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Of all the hormones in your body, estrogen just might have the worst rep: you probably associate it with the bloating, fatigue and headaches that make hitting the gym more challenging right before and during your period (when your estrogen levels dip and then begin to increase). But it also impacts your health and training goals in other important ways. Increasingly, researchers are linking excess body fat and excess estrogen levels: they find that the more body fat you have, the more estrogen you produce. Studies also show that high levels of estrogen are connected to health conditions such as obesity, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, for active women, keeping estrogen at the right levels — not too high and not too low — can make the difference between looking fit and looking flabby.
“Estrogen balance is essential for achieving and maintaining fat loss,” says Natasha Turner, ND, author of The Supercharged Hormone Diet. “An imbalance will definitely impact your ability to build and retain lean and metabolically active muscle tissue, as well as your ability to burn fat,” she says.
How does it all work? Imagine the cells of your body as little fortresses that are unlocked by keys in the form of enzymes. When the enzymes unlock certain cells, cholesterol creates hormones, such as estrogen, testosterone and cortisol, to aid in normal, everyday functioning. Fat cells, as Alicia Stanton, MD, explains, contain an enzyme called aromatase, which helps convert testosterone to estrogen — again, a normal, everyday reaction that helps your body maintain the right amount of hormones. “If there’s a large amount of fat in the body, the reaction is too active and too much estrogen is produced,” says Stanton. “When this happens, it creates a hormonal imbalance that is related to a host of conditions in women — everything from PMS to cancer.”
But don’t worry — active women can take control and aim to achieve healthy and balanced estrogen levels simply by making certain choices that fit right in with the Oxygen lifestyle, including exercising, keeping a healthy level of body fat, avoiding environmental risk factors as well as eating a clean diet.
Reap The Power Of Exercise
Maintaining an active lifestyle and going to the gym regularly can help balance your estrogen levels. “Exercise helps to regulate your estrogen levels by increasing lean muscle mass, which increases metabolism, which then helps to burn more fat and reduce fat mass,” explains Stanton. “In turn, this reduces the amount of aromatase — the result of fewer fat cells. So more testosterone is available and less estrogen is produced. Since testosterone also helps you build lean muscle mass and reduce fat mass, the results of exercise are further improved.”
The type of exercise you perform in the gym matters, too. “High-intensity, short-duration resistance training can provide the needed level of stimulus to build muscle and burn fat, without placing excessive stress on your hormone-producing glands and on your nervous system,” says Turner. She says that circuit training is the best type of workout for improving the way your body uses insulin to help control blood sugar and prevent weight gain, which in turn wards off excess estrogen.
Also, since fat cells naturally produce harmful estrogen, anything that keeps you lean will help balance estrogen levels. Circuit training also raises the levels of other hormones (such as DHEA and human growth hormone) that help build muscle and repair the body, allowing you to exercise on a consistent schedule to continuously keep your estrogen levels healthy and in check.
Balance Your Training And Diet
Pushing yourself too hard in the gym, on the other hand, can tip the scales the other way, resulting in abnormally low levels of estrogen. Women who overtrain and have low levels of this hormone may experience symptoms such as poor memory, sleep problems, hot flashes, mood swings, osteoporosis and even amenorrhea (the absence of your monthly period), explains Stanton.
“If you have a very low body fat percentage — less than 19 percent — and stop menstruating, that’s a sign that your estrogen is too low,” she adds. To make sure you don’t overdo it during your workouts, progress slowly when increasing the intensity or duration of your sweat sessions, listen to your body for signs of exhaustion (aches, pains, feeling more tired after your usual workout) and take at least one full day off from training each week. And remember: cutting your calories too low can also drop your estrogen levels, so approach your fat-loss goals with moderation — not deprivation — in mind. “Definitely don’t go below 1,200 calories per day,” says Stanton. “Your body will think it’s starving, and your metabolism will be reduced.” The slower your metabolism, the more likely you are to gain fat, which can trigger the production of too much estrogen.
