Sports Nutrition: Balancing Female Hormones
Here you will find a simple guide to balancing your hormones: estrogens and progesterone so you can feel optimal and empowered in all of your sports!
In the last two blogposts we have looked at Macronutrient ratios (fat, protein, carb) and super foods to meet optimal health in various water sports. Now we look to identify triggers for hormone imbalance in female athletes and from there how to recalibrate. Hormones play a plethora of roles in the body; thus when your cycle is off, many other pathways are either under-nourished or in overdrive. Luckily, research shows that a Paleolithic diet with balanced macronutrients (containing a high amount of beneficial fats), can ward off and/or correct the common hormone scenario: estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance occurs often in female athletes who are under-fed or over-trained! As a young athlete I experienced years of what allopathic medicine coins “irregular period disease,” or “amenorrhea.” At the time I was stoked to not deal with the monthly hassle. I felt light, I was meeting my goals in long-distance trail running and I didn’t experience PMS. Fast forward two years however and my body was tired, inflamed and (worst of all!) my mood was in the tank. I struggled with depression and anxiety. It was the hardest thing to admit, but the sport that had kept me sane, confident and connected was now taking all that away. I found myself at a breaking point, wondering what was wrong. It would take me years to really figure out what was triggering the over-training syndrome.
Hormonal Breakdown 101
Hormones work as the body’s chemical messengers. They travel from the endocrine glands: pituitary, pineal, thymus, thyroid, adrenals, ovaries and pancreas to promote multiple functions in organs and tissues throughout the body. Thus regulating and promoting metabolism, sexual function, neurotransmitters, immune system, etc. For the female athlete we want to make sure Estrogens and Progesterone are in balance. A common symptom of overtraining syndrome is low Progesterone. Progesterone works in the body to regulate the endometrial lining, thereby reducing the risk of cancer. Progesterone also works in the synthesis of GABA. GABA is an abundant neurotransmitter whose job is to promote relaxation in the brain. Hence, another symptom of overtraining syndrome or amenorrhea: anxiety. “Estrogen dominance has also been linked to allergies, autoimmune disorders, breast cancer, uterine cancer, infertility, ovarian cysts, increased blood clotting, and is also associated with acceleration of the aging process.” With lack of Progesterone the body and mind are roped into a down-ward spiral.
Wondering where this came from? Causes of estrogen dominance in female athletes ranges from over-training, malnourishment, low fat intake, emotional stress and xenoestrogens.
Malnourishment: If you feel you need a little refresher on your macronutrient needs I suggest returning to my first blogpost where we look at the optimal ratios of fat, protein and carb to meet training goals! I find this to be the foundation for optimal output and from there hormone balance.
Beneficial Fatty Acids: If you’re still fat-phobic coming out of the nutritional dark ages (the ’80s and ’90s), I implore you; please give (healthy) fat a chance! Your hormones depend on beneficial fat and cholesterol. Without fat hormones lack necessary building blocks for synthesis, which then encourages irregularity and estrogen dominance. Get 0.5-1 full avocado per day with 4 – 6 tbsp of raw or extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, or flax oil. Lastly find a good EPA and DHA supplement. I would suggest NordicNaturals Arctic Cod Liver Oil®.
Emotional Stress: Find the time for balance. Emotional stress on top of training can push your hormones to the brink. Many female athletes will quickly burn through Cortisol to then be riding on Progesterone and Epinephrine, leading to the proverbial “bonk.” Avoid the bonk with a little yin to your yang. Whether it is an epsom salt foot bath at the end of the night, a restorative yoga class, a walk by the river or a weekend of laying in bed, incorporate the yin time! Your hormones: HGH, melatonin, progesterone, cortisol will be grateful gifting you balance, and strength for your next event.
Xenoestrogens: These are the sneaky guys in plastic water bottles, Ziplock bags, to-go cups, utensils, clothing, etc. They find their way into food and drink and once in the body they masquerade as cancer promoting estrogen (no good!) Be aware of possible exposure vectors and use judgement in use accordingly! Hydroflask over Nalgenes, metal forks over plastic sporks, conventional oven over microwave, Ziplocks in moderation! Change your environment, change your life!
Lastly, I would love to let y’all in on a little naturopathic nutrition insight: seed cycling. Seed cycling is a gentle way to nudge the body into it’s natural hormonal rhythm. It is a nutritional protocol where the patient eats 2 tbsp of ground flax or pumpkin during the first phase of cycle (until ovulation) then avoids the two and eats 2 tbsp of ground sunflower seed or sesame seed for the second half of the cycle. In the first half of the cycle the seeds promote estrogen detoxification. In the second they work to increase progesterone (warding off the estrogen dominance) and promoting a healthy cycle length.
Day 1 – 14 (Follicular phase):
1 tbsp flax seeds
1 tbsp pumpkin seeds
Day 15 – 28 (Luteal phase):
1 tbsp sunflower seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds
Seed cycling will take time, as it is a slow and gentle process, but it does work. Try it, but apply patience for it to truly take effect after 2 – 3 months! We’re not talking instant gratification here!
Thanks again for tuning in!
Author, Gretchen Dunbar MSCN, is the Co-Founder of Mountain Folks Broth Company, a Nutrition Consultant at Auburn Naturopathic Medicine, photographer, athlete and all-round amazing person. For more information check out Mountain Folks Broth Co. on Facebook. Questions or comments email: [email protected]..
With love, Gretchen
Teta, J., & Teta, K. (2010). The New Metabolic Effect Diet. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
All words and images Copyright California Women’s Watersport Collective 2016. All rights reserved.