How Overtraining + Under-Eating Causes Hormone Imbalance & Weight Gain (Part 1-3)
Society has told us for years that if we want to lose weight, we need to eat fewer calories and burn more of them through exercise. This type of lifestyle places an enormous stress on the body, creating numerous health problems and issues including but not limited to suppressed thyroid, slowed metabolism, hormone imbalance, amenorrhea (lost period), irregular cycle, dry skin, thinning hair and/or hair loss, constant feelings of fatigue and weakness. This is part 1 of a 3-part series and sheds light on how overtraining and lack of fuel causes a number of hormone imbalances and weight gain.
The most amazing thing about our bodies is their ability to burn through energy if we give them sufficient fuel, and care day in and day out. When we create a calorie deficit day after day and exercise too intensely without rest, there are a number of hormones that get out of balance and cause problems. This post sheds light on how overtraining and under eating causes this cascade of hormone imbalances and eventually leads to weight gain and weight loss resistance. Part 2 is all about the types of food and exercise best for you based on your dosha (body type), and part 3 brings it full circle by explaining how to optimize your diet and lifestyle to balance your hormones naturally and reach health, fitness and wellness goals.
Why Do We Exercise and Diet?
Before we dive into the numerous problems associated with overexercising and dieting, let me first examine why we fall into this trap in the first place. As a society, we generally tend to exercise beyond our bodies limits and restrict our foods to the point of survival in order to fulfill an outward expectation. Some people might lean more towards the overtraining side or the under eating side, but quite often, people fall into both categories, and the negative outcomes go hand in hand. So, why we do it? For most people, it is for one of the following reasons:
W E I G H T L O S S
One of the top reasons people exercise and/or diet is for weight loss. Women, in particular, often associate weight loss with feelings of confidence, happiness, societal approval and health. We live in a culture wired to hurt our self esteem so we spend money on the next greatest fitness or diet program to achieve an “ideal” or “norm.” The "ideal" is not a model of health; instead, it’s a mere facade of what culture portrays as healthy.
Now, more then ever, the fitness and diet culture pressures us with commercials, books and magazines on what "fit" looks like in order to be accepted in the eyes of other people. Just skim through any magazine aisle and you will find a collection of covers broadcasting "how to lose the last 10 lbs" or "do this quick workout every morning to torch belly fat all day." The culture we live in undermines our value and worth by pressuring us into exercising hours on end, restricting calories, and pushing ourselves harder, longer and past our bodies capability. The industry is desperately failing at accounting for the negative strain this type of lifestyle or ideal places on our health and hormones.
P E R F O R M A N C E
Exercise builds muscle, strengthens bones, keeps the heart healthy, regulates blood sugar, helps with digestion and healthy hormone production. On the other spectrum, too much exercise can lead to mental and physical stress, malnutrition, injuries, metabolic damage and hormone imbalance. Without enough fuel and recovery, you will run out of gas, fail to lift to your normal body's fullest capability, increase your risk for deficiencies and bone loss and most likely hit a wall at some point.
I want to reiterate that setting exercise and performance goals is not bad. In fact, I encourage my clients to exercise. It is the excessive nature of overtraining or under fueling where negative consequences and health problems surface. People tend to exercise hours on end, whether it be for a race, new PR, competition, or performance status in the gym. Similarly, athletes try to lose weight through extreme measures to make it into a smaller weight class or feel "lighter" while competing. But, with these extreme measures comes an increased risk for osteoporosis, hormone imbalance and weight gain/weight loss resistance.
H E A L T H
A third reason people exercise and diet is for health purposes. By diet, I am not talking about limiting processed foods, GMO's and excess sugar, as I think every person should be adapting this sort of lifestyle and food habits. I am talking about the person who places the 50 calorie slices of bread in their cart at the grocery store because they think less calories = better, or the person who will not have a piece of fruit because it will somehow put them over their made-up calorie limit for the day.
