All those countless hours spent in the gym. All those carefully prepared meals. All of that hard work day in, day out… But in the end, could your hormones be the reason you aren’t seeing the fat loss results you work so hard for?
There is a lot of buzz surrounding various hormones and their importance for fat loss, body composition, performance and general well-being, so we’ve gone straight to the experts to provide you with the answers to all of your hormone related questions.
With 17 years experience in the health & fitness industry, Matthew Legge, Head of Research and Development at ATP Science uses his extensive background as a naturopath, medical herbalist and nutritionist, food therapist and sports injury manager to educate us and let us in on all of the information we need to know to ensure our hormones are set up for success in and out of the gym.
MJ: Hormones have been given a lot of attention lately from all different types of athletes. Just how important is the role hormones play in the attainment of fitness related goals for both males and females?
ML: Hormones are extremely important for regulating body shape. Hormonal profile and ratios can control your body shape by manipulating the type and location of fat storage sites, muscle anabolism and catabolism, and basal metabolic rate.
Hormones can control how macronutrients work in your body and how their associated energy is utilised or stored. Interestingly, hormone ratios seem to be more influential than total amounts; so balancing and manipulating hormonal ratios can have powerful effects.
Hormones also control other factors that can sabotage your fitness goals such as inflammation, immune dysregulation, allergies, recovery, motivation and drive.
In order to get the results you deserve for your hard work pushing the throttle with diet, exercise and supplementation, it is important to look for and remove any handbrakes that may be keeping you in a certain shape and sabotaging your goals.
MJ: What exactly are hormones?
ML: Hormones are chemicals made from cholesterol that are delivered to sites of the body to induce an action by binding to a hormone receptor and regulating the function of particular cells. They are very powerful and can influence all cells of your body.
MJ: Testosterone enhancing products are very popular within the fitness community. How do these products work? What are some key ingredients to look for in such products, and what do they do?
ML: It is very easy to surge testosterone. Anyone can do it. Exercise, specifically resistance training, sexual excitement, and erections (in males of course) can all boost testosterone. But the real challenge is keeping your testosterone high enough for long enough to have significant anabolic effects.
Testosterone enhancing products come in many different forms and work on a variety of different mechanisms to increase testosterone levels or activity in natural or synthetic ways.
Natural testosterone boosters usually work by encouraging your body to make and secrete more testosterone by either:
- Stimulating the gonads and/or adrenals;
- Blocking negative feedback on the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, or;
- Controlling testosterone conversion pathways to preserve testosterone by stopping it converting to estrogen.
Shilajit, Epimedium and Tribulus work on negative feedback that signals to the body that there isn’t enough testosterone and encourages the body to make more. They increase Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) release and activity. I mention this because in men, LH and FSH make testosterone and sperm but in women the FSH makes estrogen via the ovaries. So these herbs will make testosterone in men of all ages but estrogen in women.
Nettles and Fenugreek block the conversion of testosterone to estrogen and DHT.
Zinc and selenium are extremely important as a deficiency in these essential nutrients can make it almost impossible to make adequate hormones and use herbs to control conversion pathways. I recommend most people stack extra zinc and selenium when following a testosterone boosting protocol.
Tong Kat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia) boosts testosterone production by modulating catabolic stress hormone production and shuttling extra resources into making anabolic testosterone.
D-Aspartic acid (DAA) is a nerve irritant and excitatory stimulant that can increase testosterone secretion. However it can be tricky to use as in some people the excitatory stimulant effect means that it can also stimulate estrogen production and enzymes like aromatase in fat cells that convert testosterone to estrogen.
Testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) will add testosterone to the body rather than encouraging the body to make it naturally. Pro-hormones, bio-identical hormones and other synthetic forms of testosterone will increase blood levels of testosterone quickly and effectively. The side effects of TRT are often associated with the extra testosterone converting to excess estrogen or dihydrotestosterone causing gynaecomastia (man boobs) & hair loss or acne respectively. TRT will also trigger feedback to tell the body that it has enough testosterone and to shut down natural gonadal and adrenal testosterone production.
