs, tertiary jobs, and that adds to the complexity.
Basically, an endurance athlete needs the right balance of hormones for the energy to do the training and the right balance to adapt to that training and improve.”
Two main hormones involved in regulating the fuel needed to do hours of activity are insulin and cortisol. Insulin regulates the use of carbohydrate stores, and cortisol regulates the breakdown of fat, the body’s sources of energy.
Testosterone in men and women, growth hormone and insulin- growth factors build, repair and help the body recover from the stress and breakdown of training. They’re critical for building structural proteins (think muscle) and for making the enzymes that control biochemical reactions. Adaptation to training happens in the absence of stress, during rest.
“If you eat well and get adequate sleep, hormones will do their job,” Hackney said. “If you want them to do their job better, you have to provide a stimulus. Daily training is that stimulus.”
Ideally, as you increase training volume and intensity, recovery hormones will respond by building more muscle and more enzymes to facilitate more biochemical reactions, which then enable even more work.
The entire system is ramped up, but the balance of work and rest, breakdown and repair—and the hormones that regulate those processes—is maintained.
However, it’s easy to see how a competitive athlete would be tempted to game this upward spiral, wedging in a third hard workout in the week at the expense of a rest day, for example.
Hackney described three ways that hormonal balance can be disrupted. Not eating enough calories—or the wrong types of calories—is one. “The body s mixed diets—carbs, fat and protein,” Hackney said. “Diets that restrict one of those nutrients may work for a short period, but they’re not sustainable and will ultimately throw off hormonal balance.”
Overtraining is another. If you’re not allowing yourself time between hard training efforts, you’re providing too much stimulus and not enough time for adaptation.
While simply working out too hard or too frequently certainly can be the root of overtraining, so can things not getting adequate sleep or stressors work, relationships and finances.
Of these, the volume and intensity of training is often the easiest to control.
And third, performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Remember that complex interplay we mentioned earlier? Even using a drug that seems a no-brainer to some—testosterone or HGH—will have secondary and tertiary effects that may negate any other gains. Exogenous hormones these signal the body to stop producing its own, with damaging long-term consequences.
How much training can your body handle? How much recovery do you need? How many calories? How much sleep? Is that sluggishness due to heavy training or overtraining? As any athlete knows, it’s a fine line between peak fitness and overtraining, between hormonal balance and imbalance.
“That’s the art aspect of coaching,” Hackney said. “People are individual; one size does not fit all. Generally, if you’re restless, not motivated, tired, not sleeping well, and those symptoms become persistent and consistent; if you’re not recovering between workouts, those are signs you’ve pushed too far, of possible hormonal imbalance.”
Seeing an endocrinologist may not be a practical option, and primary care doctors are not always familiar with the demands of endurance training.
Hackney offered two doctor-it-yourself points to ponder: Make certain you’re allowing yourself rest and recovery, not only day-to-day but in annual training cycles; be sure you’re eating enough and eating healthfully.
“Athletes usually know what they’re supposed to be doing, but knowledge does not always convey action,” Hackney said
Cardio exercise and strength training affect hormones differently
Every day a lot of people cycle to and from work or visit the gym to lift heavy weights. Regardless of the form of training they choose, almost everyone does it to improve their health. But we actually know surprisingly little about exactly how different forms of training affect our health.
However, now researchers from the University of Copenhagen have come closer to understanding the diverse effects of different forms of training.
In a new study published in the scientific Journal of Clinical Investigation — Insight, the researchers show that cardio training on an exercise bike causes three times as large an increase in the production of the hormone FGF21 than strength training with weights. FGF21 has a lot of positive effects on metabolism.
'Of course it is very exciting for us researchers to see how different forms of physical activity actually affect the body differently.
We have known about the effects of various forms of training on more well-known hormones adrenalin and insulin for a long time, but the fact that strength training and cardio exercise affect FGF hormones differently is new to us', says Associate Professor from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research Christoffer Clemmensen, who is one of the researchers behind the study.
No Changes from Strength Training
The researchers have studied the effects on 10 healthy young men, who had been randomly divided into two groups and did both forms of training once a week. Both training forms were relatively hard and lasted 60 minutes.
The cardio exercise consisted of cycling at a level of 70 percent maximum oxygen intake, while the strength training consisted of five exercises repeated 5 x 10 times and involving the main muscle groups in the body.
Subsequently, eight blood samples were taken from the participants over a period of four hours in order to measure the development in blood sugar, lactic acid, various hormones and bile acid in the body.
It was these measurements that revealed a significant increase in the production of the hormone FGF21 in connection with cardio exercise, while strength training showed no significant change with regard to this hormone.
'Endurance training on a bicycle has such a marked effect on the metabolic hormone that we know ought to take a closer look at whether this regulation of FGF21 is directly related to the health-improving effects of cardio exercise.
FGF21's potential as a drug against diabetes, obesity and similar metabolic disorders is currently being tested, so the fact that we are able to increase the production ourselves through training is interesting', Christoffer Clemmensen elaborates.
Muscle Hormone Surprised the Researchers
The researchers also measured the content in the blood of another hormone, FGF19, which among other things has been linked to muscle growth in animal tests. Due to these previous studies the researchers expected the strength training to have an effect on this hormone. However, the results proved them wrong.
'Directly contrary to our hypothesis the production of the growth hormone FGF19 actually dropped slightly after strength training.
To me, that stresses that there is something about the effect of strength training that we simply have too little knowledge of.
And of course that gives rise to more research', says co-author of the study Jørn Wulff Helge, Professor of Physical Activity and Health at the Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Biomedical Sciences.