Oftentimes people perceive body composition or thinness as a state of health, but this is not always the case. While there might be thin people who are healthy, there are plenty of thin people dealing with nutrient deficiencies or underlying health problems. Body image does not reflect the constant feelings of coldness, anxiety, digestive distress, lack of sleep, autoimmune disorders, mood swings, thyroid problems, or mental disease.
Are you Overtraining or Undereating?
Now that we have touched on why people tend to exercise beyond their bodies capability or restrict calories, let's look at some common signs and symptoms of overtraining and under eating:
1. The Scale Won't Budge
If the scale is not moving, this could be a tell tale sign of overtraining or under eating. Surprisingly enough, the majority of the clients I meet with who were struggling to lose weight were only eating about 1000-1300 calories a day. When you add daily activities and for some, exercise, on top of it, you're looking at a caloric deficit greater than the number of calories the body needs just to survive and function optimally each day.
These large caloric deficits alter the body's metabolism by reducing the activity of your thyroid. Instead of burning fat, the thyroid is busy shuttling nutrients to the lungs and heart, organs needed for survival. You can also say goodbye to any and all sex hormones, as the thyroid is responsible for those as well. These hormonal changes can lead to stalled weight loss, water retention and reproductive issues over time.
2. Irregular or Absent Periods
Too much exercise coupled with not eating enough calories decreases our sex hormones that are responsible for regulating a woman’s menstrual cycle, as stated above. If the cycle is irregular, less than 21 days or greater than 35, or totally absent, the hormones are out of balance.
Glucose is the preferred energy source for the brain. If there is not enough blood sugar for it to function optimally, our thinking and processing starts to fluctuate. This leads to a cascade of mixed emotions, brain fog, memory issues, low attention span and fatigue. Low calorie diets have been proven to cause constant feelings of tiredness and achy joints and muscles.
Food is energy. If you find that you are dragging at the gym, unmotivated or always sore, there is a good chance you are not eating or resting enough.
4. Sleep Troubles / Insomnia
Overtraining and under eating depletes the liver of all its glycogen stores that are required to keep blood sugar functioning optimally. When there is a lack of glycogen, blood sugar drop below a threshold when we fast, especially during the night. This leads the body into a state of stress, causing the release of our stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night or have trouble falling and staying asleep, your cortisol could be out of balance.
Similar to lack of calories, sleep and insomnia can occur if there are not enough carbohydrates in the diet. Regardless of what you have heard, especially with the keto craze going around, carbohydrates are the preferred source of glucose for the brain. I am not saying the keto diet is bad. It has served as a very therapeutic, short term diet for some of the diabetic clients I have worked with or those with blood sugar imbalances. But, keto, should not be done long term if you have other underlying health problems going on. Carbohydrates are what repair your muscles throughout the night, so if sleep is becoming an issue, calories and carbs might be too low.
There are a few reasons why restricted diets can cause constipation. For one, if you are not eating enough, your stool will not have bulk to it. There is a good chance the lack of calories is not supplying your body with enough fiber, a critical component for healthy elimination.
Another reason that sometimes gets overlooked is the effect under eating and overtraining has on the thyroid hormone. For me, my body down-regulated the production of T3, the active thyroid hormone, due to overtraining. T3 is important for stimulating peristalsis in the gut to keep digestion working smoothly as well. When T3 levels drop, the gut becomes sluggish, which can lead to constipation.
6. Feeling Cold
If you feel cold often, or if you have cold hands or feet, it’s highly likely you are not getting enough calories and your thyroid is not functioning optimally. When someone eats too little, their core temperature drops. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an increase in calories causes a process called thermogenesis- the process of which the body breaks down food. This process requires energy (calories), which is why a lot of the clients I work with lose weight once we increase their calories.
