How hormones affect your health
by Callum Allan on Oct 31, 2022
We all know that working out releases endorphins, giving us that post-workout high that keeps us coming back for more. But did you know that there's another, more covert player in our happy gym equations? Hormones. Yup, those chemical messengers are at it again, and this time they're helping (or hindering) our workout gains. Here's a quick rundown of how four common hormones affect our health - both in and out of the gym.
The steroid hormone testosterone comes with a lot of cultural baggage. We tend to think of it as the "male" hormone, responsible for all things aggressive, assertive, and amorous. But both men and women have testosterone coursing through their veins ( just women in smaller amounts). In addition to its well-known effects on sex drive and muscle mass, this hormone also regulates fat distribution and bone density.
For men, levels start to decline around age 30 at a rate of about 1% a year. That doesn't sound like much, but it can take a serious toll on muscle mass (and motivation). One study found that males over 40 who took testosterone had increased strength, fat-free mass, and overall physical function. If you're feeling run down or noticing a dip in gym performance, it might be time to talk to your doctor about T levels.
You might not know cortisol by name, but you know its nickname - "the stress hormone." When we experience stress - whether it's from work, relationships, or looking for parking downtown - our body secretes cortisol as part of the stress response. This little hormone has some big jobs: it helps regulate blood pressure and cardiovascular function while also putting the brakes on inflammation throughout the body.
Chronically high cortisol levels can have some seriously negative consequences for health including weight gain, anxiety, mood swings, insomnia, and even depression. It can also lead to overeating and cravings for unhealthy foods. So if you find your cortisol levels spiking (like when you miss a couple of workouts or have a stressful week at work), try some calming activities like yoga or meditation to bring yourself back down to earth.
This hormone gets a bad rap because it's often associated with diabetes. But insulin is vital for overall health - it helps cells absorb glucose so they can use it for energy. It also regulates how much sugar is stored in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. When we eat foods high in simple carbohydrates (we're looking at your candy bar), insulin levels spike so that glycogen stores can quickly be replenished. That's great for post-workout refuelling...but not so great when we're trying to cut body fat or manage diabetes. To keep insulin under control and minimize those spikes, focus on eating slowly digesting carbs like sweet potatoes or beans instead of sugars and refined grains.
Last but not least is estrogen: the female sex hormone responsible for breast development, regulating the menstrual cycle, and helping keep bones strong. Women typically have higher estrogen levels than men until around age 50 when menopause causes estrogen production to decline sharply. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is often used to mitigate some of menopause's more unpleasant symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and mood swings. However, HRT isn't without its risks so be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any treatments.
So there you have it! A crash course in four common hormones and how they affect our health - both inside and outside the gym. Keep these little chemical messengers in mind next time you're feeling extra tired or struggling with your diet; they just might be the key to getting things back on track!