Movement Therapy for Happy HormonesSusannah Kent July 1, 2010
My husband likes to tease me – calling me the “one degree woman” – hot one minute, cold the next; comfortable when the room temperature is 70ºF, but not at 69ºF (cold hands and feet). I could just be temperature temperamental; but it is possible I have a slight hormone imbalance (under-active thyroid).
Hormones (such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol, adrenaline, thyroid hormones, and human growth hormone) are the body’s crucial chemical substances secreted by glands (pituitary, hypothalamus, adrenal, and thyroid). They circulate through the bloodstream, transferring information and instructions regarding growth and development, energy levels, sexual function and the reproduction process, metabolism, tissue function, mood regulation, and responses to stress and trauma.
Hormones work via a system known as ‘‘negative feedback cycles.’’ In order to maintain their optimum balance, hormone levels must be kept at a constant level for a certain period of time, similar to the workings of a thermostat keeping a room at a prescribed temperature.
A parallel example in the human body is an increase in blood glucose levels, which causes the release of insulin by the pancreas (room drops below desired temp, heater goes on). Insulin action triggers an increase in glucose uptake, resulting in lowered blood glucose levels. The decrease in blood glucose sends a “feedback message” to the pancreas, which stops or decreases the release of insulin as the body reaches its ideal levels, or homeostasis (heater turns off when room temp is back where desired).
But achieving a state of homeostasis becomes difficult if any gland in the endocrine system is not functioning properly – often creating havoc with hormone balance. An imbalance of insulin can cause weight gain, heart palpitations, fatigue, anxiety, and diabetes. Estrogen dominance (when estrogen is produced in excess or not in the normal ratio to progesterone) can lead to weight gain, bloating, mood swings, headaches, depression, and uterine fibroids. It is also believed to contribute to cancer of the breast, ovary, uterus, and prostate. On the other hand, estrogen deficiency causes vaginal dryness, hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue, and urinary tract infections.
Too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can lead to rapid heart rate, weight gain, irritability, insomnia, and digestive troubles. Too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) makes every system in the body slow down. Symptoms include: frequently feeling cold in the extremities, poor memory, hair loss, constipation, iron deficiency, depression, weight gain, and decreased libido.
Luckily, our bodies are capable of restoring and rebalancing our hormone levels. And all experts agree: movement (aerobics, stretching and strength training) is a perfect prescription for going from “hormone hell to hormone well.”
THE INFLUENCE OF EXERCISE ON HORMONES
Generally speaking, the glands of the endocrine system react to exercise by secreting specific hormones that have a positive impact on our health. The following are just a few examples of some hormones, their function, and how regular exercise affects them.
Insulin – The main function of insulin is to process sugar in your bloodstream and carry it into cells (to be used immediately as a fuel source by the brain and kidneys, or stored as glycogen in the liver or muscles for later use as an energy source). Insulin is released by the pancreas in proportion to the amount of sugar in the blood stream. The correct amount of insulin helps rebuild body proteins while preventing protein breakdown. Without insulin, your cells would not have access to amino acids, glucose, and fatty acids to grow, heal, and repair.
Exercise helps your cells respond to insulin because it empties muscles of their stored sugar. Empty muscles can absorb sugar from the bloodstream whenever you eat, and prevent blood sugar levels from rising too high. Research shows that blood levels of insulin begin to decrease after about 10 minutes into an aerobic exercise session, and continue to decrease through about 70 minutes of exercise. Regular exercise also increases a cell’s sensitivity to insulin at rest. This increase in insulin sensitivity levels out blood sugar swings, and prevents the onset of diabetes.
Estrogen – functions to develop female sex organs, maintain the menstrual cycle, support the growth and function of the uterus (preparing it for pregnancy), and to stimulate cell growth. The most biologically active form of estrogen, 17 beta estradiol, increases fat breakdown from body fat stores so that it can be used as fuel; it also increases basal metabolic rate (metabolism), elevates mood, and increases libido. This hormone is at much higher blood levels in females, but as menopause approaches the body produces significantly less.
It has been shown, however, that even through menopause, the amount of 17 beta estradiol secreted by the ovaries is increased with exercise, and blood levels can remain elevated for one to four hours after exercise. Exercise can also help alleviate symptoms of menopause such as insomnia, weight gain, increased risk of osteoporosis, and hot flashes. I personally found yoga to be effective in this area.
Thyroid hormones – regulate our metabolism, organ function, and directly affect heart rate, cholesterol levels, body weight, energy, muscle contraction and relaxation, bowel function, fertility, memory, and mood. Normal levels are also essential to the development of a baby’s brain.