7. Thinning/Lost Hair + Brittle Nails
If you are losing hair by the handfuls or its thinning, or find that your nails break often, this can be a direct sign of a nutrient deficiency, a result from a calorie restricted diet or lack of a specific nutrient from protein. Hair loss is also another common symptom of hypothyroidism, something a lot of women struggle with in today's western lifestyle.
There are other signs and symptoms indicative of excess exercise and food restriction, but the symptoms above seem to be the most common ones I see in my practice.
Your Hormones Determine Your Fat Storage and Muscle Loss
The body is smart. It cares about one thing and one thing only, survival. Think of this way, if we came across a bear, our sympathetic state would kick in full force, helping the body do everything in its power to get away from the bear. Similarly, the body kicks into a full sympathetic state when under fueling or intensely exercising. And guess what, our body, though smart, can not tell the difference between the two stressors. Stress is stress and it is al perceived the same way.
When we test our body and restrict or over work ourselves, our hormones go out of balance, leading to a number of health problems, such as a decrease in metabolic rate and weight gain or weight loss resistance. The picture below outlines how different hormone imbalances impact the body.
When the body is stressed, it produces more of the stress hormone, cortisol, which I will discuss more in detail later. Not only does cortisol contribute to unhealthy belly fat, it leads to leptin and insulin resistance, two hormones essential for regulating hunger, metabolism and fat storage.
During a stress reaction, Cortisol increases your blood pressure and together with Adrenaline helps accelerate your heartbeat and breathing. This sends glucose to the blood to help free up enough energy for the muscles and the brain. Consequently, a fuel shortage arises, and sugar guarantees a quick energy fix, making us excessively crave sweet foods.
Over the last 50-100 years, a lot of new stress stimuli entered our lives, making it almost impossible for our brains to get enough glucose (sugar) to deal with all these stressors and process them. Our Western civilisation adapted to this, offering carbohydrate and sugar-rich foods wherever we go. Comfort foods and drinks have become the quickest solution to our stress-related energy dips. - Health Coach Fx
I can not tell you how many times I have told a client to take a few days/weeks off from exercising and they end up dropping the weight that their body had been desperately holding onto for dear life. Below you will find some common responses from overtraining and under eating, including overall stress, cortisol, thyroid, menstruation, estrogen, digestion and metabolism.
The Stress Response
In the simplest of terms, overtraining and under eating causes stress. What does stress look like? A few obvious examples are pain in your joints or knees, fatigue, sleep troubles, lack of motivation, and water retention. Stress directly increases fat storage and makes you retain fluid and carry excess inflammation. Think of it this way, when you roll an ankle, it swells. This form on inflammation is good-- water rushes to the stressed injury to facilitate healing and recovery. Now think of your entire body… when overtraining or under eating, the entire body is under stress, leading to a constant state of inflammation. Inflammation can look different for people, but most stressed out people retain fluid as a protective mechanism.
Overtraining is more than just chronic cardio and long gym sessions. Chris Kesser relays how there are certain styles of exercises that may push the stress response too far, leading to a cascade of biochemical responses that can cause serious damage to one’s health in both the short and long term in this post. In fact, most people fail to perceive the internal stress placed on their internal organs.
The Cortisol Response
Intense exercise and restricted diets increase something called cortisol, a hormone that is released when the body is under stress. If you’re not eating enough, exercising too much or for too long and not refueling afterwards, cortisol levels remain elevated. Cortisol in itself is not bad... it’s meant to rise in the morning to wake you up and fall as the day progresses, eventually until you fall asleep. However, In today's modern lifestyle, where most people run around stressed out as is, imbalanced cortisol levels have been accepted as the norm. Over time, these chronically high levels of cortisol will wreak havoc on sleep, digestion, mood and memory. Excess cortisol also causes rapid fat gain, particularly in the stomach and abdomen area.
From scientific research, we know that low calorie diets increase cortisol and high levels of cortisol make any sort of health and wellness goal almost impossible. This study proved that dieting increases physiological stress and calorie restricted diets increase daily cortisol output. The researchers even mentioned that the people restricting calories failed to perceive the cortisol stress response that was occurring internally, so many of them did not think anything was wrong.