MJ: We are aware that women naturally possess a fraction of the testosterone found in men. Does this mean that the role of testosterone isn’t as important for females? What function does it serve in the female body?
ML: Estrogen in women is actually made from testosterone in the ovaries, fat cells, skin and hair follicles, so testosterone is a very important building block for women as well as men.
Estrogen dominance is an increasingly common problem for a variety of reasons including toxic exposure, contraception, exposure to plastics, pesticides & fertilizers, and many more factors that are very hard to avoid in today’s society. Maintaining healthy levels of androgens (testosterone and progesterone are both referred to as androgens) will offset this estrogen dominance.
A high estrogen to androgen ratio will make it very hard to mobilise fat and fluid; in particular the estrogen dominant fatty tissue on hips, thighs, lower abdomen, lower back and backs of the arms. As estrogen dominance is corrected it is possible to liberate this stored fat and increase fat burning while preserving lean muscle mass.
MJ: What are some signs of testosterone deficiencies for both males and females, and how can this impact our ability to maximise our fitness results?
ML: In both men and women testosterone deficiency will cause a symptom picture like this:
- Decreased Libido
- Decreased Vitality
- Mood Changes
- Delayed and Insufficient Ejaculation In Men
- Erectile Dysfunction For Men / Impotence Or Failure To Orgasm In Women
- Decreased Muscle Mass
- Poor Muscle Recovery
- Increased Fat Mass
- Testicular Atrophy In Men
- Reduced Bone Density
- Loss of Facial, Axillary and Pubic Hair
ML: However when testosterone levels are adequate the effects look like the following:
- Increased Muscle Mass
- Increased Muscle Protein Synthesis
- Increased Muscle Strength
- Enhanced Glucose Absorption and the Synthesis and Storage of Muscle Glycogen
- Reduced Body Fat
- Improved Cognition
- Enhanced Libido, Erection and Sexual Performance
- Increased Sperm Quality In Men
- Improved Mood and Vitality
- Increased Physical Performance
- Reduced Inflammation
- Improved Healing and Tissue Regeneration
- Improved Bone Density
- Improved Sleep
MJ: When it comes to cutting unwanted body fat, many of us will resort to calorie manipulation and the inclusion of cardiovascular training within our weekly workout regimes. How can our hormonal profile, specifically with respect to estrogen levels and thyroid health, assist males and females in our weight loss goals?
ML: This is where it gets a bit tricky as elevated estrogen inhibits thyroid function and a slow thyroid results in high estrogen. Each individual may have a different cause for this vicious cycle that keeps them stuck in a biochemical trap. The key is to understand that the cycle has to be broken.
It is hard to know which one is the driving factor for the other so we often address both in the absence of a medical diagnosis. What perpetuates the imbalance are the other hormones that get involved; for example cortisol (the stress hormone) inhibits thyroid function and increases estrogen, and high estrogen and low thyroid function also causes cortisol to stay high. High cortisol, high estrogen and low thyroid function contribute to insulin resistance, which starts involving other hormonal systems and manipulating body shape and metabolism.
So you can see the importance of hormonal ratios rather than focusing on boosting one beneficial hormone. It is important to create the ideal hormonal environment to allow hard work, diet, and exercise to work.
MJ: We hear a lot about estrogen dominance these days and estrogen-blocking supplements have become quite popular. Is too much estrogen really a bad thing for both males and females?
ML: The reason we hear so much about estrogen dominance these days is because of the xenoestrogens and EDC’s (endocrine disrupting chemicals) that we are constantly exposed to from foods, plastics, pollutants and medications.