Thyroxine (T4) – a hormone produced by the thyroid gland, raises the metabolic rate of almost all cells in the body. This increase in metabolism helps increase energy levels and caloric usage, which contributes to healthy weight management. Blood levels of thyroxine increase by about 30% during exercise, and remain elevated for hours afterward – longer with an increase in intensity and / or duration of exercise. A regular exercise routine contributes to an increase of thyroxine levels even when the body is at rest.
Testosterone – is an important hormone in both males and females. It maintains muscle tone, volume, and strength, decreases body fat, increases basal metabolic rate, and affects libido. Low testosterone levels (which decrease with age) have been linked to depression, obesity, and heart disease. Blood levels of testosterone increase in both men and women with exercise. Levels begin to elevate after about 20 minutes of exercise, remaining elevated anywhere from one to three hours after.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH) – affects almost every cell in our bodies and impacts our actions, feelings and appearance. HGH stimulates protein synthesis, and affects the strength of bones, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. Low HGH levels in adults can result in abdominal obesity, cardiovascular disease, decreased muscle mass, osteoporosis, poor immune function, and depression.
Release of growth hormone from the pituitary gland in the brain accelerates with increasing aerobic exercise time, especially more intense exercise such as interval training. It also decreases the use of glucose, and increases the use of fat as a fuel during exercise. This helps to reduce body fat and to keep blood glucose at normal levels. HGH also responds to resistance exercise.
Serotonin – a neurotransmitter that helps communicate messages between areas in the brain, influences sleep, mood, appetite, digestion, emotions, body temperature, and metabolism. Most brain cells are influenced by serotonin. Besides the brain, serotonin also affects the heart and muscles. A serotonin imbalance can cause depression. Serotonin levels are known to rise after exercise, and do not revert to pre-exercise levels but rather remain elevated.
Lastly, exercise releases chemicals called endorphins. Sometimes referred to as the ‘runner’s high,’ endorphins produce a sense of happiness and positive well-being.
Clearly exercise plays a key role in the function of our hormones – particularly those contributing to how we look (muscle building, fat cell shrinkage), and feel (mood and stress levels). Dr. Natasha Turner, one of Canada’s leading naturopathic doctors, recommends the following hormone balancing exercise program:
1) 30 to 40 minutes of strength training three days a week
2) 20 to 30 minutes of cardio once a week
3) 30 to 90 minutes of yoga once, preferably twice (not on strength training days) a week
And, it should be noted that yoga is the form of exercise most often recommended in any prescription for hormone balance and wellness.
YOGA: ELEGANT MOVEMENT FOR HORMONAL BALANCE
The regular practice of all types of yoga postures, or asanas – standing, sitting, lying down, backbends, forward bends, twists, and inverted (upside down) poses – stimulates and activates all the glands, organs, tissues, and cells of the body, particularly those of the endocrine system. Recall that it is this system responsible for secretion of many of the major hormones. In each yoga posture, different endocrine glands (and organs) are placed in various anatomical positions, where they are gently squeezed, massaged, relaxed, toned, stimulated, and supplied with fresh oxygenated blood. Yoga postures also soothe the nervous system – calming and quieting the mind which, in turn, helps to smooth and balance stress hormones.
All postures are beneficial, but here are a few especially recommended to support the endocrine system with hormone production, distribution, and balancing:
The Rabbit pose (Shashaungasana) helps balance the pituitary and pineal glands, the thyroid and parathyroid, the thymus, the pancreas, and the ovaries. Begin in a kneeling position; then bring the hips and buttocks back over the heels, keeping the hands along the side of the body. Slowly, while applying very little pressure, place the crown of the head on the floor. Taking a deep breath and counting up to eight, raise the buttocks into the air. Hold for a few breaths, then on an exhale lower back to the heels.
Supported Shoulderstands (Salamba Sarvangasana) compress and massage the thyroid and parathyroid; improve circulation in the pituitary gland; stimulate the pancreas; and relieve pelvic congestion. Lie on your back, knees bent. Lift your hips and place a block or rolled blanket under them. Raise your legs into the air, bent knees at first, then straightening them when you feel stable. Beginners should try and hold the pose for 30 seconds, gradually working up to three, then five minutes.
Hormones exert a powerful influence on almost every aspect of our lives; when they aren’t working efficiently our bodies suffer. One safe, natural, and effective method to balance hormones, and achieve overall good health, is to exercise. Think of it as a treasure chest for hormone wellness, with a guarantee of looking, feeling, and just being – better.
Francina, Suza. Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause, Health Communications Inc., 2003
Lee, John R., M.D. Dr. John Lee’s Hormone Balance Made Simple. Warner Books, 2006
Randolph, C.W, M.D., James, Genie. From Hormone Hell to Hormone Well. Health Communications Inc. 2009.
Turner, Natasha, N.D. The Hormone Diet. Random House Canada, 2009.