This is a great segment from a post by Dr. Campbell:
Cortisol is the stress hormone that the adrenal glands produce. You will never guess what the biggest sign of high cortisol is…Yep, that’s right, weight gain!! The high intensity exercise I was doing was pushing my cortisol higher and since the adrenal glands and the thyroid gland work together, this was causing my thyroid to under function as well.
The adrenal glands and the thyroid gland run on the same axis, HPAT axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal-Thyroid), so one can greatly affect the other. When cortisol is high, it not only can cause weight gain, but it can also cause fatigue, insomnia and a number of other unwanted symptoms. Strenuous exercise can cause an increase in cortisol levels. Strenuous exercise can also cause suppression of the immune system. Since about 97% of thyroid disease is autoimmune in nature, this can also cause strain on the thyroid gland leading to weight gain.
The Thyroid Response
Onto the thyroid, one of the most overlooked responses by current doctors. Dr. Campbell noted in How Too Much Exercise Can Make You Gain Weight that cortisol and the thyroid go hand in hand. The stress caused by intense exercise and under eating can negatively affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, which can in turn lead to a diease called Hypothyroidism. This thyroid disease has been shown to cause depression, weight gain, digestive problems, hair loss, body temperature irregularity, and more. Sadly, it goes untreated by most doctors because they only test a few thyroid markers, such as TSH, which does not paint the whole picture of what could be going on. If you need help figuring out what measures to ask for, feel free to contact me!
Back in college, I was thin, very thin. I had a six pack. I fit into a 00 and xxs in clothes. You might be surprised to hear that while I looked super healthy from the outside, I wasn't having a period, constantly felt cold, was always tired, lacked motivation, couldn't sleep and my mood was all over the place. My body literally ached, all the time. Though thin and "fit" by societal expectations, I was the farthest thing from healthy.
Looking back I realized how naive and ignorant I was for exercising as much as I did. I failed to realize the importance of rest, regardless of if I felt "fine" at the time. It was not until I received a hormone lab panel where me T3 hormone, the active thyroid hormone, was almost non-existent, that I started to care. I was borderline hypothyroidism. My other hormone levels were fine, but had I not asked for this specific hormone measure to be tested, I never would have known it was an issue.
Even with a suppressed T3, my MD showed little to no concern. This infuriated me, so I took my health into my own hands. Slowly but surely, I reduced my exercise intensity, fueled my body with real, nutrient dense, whole foods, healed my gut, rested and slept like it was my job. I also gained some much needed healthy body fat. Finally, after 13 months, my cycle returned, T3 increased, hair grew back and all around, I just felt so much happier.
The Menstrual Cycle Response
The menstrual cycle is a key indicator of hormone balance. Research has proven that low calorie diets and low body fat levels can lead to infertility and the loss of the menstrual cycle, also known as amenorrhea in women.
When the body is insufficiently fueled or stressed out, reproduction is the last thing on its mind. Even if you intend to not have children, a regular menstrual cycle is the ultimate sign of health and vitality. An irregular cycle does not always show up as a lack of a period; an irregular cycle can also occur if no egg is released during the ovulatory period or too short/too long of a cycle. If there is a lack of ovulation, not only can you not become pregnant, you increase your risk for osteoporosis.
I love how Lee from America puts it:
LADIES, PERIODS ARE AN INDICATOR OF HOW WELL YOUR BODY IS FUNCTIONING. When your body is somewhat imbalanced, your period is amongst the first thing to go. Think about it this way: we don't need our periods to survive. Think about it this way: we need our hearts, our kidneys, our brains, our lungs. Those are VITAL organs. Our periods? They are not vital. They are a luxury. It's a sign of total and functional health. At least that's how I see them.
