Ladies, let’s talk hormones and periods. Chances are if you’re reading this article you’re into health and fitness. You want to look good, feel good, be strong and have a great body composition (which means different things to different people).
Well, menstrual health is a HUGE part of your overall health and hormonal birth control (HBC) can wreak havoc on your physical, mental and emotional well being. (Not to mention really mess with the scale and any kind of body goals.)
We dug deep into men’s health (and the alarming issue of decreasing testosterone levels) earlier this month. On the female side, hormone health is simply more complicated than guys because we have more hormones to regulate. As a result, there are more things to go awry and leave us feeling junky, run down, and struggling with developing strength or issues losing weight.
Nutrition coach and dietetics grad Laurie Christine King has been leading the charge to help arm athletes with the right information. Below she goes into symptoms of menstrual health issues, the effects of HBC on your performance and aesthetic goals, bloodwork considerations and what you CAN do to fight back.
Things That Are NOT Normal:
*To have low (or no) sex drive
-To have no menstrual cycle at all
-To have horrific, painful menstrual cycles or bad PMS
-To feel chronically exhausted and drained
-To require copious amounts of coffee to get through your day
-To struggle with weight, body composition, or ability to lose fat
-To struggle to make strength gains or have good muscle tone
Why Your Cycle Matters
Our monthly menstrual cycle is feedback to our underlying health. It’s a pretty incredible and timely report on exactly how we’re doing “under the hood”. Heavy and excruciatingly painful periods? Super light periods? No period at all? All are giant red flags for further investigation, lab work and a conversation with your doctor.
-Run a full hormone panel. Dutch Tests are the most comprehensive as they run all hormones and their metabolites. Keep in mind that hormone levels vary throughout the month, so you need labs that include values during both the follicular AND luteal phases of your cycle.
-You can’t test levels if taking hormone birth control, as natural hormones become overridden. If transitioning off HBC, we recommend waiting three months prior to lab work.
-Consider pulling a four-point cortisol test (which tests your cortisol levels over four different times.) You want DHEA, LH, FSH, TSH (hormones involved in the reproductive system), Free T3 & T4, TPO, Estradiol, Progesterone, Testosterone, Iron, CRP, B12, ALT, and AST at minimum.
Has Your Cycle Gone Missing?
Amenorrhea (lack of menstrual cycle) is especially worth paying attention to. In very basic light, a female body should be able to reproduce and bear children. If we do not have a menstrual cycle, it’s VERY concerning feedback that your health is not in a good place as the body doesn’t view you as healthy enough to bear another human being.
Amenorrhea is Completely Normal:
-During breastfeeding (after childbirth)
-Menopause (and peri-menopause)
Potential Contributors to Amenorrhea:
-Low estrogen or progesterone levels
-High androgen levels (like testosterone)
-Low body fat or too low of a body weight (we can also have a “normal” body weight and still lose our cycle if calories are too low for activity levels)
-Diets low in dietary fat (cholesterol is a precursor for sex hormones)
-Diets low in carbohydrates (Low carb diets –like keto– disrupts LH (Luteinizing hormone), which is essential to your reproductive system. That leads to no ovulation and no period!
-Hormonal birth control (current use, or after transitioning off HBC)
-Low thyroid function
3 Major Things to Know About Hormonal Birth Control That May Impact Body Composition and Gym Performance:
Regardless of taking HBC for the sake of better skin, making menstrual cycles more tolerable, or for pregnancy prevention—it’s vital to understand what occurs when we have an IUD or take the pill.
HBC contains synthetic chemicals that are not the same as the natural hormones in our body. With exogenous hormone use, our own natural hormones become flat-lined (almost as if we pressed an “off switch”).
Synthetic hormonal birth control may contribute to three things that greatly impact body composition and overall well being.
They include (but certainly aren’t limited to): increased inflammation, nutrient depletion, and altered gut health. We can have the most perfect nutrition and exercise program in the world, but HBC may keep us from feeling our best or getting the results we desire.
HBC Increases Inflammation:
Inflammation is the root cause of most disease. Excessive inflammation can lead to issues like insulin resistance, Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and also inhibit thyroid function. Why is that important? Our thyroid directly impacts our sleep, digestion, and metabolism. So if the thyroid is compromised, your ability to gain muscle, lose fat, or have a good body composition can go out the window.
Consider: Minimizing sugar consumption, consuming plenty of healthy fats (like fatty fish, grass-fed meats, avocados, and olive oil), balancing blood sugar by eating well-rounded meals, and supplementing with turmeric and fish oil.
HBC Depletes Us of Nutrients:
Hormonal birth control depletes us of antioxidants, B vitamins, and minerals like zinc, magnesium, and selenium. All of which are essential for optimal thyroid function and are involved with hormone synthesis or utilization at some level.
Consider: Eating a micronutrient-dense diet full of colorful produce, healthy fats, and high quality meats. Supplementing to fill the gaps with Thorne Researchor Garden of Lifebrand or other high-quality supplements is another fantastic idea.
HBC Alters Gut Biome:
Hormonal birth control may alter and disrupt gut flora. Meaning we may overgrow yeast, bacteria or encourage gut imbalances like H.Pylori, SIBO, Candida, or Leaky Gut.
Consider: Minimizing sugar consumption, crushing plenty of vegetables on the regular, supplementing with probiotics, and rotating usage of bone broth, collagen, & fermented foods.
How to Naturally Balance Hormone Levels
-Minimize caffeine (excessive caffeine may strain the adrenals)
-Minimize alcohol consumption (alcohol raises estrogen levels)
-Get 8-9 hours of sleep every single night
-Manage and address stress
-Take down training volume and intensity. Take more rest days in the gym & consider switching modalities to something like bodybuilding/lifting (vs. high-intensity modalities like CrossFit, Orange Theory, etc)
-Optimize gut health via quality probiotics, fermented foods, bone broth, and collagen
-Reduce plastic exposure (Tupperware, meal prep containers, water bottles, etc)
-Buy natural body care products, skin care products, deodorants, and household cleaners
-Buy high quality meats & organic produce as much as possible
-Keep blood sugar balanced by eating at regular intervals during the day & get in a protein, carbohydrate, fat, & vegetable at every meal
-Consume plenty of cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts)
-Consume 30-40 grams fiber daily and drink ample water and fluids
-Consider researching & incorporating products like DIM and Calcium D-Glucarate that naturally balance hormone levels
Closing Thoughts (And HBC Alternatives!):
We recommend making changes to diet and lifestyle first, and then looking deeper into supplementation and bloodwork if problems persist. Keep in mind that we do not live in a vacuum, so hormone issues are rarely due to one isolated thing and more an accumulation of numerous little lifestyle habits or dietary issues adding up. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion on lab work and do more research if lab values “look okay” but symptoms persist.
If you’re interested in learning more about hormonal birth control, your monthly cycle, or how to transition off HBC, we recommend checking out the book “Period Repair Manual“.
If pregnancy prevention is a concern, check out Daysy Fertility Tracker. It’s a medical device that’s 99.4% accurate at preventing pregnancy –and backed by 30-plus years of research– that does not fuss with your cycle or synthetic hormones.
Athlete Daily is not affiliated with Laurie Christine King. (Though we think she’s a total badass.) For more information on King and her services, click here.
Disclaimer: Athlete Daily are not medical professionals and the information contained herein should not be taken as medical advice. These are only recommendations. These recommendations should NOT be taken as medical advice, nor are they intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any health problem. Recommendations by Athlete Daily are not intended to replace the advice of a physician or health professional. Please consult your physician or a health professional before beginning any diet or exercise program.