Too Much of a Good Thing: When Over-Exercising Stresses Our Hormones
Updated: May 19, 2021
*Content warning: discussion of body shaming and toxic exercise culture
Half of the reason for this post is that my cat looked cute, and half is because the image of him sleeping wrapped inside a weight belt captures a lot of the push-through-your-exhaustion and hustle-til-you-drop mentalities that sometimes exist with exercising. Things like:
"If you're tired, do it tired."
"You don't get the ass you want by sitting on it."
"Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going."
Messages like these are everywhere - touted by influencers on social media, told to us by personal trainers at the gym, or populating your Pinterest feed complete with photos of perfectly toned six-packs.
There's a lot I could unpack with the "fitspo" phrases above - from body-shaming to guilt-tripping to the misconception that getting washboard abs is always a sign of being at the pinnacle of health - but what I want to touch on today is the idea that exercise should always involve pushing ourselves to our limits.
I'm not talking about seeing if you can do one extra pushup or reach a new personal best time on your 5K or take on a steeper hiking trail. Testing your strength is part of how you improve your fitness and all the health benefits that come along with it (things like better quality sleep, balanced hormones, and decreased risk for a whole host of diseases).
I'm referring to the alarming array of messages I'm seeing that suggest we ignore body signals for rest, that fatigue is simply a mindset to overcome, and that exercise is always an activity we should be engaging in, no exceptions.
Because here's the thing: light to moderate exercise (depending on our needs and fitness level) is absolutely good for us. But strenuous exercise, especially when we're dealing with hormonal imbalances or don't have the diet and lifestyle to support it, can do a lot more harm than we realize.
I recently watched a conference speech where James Lavalle, a pharmacist and clinical nutritionist who's worked with a host of "super athletes" during his 35-year career, detailed the potential stress pitfalls of exceeding our exercise limits. The gist of it is this: exercise increases levels of our stress hormone (cortisol), because the body doesn't know the difference between going jogging for fun and running from your life from a tiger.
Exercise also does a bunch of wonderful things for our stress levels, like release endorphins to help us feel calm, help us burn off nervous energy, and promote restful sleep when we go to bed later on. However, constantly overdoing it means we're continuing to push our cortisol levels higher and adding to the body's overall stress load.
Mr. Lavalle even detailed health issues he's seen in the lab work of elite young male athletes, who were being put through so much stress there were indicators that their testosterone levels were dropping as a result. Not only that, but their thyroid glands were sometimes slowing too (which is also referred to as hypothyroidism or subclinical hypothyroidism) in order to tamp down their metabolisms because their heart rates were too high. Low testosterone and a too-slow thyroid can cause a lot of hormonal and health issues, including low energy, unexplained weight gain, and decreased ability to hit fitness goals - all potentially from exercising past what we're able.
And when it comes to over-exercise and female athletes (before menopause), we face another serious problem: amenorrhea, or loss of the menstrual cycle from excessive stress (sometimes paired with a loss of too much body fat). I first learned about amenorrhea in my Sports Nutrition class in school, but I've been seeing more and more accounts of it from my peers as well, and it's a topic that urgently needs to be brought to light because of the serious health risks it entails.
While it might seem desirable to avoid dealing with having a period for a while, the menstrual cycle (or lack thereof) is an important indicator of our health. Losing a period is a sign that the body has determined it's under too much stress to get pregnant, and even if pregnancy isn't the desired goal, retaining the ability to is a sign that the body feels safe and adequately nourished. In addition, consistently having too little estrogen can decrease bone density, increase osteoporosis risk, and be detrimental to mental well-being.
To clarify, making time to regularly move your body is undoubtedly a good thing. It can help improve digestion, increase healthy detoxification, enhance mobility and strength, and a bunch of other benefits you've probably already learned about in health class. But exercise doesn't improve health exponentially - more is not always better. Exercise, like anything regarding wellness, has to be approached with a balanced approach in mind. We need to ensure we take in enough calories and minerals to replace what we've burned, to allow our muscles and nervous systems time to rest, and to make sure our stress management practices are sufficient to offset the moments our brain thought we were running from a tiger.
So if you're tired - modify your workout plan accordingly. Or take a nap. Your hormones just might thank you for it.
(And if you're constantly tired? It might be time to do some digging into your hormonal health to get you back to feeling like your regular self and hitting the gym again - in moderation, of course).
Advanced Sports Nutrition: Second Edition by Dan Bernadot, PhD, RD, FACSM
DUTCH Fest Reloaded July Video Series: Hormones and Systems Connectivity Lecture by James Lavalle, R.Ph., CCN., MT., ND.
DUTCH Fest Reloaded July Video Series: HPA-Stress-Cortisol: Connecting the Dots Lecture by Carrie Jones, ND, MPH