Surely its good old testosterone that helps build muscle in us all?
Nope – not in women.
In fact, higher levels of testosterone in women have actually been associated with increased body fat (especially around the waist area), higher rates of type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease. Ask a woman who has polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) with raised testosterone how hard it is to lose weight and build muscle and you are likely to get a very direct reply. Possibly with some expletives in that reply.
Oestrogen has a significant affect on women’s ability to build muscle AND to metabolise sugar. So much so that we can actually do both of those things better in the first half of our menstrual cycle than the second half as this is when oestrogen is at its peak without progesterone. If you are looking for some serious strength and muscle gains then the latest research would suggest that going hard in the first phase of your cycle including ovulation is the way to do that. (A word of caution though as oestrogen can soften tendon and ligament and potentially increase tear likelihood).
Did I mention the metabolise sugar part? Oestrogen has a significant role in our ability to process glucose which is what carbohydrates break down into after digestion. Its no accident that there is a virtual explosion of post-menopausal women who have limited oestrogen diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Oestrogen also has a part to play in our hunger and fullness signals. Turns out – a very positive part to play! Its one of the theories as to why women tend not to be as hungry in the first half of their cycle when oestrogen is at its highest.
Plus!!! Oestrogen actually helps us produce more energy. Woowhoo.
Seriously – oestrogen is so great for us.
So, what about the second half of your cycle after ovulation when progesterone gets a look in?
Well, progesterone has a counter balancing effect on us and when you think about it, it makes sense. In the second half of our cycle after ovulation when progesterone is higher, we tend to be less carbohydrate tolerant. We also seem to have a greater ability to store fat. If we look at some of the purpose of progesterone though, it makes sense. Progesterone helps make and keep a baby growing and you need body fat for that.
Before you start hating on progesterone though, know that progesterone helps us feel calmer, helps us sleep, relaxes us AND provides a good balance to oestrogen. Like most things, too much oestrogen can be a bad thing and progesterone may have an anti-cancer effect through this. It helps our skin and hair health and lightens our periods. Progesterone also competes with androgen (testosterone) receptors. Remember what we said about high testosterone and weight gain?
The moral to the story is to work with what you have – the very latest researchers are proposing that we train and eat on the basis of our menstrual cycle and I have to say if you insist on doing a restrictive dieting program then you might consider a 2 weeks on (first half of cycle) 2 weeks off (second half of cycle) kind of program for that reason.
Oestrogen and progesterone also influence the thyroid gland. Given that the thyroid gland controls your metabolic rate (and so your ability to burn fat and build muscle) this is super important when we are talking fat and muscle. Probably also one of the reasons that there is a marked increase in thyroid problems after menopause. I have also noticed in clinic that women with thyroid conditions also tend to experience some sort of menstrual irregularly as well, even if it is mild.
This is A LOT of information to consider and it may contradict things that you have been told by the health and fitness industry but remember, loads of the info that is given out about health and fitness has been from studies on men NOT women.
The next time you hear “new” research about the best way to exercise and eat I would highly encourage you to find out if the studies were done on men or women.
And of course, if you need a hand, reach out.
Wendy – The Healthy Hormone Naturopath.