Exercise, Diet & Low Estrogen
Updated: Aug 29, 2018
Fitness should enhance your life, and ultimately your health.
And when done PROPERLY, it does.
Unfortunately, if taken to extremes however, it can have far reaching DAMAGING effects.
In my opinion, as a coach, not enough women who embrace a fitness lifestyle, take the time to pay attention to how their decisions can NEGATIVELY impact their bodies, in particular, their hormones, which are far more susceptible to fluctuation and change than in men.
I'd know, because when I was in my 20's, and competing in three or four, sometimes five figure competitions A YEAR, "hormones" and "metabolic health" were not at the forefront of my mind. I was much more concerned with losing weight, having a low bodyfat and establishing myself as a successful figure athlete.
But, because I learned my lesson the HARD way, is part of why, as a coach, I am now so passionate about educating and informing other women, so they can AVOID the negative health ramifications of taking diet, and exercise to an extreme.
One of the most common hormonal imbalances I run into with the women I work with is low estrogen.
Low estrogen can be genetic for some people. In others it can be the result of a thyroid disorder, ovarian cysts, or having undergone a strenuous treatment such as chemo.
But guess what ELSE causes low estrogen....
1) LOW BODY FAT
2) EXERCISING TOO MUCH
3) NOT EATING ENOUGH
4) Usually these three ^^ occurring together, all at once
In other words- when "fitness" is taken to a gross extreme, for too long, you can cause hormonal imbalances that create a domino effect of negative health symptoms in the body.
I see it all the time.... women who have symptoms that MIMIC menopause (no monthly period, low libido, hot flashes, night sweats, moodiness, inability to lose weight, heightened anxiety, impaired digestion, depression, headaches, dry skin) and yet they are in their 20's and a far cry from being anywhere close to going through menopause.
Typically, these are also women who have a history of chronic dieting or under-eating, paired with an extremely high volume of exercise, which results in low bodyfat and/or low levels of lean muscle.
Having low estrogen doesn't even necessarily mean your estrogen is medically defined as "low".
For example your estrogen levels could be within the medically defined normal ranges, but it still maybe be low compared to the other hormones in your system. Estrogen levels vary from person to person so it’s more important to know how the levels of this hormone change in your body over time, as opposed to the actual measurable amount.
Your estrogen levels can and will naturally decline as you get older, particularly as you approach menopause, so many of the signs of low estrogen I'm going to mention are likely going to be what you’ve heard of as "menopause symptoms" — but low estrogen can cause these symptoms regardless of your age.
1. The first sign of low estrogen is that you no longer get your monthly cycle. Estrogen is one of the primary drivers behind your period. If you have low estrogen it can impact it by making your periods light, or it can severely impact it by erasing it altogether for months and months on end. This happens because estrogen is the hormone that causes your uterine lining to thicken every month, which is the precursor to it shedding. If you have low estrogen, your uterine lining might not be thick enough for your body to have a full period.
2. You get mood swings. Since estrogen levels are so critical in orchestrating your period, it makes sense that your estrogen levels would also impact your mood- just think about the roller coaster of emotions you encounter during your menstrual cycle. All those changes and swings are due to dips and spikes in your hormone levels. If you have low estrogen, the delicate balance of your hormone levels becomes thrown out of whack. And when that happens- boom. MOOD SWINGS.
3. You can't sleep. Low estrogen can really mess with your sleep because estrogen is connected to serotonin, a "feel good" chemical manufactured in your brain. Serotonin is also what makes melatonin- a sleep hormone. If you have low estrogen, you have low serotonin, which leads to low melatonin, which then leads to trouble sleeping.
4. You’re feeling down and depressed. Estrogen’s connection to serotonin also explains why you might be feeling "less than yourself". Estrogen boosts serotonin, which helps your body combat depression. So if you have low estrogen, you likely have insufficient levels of serotonin, which leave you more susceptible to feeling down and depressed.
5. Your libido is down. Low levels of estrogen can lead to a low sex drive. It has to do with estrogen’s ties with serotonin. Specifically, the amount of serotonin in your blood is connected to how excited you are to have sex — so less estrogen = less serotonin = less desire.
6. If sex has suddenly become painful, low estrogen could be the culprit. If you don’t have enough estrogen, your vagina can dry out which will wind up making sex painful. Estrogen also can cause your vaginal walls to thin, another factor that contributes to pain during penetration.