Amenorrhea may occur naturally during certain periods of life, including during pregnancy, while breastfeeding and menopause. There are also some people who may experience amenorrhea while on birth control. This was the case for me, and like many others, it took a long time after stopping the oral contraceptives before I got a regular cycle back.
To every women out there, God designed our bodies to carry body fat because we have the beautiful God-given ability to bring life into this world. As women, we need more body fat then men for proper hormone secretion and bone health. Yes, there are females who can get away with lower body fat percentages because of their genetics, but for most of us, we need at least 21-23% body fat for healthy hormone production.
The Estrogen Response
A key fat loss measure in women is the estrogen and progesterone balance and how they interact with other hormones. For men, it is the estrogen and testosterone balance. There is scientific proof that when we restrict calories, progesterone drops drastically. Therefore, the estrogen and progesterone see-saw gets out of balance and estrogen dominance takes over, making weight loss seem almost impossible.
When women are estrogen dominant, either due to too much estrogen in the body or too little progesterone, they will store more fat on their hips, thighs, and breasts. Men, on the other hand, will store more fat around their middle as a consequence of an imbalance between estrogen and testosterone.
A few other manifestations of estrogen imbalance are PMS, rapid weight gain, depression, breast tenderness, moodiness, fatigue, lack of motivation, painful or irregular cycles and bloating.
Women should not make the mistake of assuming all estrogen is bad. Estrogen helps the body be more sensitive to insulin and contributes to fat loss and muscle growth. As long as estrogen is in balance with the other hormones, it will aid in fat loss for both women and men.
The Digestive Response
Another reason people gain weight from overtraining or under eating is digestive problems. Without healthy elimination/enough fiber in the diet for healthy elimination, the body reabsorbs all of the toxins and excess hormones recirculating in the body. This causes hormone imbalances and a sluggish liver, the organ responsible for over 200 processes.
As mentioned earlier, calorie restricted diets and overexercising causes a decline in progesterone. Your body will not produce progesterone when it is stressed out. If fat loss is your goal, you want progesterone-- without it, your body fat will shift the other direction.
Intermittent fasting is also a buzz word these days, and though it has been shown to help with blood sugar problems and hunger cues, it also comes with a host of potential problems, specifically for women. Women tend to be more sensitive to intermittent fasting than men, partially due to having more kisspeptin. Research suggests that kisspeptin is what creates a greater sensitivity in women to stressful situations, such as fasting. Women who try intermittent fasting may miss their period, feel anxious, gain weight over time or become insulin resistant.
The Metabolic Response
What many people don't realize is that a chronically restricted diet and overtraining can have an effect on the body's metabolic system. Metabolic damage, better known as 'starvation mode', is the the body's physiological adaptation or natural response to long term calorie restriction or deficit. The deficit can transpire from under eating, creating too large of a deficit gap through calorie expenditure in exercise, or a little of both.
Trust me, you want a well functioning metabolism. Slow metabolism's reduce the number of calories your body burns on a day to day basis, so eating enough and not creating too large of a calorie gap is essential.
T h e B o t t o m L i n e
We’ve become so focused on creating this calorie deficit with exercise or caloric restriction that we’ve forgotten about the true purpose behind training and food-- to improve our health and fuel the body.
Some tough love for you-- stop trying to earn your calories, stop trying to work off that donut or weekend cheat meal, stop reaching for the 100 calorie snack packs and stop caring so much about trying to fit into some sort of societal, made up, and completely photoshopped "ideal" that you think you need to be. If you’re already at the point of over exercising and not eating enough, simply take a step back, reduce the excessive exercise, eat the right types of foods and enough of it, and patiently allow your body to come back into balance. I am more than happy to help you as well if this is you.
If you want to exercise more, you need to eat more.
If you want to lose weight, you need to stop restricting calories and eat more.
Now that you have had a change to read part 1, check out part 2 for how to eat and exercise for your dosha!