Normally, the evil villain thwarting your physique goals comes in the form of chocolate chip cookies or an extra slice of cake. Spotting the culprit? Well, it’s as easy as pie. But what if the obstacle that stands in your way is much smaller, even microscopic? You might not be able to see your hormones, but they play a constant role in how our bodies function; they’re the chemical messengers that travel, via our bloodstream, to every organ and tissue in the body. They influence fat storage, sex drive, energy levels, brain health and a host of other vital functions.
We often spend quite a bit of time focusing on external factors of health like exercise and nutrition. But the internal factors, hormones included, have a huge say in whether you get that six-pack by summer. To help you get a better grip on your health and fitness, we’ve highlighted five hormones that have a powerful influence over your health and what you can do to control them.
Perhaps one of the most well-known and desired hormones in the weight room, testosterone isn’t just important for males. Females have it too, albeit at much lower levels. The hormone is secreted by the testes in males and in much smaller doses in the ovaries in females. In the right amounts, testosterone can help to increase muscle mass and strength and might increase brain function. According to Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, Medical Director at Examine.com, low levels can be detrimental. “What we find is that unhealthier individuals have lower testosterone … [which can] have ill effects as they age,” says Dr. Nadolsky. These unfavorable changes can be a decreased sex drive, a higher level of fat storage, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Optimize your levels: If testosterone is so important to your health, how exactly can you control it? As with most hormones, everyday lifestyle factors like getting proper sleep and maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise can go a long way. Need an extra boost in the right direction? Dietary fat intake and intense exercise might do the trick. One study showed that saturated and monounsaturated fat were powerful predictors of testosterone levels. Intense exercise, particularly interval training, has also been shown to be a reliable T-booster.
RELATED: The Truth About Low Testosterone
If you’ve ever looked into gaining muscle or strength, chances are you’ve heard about growth hormone. This hormone, made by the pituitary gland, goes hand-in-hand with testosterone. In the right amounts, growth hormone helps to increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. Since aging males often suffer from exactly the opposite effect, growth hormone is thought of as the anti-aging hormone.
Optimize your levels: To stave off signs of aging and increase muscle growth, the quickest method for increasing growth hormone is injection. But, that’s not exactly the safest route to go. The good news is that most individuals will likely have normal levels of growth hormone, Dr. Nadolsky says, particularly if they have proper nutrition and sleep patterns. Outside of just maintaining healthy habits, intense exercise seems to be the hero once again. High-intensity interval training (or HIIT) is one the more reliable forms of exercise to increase levels of growth hormone and potentially reduce the effects of aging.
Have 10 minutes? Try one of these HIIT routines.
Eating properly and engaging in regular exercise are likely your best bets against estrogen imbalances.
Normally thought of as a female-only hormone, estrogen is actually present in males as well (albeit at much lower levels). At regular levels, estrogen helps to regulate female reproductive cycles. In males, Dr. Nadolsky identifies that estrogen is important for sex drive. As it relates to exercise, some studies state that estrogen may affect muscle recovery and brain health. While those benefits aren’t confirmed, one thing we do know is that estrogen levels can impact how fat is stored in the body. And excess fat tissue can have a harmful side effect in both males and females.
According to Dr. Nadolsky, excess fat in males helps to turn testosterone into estradial, a form of estrogen. In females, the same thing occurs. Excess fat levels convert androgens (a broad term for testosterone-like hormones) to estrogen. That’s not exactly the shift you want occurring when you’re trying to build muscle and maintain a lean physique. The resulting imbalance can lead to more fat storage in both males and females, creating a circular effect.
Optimize your levels: Eating properly and engaging in regular exercise are likely your best bets against estrogen imbalances (notice a trend here?). Women will experience a natural shift in estrogen post-menapause. But, that isn’t to say they lack control over their estrogen levels in the meantime. Moderating the consumption of phytoestrogens like soy may help to keep estrogen levels balanced as they tend to “bind selectively to various estrogen receptors in the body,” disrupting hormone balance, says Dr. Nadolsky. Since fat tissue is a powerful influencer, keeping body composition levels in healthy ranges can also help maintain optimum estrogen levels.
Well-known for it’s role in diabetes, insulin often gets a bad rap. But it plays a huge role in metabolism. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, meaning it helps the body to build complex molecules. How it works: When you eat during the day, the carbohydrates in the food enter your blood stream. The body then releases insulin, which opens up your cells to uptake blood sugar (referred to as glucose). The cells, in turn, can build up their energy stores while keeping blood sugar in check. The danger comes with over-releasing insulin, which can happen with poor dietary habits. In that case, our bodies release can develop an insulin resistance, meaning cells aren’t as sensitive to insulin. To clear blood glucose after a meal, our bodies need to release even more insulin. This vicious cycle can lead to type II diabetes.
Optimize your levels: Besides mindful eating practices, Dr. Nadolsky identifies exercise as “one of the most powerful medicines for a diabetic.” In the short-term, a single workout session can mimic the effects of insulin on the body, helping to open up cells and shuttle in glucose. The real benefit occurs with consistent exercise. “In the long run, you can increase your insulin sensitivity,” says Dr. Nadolsky. This means that you can help mitigate the symptoms of insulin resistance with your work in the kitchen and in the gym.
The issue is when cortisol levels are always high. This can be a symptom of overtraining or just a stressful week of work.
Cortisol controls energy levels in times of stress. A long time ago, those periods of “stress” may have involved outrunning a lion or fighting off a pack of wolves. Now, stress is usually a result of sitting in traffic or having a hard deadline to meet at work. Still, our bodies respond to cortisol in the same way. Periods of stress cause the body to break down proteins and release glucose into the blood stream. The increased amounts of energy are meant to help us escape danger or recover from extreme effort. Cortisol spikes can also be experienced during intense exercise, and continues to rise as the workout session goes on.
Short spikes of the hormone are necessary and not a cause of worry. The issue is when cortisol levels are always high. This can be a symptom of overtraining or just a stressful week of work. According to Dr. Nadolsky, “Chronically-elevated levels of cortisol have been shown to cause cardiovascular issues and also possible changes in your eating habits, too.”
Optimize your levels: The good news is that you aren’t powerless against stress. Running, strength training and other forms of exercise can help decrease stress levels. The key factor is moderation, both for frequency and intensity. Too many hard sessions in a row could lead to overtraining and chronically high levels of cortisol. Outside of the gym, meditation is another powerful antidote for combatting stress.
Though small, hormones can have a powerful effect on your body. The great news is you aren’t powerless against them. Understanding how and why they affect your health can be a key factor in getting and maintaining the physique you want. Healthy behaviors like regular exercise (intervals in particular), proper nutrition and adequate sleep can go a long way in keeping hormone levels in check.