Hormones! Us women can blame a lot of things on them! I've been meaning to write this blog for a while! In my blogs "hormones" are something that gets mentioned quite regularly but we've not talked about hormones yet in the context of the menstrual cycle and how it can affect fat/weight loss, so I thought it was about time we had a look....
Hormones and the endocrine system (which produce hormones) are a subject that has always fascinated me. They control so much about us and what we do. From conception through to birth then on to feeding, sleep, mood, appetite just to name a few they have a major influence over our daily lives and many of us don't even realise it.
Us females don't have it easy when it comes to fat loss. As we're responsible for producing the human race, we naturally carry a higher percentage of body fat than men do. We have evolution to thank for this! Having a healthy percentage of fat in your body is very important for the healthy function of your hormonal system and therefore your reproductive system, which is controlled by hormones. This is why you sometimes hear about female endurance athletes or professional sportswomen experiencing secondary amenorrhea (loss of periods not due to pregnancy). In this case they have lost so much body fat their hormones have effectively stopped working, as you need body fat to help transport the hormones around your body. It can also be the case that females suffering from eating disorders like anorexia experience the same symptoms. Either way, it is important to remember that it's very natural, healthy and normal for females to carry a bit more body fat than men do. Due to the evolutionary nature of our biology it can also make it harder to shift! Your body knows that it needs fat to survive and to reproduce, so sometimes that can counteract our attempts to lose weight.
The main hormones we're talking about here are the female reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone. The main male hormone is testosterone, and that's what gives men their typical "male" features of more muscle, heavier, hairier etc! It's what helps men put muscle on when they weight train. Women have testosterone in their bodies too, but in much smaller amounts, which is why when females weight train they don't end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger! (a common fear amongst women!). Trust me, it won't happen!
So many women find that during the course of their monthly menstrual cycle they experience different moods, appetites and all sorts of other symptoms. It can make you feel awful. This is caused by the changes in hormones actually changing your body's physiology, and there's not really a lot you can do about it. But at least if you understand how it affects you body you can more easily live with it and if necessary adjust your exercise routine and diet to help you better cope with it, and that's what I'm going to talk about here.
You may find that during the phases of your monthly cycle your weight fluctuates as does your mood and appetite, so if you are trying to lose weight it is important to be aware of the way your body changes monthly and the effect it will have on your weight loss. I have had clients in tears when they have weighed themselves and not lost any weight that week and they've not done anything wrong - but once we've discussed what's going on in their bodies it turns out that their period is due, which is almost certainly the reason why.
So, what other changes in the body can you expect?
During the first two weeks of the cycle (the follicular phase) estrogen levels are rising in the body. This can cause a decrease in appetite and you may feel at your best during this time. If you weight train, this is when you will likely do your best workouts. You will also be more tolerant to carbohydrates (which is good if you're doing a lot of exercise as you need the energy) and your body will more efficiently process carbs during this time, which is also good for your weight.
Then your body moves into the luteal phase of the cycle leading up to menstruation, and it all changes! The main hormone during this time is progesterone, and this will cause your metabolic rate to increase (the rate at which you burn calories), and this can in turn make you feel more hungry! You may need to eat an extra 100-300 calories per day to not feel hungry, although typically it is very easy to overeat during this time and it can be up to an extra 500 calories. You may also have cravings for sweet foods like chocolate. Your body will be more resistant to insulin during this time, which means it's more difficult for it to process carbs and you may gain a bit of weight during this time as a result. You can also experience a host of other psychological issues from depression and low mood as well as physical pain and stomach cramps. Not much fun! If you exercise this is also when you are at a higher risk of injury, so if you weight-train then bear this in mind.
In addition you may also experience increased weight gain from water retention. Bloating can be a significant issue for women. Some women report gaining as much as 5 to 10 extra pounds of water during their cycle. This jump on the scale is NOT fat. It’s simply excess water retention caused by your hormones stimulating several compounds called renin-angiotensin from the kidneys that lead to fluid retention.
So, what can you do to help cope with the effects these hormones have on you? There's a few things you can try.
1. If you're going to start a diet then start it during week 1 of your cycle to give you the best chance of success. Depending on your menstrual symptoms, you might find it very hard to diet at all during the last two weeks, so make allowances for this.
2. Chocolate! If you crave chocolate try having some dark chocolate. Some people find it's actually the cocoa they crave. As dark chocolate contains more cocoa than white or milk chocolate, try a little bit of dark chocolate to help. Dark chocolate is also less sweet and lower in fat, so not quite as bad for you as the other types
3. Measurements - if you are using weight as a measurement then compare like with like. So if you weight yourself each week, then compare your weight from week 1 of your cycle with the weight from other week 1's, and so on. As I said it is common to gain weight from water retention, so it'e best not compare your weight over the course of the month as it can fluctuate a lot and you may be beating yourself up about it for no reason!
4. If you weight train then consider adjusting your training to fit better with your cycle. You may find you feel strongest during weeks 1-2, so get your big sessions in then. It's not unusual to see a bit difference in the amount of weight you can lift between weeks 1-2 and weeks 3-4. So again, don't beat yourself up about it and maybe try metabolic training instead. If you find that you are more clumsy or prone to injury during weeks 3-4 then use the weight machines instead of free weights
5. Adjust your diet during your cycle. If you find you are craving food and hungrier than usual during weeks 3-4, then decrease your carbs and increase your protein and fats to help stop you feeling hungry and craving so much. Protein and (good) fats are filling, so give that a try and see if it helps
6. Exercise! If you find you suffer from low mood during your 3rd and 4th week then a bit of exercise can really help boost your mood and your happy hormones. Go with whatever makes you feel better - for some it a burst of cardio or you may find yoga more beneficial.
Other issues relating to female hormones include PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome). PCOS is a set of symptoms due to elevated testosterone in females. Signs and symptoms of PCOS include irregular or no menstrual periods, heavy periods, excess body and facial hair, acne, pelvic pain, difficulty getting pregnant, and patches of thick, darker, velvety skin. You may also find you gain weight very easily and your menstrual cycle can be 35 days or longer. However, you can help combat these symptoms by exercising as often as you can, resistance training, and having a high-protein lower carb diet.
So, I hope you've found the above interesting and helpful. Men don't realise how easy they have it! For the most part of their lives their hormones and physiology stays the same. But at least if us females better understand what's going on in our bodies then we are more able to cope with it and improve our lifestyles accordingly.
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Exercise For Mum's was created by PT mum Susan Flintoff. Susan is a busy working mum of two who specialises in helping other busy mum's fit health and fitness back into their lives, and hopes to inspire them to be the best mum they can be!!