The researchers will now look more closely at other links between hormones involved in both metabolism and exercise.
About the Study
The study is a so-called randomised crossover study, which means that it holds greater weight evidence-wise than studies performed on animals and cell cultures, but less than large cohort studies on humans.
The researchers point out that their results are limited by the fact that the blood samples were not taken more than four hours after the training, and that they can say nothing about the effects of a full training programme on these hormones. However, the results, especially regarding the metabolic hormone FGF21, are so significant that they provide a solid foundation for studying whether similar effects can be seen in other groups of test persons.
Materials provided by University of Copenhagen The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
The Role Of Hormones In Running – PodiumRunner
Not all hormones are created equal.
It’s virtually impossible to train seriously and not affect your hormone, or endocrine, system. But when armed with the idea of bumping up testosterone or HGH levels, some athletes try to mess around with that system—to dire consequences.
“A little bit of knowledge is dangerous,” says Anthony Hackney, a professor of exercise physiology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the co-author of the second edition of Sports Endocrinology.
It’s important, he says, to understand the balance of hormones. The key hormones for an athlete to know about are growth hormone (or human growth hormone, HGH), insulin and insulin- growth factors, cortisol, and testosterone.
Growth hormone triggers the adaptive response in your muscles, says Tom Cotner, Ph.D, the running coach for Seattle-based Club Northwest. Growth hormone is an anabolic hormone that promotes growth. It targets the muscles and cells that are being stressed by exercise and makes them receptive to adaptation. The muscles actually adapt during recovery.
We naturally secrete growth hormone during the delta wave part of sleep, but as we get older we have less and less time in that deep sleep. During exercise we also secrete growth hormone, but in smaller quantities. It doesn’t kick in, either, until after about 10 minutes of exercise, Cotner says, and there are diminishing returns after 75 minutes.
Because growth hormone is secreted from the pituitary gland in response to energy expenditure it’s possible to “game the system,” Cotner says, by training more than once a day, doing more intense exercise, or taking an ice bath after exercise, which expends energy.
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But, as the weeks of exercise accumulate, the amount of growth hormone secreted for any one workout decreases and your body adapts. If you really wanted to “see the hormones go crazy,” Hackney says, you’d get the most response from being very shape and then starting to work out.
The most commonly overlooked hormones involved in exercise are the insulin- growth factors and insulin. Insulin- growth factors are stimulated by growth hormones and bind to cells to regulate cell growth and processes. Insulin oversees the cells’ uptake of glucose and storage of glycogen, necessary to ensure we have the right energy pathways available for our training.
In the regular course of things—if you’re eating well, sleeping, and exercising—these hormones work to self-regulate and maintain a balance.
“Some are going up, some are going down,” Hackney says.
We can throw that balance whack, though, from overtraining. “You can overload your endocrine system,” Cotner says.
Cortisol is released from the adrenal gland and is an anti-inflammatory and a catabolic hormone that breaks down cells.
In an average person, cortisol breaks down about 1 percent of muscle proteins daily, which are then replaced as induced by growth hormone and insulin- growth factor.
With training, cortisol breaks down 3-5 percent of muscle proteins in the body every day, Cotner says. Too much training releases too much cortisol and essentially breaks down too many proteins.
Too much training can also decrease the levels of testosterone in the body. Testosterone, found in both men and women, increases muscle mass and decreases recovery time. But while intense workouts can increase testosterone levels, too much long, easy training can drive them down.
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Overtraining is the most ly thing to throw off an athlete’s hormone balance, which leads to all the symptoms associated with over-training: sleeplessness, extreme muscle soreness, elevated resting heart rate, or overall fatigue. Generally, if you experience those symptoms, you should dial it back. But knowing exactly how much training is too much can be challenging.
“If I knew exactly how much was too much, I’d be a lot richer,” Hackney says.
Other things that can impact the hormone balance include life stress, which causes a release of cortisol, epinephrine and norephedrine. A lack of sleep can stall your secretion of growth hormone, as can alcohol, Cotner says.
One beer, he says, can decrease the amount of growth hormone secreted by 25 percent. Age also decreases the amount of growth hormone and slows down the entire system.
That’s why older athletes often experience the two-day lag effect of soreness from a workout—which can also happen to young female athletes, who have less growth hormone and testosterone.
Not eating enough calories, a particular problem for female athletes, can cause a disruption in the whole system.
The right mix of protein (6 grams) to carbohydrates (30 grams) in the recovery window after a workout helps delay cortisol secretion and getting enough iron is essential to red blood cell production, regulated by naturally-occurring EPO. Any sickness or trauma will also force your body to prioritize hormone regulation to those things first.
Trying to bump up levels of some hormones is common in a variety of forms. People sleep in altitude tents to increase levels of EPO naturally by decreasing oxygen supply. Over-the-counter supplements promise to increase testosterone or HGH levels. But “a lot of those things don’t work,” Hackney says.
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Even the things that do work in the short-term—resistance exercises have been shown to elevate short-term levels of growth hormone, testosterone and insulin- growth factors—aren’t proven to make you faster in the long run, Hackney says.
Illegal doping agents definitely increase hormone levels and can sometimes increase performance, both Hackney and Cotner say.
But, there are legal consequences, severe health consequences, and sometimes even death from messing with your hormone balance artificially.
The complicated system is good at self-regulating and it’s hard to know what all the side effects of changing one thing will be.
“You can’t treat all hormones the same,” Cotner says.
Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. You can read more about her at www.sunnyrunning.com.