Beyond a healthy approach to exercise, you can also balance your estrogen levels naturally by avoiding the environmental risk factors that have been shown to spike the hormone in your system: pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, along with growth hormones in meat and BPA found in plastics. “These chemicals only have to be present in very tiny amounts to block the receptor sites of hormones and throw the body out of balance,” says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of Hormone Balance: A Woman’s Guide to Restoring Health and Vitality. “The way to decrease the intake of chemicals is to buy organic food and avoid processed and packaged food.”
Even if you can’t eat all organic all the time, rinsing produce under tap water (without soap) can reduce pesticides, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Peeling and trimming produce can also help remove residue; you should also trim the fat from meat as pesticides can gather in animal fat. Turner recommends using a brush to wash fruits and vegetables, and splurging on certain organic foods. “I never eat apples or strawberries unless they are organic,” she says. These fruits have been at the top of the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of the most pesticide-laden foods. On the other hand, the same group found that asparagus, sweet corn and onions had the lowest levels of pesticides, so you can feel safe consuming those grown conventionally.
Have faith in fresh foods, as processed food can also throw estrogen levels off balance by compromising the proper elimination of estrogen from the body via the digestive tract. “High alcohol and caffeine consumption can also increase estrogen production,” says Turner, who also advises women concerned about too much estrogen to choose fermented soy, such as miso and tempeh, over non-fermented soy varieties, as they are less harmful. You can also feel in control by choosing foods rich in zinc, magnesium, folate, probiotics, fiber and vitamin B6, such as spinach, broccoli, squash and brown rice, which support the breakdown and elimination of estrogen, and help enzymes convert your hormones to healthy levels. The bottom line? Stick with the Oxygen lifestyle and a clean diet that promotes the use of fresh, non-processed and vitamin- and nutrient-rich ingredients.
Train Through Your Period
Just before menstruation, your estrogen levels rise and then fall, resulting in symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, bloating and irritability. But that doesn’t mean your training has to get sidelined. Follow the tips below to stay on track with your fitness goals, even during your time of the month:
- Eat magnesium-rich foods, such as pump-kin seeds, leafy greens and Brazil nuts; this can help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, such as debilitating headaches and bloating, says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND.
- Schedule your hardest workouts for the weeks when you are not ovulating; research shows that female athletes are most efficient in their sport on pre-ovulation and post-ovulation days. So keep your cycle in mind.
- Add more leg-strengthening moves like hamstring curls to your routine. Studies have shown that women are more likely to suffer knee injuries mid-cycle (during ovulation), so incorporate low-impact activity on these days.
- Plan to attend SoulCycle or another group fitness class that can alleviate the social withdrawal that accompanies some women’s periods. Getting your girlfriends on board will also give your motivation a boost!
- Go for 30. Just 30 minutes of circuit training can produce enough stimulus to burn fat, build muscle and balance hormones, says Natasha Turner, ND. If your hour-long workout seems like too much, you can dial it back.
Your Estrogen Numbers
While your estrogen levels vary depending on your cycle, it’s worth seeing a doctor to test your levels if you are concerned about fertility or menopause, says Natasha Turner, ND. You might also want to test your levels if you have symptoms of too little estrogen (such as vision changes, fatigue and problems with memory, mood and sleep) or too much (such as fibrocystic breasts, unexplained weight gain and migraines).
Typically, your doctor will take a blood sample and send it to a lab to measure levels of estradiol, a form of the estrogen hormone. According to the National Institutes of Health, normal levels are 30 to 400 picograms per milliliter in premenopausal women, and zero to 30 picograms per milliliter in postmenopausal women.
“I recommend testing for low estrogen levels on day three of the menstrual cycle — I look for it to be around 100 here — and follicle-stimulating hormone, or FSH, which should ideally be less than 10 picograms per milliliter, or less than six optimally,” says Turner. “If you’re testing for excess estrogen, test on day 20 to 22 of your cycle; it shouldn’t be above 400 to 500.” Progesterone should also be included in the blood test because an optimal value can prevent an excess of estrogen.
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