A primary symptom of excess estrogen in both men and women is the presence of excess subcutaneous fat and fluid in the following areas:
Breasts and chest
Backs of the arms
Someone with high estrogen levels may also experience:
Increased worry, intuition and “gut instincts”
Exaggerated stress response and inability to “switch off”
Good long term memory with poor short term memory
Run on autopilot
Sugar and chocolate cravings
Mood swings that follow a pattern with menstrual cycle or the moon
Trigger headaches and migraines
Poor circulation, sometimes bruising and varicose veins
Bloated and “fluidy”abdomen, hips and thighs
Breast lumps and bumps
Abnormal results on pap smears and mammograms
Blood clots, DVTs, bruising and cramps
Poor blood sugar control – high or low blood sugar
Cellulite and obesity
Emotional, nervous and sleep disturbances
Endometriosis and/or endomysositis
PMT with excessive emotional and mood fluctuations
MJ: Many people attribute poor thyroid function as cause for their slow metabolisms or inability to shed excess body fat. What role do thyroid hormones play in our body that can help us with our fitness goals? What are some symptoms of poor thyroid function and how can these be improved naturally?
ML: Thyroid hormones work as pacemakers for your body regulating basal metabolic rate, body temperature, digestion, circulation, healing, fat loss, bone and muscle growth.
Most people know of T4 and the essential conversion to the active T3 (T3 is about 10 times more potent than T4 as a fat burner) but there is a handbrake that a lot of people may not know about: Reverse T3 (rT3).
With estrogen dominance, inflammation and other factors, T4 can proceed down the wrong pathway and convert to rT3 instead of T3. Reverse T3 has only 1/100th of the effect of T3 and blocks the T3 receptors so that it can’t work efficiently while also tricking your body into thinking that you have heaps of T3 and do not need to produce any more. People who have their thyroid function tested rarely measure rT3 and are often told their thyroid hormones are fine when they may have all the obvious symptoms of low thyroid function, including:
Arthralgia – aches and pains of joints
DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)
Hair thinning/hair loss
Menorrhagia – heavy menstrual flow (periods)
Supplementation with important nutritional co-factors to make sure the thyroid is capable of working is first priority. Iodine, Tyrosine, Zinc, Selenium are the most essential and then certain herbs like Bladderwrack, Coleus and Bauhinia can help things along.
MJ: Finally, we hear all this talk about carbohydrates – what, how, when and why we should and shouldn’t consume them. What impact do carbohydrates have on hormonal levels, and how can we use this knowledge to maximize our training and nutrition regimes?
ML: Of all the macro and micro nutrients I would have to say that carbohydrates are the most variable. An athlete may need to adjust carbohydrate amounts, types, and timing multiple times within a 6 to 12 week cut to get the results they need, so to say there is one dietary strategy that will suit a population is crazy. However, it is important to understand a few basic concepts.
Related Article: Inside Insulin
Insulin resistance means that the body has seen so much insulin it is getting sick of it and it does not respond as well to it. Insulin’s job is to take sugar (from carbohydrates) out of the blood. It doesn’t really care where it goes.
As such, muscle can suffer insulin resistance and the body can struggle to dump sugar into muscles. On the other hand, fat doesn’t get insulin resistance and will happily take on any extra carbs to store as fat.
With insulin resistance the body produces too much insulin because it isn’t working as it should. That tricks the body into thinking it has too much sugar so it shuts down fat burning and shuttles the sugar into fat storage leaving nothing for muscle to use for energy.
Glycemic index (GI) is a marker used to identify the rate at which the sugars from carbohydrates are absorbed. The faster a sugar is absorbed, the higher the GI and the more of an insulin spike it will create. The more simple the sugar molecule and the easier it is to digest and absorb, the higher the GI value. That being said, the GI of any food can be reduced by combining it with fat and fibre. For example banana is high GI but strawberries, nuts and seeds are low GI, so combining the banana into a fruit salad with extra fat and fibre from nuts and seeds will make it low GI.
Post-workout and during refeeds you may want the high GI carbs to quickly replenish muscle glycogen for muscle growth and recovery. But then again if your goal is fat loss you may want to leave the cells craving carbs and glycogen to keep you sensitive to insulin for as long as possible as part of a fat loss campaign.
Because of this it is important to work with a coach to create a carb cycling strategy that is constantly monitored. Somewhere between 3 days and 3 weeks you will probably adapt and need to change the plan to keep the body guessing and stop compensation. After all, fat loss and muscle gain are also adaptations to forms of stress just like fat gain and muscle loss, so constant monitoring and adjusting the plan to keep the body changing in the direction that you want it to is a must!