When you think about hormones and exercise, testosterone is the first thing that typically comes to mind. However, in women, having suboptimal estrogen levels can be just as detrimental to your workouts and achieving your fitness goals.
Research has shown that estrogen has a major impact on building muscle mass in women.
Estrogen is also important for recovery after workouts.
Let's talk about suboptimal estrogen, what causes it, and how you can prevent it.
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What Causes Suboptimal Estrogen?
The most obvious cause of low estrogen levels in women is menopause.
Even during perimenopause, or the period a few years prior to menopause, women will start to see declining estrogen levels.
However, there are other reasons you can develop suboptimal estrogen levels that women should be aware of, which include:
- Premature ovarian failure
- High-stress levels
The Effects of Suboptimal Estrogen on Fitness in Women
While estrogen is not the anabolic hormone that testosterone is, it does play a role in muscle growth and building muscle mass.
Studies have shown that estrogen can increase the signaling power of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).
This hormone is a major player in muscle synthesis, and its activation enhances muscle growth.
Since estrogen aids in muscle synthesis indirectly, low estrogen levels can lead to muscle weakness.
On top of its muscle-building influence, estrogen also supports the binding of the small contractile proteins in muscles known as actin and myosin.
This produces stronger muscles and increased strength.
Decreased Muscle Recovery
Estrogen also seems to work as an antioxidant in muscle cells.
This decreases damage and inflammation after a tough workout.
In addition, estrogen helps speed up the repair of muscle fibers after exercise, which enhances overall body recovery.
Research has demonstrated that women using hormone therapy experienced less muscle damage after exercise compared to women not being treated with hormone replacement.
This further indicates that there is a protective effect of estrogen against exercise-induced skeletal muscle damage
If you have low estrogen levels, this will hamper the recovery process after a workout.
This means your body’s ability for muscle growth will be delayed.
Plus, if your muscles aren’t fully recovered, this will affect your next scheduled workout.
If you can’t give a full effort on your next training day, this will further affect your potential for fitness gains.
Reduced Bone Strength
Another consequence of low estrogen levels is the progressive loss of bone mineral density and bone strength.
This increases your risk of falls and fractures, which would have a major impact on your ability to maintain a high level of physical activity.
This progressive loss of bone strength accelerates during perimenopause.
Therefore, maintaining optimal estrogen levels can help support normal bone density.
Preventing Low Estrogen Levels
To keep your body working at its maximum capacity, you want to keep estrogen levels at their optimum level.
While you can’t completely prevent the decline in estrogen associated with menopause or ovarian failure, there are modifiable risk factors that you can control.
High levels of stress are associated with suboptimal estrogen levels, therefore stress management is critical in keeping your hormones in check.
Finding ways to alleviate stress will not only improve your physical health, but also your emotional and psychological health.
Some great stress management techniques include:
- Deep breathing
- Massage/myofascial release
A healthy diet is also key to maintaining adequate estrogen levels.
Poor nutrition and anorexia is a common cause of estrogen deficiency as this also creates undue stress on the body.
When women try to lose weight, some may rapidly cut back calorie intake to get the scale to move down faster.
However, this is actually more detrimental to your health and fitness.
There are a number of ways to tailor your nutrition to your body’s specific needs.
You can sit down with a dietitian or nutritionist to go over your fitness goals and food preferences.
There are also great apps that you can input your food intake and track your calorie and macronutrient intake throughout the day.
Plus, there are some great resources right here at the Fit Mother Project that can help guide your dietary choices.
While overeating is obviously going to deter your fitness gains, undereating is just as harmful to your health and can seriously undermine your health goals.
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Treating Low Estrogen Levels
There are certain things in life beyond our control.
Aging and reaching perimenopause or menopause will inevitably cause a decrease in estrogen.
Other conditions, like premature ovarian failure, will also wreak havoc on your hormones.
Luckily, there are treatment options.
Before discussing the treatment of suboptimal estrogen levels, remember that it is important to discuss any kind of hormone therapy with your doctor.
This includes supplements and remedies that can be purchased over the counter.
Everyone’s medical history is unique, and even otherwise safe medications can cause issues in individuals with certain medical conditions.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, has gotten a pretty bad rap over the years.
This came after the Women’s Health Initiative Study that showed an increase in cardiovascular events for postmenopausal women receiving HRT.
However, new research has shown that HRT can be used safely and effectively in the right individuals.
While estrogen therapy is not recommended solely for the prevention of chronic disease, in women who have physical symptoms associated with menopause the benefits of hormone replacement therapy in alleviating symptoms may outweigh the risks.
This is true as long as treatment is initiated early on following menopause.
Again, this is a decision that is always made after discussion with a physician.
Hormone therapy is an acceptable option for the relatively young (up to age 59 or within 10 years of menopause) and healthy women who are bothered by moderate to severe menopausal symptoms.
When it comes to improvements in physical performance, estrogen replacement does appear to have numerous benefits.
One study found that HRT improves muscle size, vertical jump height, and running speed in women.
Additional research also showed that muscle performance, muscle mass, and muscle composition were all improved by HRT, especially when combined with exercise.
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Phytoestrogens have gained momentum in the health scene over the years as an alternative option for hormone replacement therapy.
These are plant-derived compounds that have a structure similar to estrogen.
By binding to estrogen receptors, these compounds can produce similar effects as the estrogen your body produces.
Hormone replacement therapy is an option for those with low estrogen levels.
However, this does require frequent monitoring and a doctor's prescription.
Another option to heighten estrogen in a more natural way is through phytoestrogens.
There is evidence that phytoestrogen intake can help enhance muscle strength when combined with exercise.
For example, one study found that increased soy protein intake attenuated gains in muscle strength during resistance training in older adults compared with increased intake of dairy protein or usual protein intake.
Here are some of the best dietary sources of healthy phytoestrogens:
Soy: soy milk, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, miso
Nuts and seeds: flaxseed, sesame seeds, almonds, and walnuts
Fruits: Berries (strawberries, cranberries, raspberries), apples, red grapes
Vegetables: Parsley, carrots, sprouts
Similar to estrogen replacement therapy, there has been concern that phytoestrogens, and particularly soy, could promote breast cancer development.
However, a growing body of evidence suggests that soy food is safe to consume at moderate levels.
Overall phytoestrogens appear to have minimal side effects and are safe in the majority of people, however, any dietary changes should be discussed with your physician
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Understand Your Estrogen Levels to Maximize Your Workouts
When it comes to fitness and quality of life, estrogen is a critical hormone for women.
While menopause is the most common cause of suboptimal estrogen, everyday factors like stress and diet can significantly impact hormone levels.
If you feel sluggish during your workouts, or just aren’t recovering like you used to, you may want to consider having your estrogen levels checked by your physician.
Looking at specific hormone levels can help determine if there are strategies to maximize your health through lifestyle changes or even medical treatment.
No two women are the same, and reaching optimal estrogen levels will be a little different for everyone.
However, there is growing evidence that estrogen plays a critical role in muscle growth, strength, and recovery in women.
By knowing your levels, you can make the most out of each workout and maximize your fitness.
*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on suboptimal estrogen.