7. Dry skin. Along with vaginal dryness, low estrogen can also impact the dryness of your skin. Estrogen, in general, helps your skin retain moisture, so when levels are subpar you may notice your skin is dry and cracked.
8. You get hot flashes and night sweats. This is a HUGE indicator of low estrogen. Although these two symptoms are often only thought of as being linked to menopause, these symptoms ACTUALLY begin to occur in the phase BEFORE menopause, during what's known as perimenopause. This phase is basically the time in your life when estrogen noticeably begins to drop. So if your estrogen is low, you will find you experience a lot of perimenopause or menopausal symptoms, even if you are NOT actually going into menopause.
Hot flashes and night sweats happen because low estrogen messes with your hypothalamus, the part of your brain that controls your body temperature. When you don’t have enough estrogen, your body is tricked by this part of your brain to think that it’s too hot. In an attempt to get rid of the fake excess heat, your body expends heat in a hot flash, and these hot flashes can also contribute to sleep troubles-it’s hard to sleep when your body is on a temperature rollercoaster.
9. You’re randomly forgetting things. Estrogen is critical for your normal brain function. When you have less of this hormone than your body wants, things can get a little wonky. Estrogen helps regulate your cortisol levels, a stress hormone that, among many other things, helps your neurotransmitters do their job of allowing the different parts of your brain communicate. If you don’t have enough estrogen in your system your cortisol can get out of control, which in turn causes your neurotransmitters to not do their job as well. The result? Memory lapses and forgetfulness.
10. You're can't focus. The poor functioning of neurotransmitters can also make it really hard to concentrate. Poor concentration can also be a side effect of not sleeping well.
11. You get constant headaches. Women tend to get more headaches then men overall, due to fluctuations in hormone levels. In fact, fluctuating estrogen levels are one reason why you could be getting headaches specifically around the time of your period. But if you notice you are getting headaches ALL the time, your estrogen could be low.
12. You’re gaining weight, and it's hard to lose it. Estrogen is connected to your fat cells, and is therefore relevant to how you gain and lose weight. If your estrogen levels are unbalanced, you might end up gaining weight. While most weight gain is actually associated with too much estrogen, not having enough also triggers the body to store more fat, particularly in your midsection. This is why menopausal women tend to find themselves putting weight on in their abs, when maybe they never had that issue before. Low estrogen can also make it difficult for you to lose weight once you’ve gained it. Your estrogen levels actually need to be balanced for your body to be able to lose weight and keep it off over time.
13. Your anxiety is through the roof. Not having the right balance of estrogen can also result in feeling overly anxious. This specifically occurs because of the drop in serotonin levels I mentioned earlier.
Research has also found that if you have low estrogen levels, you’re more likely to feel fearful, scared and paranoid. Some of this is attributed to all of the unexplained changes in your body, but researchers also feel its because you're less able to regulate and control your emotions due to hormonal instabilities.
If you think you might have low estrogen, the first thing to do is talk to your doctor. I know there are lots of things you can do "naturally" but the bottom line is you first need to understand if your estrogen is low, and if so, "how low". You also need to understand how low it is in relation to the other hormones in your body.
And if you know your low estrogen is from extreme dieting and extreme training, then it may be time to re-evaluate your approach to fitness.
Sure, you can look into taking herbs that specifically nourish the glands in your body that make estrogen, but supplementation alone is not going to "fix" the underlying issue. In order to improve your health, hormonal balance, and get your body on track to really make some weight management progress, you need to look at how much you eat (or don't eat) and how much you train.
Or as I say to my clients "you need to FUEL AND TRAIN not DIET AND DRAIN."
Exercise is healthy- to a certain degree but if taken to extremes, becomes unhealthy like anything else.
And when it comes to nutrition, being chronically under-fed and under-fueled can be just as detrimental to your health and goals as it would be if you were constantly over-eating.
If you’ve read the symptoms, think your estrogen might be low, and feel that your chronic cardio/training and "dieting" mindset is to blame- it's time to re-evaluate what you're doing, and if needed, reach out for outside assistance. It can be hard to let go of the mentality that you need to constantly be cutting calories from your diet and burning calories through exercise, but learning to embrace "fueling and training" versus "dieting and draining" is crucial in your ability to find success and sustainability with your weight loss goals.